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Dr. Ray Greek: Bad Arguments From Both Sides

In my first post on Opposing Views, I stated: “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.” I have reiterated this many times in many ways taking animal activists and vivisection activists alike to task for faulty logic and faulty science. From my perspective, each side abuses science and reasoning but in very different ways. An example of this can be found in the responses to Orac’s blog titled: “An animal rights zealot faces her comeuppance.” As of this writing there are over 190 comments to the blog and I want to address some of them, from each side, as they are typical.

Briefly, the blog addressed the recent arrest of an animal activist named Camille Marino. Ms Marino’s tactics are controversial, to put it mildly, and some would say that she advocates violence and breaks the law in the way she goes about it. Regardless of the validity of this claim, it is not relevant to the science and reasoning skills of those involved in the overall issue of animals in labs, so let me just say, yet again, that I oppose violence and condemn those that commit violence. I will leave it to the courts to sort out what exactly her activities did and did not entail. To accuse me of supporting violence or of supporting those who support violence is a red herring in addition to simply being false. That having been said, such charges will no doubt continue to be made against me.

Onto the comments.

I will start with those who advocate for animals, against using animals in labs. The issue of using animals in labs can be divided into scientific concerns and ethical concerns. Right off, there will be many animal activists who insist that there can be no distinction between the two. Other than to say that such people are either uneducated or intellectually challenged, I will not comment further on this position. What this blog concerns are statements like the following:

  • Dr. Mark Feinberg stated: "What good does it do you to test something in a monkey? You find five or six years from now that it works in the monkey, and then you test it in humans and you realize that humans behave totally differently from monkeys, so you've wasted five years".
  • Penicillin kills cats and guinea pigs but has saved many human lives.
  • Morphine is a sedative for humans but is a stimulant for cats, goats, and horses.
  • Benedictine is a teratogen (causes birth defects).

My concern is not necessarily with the statements per se (although some are incorrect) as much as the notion that such statements constitute a scientific argument. They don’t! As I have stated many times, in order to make a scientific argument one needs to develop and prove certain points and concepts. Merely making statements like the above, even if the statements are factual, is not science; facts do not equal science. In my experience, most animal activists do not understand this; even activists with advanced degrees in science. I realize we live in the age of empowerment when everyone is above average and capable of doing anything, but in reality an education still counts. Moreover, sadly, it is possible to achieve an advanced degree and be totally unscathed by education.

I understand where the above statements by animal activists come from. I frequently use the Feinberg quote and will address it momentarily. The penicillin statement is true for certain guinea pigs but false for the cats. The reason activists say penicillin kills cats goes back to Fleming and Florey. Fleming administered penicillin to an infected friend simultaneously with Florey giving it to a cat. The cat died (I have no idea why) but Flemming’s patient improved. This does not mean that penicillin routinely kills cats. It doesn’t. If you are not a scientist you should not be making such statements or inferring such things. I have used the penicillin example many times but only in the context of other factors.

The statement about morphine is similar. Yes, morphine can stimulate cats and other animals, but not always. Conversely, almost always, it sedates humans. Regardless, this statement alone or in combination with others is not science; it is anecdotal. Only by placing such statements in the context evolutionary biology, empirical data, complexity science and so forth can one make a scientific case. And there is an outstanding case to be made. Morphine and the various responses it elicits in animals is a nice example of species variation. But that all it is. It is not an argument and people who cite it should not expect scientists to accept the conclusion that animals cannot predict human response to drugs and disease based solely on such examples. Such a conclusion should only be made after in-depth arguments have been presented. (I realize that there may be other reasons each camp argues on-line, but I am ignoring these for the purpose of this essay and assuming honest intent in terms of presenting an argument.)

Benedictine is even more clear-cut. Enough scientific studies have been performed to conclusively say that it does not cause birth defects in a vast majority of cases. It is always possible that a drug, any drug, can cause a congenital anomaly in a specific genotype or under very odd environmental circumstances. But for a majority of women, the science clearly shows that Benedictine is no more likely to cause birth defects than anything else. Humans want to find correlations in order to explain incidents and life in general. This is even more important in times of tragedy such as when a child is born with a severe birth defect. Unfortunately for us humans, a temporal relationship does not mean a causal relationship so we must look deeper in order to find answers. If a child receives a vaccine and three months later is diagnosed with autism it does not follow that the vaccine caused the autism. The same is true with drugs and birth defects. (For more on drugs, animal models, and birth defects see The History and Implications of Testing Thalidomide on Animals.)

Animal activists needs to stop using the sheer nonsense found in the writings of Hans Ruesch, Pietro Croce, animal rights groups, and others who do not comprehend, or choose to ignore, science. If animal activists want to oppose vivisection on ethical grounds, then they need to learn enough about it not to embarrass themselves, and the cause they support, and then make those arguments. However, if you think you can make a scientific case against vivisection without spending years studying science, you are simply wrong. Every time you say something at odds with scientific facts, you are providing fodder for the vivisection community. Set your ego aside, grow up, and accept that you are not an expert in this area. Freedom to say something does not imply that what you say is factually correct.

Now for the other side.

I understand, and can partially excuse, animal activists for making stupid statements about science. They are not trained in science, their concern is peripheral to science, they have read what appears to be scientific material from like-minded people and assume it is true. Naïve, but understandable. But the nonsense masquerading as science that one reads in the comments section after blogs like the above on Respectful Insolence is baffling.

Furthermore, it is not just in the comments section or in the blog itself. Scientists writing under their real names make exactly the same mistakes that animal activists make—poor logic, lack of knowledge of the scientific topic in question, and the complete inability to make a coherent argument. They also appear unable to grasp the concept that merely making a statement does not make it so. Unless of course the statement comes from someone arguing against one of their issues such vaccines or homeopathy. Then they ask for evidence. And rightly so! But just because they and their friends agree that X is true and Y is false no more makes those positions factual than when acupuncturists and their friends agree that acupuncture works. Mosley, in his book Hopeful Monsters, is discussing the way the scientific community responded to the Lamarkian ideas of the biologist Paul Kammerer. He states: "But what is striking about the objections to Kammerer on the part of mainstream biologists . . . was that they did not point out rationally, as they might so easily have done, the flaws in his arguments and procedures; they seemed intent on impugning emotionally his honesty and even his sanity; they claimed that he was 'cooking' his results - even those that were so obviously tentative (Mosely 1991).”

I cannot count the number of times I have read fallacies from vivisection activists, including non sequiturs, argument from authority, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the fallacy of insufficient statistics, appeal to emotion, red herrings, appeal to tradition and so on. (For example, see here, here and here. For a classic example of a vivisection activist demonstrating such fallacies see here.) Statements that, if made by animal activists, would be jumped on, and rightly so, can pass through books, articles, blogs, and the comments sections without even a polite challenge. Among my favorite, is the claim that anyone who attacks the scientific merit of using animals in research, in any way, is anti-science. The vivisection activist that makes such a statement, and there are many, should peruse the scientific literature in order to find the numerous scientists that have in fact made such statements. Moreover, most of them do not subsequently do an about face and claim that what they really meant was the opposite of what they said, although some have made such an asinine claim. If anyone who claims that animals cannot predict human response to drugs and disease is anti-science, then there are A LOT of well-respected, anti-science scientists out there.

For example, the statement from Feinberg speaks for itself and the reference is provided in our writings (and here (McKenna 1997)). The fact that Feinberg continued to use nonhuman primates in his research is irrelevant to the validity of the concept described by his statement and the fact that he really did say such a thing. If vivisection activists want to explain WHY he made the statement, in light of the fact that he continues to use nonhuman primates, they might want to explore the subjects of critical thinking and or psychology. Orac’s attending choir cannot criticize the animal activist for referring to Feinberg’s statement when: 1) Feinberg did in fact say it; 2) others have made similar statements; and 3) the concept he refers to happens to be true. If the vivisection activist wants to challenge the concept behind the claim then he should do so in a scientifically accepted fashion. Simply dismissing it and attacking the character of the person that quoted it is not a scientifically acceptable critique. (For how to analyze and critique a position I suggest the vivisection activist see Animal Models in Light of Evolution. We actually present an argument in the book. The fact that many vivisection activists that have read the book, admit that they do not understand it, is telling.)

The vivisection activist normally cites isolated instances of animal model success, usually incorrectly, and then claims that such instances of correlation between species prove that animal models are predictive for humans. A freshman college student taking statistics could disprove this. It is embarrassing when NIH-grant recipients demonstrate such a lack of knowledge of science, critical thinking, and statistics. Such would not pass muster in undergrad courses and should not go unchallenged in science blogs or articles.

Conversely, we have made a scientific case for our position. We have gone into detail in books and articles and we do not hide behind pseudonyms or refuse to explain our position in a public venue or publish articles in journals that do not allow equal time for the opposite view to be presented. (Ringach 2011)

The complete lack of understanding of the history of medical science is also readily apparent in the little bitch sessions one sees after such blogs. If you want to argue how the polio vaccine was developed and what the role of animals was in the process, I suggest you actually read a few books and articles on the topic. Based on the blogs, comments, and articles from vivisection activists that I have read, they do not have a clue. Ditto for teratogenicity testing in general and the thalidomide tragedy in particular (see The History and Implications of Testing Thalidomide on Animals), and most of what vivisection activists cite as success stories.

Also routine are the use of ad hominem attacks instead of addressing the issue. In my opinion, this goes hand in hand with vivisection activists not accepting challenges to debate the science of animal models in public venues or the scientific literature. If anyone that posted, probably under a pseudonym, on the above mentioned blog would like to take this to the scientific literature, I am available. And there is the rub! The vivisection activist will hide behind a pseudonym and tell the world how stupid everyone is that disagrees with his view, or use his real name and complain that his life is in danger, but will NEVER accept such a challenge. Some controversies in science cannot adequately be addressed in blogs. That does not mean that we should avoid the topic just that such topics should then be addressed in more appropriate venues. I have repeatedly asked vivisection activists to participate in a debate in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and or at a university only to be refused.

Come on! The scientific literature? You won’t even set out your position there and allow me to challenge it in a point-counterpoint!? That is indefensible and you know it. Pointing out how uninformed animal activists from the humanities are about science is not even fair sport and is certainly nothing to be proud of. Take me on!


McKenna, M.A.J. 1997. A 'MANHATTAN PROJECT' FOR AIDS. Q&A With Dr. Mark Feinberg, a leading AIDS researcher. Atlanta Journal Contstitution, September 21.

Mosely, Nicholas. 1991. Hopeful Monsters. London: Dalkey Archive Press.

Ringach, D. L. 2011. The use of nonhuman animals in biomedical research. The American journal of the medical sciences 342 (4):305-13.


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