When I first took up my job explaining animal science to the public, I thought I would spend much of my time talking about ethics.
I was looking forward to it – my academic specialisms within were rights and ethics and I was more than ready to talk about animal rights and the ethics of using animals in science. As a noted animal lover and adopter of the unadoptable of course I’d thought about and researched the area very carefully indeed. I also want to be on the right side of history, not pick a view and set out in search of cherry-picked corroborating evidence.
Except I didn’t end up spending much time talking about ethics and it’s mainly due to the tactics of the animal rights lobby.
There’s a pretty well worn template for animal rights groups, and in recent years, as the tactics of smaller groups have moved away from violence towards pseudoscience, I find myself saying to new members of staff when a new animal rights claim hits the headlines ‘They’re probably lying, and it’s our first job to find out how.’
It is little surprise, then, that new animal rights group the Animal Justice Project (AJP) is conforming to the familiar template of smaller organisations such as For Life On Earth and the seemingly defunct Anti-Vivisection Coalition.
Typically, it’s a handful of people who (a) register a company and a website, (b) sign up for one of those virtual addresses which people claim are their business address, (c) rent-a-quote veterinarian, Andre Menache, to be their ‘scientific’ advisor and get to work cherry-picking ‘evidence’, misrepresenting research methods and generally making hair-raising claims which collapse upon further scrutiny. I don’t know how they fund the startup – maybe bigger groups help with the costs. Who knows and who cares – what matters is that they conjure enough faux respectability that journalists will listen to them so it’s their claims which become the focus.
In this case, the AJP appears to be Brit-in-LA Julia Orr, her friend Clare in the UK. And Andre Menache (who is also ‘scientific advisor’ for at least five other animal rights groups). On their website, they have a selection of Freedom of Information requests and papers harvested from PubMed which have been chosen for their methodology and applicability to defence operations. Menache rather hubristically critiques some of the experiments despite not be qualified or knowledgeable in the areas under scrutiny. The template remains intact.
They make a lot of claims, but for the sake of space let’s look at a typical example and see if it stands up.
“55 mice were subjected to laser burns to their eyes to simulate battlefield injuries and, as if this wasn’t bad enough, then had liquid injected into their eyes. The mice then had their necks broken up to six weeks after the experiment.
- No mention of pain relief following this barbaric experiment.
- Breaking of animals necks, especially without anaesthetic, is brutal and often animals suffer.
- The researchers admit that making a link between these experiments in rodents and humans is “difficult”. Added to which, at best mice’s normal eyesight is the human equivalent of being registered blind.
- Laser treatment for humans has existed since the 1980s and, therefore, so has damage to eyes by lasers. Enough human data means these experiments are no more than curiosity driven.
- There is no conclusion as to whether the injections into the eyes of mice can help or harm either humans or mice.”
The claims concern this paper . Let’s see how the claims stack up.
The first sentence is true, if hyperbolic – the researchers were looking for a triage technique for the battlefield, or in the event of a terrorist attack, which could save the eyesight of people who’d been affected by a retinal laser injury, so the first sentence is true. Then it all falls apart.
It wasn’t part of the experiment to see how living mice fared with broken neck. Cervical dislocation, which is considered the most humane ways to euthanise small rodents since it is quick and painless, is used to separate the brain stem from the brain resulting in an instant, painless death. This would allow researchers to dissect the now-dead animal to see what physical effects could be observed.
No pain relief was mentioned, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. In such a situation, a general anaesthetic would have been employed for ethical, legal and practical reasons. It would be much harder to do it while the animal was awake.
So far, one could chalk this up to a lack of knowledge, but what comes next is a deliberate deception. Researchers mentioned that it can be difficult to extrapolate some result s of animal experiments to humans, but not their experiment. The original paper reads:
“Given the interspecies differences in anatomy, genomes, and response to injury, in certain disease processes it may be difficult to make a direct correlation between the results observed in rodents and humans. However, as we have discussed, in both the rodent and human eye, photoreceptor cell death following laser injury has been shown in previous work, as has the protective effect on photoreceptors with the use of CNTF. Therefore, our study combines the use of these established facts and thus allows the extrapolation of results specific to cone injury.”
There can be no honest reason for leaving out the second part of the last sentence (my emphasis).
Our score for the first three claims is 1. Technically accurate but misleading, 2. Misleading if not outright wrong and 3. Active cherry-picking giving the exact opposite assertion of the researchers.
Next of their claims: “we have relevant treatments for laser eye injuries.”
The simple answer is no we don’t. Not ones which could be stowed in a medic’s triage kit or easily deployed in a crisis. As the paper notes “Retinal laser injury, for which there is currently no satisfactory treatment, represents an infrequent but potentially devastating cause of irreversible sight loss”.
Finally, they claim that no relevant conclusions were drawn. Really? The paper states “By using a multimodal approach consisting of both in vivo imaging and in vitro histological and molecular techniques, we were able to confirm the protective effect of CNTF in our model of laser injury” and “although our research has a military focus with regard to developing a potential treatment for offensive laser weapons on the battlefield, the model we have developed might be relevant to assessing any treatment relevant to cone neuroprotection and diseases of the human fovea“. Right. So, not only did it present a potential treatment, but it indicated it might be useful in treating other eye conditions to the one being studied.
Out of 5 claims, one was true, and that was the one establishing that the experiment had taken place.
In some ways, ignorance and confirmation bias can be viewed as innocent human foibles, although not ones which have any place informing national debates about science policy. But the deliberate cherry-picking of a scientific paper, presenting unrepresentative parts of papers and misrepresenting papers is the preserve of the scoundrel, whether it’s used in climate change denial, arguing for Creationism or indulging the fallacy that animal models do not have relevance to human physiology.
The tactics employed by the AJP are the same as marketers devising a poster for a new movie, compressing a bad review stating “It’s incredible this movie was even made!” to just “…Incredible…!”
It’s lying to the public, and if any of the activists would like me to comment on their right to do so, or its ethics, I am more than ready to oblige.