Big Questions, but few answers from opponents of animal research

A recent edition of the BBC1 Program called “The Big Questions” offered a brief debate on animal research. Among those discussing the issues was SR’s founder, Tom Holder. Within this post we will discuss some of the many issues which were touched upon, but barely explored in this brief debate.

Some of the questions centered on moral issues, other on scientific ones. At the beginning of the discussion Prof. John Stein of Oxford University explained his use of monkeys in studying Parkinson’s disease, after which he was asked if he would experiment on great apes.  He replied he would not, unless there was some extreme circumstance that required them.

Where would you draw the line?” — countered the host.

Let us pause for a second here. This is an important question that is worth asking. But first let us consider – and reject all the theories that do not involve drawing any lines at all.  What theories are these?

One is the Cartesian view, which posits animals do not truly suffer, do not really have emotions, and do not really have interests of their own. Consequently, the Cartesian view is that humans can use animals as we please. We do not know any living scientist or philosopher that would seriously defend this view.

The other theory that does not draw any lines is the animal rights view, in which all living beings have the same basic rights to freedom and life as a normal human. Although most members of the public reject this view as making no sense at all, nobody in the panel cared to explain, nor did the host bother to ask, what justifies this stance.

What Prof. Stein articulated as a justification was a version of something called the sliding scale model.  Here, the moral weight of a living being’s interests depends on the individual’s degree of cognitive, affective and social complexity. Where we draw the line for different types of experiments in animals is a valid and important question, but we can only ask it that if we all agree with the notion of graded moral status.

Opponents of research reject such a theory.  Alistair Currie, from PeTA, stated:

Suffering is suffering.  We have a moral obligation not to impose it on anybody.”

We generally agree that unnecessary suffering should not be imposed on other living beings, and as Prof. Stein stressed, scientists work hard to ensure that suffering is eliminated or reduced to an absolute minimum in laboratory animals. We do not think there are absolute moral principles.  Even “thou shall not kill” permits exceptions, such as in the case of self defense. Another example is the infliction of harm to other human beings that was, for most of us, morally justified and necessary when it came to liberating the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

If we truly had an absolute moral obligation to never impose suffering on anybody, as PeTA representative Currie suggests, liberating concentrations camps would be morally wrong. We might accept such a declaration from someone who is a declared pacifist, but we have plenty of evidence to suggest that PeTA is a far from being such an organization.  PeTA remains morally confused.

Invariably, when opponents of animal research fail to make an ethical case for their position, they attack the science. In this case, it was Kailah Eglington, representing the Dr Hadwen Trust, who was in charge of this strategy.

“Scientifically looking at the facts, the animal model is flawed.” — she declared without even blinking.

Wait a second. Where was she when Prof. Stein explained how he found an area of the brain that when inactivated could relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s? How does she explain his success?  Or does she deny the benefits of the work?

Ms. Eglington also suggested that Prof. Stein could have used non-invasive methods in humans, such as MEG, suggesting the same information could be obtained by this techniques. As Prof. Stein pointed out in his response this is flatly wrong. Prof. Stein not only uses a range of such techniques, including MEG and fMRI alongside his studies in macaques, but with his colleagues at Oxford University pioneered the use of MEG as a research method in patients undergoing deep brain stimulation. However, none of the non-invasive methods can yield the same data that one obtains using micro-electrode recordings from the brain, as we discussed in an earlier post on the limitations of fMRI.

A quick visit to the Dr. Hawden Trust web-site reveals that they state with absolute certainty that:

Alternatives to animal experimentation are available in virtually every field of medical research.”

Wow…   Let’s be clear: this is complete utter nonsense that deserves to be filed here. Should we be surprised at the lack of sensible science by someone who, on the side, founded an organization which claims that “the power of positive thinking” can treat physically debilitating conditions.

Kailah Eglington furthered her pseudo-scientific nonsense by claiming that: “9 out of 10 drugs that are tested on animals successfully fail in humans“. The problem here is the mistaken blame on the animal model – these same drugs have already passed pre-clinical non-animal tests such as cell cultures and computer models; moreover, about 90% of drugs fail at every stage of development – meaning that 90% of those that pass early clinical trials in humans still fail to make it to market – this is not something we can blame the animal model for. We have previously written a full and clear rebuttal of the 90% claim – however it continues to be used by the animal rights community.

Such examples go to show a common problem for advocates of science – that it takes a lot longer to debunk junk science, than it does to make it up. While Tom Holder and Prof. Stein argued science’s case very well the debate highlighted some of the limitations of this format, though perhaps this is all we can expect from a format that tries to address Big Questions in 15 min of television programming.  It seems the goal here is more to get opposing sides to have a screaming contest rather than to provide an opportunity for thoughtful exploration of the questions at hand.

Speaking of Research

5 responses to “Big Questions, but few answers from opponents of animal research

  1. It is advisable to remain with the scientific argument rather than to imply wrongdoing on the part of those who happen to hold an opposing viewpoint.
    Your opinion of Ms. Eglinton’s stance need not be iterated by inflicting low
    blows upon her character.

  2. Of course there are many other limitations to MEG. For anyone to suggest it can replace single unit recordings from the brain simply exposes their scientific ignorance of the topic. So who is this Prof Furlong that Ms. Eglington wanted us to consult? Here is his work supported by the DHT:

    “MEG is a completely harmless, non-invasive brain imaging technique.”

    Yes, this is true.

    “MEG has potential to replace animal experimentation because it yields direct neurophysiological measurements in human subjects”

    Wait… the “potential”? But Ms. Eglinton said it was available today! She was either intentionally misleading the public or simply lying.

    The method simply measures average synaptic currents from cortical areas that are align in such a way that they can produce a measurable, external magnetic field. It does not record spike activity from single neurons at all, which is what single unit recordings is about. It is a very different type of measurement than the spiking activity of individual cells. Moreover, Recordings from deep brain structures is not possible.

    “… with 1,000 times the temporal resolution of fMRI”


    “… and a spatial scale (a large number of measurements from the whole brain) not possible with single unit recordings.”

    False. Multiple areas can be measures with single-electrodes. It is in fact done routinely in patients with mesial-temporal lobe epilepsy.

    One can only conclude that Ms. Eglinton is either ignorant about the science or intentionally deceptive.

    Do I detect a pattern here?

  3. Another thing that must be clarified is that scientists fully support prevention. Accusations to the contrary are ridiculous.

    But if someone has a bicycle accident and is left paralyzed, is PeTA going to argue taking the ride was a personal choice? If a mother develops breast cancer, will PeTA blame something she ate as? I someone is dying from Alzheimer’s, is PeTA going to suggest eating some carrots will reverse the disease?

    PeTA is a morally bankrupt organization.

  4. I was particularly struck by Alastair Curries comments on bed-nets for malaria and health inequalities, as if he is the only person to care about such issues.

    He seems to have forgotten that people don’t just get bitten by malaria carrying mosquitos at night, and that anti-malarial medication saves many thousands of lives every year, not to mention allowing millions to recover from the disease more quickly, enabling them to resume work and care for their families.

    In the near future it is very likely that vaccination will provide another means to greatly reduce the toll from malaria, used alongside measures such as bed-nets and reducing the number of areas in a location where mosquitos can breed.

    Still it’s perhaps not surprising that Currie would choose not to mention two means of fighting malaria that depended – and still depend – on animal research

  5. There were a lot of dishonest animal rights claims aired in the debate, and not just by the animal rights activists present. At another point the host referred to an experiment where monkeys:

    “skulls [were] sawed open and electrodes fitted in, and their eyes forced open for 5 days, and this was in the name of general research, finding out the effect of light on eyes”.

    It was a classic example of a misleading claim that is difficult to rebut during a debate, when the person charged with responding does not have access to the facts of the experiment under discussion.

    Briefly, under complete general anesthesia and using aseptic conditions a small opening (<1 cm in diameter) is made on the skull using a surgical drill. Electrodes which are thinner than a human hair are lowered via a precise micro-manipulator to deep structures in the brain via stereotactic surgery. The wound is sealed around a small structure that allows external access to the recording electrodes. During the post-operative period the animal is given antibiotics, analgesics and monitored closely as it recovers. As Prof. Stein explained there are no pain receptors in the brain, thus the animals do not feel any pain after they recover. How do we know? Because the exact same procedure is often performed in human patients using the same methods – for example when implanting electrodes for deep brain stimulation – and they can tell us how they feel. Furthermore, the monkeys behave normally and readily engage in typical behavioural tasks after the surgery, indicating that their welfare has not been compromised.

    Nor are the animal’s eyes forced open in any experiments where monkeys are conscious. In some circumstances the eyes may be kept open, but only when the animals are fully anesthetized. In such cases, for example some of the work that earned David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel their Nobel prize, gas permeable contact lenses are fitted into the eyes and they are irrigated with saline on a regular basis to prevent the cornea from drying. The eyes are also treated with ophthalmic antibiotics and anti-inflammatory compounds, and the optics and retinae are monitored often to check for the health of the eye using direct ophthalmoscopy. These experiments are terminal, meaning the animals are euthanized at the end without ever coming out of the anesthesia. They are euthanized using a drug overdose, the same way that veterinarians in clinical practice euthanize pet animals.