The Problem With Jane Goodall’s “Expert” Opinion

On September 7, 2017, Dr. Jane Goodall wrote a scathing letter to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) denouncing what she called the “cruel and unnecessary nicotine addiction experiments on monkeys” occurring there. The letter, which relies on the repeated use of opinion versus fact-based arguments by Goodall, is not just problematic, it’s downright dangerous.

This is not Goodall’s first time lending her name to various efforts by animal rights activists opposed to federally-supported biomedical and behavioral research, despite her lack of expertise or relevant credentials. Goodall has often partnered with animal rights groups to attack life-saving science. In March 2016, she supported a campaign by the Animal Justice Project to stop preclinical trials of a new malaria vaccine. In September 2016, Goodall joined Cruelty Free International (CFI) to co-author a letter attacking the use of animals in neuroscience research (to which a counter-letter, signed by 400 prominent experts in the field, was published). In February 2017, Goodall worked with For Life on Earth to call out Prof. Roger Lemon, a notable Professor of Neurophysiology, to criticize his comparative work with both humans and non-human primates.

Squirrel monkey. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As detailed here, her most recent letter to the FDA, in partnership with The White Coat Waste (WCW) Project, a conservative-leaning animal rights organization devoted to the elimination of animal research, relies on the repeated use of opinion rather than empirical observations or rigorous study to arrive at sweeping – and dangerous – conclusions.  

The problems

We’ll tackle this letter in particular, though past letters signed by Goodall and other notable figures like David Attenborough, are similarly flawed and should be similarly scrutinized.

  • No relevant credentials or expertise: This one bears repeating. Although this should be obvious, to many it is not. Though she possesses a PhD and is described as an expert on chimpanzees, Goodall’s “expertise” ends there. She does not possess an advanced degree pertinent to the field of addiction research, and moreover she has never conducted research in a biomedical research facility. Thus, her first-hand knowledge of the methodology and oversight in these types of studies is questionable at best. Would you consult a cardiologist for questions about your car’s transmission?  Or, conversely, consult an auto mechanic about your open heart surgery? In fact, Dr. Goodall appears to recognize this. For example, in her video targeting Prof. Roger Lemon, midway through the video Goodall notes: “I don’t have the scientific medical knowledge to take issue with Professor Lemon” before going on to demand he debate pseudoscientist, Dr. Ray Greek. The problem here is that the weight given to Goodall’s opinion is directly related to impressions of her expertise and credentials. This issue of ethics of expertise is an important one. Goodall herself may not be directly claiming to be a neuroscientist, or an addiction researcher, but one of the reasons that her opinion may be thought valuable in these campaigns is because she is a scientist. As as scientist, it is worth considering whether Goodall should be upfront about her lack of expertise in the topic at hand. In fact, Goodall’s conclusion that the research is “unnecessary” and that “the results of smoking are well-known in humans” are opinions, rather than statements based in evidence and expert analysis.

    “I don’t have the scientific
    medical knowledge…”
    – Jane Goodall

  • “I have been told that…”: This should immediately set off alarm bells to anyone reading Goodall’s letter. Forget what comes after that – who has told her what she describes? As we have noted in the past, it’s crucial to know the starting assumptions of those engaging in a conversation, and the assumptions must be spelled out. In this case, it is no secret that Goodall has worked with The White Coat Waste (WCW) Project, a conservative-leaning animal rights organization devoted to the elimination of animal research (this starting position itself is dangerous, as described below). The WCW’s site itself states, “On the heels of WCW’s new lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)…Dr. Jane Goodall has joined WCW’s campaign to expose and end this wasteful project.” Put simply: Goodall appears to rely only on information provided to her by animal rights groups to make the case in her letter.
  • Factual inaccuracies: Probably because she appears to rely on the distorted information from WCW, Goodall’s letter is full of multiple inaccurate statements. One example is when she writes, “Not only is it extremely cruel to restrain the monkeys.”  In reality, empirical evidence—that is data – show that restraint devices used in such studies do not cause severe stress to the animals, because they are slowly trained to be familiar with and calmly enter and remain in the restraint devices. Despite her scientific background—which should result in knowing that evidence and citations matter—Goodall cites no evidence for her claim that restraint is “extremely cruel.”
  • Sweeping assumptions: At least two glaring assumptions stand out in Goodall’s brief letter.
    1) Goodall writes, “To continue performing nicotine experiments on monkeys when the results of smoking are well-known in humans – whose smoking habits can still be studied directly – is shameful.” There are several problems with this statement. The first is that Goodall assumes that the monkey studies examining the neurobiology and physiology of nicotine addiction is the same thing as studying smoking habits in humans. Someone with expertise in this field should know these are false equivalencies. The only other plausible explanation is that she is choosing to ignore the fact that these two are not the same thing. The FDA describes on its webpage that nicotine research will inform about the toxicity of tobacco products as they continue to change by manufacturers, about how changes in tobacco product characteristics (e.g., aerosolized chemicals, often including nicotine, found in e-cigarettes) impact addiction, and about the changes in cell function/physiology after tobacco exposure. These types of findings are not readily available from studying humans’ smoking habits. 2) Near the end of her letter, Goodall writes, “I’m sure that most Americans would be horrified to learn that their tax dollars are paying for this abuse.” Again, Goodall makes major assumptions without citing any sources of data. We can just as confidently say that we’re sure most Americans would be glad to know their tax dollars are being used in highly-regulated research studies that address the health of current and future generations.

The dangers

  • Calls for de-funding life-saving research: The most recent nicotine delivery methods, e-cigarettes, have not yet been well studied for their health effects, yet they represent a major public health concern. We do not yet know all the ways in which nicotine in e-cigarettes affects the brain. Studies such as those conducted by the FDA in animals, including monkeys, will teach us how these new delivery methods affect the brain and body, which will in turn lead to recommendations for regulation of these products and potential treatments for addiction. Despite these life-saving benefits, Goodall and WCW call for an end to this line of research in their letter. This explicit threat should ring alarm bells for any citizen concerned about public health. But this is not the first time animal research opponents have called for an end to beneficial research. Just a week ago, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Dr. David Shulkin, had to make a plea to the United States Senate to not end life-saving canine research after a campaign by – you guessed it – WCW called for an end to this line of work. Think about that. The VA Secretary had to lobby the U.S. Senate to save a life-saving research program for veterans.

  • Threats to the advancement of scientific knowledge: As if threats to life-saving research weren’t enough, animal rights campaigns that rely on “experts” like Goodall are also threatening to end – or have already ended – scientific programs geared toward broadening and enhancing society’s basic knowledge of the way the world works, from the toxic effects of vapors in e-cigarettes to the safety of new vaccines to the communication between neurons to mechanisms of stress resilience to…the list goes on. This type of basic knowledge is crucial before life-saving treatments can be developed. This implicit threat should ring alarm bells for any citizen, period.

8 thoughts on “The Problem With Jane Goodall’s “Expert” Opinion

  1. I am a huge fan of Dr. Goodall however I do not think that we can abandon research on animals until we can safely judge the efficacy of drugs/treatments without them. As of right now, I do not think we can. The NIH believes they aren’t necessary and got rid of all of their primates in 2015. I think we need to work toward eliminating them but I do not think research should suffer until we do!

    1. Actually, NIH did not get rid of all their primates in 2015. At that time they announced plans to phase out primate research in one of their labs, which is now complete. Many other primate studies are continuing at NIH, across several institutes.

  2. I am not 100% sure but I remember I saw somewhere she did not went against animal research because her mom got transplant of heart valve from cow .
    If this is right – it look like her memory became weaker with years
    Hypocrisy is a disease which we still did not develop good drugs to cure it

    1. I can safely bet she’s not against research on animals but research on nhp and particularly the more advanced nhp which research apologists like to leave out those facts just like animal activists like to leave out facts. Activists and apologists are just two different sides of the same coin. Many animal activist or not even activists but people with a heart and brain are not against research on animals but are against more advanced animals that require larger space and more complicated accommodations that labs frequently fail to provide not to mention most people would be against wild caught animals being crammed into a cage alone and experimented on which most nhps are. And I work with nhps that are wild caught, crammed into a 3×3 cage alone so don’t try to tell me it doesn’t happen.

  3. Going after Jane Goodall, really? That’s a new low. One of the most heroic scientist of our time. I will respect Goodall over any scientist working in a lab.

    1. I respect that Goodall has done some excellent historical work in her field of primate behaviour, but when she begins to use her esteemed position to express potentially misleading opinions about the role of primates in biomedical research, she loses my respect.

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s