Biology, History and Maths: A lesson in debunking PETA’s nonsense

On 21st July the UK government released its stats on how many animals were used in UK research and the race was on. Many British universities raced to tweet the numbers of animals they’d used in 2015 and draw attention to their webpages on the subject. Science organisations raced to explain to the media what they were looking at in terms of real-world research. Animal rights groups raced to get their fantasy narrative into as many newspapers as possible.

Upon hearing of a 0.5% increase from 2013, Michelle Thew of Cruelty Free International said “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”. This is perhaps unsurprising: in 2012, Thew noted of a 2% rise that “the lack of progress is completely unacceptable”; In 2013 (8% rise), Thew noted “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”; and in 2015, after stats showed a 6% FALL in the animal statistics, she still noted “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”. Perhaps it’s time for a new speechwriter?

Cruelty Free International also press released that “A shocking 30% of experiments were assessed by animal researchers and the Home Office as being moderate or severe”. This was a bit of statistical trickery. Having just mentioned that there were “4.14 million experiments* completed during 2015”, the 30% only referred to “experimental procedures” and not “procedures for creation and breeding of genetically altered animals” (see table below). The truth is that of the 4.14 million procedures, only 18.2% were moderate or severe (13.7% vs 4.5%), down from 19.2% in 2014 (14.4% moderate vs 4.8% severe)**.

*CFI’s press release uses ‘experiments’ and ‘procedures’ almost interchangeable. The UK tends to prefer ‘procedures’, which is any intervention, or set of interventions, which have the potential to cause suffering or harm equal or greater than a simple injection.

Severity of animal research in the UK in 2015

Severity of animal research procedures in the UK in 2015

Hyperbole came thick and fast from PETA, whose own press release noted “126,000 animals didn’t regain consciousness after experiments classified as ‘non-recovery’” before going on to mention severe experiments. Non-recovery studies mean animals are put under with anaesthetic and intentionally given an overdose of anaesthesia to ensure they never wake up**. These animals do not suffer from the procedure – they are completely anaesthetised from the beginning of surgery until death.

**For more information about severity categories in the UK, please read “Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures“. 

A special distinction, though, goes to Julia Baines from PETA, who wrote an article for International Business Times that gleefully twists reality to the point that Mark Twain would probably have considered it a credible piece of satire.

“Four million animals were used in British experiments in 2015 – why aren’t we using alternative methods?”

The title is fairly quickly answered by the fact that in the UK, it is illegal to use an animal if there’s an alternative. The author knows this, but still decides to spend another 651 words not mentioning it.

“Britain is officially one of the worst offenders in Europe for scientific animal testing. According to the annual government statistics released today, cats, dogs, monkeys and other animals were used in a staggering 4.14 million experiments in 2015, a figure comparable only to France and Germany throughout the continent.”

Well on a purely empirical level this is false. British, French and German figures are all considerably lower than those in Norway, which used 4.82 million animals in 2014 (mostly fish). Then there is the rather tricky description of animals used. Rather than mention the mice, rats and fish that account for over 93% of research, they pick three species which  together account for 0.2% of animal studies in the UK.

PETA misinforms public over statistics

“Currently, despite evidence that experiments on animals systematically fail to benefit humans, scientists in Britain …”

This huge statement is taken as fact. No “evidence” is provided. Perhaps she does not wish to bore us with details.

“continue to withhold food and water from animals in order to make them cooperate with experimenters; poison them with ever-increasing doses of toxic chemicals until they die; and attach bolts to their skulls so that they can be “fixed” to a chair.”

There is NOTHING in the article linked to, which suggests food was withheld, or even restricted. The study did restrict water intake for 6 days per week (It was not withheld; animals were always given adequate hydration). We spoke to the study author, who told us:
All animals get as much food and liquid as they want and need, and the animals are not food or water deprived. We maintain controlled access to food or liquid and give specific amounts for behavioural reactions, and we supplement food or water if they don’t get enough during experimental sessions.

The second claim is even more egregious, as of the list of 19 studies linked to, NOT ONE involves repeatedly increasing the dosages of a compound until an animal dies. Rather, studies are full of phrases like “Animal welfare costs are minimised by the careful selection of dose levels to reduce the likelihood of unexpected toxicity” and other such animal welfare considerations.

The final claim is misleading due to the information left out. The description seems to evoke images of Frankenstein’s monster. The original paper says “The monkeys were trained to sit in restraining chair in front of a computer with the head fixed”. Surgical screws are required to fix their head. The surgery is done under anaesthesia in a sterile environment.

“Worse even than the fact that these tests are ineffective is that for decades, some doctors believe experiments on animals have actually derailed medical progress. For example, according to Steven R. Kaufman and Neal D. Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and co-chairman of the Medical Research Modernization Committee, we delayed our understanding of polio transmission, heart disease, and diabetes because we studied them in other species.”

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have previously been criticised for their activism and claims by the American Medical Association, who passed a resolution in 1990 that condemned PCRM for “implying that physicians who support the use of animals in biomedical research are irresponsible, for misrepresenting the critical role animals play in research and teaching, and for obscuring the overwhelming support for such research which exists among practicing physicians in the United States” [Page 123]. Their claims about the delayed understanding of polio transmission, heart disease and diabetes have been thoroughly debunked by us before:

All of this also seems to ignore that monkeys were key to our understanding of polio and development of an oral vaccine; a number of animal models were essential for the development of treatments for cardiac arrest and ventricular fibrillation; and dogs were indispensable for the discovery and isolation of insulin to treat diabetics.

Indeed the president of the Royal College of Surgeons said in 1993, “I think there is no doubt whatsoever that all forms of cardiac surgery which depend upon the heart-lung machine were developed through experiments on animals. There is no way that the heart-lung machine could have been devised and developed other than through studies on living creatures”.

“And Richard Klausner, the former head of the US National Cancer Institute, has also admitted, “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.””

Now we come to the misrepresentation of someone who does have credibility, Dr Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute. Speaking of Research has mythbusted before the claim that “We have cured mice of cancer for decades – and it simply didn’t work in humans.”, but it was a throwaway quote lifted from this Los Angeles Times feature. Back in its proper context, it’s a reaction to the pleas made by desperate cancer patients for new cures to be tried, i.e. it means ‘we’re trying!’ Of course, other treatments for cancer based on animal studies did/do work. Why does Dr Baines think we don’t have cancer treatments? Breast cancer drug Herceptin is based on a humanised mouse antibody. How would Dr Baines have acquired this without a mouse?

Dr Baines’ next few paragraphs discuss alternative technologies such as ‘organs on a chip’ and 3D human skin cultures. No doubt these are exciting and important methods which, in their rightful place, can help to improve our understanding of medicine and disease. However, they are just one of a number of tools – including animals – which are used together to build up a picture of biomedical research. To this end I must return to my earlier point that under UK law you must use non-animal methods instead of an animal wherever they can be used. However, sometimes we need a full, living organism – for example neither skin cultures nor organ on a chip  get pregnant – they are of limited use in such research. The Home Office website clearly states “Implementing the 3Rs requires that, in every research proposal, animals are replaced with non-animal alternatives wherever possible”. Alternatively check the original legislation – Section 5 (5).

Implementation of the 3Rs in UK law

“Seventy-nine per cent of the British public wish to see more exploration of these kinds of non-animal methods. The problem is that at the moment, the scientific community and the government lack the political will to end animal tests. It is unconscionable that of the £300 million in UK government funding for biosciences, only about 1 per cent is directed towards replacing animals in experiments.”

It is unclear where Dr Baines got her £300million figure from since just one of the UK’s bioscience funders – The Medical Research Council (MRC) – allocates some £678 million [p.20] each year to research. Other government funders of animal research include the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council  (BBSRC; £334m) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Not all of this funding is for animal studies, for instance the MRC estimates one third of its research programmes involve animal studies. This is likely to be much lower for the EPSRC.

Calculating funding into replacements is similarly hard. The National Centre for the 3Rs, which looks at developing alternatives to animals, had an annual budget of around £10 million (the actual amount changes year to year). The BBSRC estimates they spend £1.5m on 3Rs research. Many other Government-funded projects will involve furthering the 3Rs, but will not be noted as this if it is not the prime objective of the research.

Another problem is in comparing funding for the developing of non-animal methods, with funding for using animal methods. Dr Baines has not attempted to look at the millions of pounds spent using non-animal methods – computers, tissue studies, human studies. Nor has she compared funding into developing replacements with funding for developing new, better, animal models – which will account for only a small proportion of overall animal studies. Apples and pears indeed.

There’s a just a bit of time to fit in some scaremongering before she leaves us.

“But if this nation continues down the same road it always has regarding animal testing, then uncoupling from EU legislation could lead to lowering animal welfare standards and permitting tests on animals that are currently deemed illegal under EU law – betraying both humans and animals.”

This is of course about the UK leaving the EU. What Dr Baines fails to mention is the fact that EU regulations around animal research have never been policed at the European level – they’re transposed into a UK law via Parliament so leaving the EU should not affect them. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that EU law was heavily based on the UK system, which has been in place since 1986.

Chimpanzee in IB articleFinally is the question of pictures. It is unclear if those responsible for the choice of images are Dr Baines or IB Times. The first image is that of a chimp. Now, chimps aren’t used in UK research. No Great Ape has been used for over 30 years in regulated research in the UK, and reading the caption the picture was taken in Germany in 1995. How illustrative of UK research! For good measure we also have some rats but they’re not from the UK either, they’re from China in 2008, a country with less strict animal research laws than exist in the UK. We can see how the images contrast with those taken by The Sun newspaper a few days earlier, showing what a UK lab actually looks like.

Overall, what’s striking about the article is how divorced its narrative has become from reality and I can only wonder at what mental gymnastics are required by the author to convince themselves they’re not purposely trying to misinform.

While we have taken apart PETA’s claims one statement at a time, not everyone has the scientific knowledge to do so. Many are left innocently believing, and even repeating, the claims made by PETA. Dr Baines, on the other hand, should know better. It is disappointing to see any scientist abusing the trust her position affords her by writing articles like this.

Chris and Tom

Speaking of Research

19 responses to “Biology, History and Maths: A lesson in debunking PETA’s nonsense

  1. Re primates fixed into chair. I don’t believe that it is how the bolts were attached that is the problem. I think it’s the fact that it happened at all and the fact that the animals were restrained by that method for the procedure. If it’s so innocuous I suggest you volunteer immediately.

  2. Matthew Simpson

    No doubt you’re onto new themes by now, but if you happen to pick this up, perhaps you’d comment on the response to the 2015 HO statistics here – at any rate, the second half which talks about the term ‘procedures’:
    Even those who confine themselves to the ethics of the matter must come to some understanding of the science as variously presented (whether as numbers, techniques, or stories of particular research), and I think that you underestimate how much PR gets mixed in with all of it.
    Anyway, I’d be glad to hear what you think.

  3. James Iremonger, you write that “But I can’t expect others to adopt that belief. Some people like to kill and eat animals.”

    Why do you think this? Its true that some people like doing things that we regard as unethical, but why should we not expect them to adopt the belief that cruelty toward farm animals is wrong? Before legislation on things like animal experimentation or treatment of pets, people behaved very unethically to them. But campaigners did expect them to adopt the belief that some of the awful things people did was wrong, they campaigned for it, and convinced people to adopt legislation that now most people support. Obviously eating animal flesh is a social norm, and while campaigning should reflect that, but then a great many things which we have now legislation against were also social norms once. Should those campaigners just have not bothered to change others minds? So why not expect others to change their beliefs?

  4. Editor, I see, so you were saying that I was making an assumption in the sense that all ethical beliefs are based on some assumptions? Yes that is true. But that does not mean that one cannot reason logically about ethical beliefs to exclude some beliefs, as all sets of ethical must logically not contains contradictions, commit logical fallacies, or be based on factual inaccuracies.

    Personally I think that all arguments made by animal eaters commit such logical errors. For example, an appeal to culture is just an appeal to popularity, a logical fallacy, as are appeals to nature or to tradition. Arguments about killing not itself mattering, and therefore eating animals can be ethical if they are raised and killed humanely, ignores the factual matters of such issues, such as the inherent failure rate of methods to cause concussion, or the rates of mastitis among cows, or the trauma caused by separation of calf and mother cow, or the rates of things like hock burn in chickens. Nor is such a view that death does not matter consistent to how we treat dogs or humans that have intellectual disabilities.

    But lets just start with the ethics implied by legislation. As you point out, it is illegal to experiment on animals where there are alternatives. This implies that animal lives themselves have value, and that they should not be killed if possible, that death is not a neutral thing but is something itself which should be avoided. How then can it be consistent to support legislation that animals should not be killed where possible with regard to lab animals, but that its fine to kill animals to eat their flesh even though there are alternatives? You say researchers “like to alleviate the suffering of animals wherever possible”, yet they do not like to alleviate suffering of farmed animals where possible as in that case they would be vegan.

    As for outlawing research, I have not advocated doing so. I am merely saying that if you want people to believe that researchers “like to alleviate the suffering of animals wherever possible”, then one should promote researchers to hold that position consistently

    • UK legislation would certainly disagree with your point about death. The regulations, such as the use of an alternative, ultimately are aimed at reducing potential for suffering, distress or lasting harm – not death. In fact the death of an animal is not counted among on “negative” side of the equation when carrying out a harm-benefit analysis to determine if a project should go ahead. To imply a right to life of animals has a huge number of difficulties – do you have the right to kill a tapeworm, step on the ground without looking for ants, drive a car or plane knowing it could kill an animal. The right to life would imply mankind should declare war on Nature to prevent interspecies violence. If a dog has a right to life then why can you put down a terminally ill dog, but not a terminally ill person.

      While I do often relish a debate, I think we will be here forever if we start debating the ethics of meat-eating. I do, however, agree with your point that internal consistency of your actions is what is important. I will leave you with the teasing comment that is I am not sure that people either side of the animal research or meat-eating debates can come up with a complete philosophy that is both entirely consistent AND does not lead to either absurd or distasteful conclusions at the extremes

      • They are aimed at reducing death as well as suffering, indeed to quote the 1986 legislation, “A project licence must include a condition requiring the holder to ensure that the regulated procedures applied as part of the specified programme of work are designed so as—

        (a) to result in the death of as few protected animals as possible; and

        (b) to reduce to the minimum possible the duration and intensity of suffering caused to those animals that die and, as far as possible, ensure a painless death.”

        As for the rights of animals, I have not said animals should have rights, although I think a legal protection is a right by any other name. But as for moral rights that is a whole separate debate, and not even relevant if one is making a utilitarian argument such as the likes that Singer makes (also you should totally read practical ethics by Singer if you have not already).

        But even if one accepts animal rights, one would not accept the general right to life of a human means that we should not stop that human causing you harm or use you as a means to an end, ie self defense is justified, so why should one accept your argument re tape worms? As for dogs, its done in their best interest, an many people do accept euthanasia for humans. Personally though I would treat severely ill animals like we treat humans, use the double effect of opioids to both reduce pain and cause death.

        As for interspecies violence, one can only have rights claims against moral agents. One would not have to be a moral agent ones self though, for example even babies have rights. The question regarding nature though is more a question of whether you have the right to assistance. I don’t think we do have a right to assistance beyond quite prescribe contractual relationships. You don’t for example have an obligation to help reduce an impoverished person, though it may be supererogatory. But just because you don’t have to help them, doesn’t mean you would be justified in causing them suffering.

  5. I think a large part of this comes down to trust. Even if one accepts that animals could be killed if it were necessary to save human lives, that does not mean its justified to kill them is merely for trivial purposes, like enjoyment at eating animal flesh.

    But the fact is the vast majority of researchers eat animal flesh, so then is it not inevitable that vegan orgs such as peta would distrust the things that researchers say, when researchers have already proven themselves to be so lacking in their capacity to respect animals when it comes to eating them?

    It seems to me, by eating animals, most researchers ignore the horrible conditions animals are exposed to on farms, and if they can just ignore that, what does it say about their capacity to ignore potential suffering in animal experiments? What does it say about how much researchers value animals lives, if they think it ok to kill them trivial purposes? Sure there are systems in place to watch over the researchers, but how many on the approval boards or the site inspectors are vegan? Or are they all people that ignore animal suffering when it suits them too?

    • James Iremonger

      James – I can see your point. However, I would not assume that only vegans care about animal welfare. Veganism is not a moral baseline, it is a diet – not a barometer of your level of investment in reducing the plight of animals. At the moment, the majority of work to reduce animal experimentation is carried out by non-vegans. There is definitely a cognitive dissonance present in people who are motivated by animal welfare but continue to eat meat. But to assume that they do not care about animals is simply wrong.

      Can I recommend you watch this video by ‘a-bas-le-ciel’, a vegan YouTuber with an interest in animal research. He reads a letter he received from a vegan scientist who works on animals:


      • Thanks for the links, yes I quite like a-bas-le-ciel. Yes, I definitely think there is a spectrum concern for animal welfare, its not all or nothing. But researchers are given a great degree of power over the lives of animals, and with power comes great responsibility. For a vegans perspective that responsibility would include a researcher is not affected by cognitive bias, at least not so much so that they would support killing and causing suffering to animals for trivialities.

        The problem is that because even if those people who care a great deal about animal welfare in a general sense, if they have cognitive dissonance significant enough for them to ignore the suffering of farmed animals, then it brings into question whether they should be trusted to have responsibility regarding causing minimal animal suffering in experimentation or deciding when such experimentation is justified.

        I am not saying they would definitely be affected by that cognitive dissonance in other situations, I am saying if they are unable to combat their cognitive dissonance towards animals in one situation, vegans would be unlikely to trust them not to have cognitive dissonance in other circumstances. By being susceptible to that cognitive dissonance towards farmed animals, to vegans it says that the degree to which researchers care about animal suffering, and the degree to which researchers think logically about such things, is not sufficient to overcome cognitive dissonance.

        Perhaps speaking of research ect should get involved with supporting an end to using animals for trivial things, supporting an end to farming? I think that would be far more likely to convince PETA and others that researchers are trustworthy, that when researchers say they are implementing the 3Rs that this would be believable.

        • Your assumption is that eating an animal is a bad or wrong. This is a large claim and disagreed with by the majority of the population. You can also point out cognitive bias’ everywhere. Should those who don’t recycle everything in their house be prevented from becoming economists (or animal researchers) because their cost-benefit analysis appears to be questionable? You should also question if the choice to be vegetarian doesn’t come with its own cognitive biases.

          Speaking of Research is not a campaigning organisation which decides its cause based on the greatest need. If we were, we might all dedicate ourselves to helping poverty in the local area, or raising money for local charities. We are a single issue organisation which seeks to explain the benefit of animal research – we exist because there is a need for an organisation like ours. We come together because of a belief on this single issue. We probably have varied opinions on issues like farming, fur, pet ownership etc.

          • James Iremonger

            I’d tend to agree with the editor here* (despite being vegetarian myself).

            In my opinion killing and eating animals when there is a convenient and healthy alternative (i.e. plant foods) is not ethical. But I can’t expect others to adopt that belief. Some people like to kill and eat animals.

            Speaking of Research is obviously focussed on the topic of animals in research, so do you really expect them to incorporate ‘ending farming’ (whatever that means) into their agenda?

            Again, James, I get your sentiment. It’s just not a realistic suggestion.

            *with the exception of the ‘cognitive biases in vegetarianism’ part. Yes, many vegetarians/vegans believe that their diet comes without any imperfections (ethical/environmental etc) but for those of us who are more realistic, it’s just about doing the ‘least bad’ thing.

          • Why do you think I just assume eating animals is wrong? I have a whole set of reasons regarding why I think this.

            Don’t you think that there is a relevant difference between the many cognitive biases one could have and those biases regarding eating animals when it comes to how we relate to animal suffering and value animal lives? I don’t think researchers have to be perfect, but for example if a researcher was convicted of cruelty to a dog, don’t you think that such a conviction would mean that we should not trust such a researcher to work responsibly animals in experimentation?

            As for explaining the benefits of animal research, don’t you think you would be more effective at doing that if you could show that you were not susceptible to cognitive dissonance regarding how we treat animals? Would that not be a reason to work on campaigning against animal farming in a way consistent with your particular single issue campaign, providing a reason to work on it that is completely separate to deciding to work on issues of greatest need?

          • James, you misunderstand my meaning. I am sure you have reasons for disagreeing with eating meat (though these reasons will themselves rest on certain assumptions about what makes things “good” or “bad”), but in these comments you premised much of your argument on the idea that eating meat was wrong, without justifying it in the comments.

            In most developed countries we have a set of laws and guidelines that researchers must follow. If followed then the research should be being conducted responsibly, regardless of what the researchers motivations are. Now, I think most people follow these regulations not because they have to, but because they want to – they believe in good animal welfare and understand these regulations are conducive to it. Many researchers will go above and beyond these regulations because they, in general, like to alleviate the suffering of animals wherever possible (while understanding that the science must go on).

            As to your last point – you are back with the assumption that eating meat is bad. I (personally) don’t think it’s bad, so why should I believe there is a cognitive bias in conducting research. I can even turn the accusation around – if you believe that eating meat is wrong, then I could accuse the premises you base your beliefs about animal welfare to be on to be skewed – and thus accuse you of cognitive bias in the opposite direction, potentially outlawing research which I believe should go on.

            Now SR’s committee has a diverse set of beliefs on many things. See this post I wrote on the issues of things like hunting and other animal-related activities:

  6. I don’t suppose anyone from the Animal Rights side of things happened to mention that in some instances animals are deprived of food and water because they will be part of a surgical procedure? By their standards then veterinarians are horribly cruel for telling people to take their pets off feed for several hours before a procedure. I suppose allowing the animal to choke on its own vomit would be better than being a bit hungry.

  7. James Iremonger

    Overall I’d say if the primary aim of this article is ‘myth-busting’, then it clearly achieves that, but in a wider sense I’m not sure of organisations like PETA/or their supporters might gain from a reorganisation of the statistics. They’re probably more interested in the care and well being of the ~ 200 cats (0.005%), ~ 4,500 dogs (0.11%) and ~ 3,700 monkeys (0.09%) mentioned above.

    As Gail Davies (1st author on the PLOS paper mentioned above) argues – we not should be concerned just with questions of overall scale, but also animal care within institutions, and ‘how animal or non-animal alternatives gain credibility amidst a general crisis of scientific reproducibility’. The last point is particularly important in my opinion.

    • For every 100 dogs that enter PETA’s back room closet shelter only 5 go out the front door. As long as animal deaths are carried out by PETA it seems OK but if animals are used for research to help humans it is not OK. Ingrid has told the story that when she worked in D.C. that she gathered animals and took them in and began to euthanize them before others came to work. There is something wrong in this thinking meaning human research for solving disease causes and treatments do not seem to matter.
      It appears that the Animal Rights movement is the movement against humanity.

  8. James Iremonger

    Interesting article. PETA’s reporting on animal research only serves to provoke anger and cloud understanding. Have you seen the recent PLOS paper ‘Developing a Collaborative Agenda for Humanities and Social Scientific Research on Laboratory Animal Science and Welfare’ (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0158791)?

    The authors argue that widening the scope on communication on animal research to the humanities/social sciences and beyond will help with public understanding and acceptance. I would tend to agree – having seen what I would call ‘reactionary’ reporting on either side of the argument, collaboration is clearly needed between the people who simply want to reduce animal research and the people who can* (scientists and regulatory authorities).

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