Animal Rights

Straw Man Arguments Redux

| by Dr Ray Greek

In response to my blog More Lies From Vested Interest Groups, CRW wrote: “However, to make the blanket statement that all animal research is bogus or unnecessary is to ignore the incredible discoveries that have been through animal research.”

In his July 12, 2011 blog on Respectful Insolence, David Gorski, MD criticizes the entire website of Opposing Views (OV), in part criticizing OV for allowing society to question “whether animal research is useful in making discoveries that improve our understanding and treatment of human disease (it does, the dubious arguments of Ray Greek notwithstanding).”

Before I once again explain why the above are straw man arguments, I want to point out two things. 1. Opposing Views is about much more than presenting positions on animals, alt med, and other things that irritate Dr Gorski. Merely viewing the home page would have informed him of that. If Dr Gorski does not like some of things said on OV that is insufficient to criticize the entire thing. Some would call that throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 2. To show that I follow my own advice, allow me to once again state that I agree with pretty much everything Dr Gorski says and blogs about regarding alt med, anti-vaccination, integrative medicine and so forth. I do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However! CRW and Dr Gorski and many others commit the very fallacies they condemn (and rightly so) in others when they mislead readers with their straw man arguments. The positions of AFMA and myself are explained very clearly in Animal Models in Light of Evolution (AMILOE) and I have reiterated them many times in this blog. The following are from AMILOE.

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Begin quotes

Because the use of animals as research subjects has been a source of moral controversy, there has been a growing interest in the scientific and lay communities concerning the roles played by animals in the biomedical sciences. Much of this interest has been prompted by the relatively recent (circa 1980) animal rights movement (and related social movements) in the United States and Western Europe. This is not our concern in the present volume where our focus is on matters of science and not morality. This point deserves emphasis. We fully realize this book has potential implications for a whole host of extra-scientific questions about the conduct of biomedical research (though not necessarily the ones you might think). However, those implications, important though they may be for persons with relevant interests, are debates for another day. p23

The purpose of this book is to address the ability, or lack thereof, of animals to predict human response and to see what other roles they may have in research and testing. We will argue that claims concerning the great utility of animals as predictive models of human biomedical phenomena are unsupported by evidence and are compromised by both methodological issues and issues arising from basic biological theory. p24

The FACTS of species differences relevant to the prediction issue are not in question. What is at issue are the INTERPRETATIONS authors place on the facts they refer to. We are justified in citing facts (and quoting researchers who do so) while rejecting interpretations. We cite many examples of the same phenomenon (species difference) to establish that it is a more or less agreed fact. Our point is not to get involved in an endless ding-dong about examples but to suggest that there are other well-established ways to deal with what we see (i.e. evolutionary biology). It matters not to us that those referring to the facts of species differences are also ardent advocates of animal experimentation. What matters are the facts, along with consideration of alternative hypotheses about their significance. We will offer some alternative hypotheses about the significance of the facts we uncover. Science, after all, is as much driven by disputes about the meaning and significance of facts as it is about the facts themselves. We have nothing to apologize for in this regard. p27

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We are about to begin a detailed analysis of the roles played by animals in biomedical research. This is a good place to make clear, once again, what we are interested in, and what we are not. There can be no doubt whatsoever that if you wish to make discoveries about rats and mice you will be forced of methodological necessity to perform careful scientific studies of R. rattus and M. musculus respectively. In fact, in writing this book, we are the beneficiaries of the results of careful scientific studies of animals. There is no doubt that careful biological studies of rats and mice can help clarify the general contours of mammalian biology. Such studies can also play a valuable heuristic role by prompting new ways of thinking about human biological problems of interest. The issue we are concerned with is this: notwithstanding these cautions, are animal models predictive of human outcomes in, say, toxicology, drug discovery, and the study of the causes and cures of human diseases? p28

This book is not intended to be a criticism of the use of animals in the context of basic biological research. There can be no doubt that careful studies of animals have prompted important hypotheses about basic biological principles, and there can be no doubt that studies of animals have contributed greatly to our scientific understanding of life, and there is little doubt that these studies will continue to illuminate these matters in the future (items (7) and (9) above). p30

In the case of predictive animal modeling, what we are typically interested in is prediction of human outcomes. The animal model systems are stimulated (perhaps by some toxicological insult of interest) and animal data is gathered. This data derived from the animal model, in and of itself, settles nothing about the actual course of human phenomena. The animal data enables the investigator to form hypotheses—expectations—about what he or she thinks is likely to happen when humans are similarly stimulated (with all the due allowances for differences in dose and so on). At this point all the investigator has is a hypothesis about human responses. The business of science is the very business of the testing of hypotheses. In the present case this requires careful studies of humans so that the human data can be compared with the expectations rooted in animal model data, thereby confirming or falsifying the animal-based hypotheses (it is also possible that the evidence gathered does not settle the issue one way or another, and hence that there is a need for more detailed studies). We again point out—to forestall a species of fatuous criticism—that not all tests and studies involving animals are done with prediction in mind. Nevertheless, those tests promoted as being predictive must be judged by how well they actually predict human response. It also makes sense to ask whether a particular method has a track record of predictive success, and if so, how this was determined. p251-2

We remind the reader once again that the target of our criticism of animal-based research is restricted to the practice of predictive modeling. We do not dispute that there are legitimate roles for animal test subjects in other kinds of experimental investigation—for example basic biological research aimed at increasing the sum total of human knowledge. Animal experiments in the context of basic research may enrich our knowledge of specific phenomena in mice, and, if painting is permitted with a broad enough brush, they may help delineate some of the important contours of mammalian biology, from which lessons about the Eukaryotes and even life itself might be forthcoming. p351

End quotes

The above is not subtle or difficult to understand. Anyone with an MD and a PhD (Gorski) has no excuse for making the claims he makes regarding where we stand on the issues.

Allow me to re-introduce Dr Gorski.

Dr Gorski, on May 10, 2010 stated in his blog: that “the correlation between cell culture studies is even more unreliable than that of animal studies.” I asked him, on May 11, 2010, in the comments section of his blog, to substantiate this with references but he has yet to respond. Dr Gorski blogs on the website Science-Based Medicine (SBM) where references are part and parcel of posts. Dr Gorski and others on SBM would go ballistic if an alt-med or anti-vaxer made such an unsubstantiated statement (and rightly so). Why do you think they all ignored this one?

Dr Gorski stated in his March 30, 2011 blog titled Animal rights terrorists target students as the "soft underbelly of the vivisection movement": "I keep hearing this claim from every animal rights sympathizer from Ray Greek to you but have yet to see any of you provide convincing evidence that there exist these magical mystical other scientific methods that would "provide better data cheaper" or show convincingly that abandoning animal models would "lead to an explosion of creativity." Maybe you're different and can do it, but I highly doubt it."

We have written a book (AMILOE) specifically for scientists, without any dumbing down, that very specifically addresses all this. I seriously doubt Dr Gorski has read it or has any intention of reading it. We have also published two articles in the peer-reviewed literature (Are animal models predictive for humans? and Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable?) specifically addressing the issue. Dr Gorski has not done any of this. This alone does not mean he is wrong but it raise cause concern over his seriousness regarding his claim that he bases his position on science.

I have repeatedly asked Dr Gorski to take our disagreement to the scientific literature but he (and others that I have approached) have all declined. Dr Gorski had said that he has no time for this, yet he has written extensively about his views of animal-based research on his blogs. See


and see Response to criticisms from Orac for some of my responses.

The fact is that Dr Gorski is very willing to condemn what he claims our position to be, from the sidelines of his own blogs, but will not allow the discussion to take place in a venue (the scientific literature) where there are rules and statements cannot be made without support from references from the scientific literature. Even his supporters do not understand this and have said they think this is lethal flaw in his modus operandi.

Dr Gorski should take his own advice/criticism as when he wrote in his April 25, 2011 blog: "If there’s one thing about the anti-vaccine movement, it’s all about the ad hominem attack. Failing to win on science, clinical trials, epidemiology, and other objective evidence, with few exceptions, anti-vaccine propagandists fall back on attacking the person instead of the evidence."

AMILOE presents a detailed scientific argument that has not been refuted. Actually, the arguments have not even been stated anywhere except in our own publications. Whenever vivisection activists claim to address the position we take, they make the same old straw man arguments and ad hominems. Dr Gorski and skeptics in general (myself included) make a big deal about motivated reasoning (also see here). Briefly, people tend to believe what they want to believe regardless of the evidence and this is usually because they have an emotional or other vested interest in the topic. (Michael Shermer addresses this in his new book The Believing Brain, which I highly recommend.) Dr Gorski both supports and practices research using animals. He cannot deny having a vested interest in this. There is no doubt that either the vivisection activists are using, or I am using, motivated reasoning. I publish my positions in books written for the scientific community and articles published in the peer-reviewed and indexed scientific literature. Gorski et al refuse to engage in the debate. This alone does not prove that they are the ones engaging in motivated reasoning but it is a prima facia case.

Using animals to predict human response to drugs and disease is bogus and hence unnecessary. But, as we have said many times, animals can be used in many endeavors in science and research. Just not these two.