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Argument From Authority. Part II
As I pointed out in my previous blog, many polls of scientists reveal support for animal-based research and many medical and scientific organizations have position statements supporting animal-based research. This is the second blog addressing what we should make of these claims.
The argument from authority suffers from many flaws, some of which we explored in the previous blog. That having been said, authorities did not become authorities because they are uneducated, lazy, or stupid so we must use critical thought very carefully when judging their claims. In this blog I want to examine some more aspects of the argument from authority.
In order to judge whether an authority should hold our respect we might want to see with whom the authority associates. Guilt by association is not a valid way to condemn an idea, person, or group but it can inform us about some particulars of the people holding the idea or composing the group. It is fair game if pursued honestly. For example, scientific bodies supposedly advocate science. Since science rests on honesty and critical thinking, any organization that lies or violates the principles of critical thought must be judged and placed in the same groups as some advertising and marketing firms, lobbyists, or pseudoscientific organizations that routinely advocate fallacies and lies to support their claims.
Many science and medical organizations are part of, or in some way affiliated with, a larger organization (larger in terms of the number of organizations that compose it’s membership, not necessarily larger in terms of money) and share links on their website with said organization. (This phenomenon is not confined to animal-based research but that is what we will consider here.) In some cases the larger organization speaks for the science and medical organizations that are its members or supporters, hence we should be able to examine one in order to find out about the other. For example, in the US, the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) and its not-for-profit division, the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR) are supported by 300 institutions. From the NABR website:
Founded in 1979, The National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) provides the unified voice for the scientific community on legislative and regulatory matters affecting laboratory animal research. (Emphasis added.)
That is pretty straightforward. It continues:
NABR works to safeguard the future of biomedical research on behalf of its more than 300 public and private universities, medical and veterinary schools, teaching hospitals, voluntary health agencies, professional societies, pharmaceutical and biotech industries, and other animal research-related firms that are: (1) involved directly in the use of animals in biomedical research and are (2) committed to the responsible and humane use of these animals. (Emphasis added.)
So that’s who they are. What is their position?
Virtually every major medical advance of the last century has depended upon research with animals. Data from experiments on humans are obviously the most scientifically reliable; however, in many cases human research is ethically unacceptable. Researchers first must use animals, the living systems most closely related to humans, before humans are asked to participate in experimentation. Animals serve as surrogates in the investigation of human diseases and new ways to treat, cure or prevent them. The health of animals also has improved due to animal research. (NABR 1999) (Emphasis added.)
Pretty blanket statement. Note the fact that they are also absolutely claiming that animal models have the ability to predict human response to drugs and disease. Let’s put the above in light of some other statements made by FBR.
From the discovery of antibiotics, analgesics, antidepressants, and anesthetics, to the successful development of organ transplants, bypass surgery, heart catheterization, and joint replacement - practically every present-day protocol for the prevention, control, cure of disease and relief of pain is based on knowledge attained - directly or indirectly - through research with animals.
That is not exactly a modest statement either. In their brochure, Animal Research Fact vs. Myth the Foundation for Biomedical Research states:
Virtually all medical knowledge and treatment – certainly almost every medical breakthrough of the last century – has involved research with animals. There is a compelling reason for using animals in research. The reason is that we have no other choice . . . There are no alternatives to animal research. (Emphasis added.)
Frankie Trull, president and founder of FRB has also stated: “Every major medical advance of this century has depended on animal research” [(Trull 1987) p327-36]. Pretty constant theme here.
Now lets compare these statements to statements from organizations asking us to believe their polls and claims. The 1992 AMA White Paper:
. . . virtually every advance in medical science in the 20th century, from antibiotics and vaccines to antidepressant drugs and organ transplantation, has been achieved either directly or indirectly through the use of animals in laboratory experiments. (Emphasis added.)
The American Physiology Society states:
Animals are used in research to develop drugs and medical procedures to treat diseases. Scientists may discover such drugs and procedures using alternative research methods that do not involve animals. If the new therapy seems promising, it is tested in animals to see whether it seems to be safe and effective. If the results of the animal studies are good, then human volunteers are asked to take part in a clinical trial. The animal studies are done first to give medical researchers a better idea of what benefits and complications they are likely to see in humans. (Emphasis added.)
… in order to protect the public, both consumer and medical products must be tested for safety, and such testing may in some cases require the use of animals.
Now lets compare the above to other people and groups with a financial interest in animal-based research. The animal-based researcher Orac:
As for benefits to humans from animal research, my field of surgery is chock full of them. Virtually every major surgical advance in the last 100 years was developed first in animal models: transplantation, heart surgery and cardiopulmonary bypass, testing of medical devices, the list goes on and on. (Emphasis added.)
(Please see my response to Orac for my response to his claims.)
From Marshal Bio Resources, an international breeder of animals for biomedical research:
Animal research has played a vital role in virtually every major medical advance of the last century - for both human and animal health. Thanks to recent medical research breakthroughs, scientists are closer than ever to finding new preventions, therapies, and cures for myriad diseases shared by humans and animals. As yet, there is no complete alternative to biomedical research with animals. The Food and Drug Administration mandates the testing of drugs, medical devices and other promising treatments on animals before they can be safely administered to humans. (Marshall_BioResources 2010) (Emphasis added.)
Are you seeing a theme here? To begin with, the sheer hyperbole of these statements is astounding. These statements are what society is accustomed to hearing from big business in association with highly paid advertising firms, not from scientists. If scientists wish to employ PR firms and lobbyists, so be it but they cannot then claim that everyone is spontaneously saying what he feels in his heart and that such statements carry scientific weight. The rigid adherence to the party line, to the extent that everyone is virtually using the same vocabulary casts doubt on the supposed spontaneity of these heartfelt outpourings.
Second, political organizations issue talking points to their members or spokespeople so that everyone will stay on the same point and say the same thing. This has several advantages for said organization. By narrowing what they are willing to discuss, controversy and transparency can be avoided. The constant repetition of the same mantra leads it an air of familiarity that is often mistaken for truth.
Third, ask almost any physician where the great advances in medical care have come from and you will hear about technology and serendipitous discoveries involving humans. (For example, breakthroughs on the battlefield when nothing else could be done and other human-based discoveries. Lawrence Altman’s book Who Goes First is a good read for this.) You will note these nonanimal-based discoveries do not appear in the comments from the vested interest groups. Further, if they do acknowledge other areas of research it is always with the caveat that the discovery was eventually tested or confirmed in animals. Why a discovery in humans needs to be confirmed in another species is beyond me, but those are their words.
Fourth, note the constant refrain, stated or implied, that past discoveries were dependent upon animal use. I have addressed this in previous books but for now consider reading my short essay on the discovery and development of penicillin. The sheer mendacity of those claiming animals were responsible for all or virtually all previous breakthroughs is impressive indeed. Outrageous claims require a similar degree of proof and the vested interest groups cannot provide such proof for their claims. Granted, animals have been involved in discoveries but that is a far cry from claiming the discoveries could not have been made any other way or from claiming that the virtually all medical breakthroughs involved animals.
Fifth, the notion that animals can predict human response to drugs and disease is clearly presented. This claim is demonstrably false. See Animal Models in Light of Evolution.
Sixth, the above claims must be considered in light of the fact that when offered a chance to subject their claims and position to debate in a peer-reviewed, indexed scientific journal, Orac/Gorski, Ringach, and other representatives (some self-appointed, some not) of the above industry refused. I can understand why some people do not want to debate the issue in an auditorium. Some do not have the knowledge base (in which case they should not be spouting off in the first place) while others are simply not good speakers. (That notwithstanding, the foundations responsible for “provid[ing] the unified voice for the scientific community on legislative and regulatory matters affecting laboratory animal research” should be able to provide a speaker for debates. You would think they would be good at such debates by now.) But for a scientist that has vociferously stated a scientific position and or a representative of the animal-based research enterprise to then refuse to defend that position in the peer-reviewed, indexed scientific literature is unthinkable and indefensible.
If we were discussing homeopathy here I could understand scientists refusing to participate in a debate of any kind. There are already sufficient studies in the scientific literature refuting the claims of homeopathy and other pseudoscience. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel or beat a dead horse. But claims such as those referenced above have not been discussed in the literature to any degree by experts such as myself or for that matter, in any depth by anyone. Furthermore, as I have repeatedly stated, animal-based research is not a monolithic endeavor. Some uses of animals are viable while other uses are not. The discussions that have taken place have been of the it is all one thing theme and as such have not been productive. Other debates and discussion have taken place in the scientific literature but have been between two people both of whom strongly support using animals in research. Guess how they turned out.
When all this is put in the context of my previous blog, and the fact that a lot of money is at stake here, the surveys and position statements from organizations closely affiliated with the above mentioned vested interest groups or that are vested interest groups themselves, do not seem so impressive.
I have been criticized for hiring an animal rights activist to help me with my property and the animals my wife and I have rescued and for shaking hands with another somewhat radical animal rights activist in a public building. I am guilty on both charges. I have also spoken at animal rights conferences and have friends in the animal rights community. Granted some people in the animal rights community are more controversial than others and granted I do associate with some of them from time to time. But that is my personal choice and since none have committed felonies (remember, Martin Luther King Jr repeatedly violated the law using nonviolent civil disobedience) or committed equally unlawful and heinous acts (we still have freedom of speech in America), I see no reason to cease all association with these people. I make it very clear that I do not share all their views (do you share all the views of your friends and relatives?) and that they do not represent Americans For Medical Advancement (AFMA).
Contrast the criticisms of my personal life with the professional organizations quoted and discussed above. They want society to think that they are disinterested third parties who are “looking out for you.” They present surveys of like-minded scientists and make the claim that the scientific community as a whole supports the use of animals in all forms of research and that anyone who disagrees with them is anti-child, anti-science, and misanthropic. So much for animal-based biomedical research science being an honest, self-denying, altruistic quest to save lives.
Marshall_BioResources. 2010. Benefits of Animal Research. Marshall BioResources 2010 [cited March 10 2010]. Available from http://www.utexas.edu/research/arc/misc/orange.pdf.
NABR. 2010. The Human care and Treatment of Laboratory Animals. NABR 1999 [cited March 10 2010]. Available from http://www.utexas.edu/research/arc/misc/orange.pdf.
Trull, Frankie. 1987. Animal Models: Assessing the Scope of Their Use in Biomedical Research. Charles River, MA: Charles River.