Lies, misrepresentation, cherry picking quotes: PeTA’s tactics to garner support against animal research

This post by Dr. Kausik Datta, a biomedical researcher in immunology, was originally posted on his SciLogs blog, In Scientio Veritas. In it he looks at some of the scientific quotes used by PETA to defend their position, and finds that all of them have been taken out of context to misrepresent the position of the original researcher.

I work with immunology of infectious disease and study host-pathogen response. My work has naturally involved a good amount of animal experimentation, especially mouse models of various infections. These mouse models are incredibly useful, because they offer a valuable window into the process of infection, pathogenesis (‘disease production’), and the kind of immune response a vertebrate mammal generates to the infection. The same broad reasoning applies to rodent models of various metabolic and endocrine diseases, as well as cancer. These models are attractive because most often these research animals are genetically homogenous, and therefore, provide a less complex (and more manageable) environment to study the genesis, as well as treatments, of a disease – while mimicking much of the same physiological responses seen in larger and more complex animals.

Ironically, the lower complexity has also been the main argument against over-reliance on animal research. Not all the results seen in the animal models directly translate to human beings, who are physiologically and genetically more diverse and complex. But regardless of immediate translatability of observations, these results always offer crucial and pertinent clues about the disease process, and therefore, are seen as valuable stepping-stones for the journey towards bringing cures to both humans and animals alike. (Yes, an oft-forgotten aspect of animal research is that the results benefit animals, too.)

For example, studies in the lowly fruit-fly (Drosophila) revealed a protein called Toll which is essential for the fly’s immunity to fungal infections. And lo and behold! Various vertebrates (humans and other animals) as well as invertebrates were found to have a collection of very similar proteins, called Toll-like receptors, which are engaged in protecting the body against various infections. Another example is that of the Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), a close cousin of HIV; SIV does not affect humans, but depending upon the species, it does cause a disease (simian AIDS, or SAIDS) that is very similar to AIDS in the humans, and chimpanzees in the wild have died from SAIDS. Not only has SIV provided important indications as to how HIV may work, vaccine research against SIV has been able to generate a successful treatment for infected Rhesus monkeys. At the same time, studies in Bonobos are on to find out how they seem to be impervious to SIV’s effects.

These advances would not have come without animal experimentation. This is important to understand. Yes, we don’t yet have a successful vaccine against HIV, but then, HIV has unique characteristics which allow it to evade immunity, hide and survive in the body. The clues obtained from animal as well as human research will continue to provide directions for humankind’s fight to eradicate this dreaded scourge.

The mindlessly agenda-driven organizations like PeTA know this. That’s why, in order to peddle their anti-science, anti-research agenda, they take recourse to outright lies, misrepresentations of the research and people who are engaged therein, as well as using quotes from well-known people in a way that appears to suggest their consonance with the PeTA agenda. However, there is an important aspect to it; credit where due, PeTA has long understood, and successfully exploited, the power of visual imagery. As with their celebrity endorsements across many countries, not to mention their objectification of women, PeTA continues to create visual campaigns – ‘memes’ – for television, internet, as well as billboards, projecting the same lies and misrepresentations, and playing fast-and-loose with the truth, in order to propagate their agenda.

And they have been immensely successful, because these memes, regardless of their lack of veracity, don’t die. PeTA takes care to put images – as gruesome as they can find, and those which would seem horrifying when seen in absence of any context – with their anti-science, anti-research memes, and those images stick with people. As a result, well-intentioned but gullible folks keep foolishly spreading those memes, and now with the power of social media, they reach far and wide, wreaking immeasurable havoc with the public understanding of science and the need for animal experimentation, and making the researchers the villains of these pieces.

One appeared on my Facebook feed this morning. This one is from a 2013 PeTA blog post, purportedly providing “8 reasons why animal testing doesn’t help humans”. In line with PeTA’s usual memes, it has distress-inducing images of cute animals being experimented upon. The images are accompanied by a slew of quotes from “esteemed scientists, government officials, and doctors” (a veritable paean to the Argument from Authority fallacy), which appear to bolster PeTA’s position on animal experimentation; however, as you will see, not all are what they seem at the first glance.

animal testing vivisection PETA

I shall spare you the gruesome images, dear reader; if you must look at them, you can click on the above-mentioned link to the PeTA blog post and see for yourself. I have, instead, chosen to use the text of the specific quotes that PeTA presented on those images, and made the effort to hunt down the sources (because, of course, PeTA doesn’t provide references) of those quotes. What I discovered was most revealing, and I present them below.

“Traditional animal testing is expensive, time-consuming, uses a lot of animals and from a scientific perspective the results do not necessarily translate to humans.” — Dr. Christopher P. Austin, director of NIH Chemical Genomics Center.

EXCEPT that this quote – found in a 2008 report in The Telegraph UK – was intended EXCLUSIVELY for the context of toxicological testing. Austin also said, “It’s a bold, ambitious thing to try to do but our goal is to eliminate animal use in toxicology in ten years” — a laudable goal in itself. He was speaking in terms of a high-throughput screening system involving various animal cell-types, in which the toxicity studies could be done for thousands of chemical substances at one go. The availability of this technology is a great achievement, but it is important to remember that this can be done because the measurable outcomes of toxicity studies, especially toxic effects on a given cell, are reasonably straightforward, as well as local, and don’t require the use of a whole animal, unless the effects of the toxicity are more global and complicated in nature. These animal-free screens can be employed gainfully to test toxicities of environmental toxins, as well as personal care products.

You can read and hear Dr. Austin’s own words in this description of a collaborative governmental effort to move toxicity studies to an animal-free system, while recognizing the tremendously valuable contribution that animal testing has made towards identifying many toxins dangerous to human and animal health.

It is also important to understand that this particular technology is a result of the constant effort by scientists under the guiding principles of 3Rs – reduction, refinement, replacement – for animal-based research. In situations such as ordinary toxicity studies, where the technology allows us not use animals but get meaningful results, we should absolutely, wholeheartedly adopt them. This has long been the stance of animal-researchers, which is something PeTA deliberately chooses to ignore and obfuscate.

“The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades and it simply didn’t work in humans.” — Dr. Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute.

EXCEPT that this quote – lifted from a 1998 Los Angeles Times feature – was meant as a comment on the pleas made by desperate cancer patients for new cures to be tried, whenever researchers published (and the media jumped upon) some study looking at the potential for some chemical substances, including those isolated from natural substances (such as garlic), to modulate the changes in cells that lead to cancer. PeTA’s use of this quote deliberately obscures the fact that many such substances are primarily tried upon static cells in cultures (something that PeTA favors as an ‘animal alternative’ method), where either they don’t show adequate effects, or their effects cannot be translated to complex organisms because of many different factors.

Tumorigenesis is complex process involving many cells in a given environment, and it is often not possible to mimic that environment appropriately in an ex vivo, animal-free, cell-based system. Positive results found in animal experiments in cancer are not the be all, end all in themselves. But they provide the scientific basis based on which human experiments and trials for new therapeutic modalities can be conceived; they engender hope. It is downright cruel of organizations like PeTA to attempt to take that important aspect from cancer patients.

“Prevention [of polio] was long delayed by the erroneous conception of the nature of the human disease based on misleading experimental models of the disease in monkeys.” — Dr. Albert Sabin, developer of the oral polio vaccine.

EXCEPT that this single phrase by Dr. Sabin – said in 1984 during a Congressional testimony and used by organizations like PeTA to signify his opposition to the use of animals in research – did not at all represent his complete position in this regard. In a letter written in 1992, Dr. Sabin stated unequivocally:

“… my own experience of more than 60 years in biomedical research amply demonstrated that without the use of animals and of human beings, it would have been impossible to acquire the important knowledge needed to prevent much suffering and premature death not only among humans but also among animals.”

Do read more about Dr. Sabin’s and others’ lifelong association with animal research for finding cures for dreaded diseases that afflict both humans and animals in this 2011 post in the Speaking of Research blog.

“Mice are mice, and people are people. If we look to the mouse to model every aspect of the disease for man, and to model cures, we are just wasting our time.” — Dr. Clif Barry, chief Tuberculosis Research section, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

EXCEPT that this quote – lifted from a 2011 Slate feature – has been modified by PeTA to omit the first part. The COMPLETE quote said, “The truth is that for some questions, mice give you a very nice and easy model system for understanding what’s happening in humans, but mice are mice, and people are people. If we look to the mouse to model every aspect of the disease for man, and to model cures, we’re just wasting our time.“.

The duplicity of PeTA in cherry-picking quotes apparent to you, yet?

The feature article does mention the background for this comment by Dr. Clifton Barry: the form of tuberculosis that mice get is different from the form humans get, and that is because of differences inherent in their respective immune systems. While this has restricted the efficacy of some tuberculosis studies in a rodent model, there is no doubt that this knowledge of differences in immune system was important to have, because it provided valuable clues to the differences in the disease process between mice and humans. The same article provides an instance where the indications from the mouse studies were crucial in figuring out why a specific immune-treatment failed spectacularly in human beings.

Most scientists who work with animal models are not blind to their shortcomings, which is a reason why tuberculosis research, for example, has progressed from rodents to primates to zebra-fish. Animal models can help answer specific questions, and each such answer contributes to the overall understanding of a disease, its progression, as well as its treatment. Research in nine-banded armadillos showed that aside from humans, these animals are the only natural hosts of the leprosy bacteria, which are difficult to grow in in vitro culture; the knowledge gained during his work with isolating leprosy bacteria DNA from armadillos allowed the legendary tuberculosis researcher Bill Jacobs to transport the same techniques to the study of the tuberculosis bacteria, and make a fluorescent TB bug which glows under the microscope, allowing researchers to immediately see if a drug is effective on the bug or not.

“Currently, nine out of ten experimental drugs fail in clinical studies because we cannot accurately predict how they will behave in people based on laboratory and animal studies.” — Michael O. Leavitt, former secretary for the US department of Health and Human Services.

EXCEPT that this quote – lifted from a 2006 FDA Press Announcement – pertained to a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CONTEXT; the second part of the quote, which PeTA obscured, said, “The recommendations announced today will help more researchers conduct earlier, more-informed studies of promising treatments so patients have more rapid access to safer and more effective drugs.

In this announcement, FDA was offering specific approaches for performing appropriate safety-testing with small amounts of investigational new drugs in people, which would improve and hasten the process of getting safe and effective drugs to people. This was not a commentary on the pre-clinical testing – both in vitro and animal studies – that must be done in order to show efficacy before taking the drug to the next higher level, for testing in human subjects. This announcement also pertained particularly to serious and life-threatening conditions, such as cancer, heart disease and neurological disorders, for which there was (and still is) an extreme demand with non-commensurate supply, and the traditional timeline from drug-design to marketing, along with the existing regulatory requirements, was considered too long and burdensome to provide benefit to the patients.

I hope you can understand, dear reader, how knowing the context changes the import of these quotes, cherry-picked by PeTA with deliberate dishonesty. Why they do this? I have no clue. For a better understanding how the presentation of facts outside of their contexts can skew the readers’ perception of the idea surrounding those facts, do read this 2013 post in the Speaking of Research blog.

“[Researchers] are so ingrained in trying to cure mice that they forget that we’re trying to cure humans.” — Dr. Ronald W. Davis, Stanford University.

EXCEPT that this quote – lifted from a New York Times highlight of a study published in 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA – doesn’t provide the context, which pertained exclusively to the study of sepsis. It also doesn’t indicate that this crucial study comparing human and animal models, of which Dr. Davis was a lead author, was the first to figure out that mice used different groups of genes to deal with acute conditions such as burns, trauma and sepsis, whereas humans use a similar genes for all three. While this work highlighted the need to use human cells in order to study human sepsis, the condition and its treatment, in no way does it diminish the importance of the discovery that mice use different genes for these conditions, and that there is a difference between mice and human subjects in this regard.

“Patients have been too patient with basic research. Most of our best people work in lab animals. Not people. But this has not resulted in cures or even significantly helped most patients.” — Dr. Ralph Steinman, Immunologist at Rockefeller University.

EXCEPT that Dr. Steinman made this comment in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CONTEXT. In 2002, Steinman wrote in the journal Cerebrum about the crucial need for training more physician-scientists, scientists who are trained as physicians, and are able to bring that perspective to scientific and clinical research; the lack of such physician-scientists, he considered, was the reason why there was a failure to “maintain a crucial transmission belt between basic research and clinical applications” and why “potential benefits [of basic research] for treating serious illnesses [were] taking too long to reach patients”, even if the basic research, with animal experimentation, has been immensely productive. In absence of properly-trained physician-scientists, he wrote, “We risk being able to treat models of diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), cancer, and depression in rats and mice, but not having enough scientists, expertise, or funding to test much of this critical work on humans in a timely fashion”.

Giving examples of his own research from more than two decades ago, Steinman described how animal experiments helped him identify an important component of cellular immunity in the body. He lamented that this knowledge needed to be applied appropriately in human populations, in order to further our understanding of the immune process and diseases, in order to accomplish which more physician-scientists were needed.

Puts quite a different perspective, doesn’t it, on that Steinman quote, cherry-picked by PeTA and placed out of context to further their own anti-science agenda?

“We have moved away from studying human disease in humans. We all drank the kool-aid on that one, me included. The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem… We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.” — Elias Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health.

EXCEPT that this quote – gleaned from Dr. Zerhouni’s 2013 lecture at the NIH – is, again, NOT the complete quote, which is (from the link):

We have moved away from studying human disease in humans,” he lamented. “We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included.” With the ability to knock in or knock out any gene in a mouse — which “can’t sue us,” Zerhouni quipped — researchers have over-relied on animal data. “The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem… We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.” — Note how the complete quote mentions the specific context of the ability of performing genetic manipulation relatively easily in mice, which in his opinion has led the researchers to rely over-much on animal model data?

Without a doubt, there is an important lesson to learn and remember. The relative ease of working with animal models and the ability to answer specific, directed questions with these models have sometimes swayed some researchers away from the bigger picture, the ultimate goal of delivering a cure to the patients who need them. However, it is basic science research, utilizing the animal models precisely for those reasons, which makes the seminal contributions to the understanding of disease mechanisms; animal models are necessary, and they complement well the knowledge gained from other, equally necessary, non-animal based models as appropriate, such as cell-culture, computer simulations, and the ultimate test, human trials. When asked to clarify his remarks, Dr. Zerhouni said as much; he wrote:

“I understand that some have interpreted these comments to mean that I think that animals are no longer necessary in medical research. This is certainly not what I meant. In fact, animal models and other surrogates of human disease are necessary — but not sufficient — for the successful development of new treatments. In short, animal models remain essential to the basic research that seeks to understand the complexities of disease mechanism.”

Do read the whole response from Dr. Zerhouni and the relevant discussion regarding animal experimentation in this 2014 post in the Speaking of Research blog. Not the kind of nuance you’d find in a PeTA screed, is it?

I have earlier written about this opposition of animal research from PeTA, and how such mindless opposition actively harms the cause of biomedical research that benefits both people and animals. If PeTA and their ilk did indeed have solid arguments to present in support of their position, why all these lies, misrepresentations, subterfuge, cloak-and-dagger stage-show? In view of this, I must again ask, who really benefits from this stance of PeTA, if not PeTA’s coffers?

Dr. Kausik Datta

To learn more about the role of animal research in advancing human and veterinary medicine, and the threat posed to this progress by the animal rights lobby, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

4 responses to “Lies, misrepresentation, cherry picking quotes: PeTA’s tactics to garner support against animal research

  1. James Keele

    Regarding the discovery of Toll-like receptors and vaccines for HIV you write… “These advances would not have come without animal experimentation”

    You go on at length about how bad PETA are for taking what scientists say when their guard is down to its logicically conclusion, and then you say this nonsense? How can you possible know? Could we not also have discovered toll-like receptors through the genetic analysis of people with diseases affecting immune function? How would science have developed without animal research? You have no idea.

    • Without wanting to get into the same prolonged argument you’ve had here before, when discovery X absolutely relied on research Y, most people would agree that Y could not have come about without X.

      You have decided that it is possible there was another way. Your definition of “could not have come without” is so strict as to make the phrase worthless. I could not say “penicillin could not have come about without someone understanding how it killed bacteria (Fleming and his petri dish)” because it is possible that while cycling a billion different chemical structures together and trying them randomly on people, we might have accidently come upon penicillin. This argument is pointless.

  2. Of course this is the modus operandi of many animal rights organizations, although PeTA can be credited with perfecting them by including nudity.

    • Let’s face it, peta (no sense capitalizing the dirtiest four-letter word in all of animal advocacy) should stop being twice as dumb as what they protest!
      People Eating Tasty Animals: Vegetarianism gone batty since 1980