Are scientists sadists?

Scientists working with animals are often accused by animal rights activists of being ‘monsters’, ‘murderers’, ‘sadists’ and worse.  On the other side, animal rights leaders see themselves standing on a moral pedestal above the rest of the population, while simultaneously inciting to violence against fellow human beings they have never met.  The contradiction is lost on them.

Their appalling allegations don’t deserve a reply.  And yet I was asked recently by a colleague to answer the recurring claim that, somehow, scientists must enjoy harming animals in their research.

The brief answer is… of course not.

Scientists don’t enjoy harming animals. To enjoy means, literally, to take pleasure in, to get a thrill out of, to be entertained by, to relish, to savor or to delight in. I never felt any of these emotions during an experiment nor I have ever met anyone who has. In fact, the opposite is the norm. Typical emotions reported cover the range from sadness, anxiousness, nervousness, uncertainty, to uneasiness. All involved,  the scientists, the students, the veterinarians and animal technicians, acknowledge that there is a personal, emotional toll that results from this work. Those that are directly involved in the daily care of animals explain that their primary motivation is their love of animals and their wish to see them treated as well as possible.

One reason for these mixed feelings comes from the recognition that harm is done to the animals, despite doing everything possible to minimize their pain and suffering. A second reason is due to the inherent uncertainty in scientific work. Put simply, there is no guarantee that the harm caused in any one individual experiment will lead to palpable advancements. In science, one cannot determine ahead of time which lines of research are necessarily going to lead to medical breakthroughs. Decisions to approve and fund an experiment are based on expert opinion based on what studies show most promise, based on well-defined hypotheses and preliminary data, but there are no guarantees.

At the same time there is no denying that animal research has produced tremendous benefits. There is universal consensus among scientists that failure to do this type of work will bring many areas of medical research to a complete halt.  Importantly, and relevant to the ethical debate, there is a shared conviction that halting such research, as requested by animal rights activists and organizations like PeTA and HSUS, would result in much harm to human and non-human animals alike.

It is a failure of animal rights activists to persistently ignore this part of the ethical equation that that works against any meaningful conversation. Instead, they prefer to stick to the tenet that “do no harm” is an absolute moral principle that admits no exceptions. They find comfort living in an utopian black/white moral universe devoid of moral dilemmas, where “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy”.

The refusal of animal rights activists to acknowledge the benefits of past work, and their failure to recognize the tremendous harm one would inflict by stopping the use of animals in medical research, leads one to ask — Who exactly is being cruel?

Dario Ringach

19 thoughts on “Are scientists sadists?

  1. Coming from an Animal Science backround I think the people providing research grants should focus on a Species-Spanning Approach to Health or Zoobiquity ( thus making the research they support more justifable to eveyone even some of Animal rights campaigners unless their the ones who refuse to realise that animals and humans suffer from the same if not simular diseases.

  2. The Two-Headed Dogs of Dr Demikov and the follow up monkey head transplants by American Dr. Robert White are Two scientists people may call bonkers/evil but even thier work has contributed to organ transplant research. Source Elephants on Acid and other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese

  3. Thank you for addressing that, Dave, but I think you me missing the point of why people have a problem with this “research.” It is not the concerns for violations of the AWA or ASPA that people are worried about, although those are serious, the more serious issue is the fact of the research itself, much of which does not seem to be applied research which is seeking answers to pressing questions that can have real world benefits, but research which seems to have little point but to satisfy some strange curiosities but which I can’t justify as serving an urgent need. A lot of neuroscience research falls into this category, but it does not, on its face, seem to relate to something lots of people need. Kittens deliberately blinded in the UK to find treatment for children born with lazy eyes, which even the scientists admit effects a very, very small number of children. What proof or evidence is there that the hideous addiction experiments will have any impact on helping human beings? While I do think substance abuse is a public health policy problem and not a criminal matter per se, how will this research help anyone in the near or long term? Who will brain damaged monkeys help anyone? Most people recoil in horror at the idea of deliberately giving monkeys brain damage, as they would the idea of deliberately introducing dangerous chemicals into rabbit eyes. So while you say such and such polls show the public supports animal research, when they actually learn what that means, most people are outraged that it is still going on. If non-animal research is such a better alternative that scientists are interested in, why is so little money directed to the search for alternatives? Why aren’t scientists campaigning for better funding of it? If computers offered better modeling, would scientists really give up addicting monkeys to drugs, or sticking electrodes to their brains, or paralyzing and then killing them? I don’t understand how a “person” cannot be anything but moved by the tremendous suffering of these animals. And I can’t put into words how odious it is that people have the feelings mentions but still go on with their work. And that piece seems to be talking more about the animal caregivers and NOT the people responsible for organizing the research. I hope and believe that young people realize how hideous this all seems and will not be driven into this line of “work.”

    1. I find it odd that many that think the same way you seem to have more compassion for the animals than the humans. It’s OK for the humans to suffer so long as no animals were used. I once worked on a study researching new chemotherapy drugs for patients with brain tumors. Now, some would say it’s cruel to inject brain tumor cells into the brain of a mouse to then test a new treatment. However, the doctor I was working with had actual patients in the hospital who were waiting to receive these drugs if they showed promise. These were patients with malignant brain tumors who had not responded to other methods of treatment. Before the drugs could be used on these human subjects we had to show that the new drug had a reasonable chance of success.

      Another researcher is looking into the sue of artificial blood platelets that will help seal wounds. This could have dramatic consequences for battlefield injuries, where “bleeding out” is still a leading cause of death from a traumatic injury.

      Computer modeling, at this time, is no where near being a viable alternative to all animal research. The computer model just doesn’t exist that can mimic all the complex interactions occurring in the body. Keep in mind a computer model is only as good as its programming. It can’t learn something new. It can only base its conclusions on the information imputed by people, New information will still need to be discovered using animal models. As far as funding this alternative research, perhaps a better question is why aren’t groups like PeTA and the HSUS investing some of their millions of dollars in donations to funding this? They are the ones claiming there are alternatives, why don’t they help fund them?

      1. Perhaps it is a good time to remind people of were blood transfusion come from… from the discovery of blood circulation by Harvey to the discovery of anti-coagulants during World War 1 which led to the establishment of blood banks and the ability to store blood for long periods of time.

  4. I think it’s important to point out that it’s not just the researcher and his staff involved with the animals in an experiment. Besides the researcher and his staff/students conducting the experiments, there is a whole staff of animal caretakers, veterinary technicians, veterinarians, etc..that are also involved in caring for the animals. In many instances the veterinary and animal care staff are separate from the units that the researchers belong to so that there is less of a chance of a conflict of interest. Anyone involved with working with the animals are made aware of the ability to anonymously report any welfare concerns to the institution’s IACUC.

    From my own experience I know that people involved with animal research take their responsibilities for caring for the animals very seriously. Do mistakes happen? Absolutely, although many times this is due to a break down in communication rather than a deliberate attempt to inflict pain or suffering on animals. Are there the occasional violations? Yes, but that’s why there are safeguards in place to deal with violations when the occur.

    Finally, I think the comment by one poster about the experiments being basically pointless is inaccurate. For example, a researcher is studying the polio virus. Now, on the surface that may seem like pointless research. After all, we’ve already developed a vaccine for it and the cases of polio worldwide have plummeted in the past 30 years. However, what has been seen recently is people that had the vaccine when young are still getting the disease many years later..The vaccine wore off. So now researchers are looking at how to develop a better vaccine that will last longer. Seems worthwhile to me at any rate.

  5. However, I do think this was an excellent article that brought up an important subject and might increase understanding between people who previously had an unbridgeable difference and that more articles like this would be excellent for elucidating issues that hadn’t been addressed previously but which are of interest to both sides of the debate. I am glad that someone took the time to write this.

  6. There is nothing ridiculous about alleging that scientists are sadists, especially given some people’s track record.

    In fact this proves the point: they say they have these feelings (difficult to accept) but they still go on with these experiments which as far as I can tell are basically pointless.

    Aren’t many of these experiments, such as the Ringach monkey coil experiments and the addiction experiments repeated annually, don’t some of them involve 4 primates a year? In the UK experiments like that can’t be duplicated under the ASPA (1986) for the simple fact that they would be duplicates.

        1. The fact that you believe animal research to be “pointless”, despite the benefits that you probably enjoy, is part of the reason one cannot have a meaningful debate.

          The fact that you state that I have used eye coils, when in fact I have never used them, shows that you did not even bothered to read my published work.

          The fact that you think one can publish “duplications” in Nature, Nature Neuroscience, or Neuron, shows that you have little clue about neuroscience and how to assess the quality of our work.

          Finally, the fact that you reject how scientists feel, despite our statement to the contrary, tells us who you really are.

      1. I commented how I thought this was a nice piece, and found what Tom said to make sense about repetition. I was not being rude at all, but that is a nice reply you left there. If it’s true coils weren’t used then I stand corrected. No need to be hostile about it.

      2. Tell me what have your experiments done for civilization? I find many of them pointless and you don’t, that’s all. And I simply stated I find it difficult to believe. My sister is a veterinarian and I have difficulty understanding how she can do some of the things she does and love animals. Still coming to grips with that one. It’s simply a matter of not knowing how you can like an animal and have feelings for it, and do some of the things I’ve heard are done to animals. I find that very difficult to make sense of. People can have a differing opinion in this country.

        1. “I find many of them pointless and you don’t, that’s all.”

          You speak as if this all a matter of opinion, but it is not. What else do you find pointless? Music? Literature? Physics? Math? Indeed, ignorance makes it look all pretty pointless. But given you state “many” one can infer that “some” would be justified. Could you enlighten as which ones were justified and why?

      3. Everling S, Tinsley CJ, Gaffan D, Duncan J.
        European Journal of Neuroscience 2006; 23:2197-2214. ‘Selective representation of task-relevant objects and locations in the monkey prefrontal cortex

        What wonderful goals will the experiment above produce?
        Both monkeys underwent brain surgery to implant electrodes, which recorded brain activity. The implant was held in place by stainless steel screws, a head bolt and dental cement.

        The monkeys were seated in a sound-proof room, in a purpose-built ‘primate chair’ – an apparatus that restricts body movement.

        How will that research benefit, anyone, ever? Aren’t experiments like that completely pointless and done to fulfill some morbid curiosity?

        1. You are essentially stating that understanding how the brain works is pointless, and would yield no benefits. I presume that you also feel that understanding quantum mechanics is pointless. Perhaps you feel that Science, the process of understanding the natural world, is pointless as well. Such opinion only demonstrates your ignorance. You seem to be connected to the internet but clueless as to how that actually happened.

          As for your question — the reason people go to work despite their mixed feelings is because they also have feelings for human patients and their suffering. And what is truly hideous is the open insensitivity of animal rights activists to such suffering.

    1. Dario Ringach’s experiments were not repeated annually. What happened in his work – and this is not uncommon in either animal or human neuroscience research – is that data obtained from one study was used in to develop and test several different computational models of brain function. These models are published separately, but each paper will include a description of the original in vivo study in its methods section since this information is important to anyone who wishes to assess or replicate the study.

      It’s also important to realise that in science the results of an individual study should not be fully accepted unless thay have been independently replicated, and this obviously involved “duplication” of the original study. This applies as much to animal research as it does to human clinical research or to in vitro research. Actually it’s widely recognized that scientific studies in all fields are often not repeated enough – a problem compounded by publication bias, so if anything there needs to be more rigorous duplication than is currently the case.

      Finally, not all the duplication that animal rights activists alledge is real. Just as with in vitro research or – for example – human MRI studies, many animal studies use similar or identical techniques to study different aspects of biological processes, and even different processes. One particular animal rights activist named Michael Budkie has a long record of misrepresenting studies that use the same basic technique (with small but crucially important modifications) as being repeats of the same study, as Speaking of Research discussed in a blog post back in 2009

  7. Well, when you read research such as today’s news about the discovery about the role of salt in autoimmune disorders you realise that the allegation that scientists are motivates by sdaism is pretty ridiculous.

    I’m only wondering if it is more, or less, ridiculous than the other common allegation that scientists are motivated by greed

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