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Animal Activists and Vivisection

In my bio on Opposing Views I stated that: “In Opposing Views I will be blogging and commenting about using animals in scientific pursuits.” This blog is somewhat tangential to using animals in scientific pursuits but still falls into the general category so here goes. In this blog, I want to explore how animal activists should approach discussing the scientific aspects of using animals in science. All are welcome to read this, but it is written for the animal activist community.

Science is hard. In undergrad, I majored in chemistry and minored in biology, then went to medical school for 4 years, then a residency for another four. At the end of that time I had a very good overview of science in general and specialty knowledge of medical science and anesthesiology. However, at that time I was incompetent in most of the scientific issues regarding using animals in science. If I was incompetent at that time, what are the odds an animal activist will be competent without all that training?

In order to finish out my education regarding the use of animals in science I had to read and study texts on philosophy of science, evolutionary biology, complex systems, and many other subjects. By doing this I was able to fill the gaps in my knowledge. But I was only able to read and comprehend all these books, more or less on my own (although I did have considerable guidance from Niall Shanks) because I had such extensive previous education in science in general and in the biological sciences specifically. Trying to teach myself about the science of vivisection without the formal education in science simply would not have been possible.

That is pretty much my point.

I realize there are many passionate animal activists out there who go to protests every week seeking to engage the opposition and make a point or prove the vivisector wrong or whatever. Your passion is admirable. You competence however is questionable. Without a formal science education your very use of language will give you away as not understanding the fundamentals of science. Without even listening to your point or data or whatever, the vivisection activist will be able to dismiss you because your use of language will make your ignorance obvious. Further, you are unable to read and understand the scientific literature so quoting sound bites out if it merely exposes your lack of education a second time. There is a difference between reading something and understanding it. As I have said many times in these blogs, the Internet is not the way to learn science either. You must have the requisite formal education and, in most cases, the specialty training after the formal education.

In addition, when the vivisection activist asks you a question (which I know they do because you then email me and ask what the answer is) you are again exposed as knowing less about the subject than the people with science educations. This does make your side look talented!

Even if you have read our new book  FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed (which was written specifically for people like you) you still do not have the education to engage people with decades of education in science. We state that in FAQs:

Even with the best of intentions, you probably couldn’t [argue with vivisectors]. But you can read and study enough to be able to present a rational, logical, reasoned, consistent, well thought out argument to open minded people. There are many books and articles available (see, and if you study you can learn enough to make a good case for the points we make in this and other books [5, 129-131]. If you have minimal scientific background, we estimate it will take at least a year of very solid reading to learn enough about science in general and this field in particular to become acquainted with the issue. But even then don’t expect to learn enough to challenge vivisectors in their own areas of expertise. Even experts cannot learn everything about every area of medical research. People who have a financial or emotional interest in an activity and have more knowledge about that activity can steamroll opponents with less knowledge or experience. And some are not above using fallacious reasoning and worse in order to defend their position in society.

This problem is compounded when the person advocating change is not a doctor. The sheer mass of data one needs to learn in order to be competent in science usually requires eight years of formal education after high school. Physicians usually study about twelve years after high school. With this much knowledge of science, a vivisector can bulldoze his way through even outstanding arguments against him. If you can keep the vivisector to the specific issue, you may be able to win a few points. But we have never seen a layperson accomplish this. And even if you do win a few points, the vivisector will use the fallacy of appeal to authority. He will say that he is a scientist and you are not; therefore, you are wrong. And that will be the end of the argument in the minds of many listeners. This is not logical or rational, but most of the time a crowd of people will be swayed by it and you will appear to lose the argument.

That is not to say that with a background in general science and a lot of effort in learning about a scientific topic, you couldn’t present extensive arguments that reasonable people will accept. Just don’t expect that you’ll be able to remember every medical discovery or refute every argument vivisectors make. Given enough time, such arguments can be defeated, but it is unreasonable to expect one person to be able to defeat every argument without extensive preparation.

Our advice is not to argue with experts unless you are also an expert. Let people who are themselves experts make those arguments. If challenged by a vivisector, ask him to accept an invitation to a public debate with another scientist. He will most likely not accept, and that alone will win you more points with a crowd than any arguments you could make. And, if we are wrong and he does accept the invitation, great! Let us know, and we will be happy to join the debate.

There are scores of small groups and individuals out there who have essentially no formal scientific education but who have websites and make claims about the scientific aspects of using animals in scientific pursuits. I know many of these people. Merely repeating age-old arguments that were not really correct even in their day is not adequate. But it gets worse. Some of these people are, ironically, also opposed to science in general. Some are opposed to vaccines. Some deny the Germ Theory of Disease. Some think infectious diseases can be cured with milk and bed rest. Some use animal studies to support their nutrition claims but then oppose vivisection as scientifically useless. Almost all are strong supporters of alternative medicine. These positions are incompatible with science. Every time one of these antivivisectionists proclaims animal use in science as scientifically untenable while simultaneously supporting alt med, he or she helps the animal experimentation industry.

The same applies to many people with advanced degrees who are science advisors to major animal rights groups. Just as I was not competent after 12 years of intense science education and had to informally seek knowledge in evolution, complexity, philosophy of science and so forth, they simply do not have the training or knowledge to take on viv. Having a doctorate alone does an expert make. Furthermore, when people with doctorates make bad or outdated arguments it is worse and does more harm than when nonscientists make the same mistakes. At least the scientifically perplexed have an excuse.

If you are an animal activist and you just have to protest against the science behind viv, I suggest the following:

1. Learn the ethical arguments. Most of you that I have spoken with cannot even present the rights argument much less explain the differences between how animals are used in science. If your real argument is the ethics of using animals in science, at least be able to defend that position.

2. At protests, hand out flyers with scientific information then direct any questioners to the AFMA website or our latest two books (Animal Models in Light of Evolutionif the person has a background in science and FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed if the person does not). I am currently working on a flyer that you can download and hand out. (AFMA had nice flyers and brochures but it will cost us $50K to reproduce them. Anyone wishing to donate to the cause can do so at the website. We do not have the money to reproduce brochures like the old ones that so many of you request every week.) I will put the new flyer(s) on the AFMA website and let you know when they are ready.

3. You will not win an argument about science with a scientifically educated vivisection activist. Unless you have an education (formal and informal) similar to mine, the vivisection activist will rip your argument to shreds and you will probably be oblivious when it is happening. What your goal should be, when interacting with vivisection activists, is to arrange an activity involving the vivisection activist that will get media attention and allow them to explain their views for all to hear. I suggest you focus your energy not on arguing with people who know more science than you do but rather in goading them into debating the issue against me. One thing the vivisection activist has no answer for, and is obvious to society that they cannot defend, is why the vivisection activist will not engage in the quintessential American forum: the public debate. Don’t try to explain to the media why Dr So and so is wrong on viv, the media will blow you off as an uneducated in science. Explain to the media that Dr So and so will not publicly defend his views against a peer. Society and the media understand that and you can make a very good case that something must be wrong with a practice when the practitioners refuse to defend it against someone as qualified as they are. This should be your goal if you want to pursue defeating viv using scientific arguments. Let the experts be experts.

4. Finally, again, direct media questions to AFMA and refer others to the books and website.

There is nothing wrong with being ignorant. I am ignorant in far more fields than I am educated. If I need expertise in engineering, I employ an engineer. I do not argue engineering with an engineer. If I need advice regarding law, I employ a lawyer. Even in science, most areas are outside my realm of expertise. When we wrote the math equations in Animal Models in Light of Evolution, we asked experts in math to review them to make sure we did not make any mistakes. When family members ask me about a disease affecting their joints, I send them to an orthopedic surgeon or rheumatologist or other appropriate specialist. I AM IGNORANT IN THOSE FIELDS. You are ignorant in the science of viv. Deal with it.


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