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Argument From Authority. Part I

(This is the first of a three-part series.)

Many polls of scientists and statements from scientific organizations suggest that the scientific community as a whole apparently supports animal-based research. For example, a Pew Research survey conducted in association with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) revealed: “More than nine-in-ten scientists (93%) favor the use of animals in scientific research, but only about half of the public (52%) agrees.” An article appearing in 2005 in the Guardian of the UK reported, “More than 500 leading UK scientists and doctors have signed a declaration pledging their support for animal testing in medical research.” This declaration was reportedly signed by “three Nobel laureates, 190 fellows of the Royal Society and the Medical Royal Colleges and more than 250 academic professors.” Organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Physiological Society and so forth have position statements supporting animal-based research. These examples could be easily multiplied.

I am not going to challenge the fact that many scientific societies and associations are in favor of animal-based research or that polls reveal support among scientists for animal-based research. Rather, I am going to ask, “What does this mean?”

All of these are examples of the fallacy known as argument from authority. The argument from authority or appeal to authority as it is also known, basically says that X is an authority on Y, X says Y is true, and therefore Y is true. Very straightforward. The reason this is a fallacy is because no proof or evidence is provided; the proponent relies only on the credentials or reputation of the authority.

There is a reason arguments from authority persist. Namely, they are often correct. True authorities on a subject, especially in the fields of science and medicine, became authorities because they spent decades studying in universities, perhaps doing at least some form of research, continuing to study even after graduate school, actually teach and or practice in the field and so forth. Furthermore, most of these people are smart. So listening to them is not necessarily a bad idea.

But like life in general, there are rarely one-answer-fits-all solutions to problems associated with questions involving the human activity of science. If we could always merely listen to authorities, life would be much easier. But the sad facts are that many times the authorities themselves disagree, other times the authorities were thought correct for decades or even centuries but were then proven wrong, and perhaps most importantly for this blog, authorities are human hence possess all the foibles with which Homo sapiens evolved. So listening to authorities is a very good place to begin an inquiry.

The next step is the hard part: analyze the evidence supporting and contradicting what the authorities say. In some cases, analyzing the evidence is simply beyond the educational experience of most people. Nonetheless, regardless of the subject, an appreciation of critical thought (which is within almost everyone’s grasp) is usually the place to begin.*

Analyzing the evidence from scientific disciplines can be tricky but, if the reader is willing to put in the time, she can usually find good books and websites to guide her through this process. The books may well reveal disagreements but even so they usually provide the astute reader with some insights. Despite the difficulty involved, there is no substitute for reading books. (I also include here peer-reviewed articles from indexed scientific journals, but these can be impossible for the nonexpert so once again we are really back to books written with the nonexpert in mind.)

Let me be very clear before going on to the next point. THERE IS NO SUBSITUTE FOR KNOWLEDGE OF THE SUBECT AND THE APPLICATION OF CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS! What I am going to say next must be taken in light of this.

Back to the subject of this blog: organizations of scientists that voice support for animal-based research and polls stating that scientists support animal-based research.

How should we as critical thinkers familiar with animal-based research react to these polls and position statements?

Number one, we should ask who sponsored the poll and whether they have a vested interest in the outcome. Some polls are just plain junk. The same question should be asked when organizations endorse a concept be that concept a position on global warming or a political candidate. What do the endorsers stand to gain or lose by the way the question is answered or the adoption of the position that is being presented to society? Immediately we should be impressed by the fact that many of the organizations that endorse animal-based research are composed of people with a very large financial interest, and other interests, in the process. Research that suggests smoking is not addictive or carcinogenic and that was sponsored by the tobacco industry is not even worth reading. Ditto for research or opinions coming from the oil conglomerates suggesting global warming is not real. When the American Physiological Society or a neuroscience organization composed of animal-based neuroscience researchers claims animal-based research is vital and that all their members support it, this should not count as evidence for the claim. This in and of itself does not make the claim false, it merely does not count as evidence for the claim or, if you really, really, really want it to count as evidence, then it should be given minimal weight and your position on the issue not decided on this basis alone.

Number two, we should ask: “Who exactly does the organization represent and, if there are many shareholders, which ones are represented by this position?” The American Medical Association (AMA) is a good example. The AMA supposedly represents American physicians. Many hold membership in the AMA simply in order to receive JAMA. Most physicians are too busy to really care about the politics of the AMA and many disagree with the positions of the organization. (This was clearly demonstrated in the recent healthcare debate in Washington DC. Many physicians and physician groups vocally disagreed with the AMA on the proposal.) Further, academic medical institutions that receive loads of money from animal-based research have historically held the most influence in the AMA. A similar example would be AARP. Many over fifty years old hold membership in order to obtain discounts on various items that membership brings but disagree with the politics of the organization.

Number three, we should ask: “How was the poll question phrased?” For example, a scientist friend of mine was asked to participate in the aforementioned AAAS/Pew survey. To the question of whether he supported animal-based research, he answered in the affirmative. Now, it may come as shock to you that he also agrees completely with me in my view that animal models cannot predict human responses to drugs and diseases. Contradiction? No. The survey was worded such that I could have answered yes to the question. The question was very general and could easily be interpreted as asking whether the surveyed supported at least some kind of research using animals. I know of no polls where the question asked was, “Can animal models predict disease and drug response?” and where the concept of prediction was defined for those less educated.

An example of a much better survey is the one by New Scientist and MORI that broke the question of using animals in research down and changed the parameters in order to ascertain what the surveyed actually thought. (The New Scientist article can also be accessed here.)

Number four, we must be careful of the bandwagon fallacy. This fallacy refers to people jumping on a wagon of musicians and is used when referring to people who join in a movement or take an opinion based on its popularity without first really examining the content. For example, many in the scientific community are very cautious about commenting on controversial areas that fall under the category of someone else’s field of expertise. For example, if you want to know whether a biologist endorses a concept currently being discussed in the field of physics, she will in all likelihood refer you the physics department. This is, for the most part, as it should be. When the controversy involves a number of fields then the scientist being questioned should either be able to defend the position he is advocating or withhold judgement until he knows more about it.

Jumping on the bandwagon is especially rife in academia where there is certain advantage to agreeing with people who bring in money to the university as well as in business where there is pressure to agree with other people and departments more powerful than your own and so on.

Finally, one should see if there is opposition to the poll results and position statements from equally respected scientists. In the case of animal models being used to predict drug and disease response in humans, one way to at least determine whether what Shanks and I are saying is total nonsense, less painful than actually reading Animal Models in Light of Evolution, is to read reviews of Animal Models in Light of Evolution from respected scientists without a vested interest in the subject. Those reviews alone will not settle the question of whether what we are saying is true, but if respected scientists who have read the book and have the prerequisite knowledge for judging its content find merit in its pages, then one must at least consider the possibility that we might have a valid argument.

*As I have said before, books and websites on this subject include Wikipedia and the links therein, The Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, and How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. There are also many podcasts that are easy for someone unfamiliar with the subject to understand.  These include Skepticality, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and Skeptoid among many others. 


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