A recent statement from Dr Ringach illustrates quite nicely the innate disconnect coming from the animal-based research community. Dr Ringach was addressing a post that stated: "...the results of research from mice, basset hounds, and bonobos can't be extrapolated to people." Dr Ringach replied with the following:
As I said, the statement is demonstrably false. This one example is sufficient evidence to the contrary. What baffles the mind are activists like you refusing to accept the evidence. (Emphasis added.)
To the consternation of many, I have blogged about science and supported my opinions and positions with science. This has entailed a discussion of simple statistics, complex systems, evolution, explaining that all of animal use cannot be lumped together and analyzed as a single entity, and much more. Furthermore, my main point, as explained in detail in Animal Models in Light of Evolution, is that animal models are not predictive for human response to drugs and diseases.
Contentious aspects of science are not usually intuitive, easy, or amenable to sound bites and the reader should be wary when black and white statements are made, especially by people whose livelihood are at stake. So what should we make of Dr Ringach’s very straightforward comment above?
As a physician, scientist, skeptic, and someone with knowledge of very basic statistics, I do not care if an animal and human respond the same way to a single perturbation or, in Dr Ringach’s words, respond the same way in “one example.” A single example does make a modality predictive or even useful. That is why tests, be they x-rays, drug sniffing dogs, or toxicity tests, or research methods e.g. animal models of HIV or cancer, must be judged based on sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive value and negative predictive value. Sometimes these numbers are not easily available. But when scores of HIV vaccines have worked in monkeys but none has worked in humans, then one does not need exact numbers to plug into the equations. Zero out of 60 (or 80 or whatever the current number is) speaks for itself. (I have addressed this vis-à-vis the (Contopoulos-Ioannidis, Ntzani, and Ioannidis 2003) study and comments by (Crowley 2003) in previous blogs. Animal Models in Light of Evolution also addresses this in detail.)
If all it took for a modality to be predictive, or even useful, in real life was one correlation to reality, then astrology would be very useful and predictive and the lottery would be a great way to make money. Such thinking is obviously ludicrous. The fact that animal-based researchers like Dr Ringach consider just one correlation to be justification for the entire practice says it all. The bar could not be set any lower! Such an attitude is more representative of a used car salesman than a scientist.
Real scientists should find such statements offensive. Real scientists, and even knowledgeable people without formal scientific training, spend time and resources combating nonsense just like this from creationists, acupuncturists, and other alternative medicine quacks. If an acupuncturist made a statement like “this one example of my patient getting better proves acupuncture works” these scientists and knowledgeable nonscientists would come out of the woodwork to ridicule him, and rightly so.
If a fortuneteller said her one prediction that came true was enough to demonstrably falsify all the claims that skeptics have made about fortunetelling being nonsense, the same thing would happen. But when a person who brings in money to a university says this exact kind of nonsense—the silence is deafening.
One reason the skeptical and scientific communities respond to alternative medicine, antivaxers, and creationists is that eschewing critical thought is damaging to society. No individual or group can stop fallacious reasoning and nonsense but when the very people that speak out against a practice allow that same practice to persist among their own kind, their credibility is destroyed. The tacit message is: “We hate fallacies and nonsense except when our own people espouse and profit from them.”
As long as society accepts from animal experimenters the sheer nonsense that one correlation justifies an entire practice, which means that results from animals can be extrapolated to humans, the animal experimenters will be employed and sick patients will die.
As long as scientists and skeptics allow such twaddle, from their own community, to pass unchallenged they have no moral leg to stand on when criticizing others for sloppy thinking.
Contopoulos-Ioannidis, D. G., E. Ntzani, and J. P. Ioannidis. 2003. Translation of highly promising basic science research into clinical applications. Am J Med 114 (6):477-84.
Crowley, W. F., Jr. 2003. Translation of basic research into useful treatments: how often does it occur? Am J Med 114 (6):503-5.