Animal Rights

Fallacies and Blogs

| by Dr Ray Greek

NOTE: I am unable to properly format the block quotes. Sorry. OV has changed some things and for whatever reason, the quotes look good in the text box but not in the end result. Probably my fault. 

My past few blogs have generated responses that, while I find disingenuous, I have decided to address anyway. I have addressed these kinds of comments before (and no doubt will again) but since certain important generalities are being discussed I will, for the sake of completeness, “go there again.” The comments will be numbered and my answers will follow. The comments were from people that use pseudonyms, so I am not referencing the individual. To find the pseudonym for who wrote the specific comment, please see the comments section of my past few blogs.

1. “You couldn't be more wrong with the conclusion that animal research never transfers to humans.”

This is a classic. I have never said “that animal research never transfers to humans” and when the commenter was asked to show me where I had, he ignored the question and went on with his diatribe. This is spin class 101: don’t address the negatives just keep repeating what you want the audience to hear in hopes that they miss the point being made by your opponent. I have taken media communication courses and this probably one of the things they harp on the most.

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But this practice is anti-science and that is why I address the comments even the disingenuous ones. A scientific position should be defended, even against nonsense until the nonsense becomes nonsense for the sake of nonsense. Argument ad nauseam is a fallacy and deserves to be ignored. But if there is even a small chance the commenter or another reader might be serious about the question, then I will usually answer. Up to a point.

2. “If I had to be locked into a stance on the issue, I'd likely go with the consensus.”

I agree! But keep in mind two things. First, the consensus is frequently wrong especially on issues that are either controversial (really controversial, not fake controversies like vaccines) or where the data is insufficient for informed consensus. Second, my position revolves around the use of animals as predictive models. As I showed in my blog titled Straw Man Arguments Redux, I have made very clear the fact that animals can be successfully used in many ways. There is consensus on that point—animals can be successfully used in many ways in science. But show me one poll that examines what scientists think about using animals as predictive models where prediction is defined in the scientific sense of the word not the astrology sense. I have never seen such a survey and based on my discussions with scientists, including those who use animals, essentially no one thinks animal models can predict human response to drugs and disease. In this case, the consensus is either on my side or is not available formally.

3. “Does it not concern you that he never even tried to PROVE his assertions?”

In my first blog I wrote:

Begin quote

The Internet has been an outstanding educational resource. We wrote two books essentially before the Internet as we know it now and three since. The three latter books are much better, in part because of the facts and articles we could access via the World Wide Web. That having been said, science education is not conducive to learning via Internet. Many controversies can be studied using the Internet, for example creation versus evolution, the validity of complimentary and alternative medicine, and the use of animals in science. But in order to really understand the nitty gritty science behind all these subjects one needs to go back to the last century. One needs to read books.

There is no reason a person who is lacking in advanced science education cannot read and understand science-related topics. However, jumping in without adequate background may not be productive. In order to examine competing scientific claims, a person needs a sufficient education about the science in question. For example, if you want to explore the possibility of perpetual motion machines, a good high school physics course would not be remiss. When I write about more complicated science, I will try to refer the scientifically perplexed to areas on the Internet where some basics can be found. For example, the Wikipedia section on science is a quick, easy, and informative read. If you are interested in really pursuing the topic, contact me and I will recommend books. (Emphasis added.)

End quote

It is not possible, in a blog, to prove every assertion and reference every relevant article. That is why I constantly refer people back to the book Animal Models in Light of Evolution (AMILOE) or, if all the heavy science is a little too much for the reader but she is nonetheless interested in the subject, FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed. Slice it anyway you want, you cannot learn or deduce even a modest amount of the science we present in AMILOE without reading it. You cannot learn the science needed to competently understand evolutionary biology or organic chemistry without taking many classes in biology and chemistry and the same true about most areas of science. Moreover, the issue of using animals in science is similar to the creation controversy; many people think they understand the science when in fact they do not. Teaching a course in genetics and evolutionary biology is difficult enough, but teaching that same course to a room full of people who do not believe in evolution or even science in general, is more or less impossible. If people are not willing to study and seriously consider the facts, there is no way the teacher can force them. The same is true for our position.

I have proven my assertions in peer-reviewed literature and, in far more depth, in AMILOE. Space does allow me to reproduce the information in that tome every time I make a statement. But neither do I ask the reader to take my word for anything. What I ask, and what seems to be impossible for many critics, is that they actually understand my position before they construct a straw man. Based on the comments lately, no one is reading the material hence my assertion that they are disingenuous. There is an old story about when Galileo offered the telescope to a representative of the pope so he could see for himself the four moons of Jupiter, the man stated: "I refuse to look at something which my religion tells me cannot exist."

4. “When someone develops a technique for repairing blood vessels, and the same technique without modification works in human, you seem to imply this is nothing more than a fortunate accident. Using your standard, there is no such thing as science since you are requiring a syllogistic proof to make any generalizations. Your understanding of statistical techniques is flawed at best. Surgical techniques are primarily mechanical. Let's assume that I develop an optimal way to torque spark plugs in motorcycle engines based on the size and RPMs of the engine, and then I apply the same technique to car engines. By your reasoning this is simply a lucky thing because cars are not motorcycles.”

This is a very good point but probably not for the reasons the writer thinks.

As I pointed in my answer to #2, animals can be used in many ways in science and research. All animals obey the laws of physics. Boyles law is not different for mice than it is for humans. Gravity affects monkeys and children the same. I have stated many times that when one is using animals for practices that fall under the laws of physics then extrapolation can be assumed. The following is from FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed and brings up the difference between the laws of physics and extrapolating between living complex systems.

Begin quote

If a surgical resident wants to learn a technical skill, such as how to sew a vein to a vein or an artery to an artery (called an anastomosis), she can practice on a renal vein from a dog or in a dog, and that skill can be learned at least in part in this fashion.

Some surgeons conduct trials on pigs and other lab animals before performing the new surgery on humans. But the practice is not without its pitfalls. The field of neurosurgery offers an example. Extracranial-intracranial (EC-IC) bypass procedures for inoperable carotid artery disease were tested and perfected on dogs and rabbits. Neurosurgeons performed thousands of EC-ICs before it was discovered the operation did more harm than good. More patients died or suffered strokes because of the operation than were saved as a result of it. This is the problem when using animals to predict human response. This was not merely using animals and animal parts to learn a technical skill.

End quote

The key to the above, and to the spark plug example, is the fact that animals are complex system; engines are not. Thinking of organisms as complex systems is not new. Mayr:

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Alex Novikoff (1947), however, spelled out in considerable detail why an explanation of living organisms has to be holistic. "What are wholes on one level become parts on a higher one . . . both parts and holes are material entities, and integration results from the interaction of parts as a consequence of their properties." Holism, since it rejects reduction, "does not regard living organisms as machines made of a multitude of discrete parts (physico-chemical units), removable like pistons of an engine and capable of description without regard to the system from which they are removed." Owing to the interaction of the parts, a description of the isolated parts fails to convey the properties of the system as a whole. It is the organization of these parts that controls the entire system. (Mayr 1998)p18

End quote

Ernst Mayr defines reductionism as: “The belief that the higher levels of integration of a complex system can be fully explained through a knowledge of the smallest components.”(Mayr 2002)p290 Complex systems cannot be reduced to their component parts when attempting to predict the action of the whole. (A large portion of AMILOE is devoted to this subject.) Don’t get me wrong—reductionism work very well for many things! But you cannot use it to predict certain actions/responses of the whole and you certainly cannot use it to predict actions and responses for a separate, differently complex system. (If you really do not understand this, I suggest any of numerous books on complexity such as Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology by Ricard V. Solé and Brian C. Goodwin and books and papers by: Stuart Kauffmann, John H Holland, Murray Gell-Mann, Brian Goodwin, Roger Lewin, and Mitchell Waldrop.)

5. “I work with statistics every day. You, apparently, do not. Type I and Type II errors are common in scientific research. You seem to be asserting that all conclusions (or at least more than makes animal research worthwhile) are of Type 1. You are now making a type 2 error through your overgeneralization.”

A straw man. First, I agree that type I and II errors are common in scientific research in general. But I am not addressing scientific research in general, as I have pointed out many times. I am addressing the very specific use of animals as predictive models, a practice that many in the scientific community endorse and claim to be effective/viable (see AMILOE for examples). There will always be errors in science research and in science in general and how science handles those errors is one of it’s beauties—it is self-correcting in that eventually the errors are caught and the appropriate knowledge incorporated into the body of scientific knowledge.

Second, I am not talking about making “animal research worthwhile.” I am talking about whether or not it is predictive. Do research or tests that make the claim for prediction in fact have, when closely examined, a high positive predictive value and negative predictive value? I usually use toxicology as an example but in this case I will use HIV and neuroprotective agents. Thousands of drugs have been shown neuroprotective in animals but none of them have worked in humans. The two drugs that are used in the treatment / prevention of stroke came from historical clinical observation (aspirin) and the thrombolytics which were borrowed from cardiology. Zero out of thousands is not a type I or II error it simply means animal models for neuroprotection are not predictive.

The same is true for HIV vaccines. Around 100 have tested successfully on animals while none have shown the same for humans. (There are currently some that apparently show promise but others have shown similar promise and failed so only time will tell.) Once again zero is a powerful numerator. Even if a vaccine comes a long that worked well in monkeys and works for humans, the positive predictive value of monkeys will still be in the 0.01 neighborhood. Once again, that number is not sufficient to substantiate a claim for prediction. Put more examples of empirical evidence like these two together and one has a prima fascia case that animal models per se are not predictive for human response to drugs and disease. Combine that data with what is known about evolution and complex systems and one has a very nice package that supports and explains our position.

My argument is with claiming that animal models are predictive on the level of organization where disease and drug response occurs. Claiming that scientists can learn neat stuff from using them is a tautology that I have admitted is true many times. Whether that makes an enterprise worthwhile varies with the person. (See Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable? for our interpretation of where society comes down on this.)

6. “You are categorically denying any sort of strong conclusion from animal research. Fortunately, no one with the power to change the standards believes as you or accepts your highly flawed understanding of science.”

Well, not exactly. In fact, strong conclusions can be drawn from animal models just not any that are predictive for drug and disease response in humans. Perhaps the best example of strong conclusions being drawn from animal-based research is the concept that processes can be conserved (see (Kirschner and Gerhart 2006)). Very fundamental conserved processes can be, and indeed are being, studied in animals like fruit flies and the results applied to humans. It appears that everybody (bilaterians, that is) has a hoxbox. Likewise, the citric acid cycle and other processes are conserved throughout evolution. This is a very different level of organization from the one involved in drug and disease response. (Again we are back to complexity science.)

As to no one believing me comment, I suggest you read the drug development literature. They are saying exactly the same things I am saying and using the same arguments from complexity and evolution. Not only can toxicity not be predicted from animal models, neither can efficacy or bioavailability. If this argument must be reduced to an argument from authority, I will go with the people that have skin in the game.

7. The fallacies.

a. “The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'.”

b. “"As I have stated in most of my blogs, I have written books and article addressing the facts of the argument/controversy." This is a classic appeal to accomplishment. You made the invalid point that since you have written blogs, books and articles, your position in the argument/controversy is supported by the facts. While your premises may be correct, your argument style is becoming increasingly dubious and juvenile.”

Both of the above are ad hominems in that I do not appeal to anecdotes—read AMIOLE—and the appeal to accomplishment is I think misdirected. According to Wikipedia: “Appeal to accomplishment is a genetic fallacy wherein Person A challenges a thesis put forward by Person B which criticizes Person C (or A) a because Person B has not accomplished similar feats or accomplished as many feats as Person C or Person A.” That is not what I said or implied. I referred readers to the books for the facts that the writer said I left out of the blog. In truth there were about a million facts that were left out of the blog and that are left out of every scientific paper in the literature. There is a more or less agreed upon fund of knowledge in science and we do not reference textbooks or original papers in support of that knowledge. It is assumed. For example, very few people deny Boyles law. Further, books and papers reference the relevant basics/history just like we do in AMILOE. In AMINLOE we go a step further explaining, for example, complexity science, because not everyone is familiar with it and we explain other concepts that would be considered basic by specialists in that particular field. So, we go to greater lengths than is required in order to back our position up and avoid the “I don’t understand what you are saying” criticism. We get that from actual scientists more than you would think. Personally, I would be embarrassed to admit that I did not understand the topic and would go home and read the necessary material until I did understand it. That is, in part, what I did in preparation for coauthoring AMILOE. Which leads me to the next point. After completing medical, a residency, passing written and oral boards, and teaching in two medical schools, I did not have enough science knowledge to understand, much less make, the arguments we make in AMILOE. My education was not sub-par. If I did not have the prerequisite knowledge it is very unlikely any one else will have it either. In part, this is because the arguments we make are transdisciplinary. Not many people are experts in more than more field much less very diverse fields. Niall Shanks and I complimented each other’s knowledge base very well. In addition, we studied each other’s discipline to further understand the material and facts relevant to the argument. The result was that we were both very happy with AMILOE. It is thorough and detailed but we explain that material so non-specialists can understand the information.

Once again, if someone wants to understand our position, they have to read the material. The fact that scientists don’t seem to appreciate this would be funny (in a tragic sort of way) were the topic not so serious. Lives really are at stake in this area.

References

Kirschner, Marc W, and John C Gerhart. 2006. The Plausibility of Life: Yale University Press.

Mayr, Ernst. 1998. This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World: Belknap Press.

Mayr, Ernst. 2002. What evolution Is: Basic Books.