Who should be part of the animal research debate?

Note: The following is an invited post by Prof. Eric Sandgren,  Associate Professor of  Experimental Pathology in the School of Veterinary Medicine, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  The views expressed below are his own and do not necessarily represent that of his employer.  

In late October, Professor Dario Ringach of UCLA visited University of Wisconsin-Madison to speak in UW-Madison’s Forum on Animal Research Ethics (FARE).  FARE is an experimental lecture series featuring speakers for, against, or in some way interested in the use of animals in research, testing, teaching, or outreach.  Dr. Ringach spoke on “The ethical dilemma of animal research”.  He shared some experiences and thoughts as a biomedical researcher who also has been the target of violent animal activist attacks.

I am a scientist who uses mice in research, serves as Director of an animal program, and speaks and debates frequently about animal use in research.  Several of Dr. Ringach’s comments resonated with me, and I will address one of them here.  He pointed out that people with absolutist views (“no animal research is ever justified”; “any animal research is always justified”) have marginalized themselves in any public discussion of this subject.  Specifically, those holding a position from which no compromise is possible can only proselytize in support of their views.

Dr. Eric Sandgren

Dr. Eric Sandgren

Serendipitously, in his blog about Dr. Ringach’s visit posted a couple of days before the FARE presentation, a local animal activist bragged “I am an extremist. I hope you are too.”   Under the heading “The Middle Ground”, he wrote: “It seems to me that very many moral issues don’t have a defensible middle ground. Here are a few examples: Nuclear war. Call me an extremist, but I’m 100% against it. Those in the ‘middle’ of the issue appear to me to be very very dangerous people.”  He gives more examples, as analogies for his view that animal research is one of those categories with an indefensible middle.

Of course, for those who don’t believe that animal research and nuclear war are the same, and I’m one of them, his comparisons have no persuasive force.  He’s just an extremist.

So for this activist and others with similar beliefs, any movement toward his position, any compromise, will be inadequate unless it is total. In fact, as he said aloud at the forum, unless animal research is stopped, “violence is inevitable.”

Wow. He is predicting that extremists will stop bothering with legal activity and use violence to try to accomplish their absolutist goal (we’ve seen some of that already), despite the fact that most people don’t agree with those goals.  Compromise, he says, will not satisfy them.  In other words, when they don’t get their way, the rest of us must pay.

At least he grants that animal research is in the “middle”.  And that is true.  Compare the situation of animal use before the Animal Welfare Act (first passed in 1965) with the present environment.  The two are vastly different.  Currently, there are extensive regulations of and restrictions on animal use.  Today’s practices are firmly in the middle, between extremes.  Animal researchers have demonstrated time and time again the ability to compromise.  Their participation in the dialog about appropriate use of animals is justified fully.

So who, then, is qualified to engage today’s researchers in honest discussion about animal research?  Certainly not the extremists, self identified or otherwise, who simply try to “convert the unenlightened”.  They cannot be honest participants in a true public discussion that is directed toward understanding opposing positions and exploring compromise.  The debate is unbalanced when it pits one end against part of the middle.

7 responses to “Who should be part of the animal research debate?

  1. @darioringach, it is good to hear that you’re okay with including absolutists in public discussions.

    I know the piece was written by Professor Sandgren and not by yourself, so perhaps it’s just that his opinion is different from yours. It would be good to get clarification from Professor Sandgren himself.

    As it stands now, the piece seems pretty unambiguous in what it is saying. For example, the last paragraph makes no reference to violence and advocates excluding extremists only because they view the middle as indefensible:

    “So who, then, is qualified to engage today’s researchers in honest discussion about animal research? Certainly not the extremists, self identified or otherwise, who simply try to “convert the unenlightened.” They cannot be honest participants in a true public discussion that is directed toward understanding opposing positions and exploring compromise. The debate is unbalanced when it pits one end against part of the middle.”

    • I cannot speak for him… I guess his point is that there is not much one can do to satisfy an absolutist in terms of negotiating a compromise. So he may not want to bother with a futile exercise.

  2. It puzzles me to see a scientist defending the act of excluding someone from a discussion based on the fact that the person’s views are considered “absolutist.” A priori there’s no reason a rational line of inquiry can’t lead to an absolutist conclusion, or that an absolutist conclusion can’t be the correct one. Better would be to ask if the person is rational, is articulate, and has a different perspective to contribute to the discussion. Otherwise, the discussion is artificially excluding opposing viewpoints, which makes it seem less honest rather than more.

    • Perhaps the article is not entire clear. I personally have no problem with absolutists. Indeed, I have debated in public those that hold such views, such as Gary Francione. What I object to is the combination of absolutism with the threats that, if society does not comply with their views, violence will ensue. They may have the right to such an opinion. But scientists certainly have the right to refuse to debate those that consider violence an appropriate tool to resolve moral disputes in society.

  3. Almost exactly what I wanted to say vf. In any society where certain groups are suppressed and cencored there is little chance of social progress. I would add that it would be more effective for even the most extreme animal rights activists to argue for a position that is not as extreme but rather somewhere inbetween where they want to be and where the world currently is. The problem with arguing to achieve a utopian perfect outcome is that in most cases it hurts ones cause because in many cases it is just not possible and besides that, one could easily be classified as “some extremist nutcase” making it more difficult to be taken seriously.

  4. I think this article does a good job of exposing some of the absurdities of extremism. However, I don’t think anyone has the right to choose who gets to be part of the debate. Everyone is allowed to express their views, no matter how ridiculous or hypocritical. It’s our most cherished freedom. Threatening violence, of course, is against the law. But simply being absolutist and intransigent is as American as apple pie. You just have to keep fighting it with facts and logic, and trust that reason will win in the end.

    • Of course, extremists that justify the use of violence to advance their political views have a right to express their views. The individual that warned that “violence is inevitable” unless scientists stop using animals in their research was doing just that.

      The point is these extremists, who make up less than 1% of the population, do not have a right to be included in any meaningful conversation that the other 99% of society may want to have about the use of animals in medical research. Scientists and other members of the public that would like to advocate for animals can certainly exclude the fringe elements of the animal rights movement if they so desire.

      Scientists have a duty to explain the public at large their work, but they are not obligated to engage with those that call for violence against them.