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Anti-Science in Light of Personal and Professional Responsibility. Part I.

Two recent events have motivated me to address what, at the outset, might appear to be unrelated issues. First, an excellent blog by Orac, “On ‘anti-science’ again” discusses what it means to be anti-science. As I have said, Orac is very pro-vivisection but otherwise writes a good column. I found this particular blog interesting for several reasons. I agree with him regarding post-modernism, anti-vaxers, complimentary and alternative medicine or integrative medicine, and anthropogenic global warming (AGW) deniers (I stand against those supporting such notions). I agree with Orac regarding his support for science-based medicine and evolution. (I find his complaining about NIH funding very unrealistic but will leave that for others to address.) I also agree with him that some camps and individuals are in fact anti-science but that there are other, better descriptions for some people traditionally put in that category and I will address that aspect momentarily. I encourage everyone to read the essay, especially those that oppose vivisection and want to use science in that pursuit. Orac is smart and describes many problems very well. Those in the animal rights and anti-vivisection movements that want to use science to support their positions, but then reject science when it conflicts with other beliefs that also revolve around the material universe, would do well to read his blog on a regular basis. (It is also helpful to read what people who disagree with you in one area say about other areas, if for no other reason than to prove that you are mature enough to separate issues.)

A seemingly unrelated issue revolves around something that occurred at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Vivisection activist Tom Holder describes this in his blog titled AAAS recognizes the work of Speaking of Research members. At the 2012 AAAS meeting, UCLA researchers and vivisection activists David Jentsch, Dario Ringach, and Edythe London were awarded the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, which: “honors scientists and engineers whose exemplary actions, often taken at significant personal cost, have served to foster scientific freedom and responsibility.”

The AAAS stated, when making the award: “AAAS has consistently supported the responsible use of animals in research, testing and education. A 1990 statement of the AAAS Board and Council noted, for instance, that ‘the use of animals has been and continues to be essential not only in applied research with direct clinical applications in humans and animals, but also in research that furthers the understanding of biological processes.’ ” Holder wrote in his blog: “Around 800 staff, students and members of the public followed Ringach and Jentsch’s lead as they marched through the streets of Los Angeles in support of lifesaving medical research.”

If the AAAS wants to give an award to Jentsch, London, and Ringach for advocating on behalf of scientific research regardless of the social concerns, then I would agree with them that these scientists deserve such an award. Most of society finds their research despicable and some in society have even crossed, what I define as, the line between lawful and unlawful activities (I condemn such activities), and yet Jentsch, London, and Ringach defend their research vigorously. (Well, somewhat vigorously in that they refuse to debate the issue with me in the scientific literature or in a university lecture auditorium.) Moreover, the AAAS can very appropriately give awards for advances in science without making claims regarding human applicability. But when the AAAS and Holder start defending such research because it is lifesaving and directly applicable to humans, they have a problem because the science and the facts just don’t support their position.

I don’t deny that discoveries have been made in animals that were also found to be true in humans. But this is irrelevant to their point for two reasons. First, animal models are simply not predictive for human response to drugs and disease—the very reason society allows most animal-based research. So to claim that animal species X predicted human response Y is disingenuous and or opens the door to the charge of being anti-science as it contradicts the actual science. Second, if the vivisection activist wants to claim that discovery Y could only have occurred by studying animals, and this is what they are claiming, then he needs to prove it. If he refuses then he is, again, opening the door to the charge of being anti-science as the burden is clearly on the claimant in science and refusing to substantiate your claims is an anti-science position.

Orac states in the above-mentioned blog: “In actuality, there are at least two forms of science rejectionism, one that can be considered antiscience and one not as much. First, there's the form of science rejectionism that results from science coming into conflict with deeply held ideological, political, or religious beliefs. People holding such views tend to reject specific findings of science that they don't like but not science itself. They are thus usually (but not always) not antiscience per se, which is why I prefer the term "denialist" to describe them. AGW denialists are a good example of this group. Then there is a group that rejects the very core of science itself; i.e., the methods, peer review, the standards of evidence itself.”

I agree with Orac’s explanation. I do not think that people like Jentsch, London, Ringach or Orac himself are anti-science by Orac’s definition. This, despite the fact that they refuse to acknowledge the incontrovertible fact that animal models cannot predict human response to drugs and disease. Even scientists can engage in motivated reasoning. Of course, when they do so they tarnish everything else that is done in the name of science and the scientific method. Further, when the scientific community does not correct these mistakes, they also contribute to the denigration of science. There is, however one niggling, little detail that concerns me regarding Orac’s classification scheme.

None of the aforementioned scientists will debate the topic of animals as predictive models and all maintain that animal models are in fact predictive modalities for research and testing. Now, there could be good reasons for this. Some people have social anxieties and or are very bad at public speaking. However, that is unlikely to be the case here, as all of the above teach and participate in public discussions on other topics. Perhaps they fear for their lives? Again unlikely in that such fear would allow publicized acceptance of the above award and the writing of very public blogs but would not allow them to sit behind a computer at work and type out a defense of their position in a debate with me that would be published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. When evolutionists, global warming climatologists, vaccine advocates, and so forth are challenged to defend their position, they do! And rightly so! This intellectual honesty enlightens society, advances science, and is just the right thing to do. A by-product of such debates is society gets new phrases like “the Gish Gallup” introduced into its lexicon. Who can argue with that?

I also found Orac’s blog interesting in that he did not list, among all the usual and customary anti-science positions, the position that animal models cannot predict human response to drugs and disease. Furthermore, in the recent past when he has defended, or blogged about, animal use in research, he has addressed the use of violence or intimidation by certain sectors of the animal rights movement. I cannot disagree with him when he condemns such tactics. So why did Orac not lump me in with the anti-vaxers, AGW deniers, alt med, and so forth on his list in his essay? I am not suggesting that Orac is reversing his position. I am suggesting that he does not want to engage in the fight and especially does not want, under any circumstances, to defend a pro-prediction position in a debate against me in the scientific literature. Just like Jentsch, London, and Ringach.

So, yes, we have people who are truly anti-science in that they dismiss science as a paradigm. And we have people that engage in motivated reasoning and are just wrong. But it seems to me we have a third category. Cowards.

(I will continue this discussion in Anti-Science in Light of Personal and Professional Responsibility. Part II.)


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