A recent petition asks 22 scientists, myself included, to “justify your science claims.” So far it has collected slightly over 14,000 signatures. It was organized by a group called For Life on Earth (FLOE) which bases its opposition to the use of animals in medical research based on the writings of Dr. Ray Greek.
How do I justify my science?
It is a strange question. To start my science is no different from the one conducted by my colleagues — whether a geologist or a physicist. There is only one science. It is the one based on the notion that we can postulate how some aspect of nature works, make our ideas specific enough to generate testable predictions, and use experimental methods to put those hypothesis to the test. Concepts that are refuted by the data go into the pile of rejected ideas, those that survive are pursued further and, in some occasions, after many years, and with much community effort, they are refined to the point that the account for such a vast amount experimental outcomes that we refer to them as theories. This scientific method has proven itself over and over again over centuries and has led to the many technological advancements you enjoy today. Science is the crown jewel of human intellect and reason.
The questions life scientists ask differ form those working in other fields. We are interested in seeking fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems. How do cells work? How do they communicate with each other? How do they develop and differentiate into different tissues and organs? How do they die and why? In my subfield of neuroscience we ask question related to how neurons work together to allow us to store and retrieve memories, plan and generate movements, visually recognize objects, make decisions, and so on. These are all questions scientists not only find intellectually interesting, but there is wide consensus that such fundamental knowledge is critical to enhance the health, lengthen life, and reduce the cost of illness and disability in both humans and non-human animals.
Unfortunately, at this point in time, our methods do not allow to pursue cellular and molecular-level questions non-invasively in human subjects, and this is why part of the work requires the use of animals in research. Accordingly, a recent poll by the journal Nature revealed that nearly 92% of scientists agree with the statement “animal research is essential to the advancement of biomedical science.”
Any reasonable person would agree a mechanic would be in a better position to fix a car if s/he actually knows the role each part plays, how they fit together, and what can happen if one of them fails. Similarly, any reasonable person must agree that we would be in a better position to develop therapies and cures if we knew exactly how living organisms work in health, and what happens to our cells and other organs in disease.
In contrast, the petition attempts to refute this self-evident truth, arguing that some recent scientific results explain why animal research has no value whatsoever for human health:
As the history of landmark scientific advances clearly documents, the scientific breakthroughs are often produced by the dedicated work of enlightened individuals, such as Darwin who brought us the Theory of Evolution, Einstein who gave us the Theory of Relativity and Kenner, Lister and Semmelweis who all contributed to the Germ Theory of Disease. Science has more recently delivered the Trans-Species Modeling Theory (TSMT), which demonstrates how current understanding of evolutionary biology and complexity explain decades of practical examples, the results of which oppose using animal experiments to try and predict human responses in medical research and the safety testing of new human medicines.
So what exactly is this Trans-Species Modeling Theory that the petitioners list as a scientific achievement of comparable in significance to Evolution, Relativity and Germ Theory?
I invite you to look it up. If you search for “Trans-Species Modeling Theory” in Pubmed you will find the term not mentioned even once. If you look up the article cited by the petition in Google Scholar you will see it was authored by animal rights activists Dr. Ray Greek and Lawrence Hansen and cited a total of 5 times, not once in peered-review scientific articles. All citations are from web sites, including one from the petition itself (which, I have to say, appears written by Dr. Greek himself.)
We are also directed by FLOE to read what is supposed to be Dr. Greek’s seminal work — a book entitled “Animal models in light of evolution”. The book has been cited a total of 42 times. Not impressive. Even less when you consider 28 are self-citations from Dr. Greek himself; 5 come from animal rights activists who have been Greek’s co-authors; and the rest is from a handful of other authors, including myself which speak about the book in not very positive terms.
Let it be clear that contrary to what the petition says, science did not deliver Trans-Species Modeling Theory — a couple of animal rights activists did. And it is not a theory of anything, but merely an opinion. To list Trans-Species Modeling Theory in the same sentence as Evolution and Relativity is a cruel joke on science. At least, whoever wrote the petition, had the decency to spare us the pain of seeing the names of animal rights cranks listed among those of Darwin and Einstein.
There is another reveling passage in the petition. It refers to the use of animals in basic research as using them to gain “knowledge for knowledge sake,” as if somehow such knowledge had no consequence whatsoever to the improvement of human health. Such statement illustrates the ignorance of the petitioners about how science works. When we talk about applied science, what is applied is knowledge. You can even find this fact embedded in the opening words of the mission of the NIH, which is “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”
Lastly, the central question the petition tries to isolate and eager to debate is meaningless. Animals are used in medical research by formulating a hypothesis about a disease of interest, trying to recreate the disease in animal subjects, studying the basic mechanisms involved, and developing new methods to interfere or stop the development of the disease in humans. When any one such attempt fails, it is a grave mistake to see it as a failure of science or as a general failure of the use of animals in research. It is simply a sign we failed to correctly capture all the relevant processes that take place in the human condition. Such failures are an integral part of the scientific process, as they narrow the space of possible solutions and will lead you to the accurate model. Medical history has shown time and again that such process can, over the objections of animal rights activists, lead to a fruitful completion and save millions of human and animal lives.
The work is justified because it saves lives on Earth.
Note: for other valid points see David Gorski’s response.