Animal Rights

Animal Rights: “Victims of Charity” Campaign

| by Dr Ray Greek

On June 20, 2011, the UK-based animal rights group Animal Aid began a campaign called Victims of Charity asking society to stop funding charities such as Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation, the Alzheimer's Society, and Parkinson's UK until they stop funding animal experimentation. The response was swift and unequivocal.

From The Independent:

Colin Blakemore, a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, added: "This is an utterly irresponsible attack by Animal Aid on some of the most important charitable contributors to medical research in this country. These charities have a duty to use money given to them to support patients and to understand and treat disease. They support research on animals only when it's absolutely essential. If Animal Aid were successful in discouraging donation to medical charities, they would be guilty of delaying progress towards treatments and cures for devastating conditions." . . . Professor Tipu Aziz, who has conducted research using animals as part of his work on Alzheimer's, said it would not have been possible without them. "Medical breakthroughs throughout history have been achieved through animal research," he said. "If you stop animal research you will stop medical progress." (Emphasis added.)

PZ Myers wrote in his June 21, 2011 blog:

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Animal Aid, one of those mindless animal rights organizations, has just called on everyone in the UK to stop donating to specific medical charities, because they sponsor research that uses animals. I can sympathize with the goal of minimizing suffering in animals, but this is ridiculous: the subjects of these research programs simply can't be approached without using animal models. . . . Or if you think Animal Aid is right, then how about volunteering your brains and hearts and bodies for the experimental work without which progress in treating these diseases cannot be made. (Emphasis added.)

An Internet search will reveal many more statements of a similar nature from similar sources.

The campaign and the above quotes offer me multiple opportunities for comment. However, since I have covered the arguments against using animals for predicting human response to drugs and disease routinely in this blog and elsewhere (see, for example, Are animal models predictive for humans?) and since I have written extensively on how inefficient a process basic research using sentient animals really is (see, for example, Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable?), and since I have also written extensively about what research methods are available that offer better human-related data than animal models (see What Will We Do If We Don't Experiment On Animals? Medical Research for the Twenty-first Century), I want to here address the suggestion that animal activists should be vivisected and explore why vivisection activists refuse to defend the absolutely essential comment despite voicing it repeatedly.

When PZ Myers states that animal activists should volunteer their brains and hearts and bodies for the experimental work, I take it he is suggesting they volunteer to be vivisected or experimented upon; to take the place of animals in the laboratories. I do not think he is saying we should all donate our bodies to science after death. The position he and others are advocating is the use of intact living animals in experiments therefore I assume he is being consistent and asking animal activists to volunteer for the same.

First, let me state that there is a huge double standard in the animal experimentation debate. I have very vocally and frequently criticized animal activists for breaking the law and for using violence and threats of violence against researchers. Many others have done the same. Yet the research community has been reticent to criticize threats of violence against me that have come from their community. If an animal activist said what PZ Myers said, she would be held up before society as inciting violence and called a terrorist. Suffice it to say, PZ Myers has been lauded for his “honesty.”

Second, PZ Myers is making the intact systems argument—we must test or perform research on intact living animals because only they will reproduce human conditions and responses—an argument that has been thoroughly refuted by myself and others. (See: LaFollette and Shanks. "The Intact Systems Argument: Problems with the Standard Defense of Animal Experimentation," Southern Journal of Philosophy, pp. 323 – 33; Shanks and Greek. Animal Models in Light of Evolution; and LaFollette and Shanks. Brute Science, for a thorough refutation, and Vivisection Or Death: Part III, No Other Options for a brief description of the argument. There is no sense in going on at length about the intact systems argument here as much better material is already available.) PZ Myers is suggesting that the intact system of human volunteers can replace the intact system of an animal. In this he is actually, albeit only partially, correct. Only an intact human system or, eventually, a complete genome with all the functions known, can predict what will happen in an individual human. Even then, the only intact system that can predict what a drug or disease will do to YOU is YOU (or, as I said, your genome) not another individual human. The flaw in PZ Myers argument is that he maintains that replacing animals with animal activists will yield the same data, that animal-based data is interchangeable with human data—it is not. Human data is reliable, especially for the human in question or others that share his genotype, however animal data, even data from genetically modified animals is not. (I note here that once again I am discussing the use of animals as predictive models for drugs and disease research. That is the issue presented by the above quotes. Basic research, by definition, makes no such claims.) By suggesting animal activists take the place of animals in labs, PZ Myers accomplishes the task of being simultaneously portentous and vacuous.

The argument that experimentation on animals is absolutely essential has also been thoroughly addressed many times. I recently wrote a series of blogs on this topic. (See Vivisection or Death parts I-V beginning here.) The 5-part series presents a short argument for why the use of scare tactics prevails in the animal experimentation industry. Interestingly, the arguments Shanks, Jean, and I have presented in the scientific literature and in books and other articles has not only never been refuted, it has, for the most part, never even been addressed. If the small percentage of the scientific community that claims vivisection is necessary for the discovery of medical cures and treatments is intellectually honest, they should engage in a dialogue in the scientific literature where their claims and ours can be confronted and argued in a straightforward and intellectually honest fashion based on the best science currently available. Setting up a series of straw man arguments, knocking them down, and thus claiming victory in the controversy is neither science nor is it honest. Furthermore, the burden of proof is on those who claim that vivisection is absolutely essential. The null hypothesis says the variables (vivisection and essential) are not related until proven otherwise. I have asked Drs Gorski, Ringach and many other vivisection activists to take this discussion to the scientific literature where they too can present the evidence and theory for their claims without the need to dumb it down, but they have declined. I think that speaks for itself. There is no excuse for such behavior. If you have time to blog about animal use in science or defend animal use in public speeches and interviews, you have time to defend your position in the literature. Of course, the peer review process does not allow fallacious reasoning and claims must be supported with evidence. Perhaps that is why vivisection activists would rather debate philosophers or animal activists who have little knowledge of science or blog nonsense which is then supported by their attending choir in the comments section rather than defend their mendacity in the literature or in a public debate moderated and judged by other scientists.

Many claims / arguments have a patina of scientific validity. For example, there has for about 2 decades been an argument challenging atheism that goes by the name the fine-tuning argument. This argument basically says that very small changes in values of physics constants and other values would make life impossible therefore there very well could be a designer behind the universe. This argument has been refuted by physicists who took the time to go over, very carefully what the physics constants actually mean and how they are derived and so forth. Once again, just because an argument is made by a seemingly respectable party does not mean it is true. (See Argument From Authority. Part I-II beginning here.) In science, one has to look deeper and systematically analyze everything about the argument and the evidence, before coming to conclusions.

It is impossible for me, in a few words, to disprove the myriad lies and other falsehoods the special interest groups have been propagating for decades. That is why we have written books and articles. Explaining the complexities of transdisciplinary scientific arguments is not something to be accomplished with sound bites and blogs. Even so, when I do disprove specific cases, the animal modelers react by calling me anti-science and uninformed and accuse me of wanting to bring back iron lungs. When we present a theory to put the empirical evidence into context, vivisection activists respond by saying they do not understand the argument. I believe them! But that does not invalidate the argument.

Dobzhansky stated: “No evidence is powerful enough to force acceptance of a conclusion that is emotionally distasteful,” and Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Along these same lines, Michael Shermer has a new book out titled The Believing Brain. This book is a must read for essentially everyone but especially for animal activists. Most of the arguments the vivisection activist uses are fallacious; you do not need to know a lot of science to refute the claims. But you do need to be able to understand and apply critical thinking. (If you want to argue science with animal-based researchers, then you do need to know a lot about science.) The Believing Brain is an excellent book for understanding why people believe what they do and how they manufacture arguments to support previously held beliefs. Even scientists.