PZ Myers on Basic Research Using Kitties


An article in the London Mirror titled: Sew cruel: Scientists stitch up kittens' eyes in shocking experiment has generated comments and controversy. The article addresses an experiment where 30 kittens were used to study brain response to sensory deprivation. Some had their eyes sewn shut for days and were in total darkness for weeks. According to the Mirror: “Researchers insist the experiments at Cardiff University are humane and took place in a bid to find a cure for lazy eye in children, which can lead to blindness. . . . Cardiff University [stated] ‘It is impossible to use any other kind of technique for this study.’”

PZ Myers weighed in on this saying:

There is an extremely common sort of experiment to understand plasticity of the developing brain. These are important experiments to understand an important phenomenon: the brain does not simply unfold ineluctably to produce a fully functional organ, but actually interacts constantly with its environment to build a functioning organ that is matched to the world it must model and work with.  . . . What we could see anatomically is that as young children adapt to their environment, the brain is busily pruning and shifting connections — but what we couldn’t see is what was causing those changes, or what effect those anatomical changes had on visual processing. For that, you have to tinker. And since you can’t do that with human babies, you have to go to animal models.

Myers continues by agreeing that society will be outraged by these experiments but only because anti-vivisectionists “will beat the drum of ignorance and lie about their practice and utility.”

But in case anyone was in doubt about what the above really means, Myers then states:

No, actually, most of this research isn’t just an abstract pursuit of knowledge (although there’s nothing wrong with that, either). This is research that is directly applicable to alleviating human suffering. Treatment of visual system disorders in children is informed directly by these kinds of experiments: they tell us about the sensitivity of the visual system to abnormalities in inputs and long term effects of sustained aberrations.

And THAT is what this blog is about! Indeed that is what AFMA’s entire message is about.

Animal models cannot predict human response to drugs and disease. Period. That has been established beyond a shadow of doubt and confirmed by Theory in the form of complexity science and evolutionary biology. We now have empirical evidence and Theory backing this up. Animal models are not predictive now and will not be predictive in the future for human response to drugs and disease. The ONLY way vivisection activists like Myers and Gorski can claim that animal models are predictive is by conflating how the word predict is used in the context of testing a hypothesis and how it is used when determining whether a modality is predictive (has high positive and negative predictive values).

Hypotheses generate predictions, which may be right or wrong. That’s science. So to say that an animal model was used to confirm a prediction made by a hypothesis is trivial from a philosophy of science perspective. But a modality, claimed by those that use it to be predictive, is not used to generate hypotheses it is used to determine a future course of action. For example, a drug-sniffing dog is used to determine whether a person should be subject to a drug search. If the modality, the dogs trained to do this, fail above a certain percentage of times, then the modality is not predictive in the scientific sense of the word and will be probably be abandoned by law enforcement. Another example: a blood test for cancer can be judged by the same criteria as can essentially any diagnostic medical test. Any modality that claims to be predictive can be tested per the table below. Animal models for human response to drugs and disease can and have been judged by the same criteria and they have failed. That is the empirical evidence.

Table. Binomial classification method for calculating sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive value, and negative predictive value when comparing a modality, practice, or test with a gold standard.

Gold Standard

                                                               GS+  GS- 

 Test  T+                        TP     FP

                                    T-                         FN     TN

T+ = Test positive

T- = Test negative

T = True

F = False

P = Positive

N = Negative

GS+ = Gold standard positive

GS- = Gold standard negative

Sensitivity = TP/(TP+FN)

Specificity = TN/(FP+TN)

Positive Predictive Value= TP/(TP+FP)

Negative Predictive Value= TN/(FN+TN)

The role of Theory in science is to explain multiple seemingly unrelated phenomena or empirical observations. Theories include the Theory of Evolution and the Germ Theory of Disease. These Theories explain a wide range of observations and have been confirmed in multiple ways. Likewise, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has been confirmed multiple times. The failure of animal models in areas as diverse as infectious disease, cerebral ischemia, cancer, and coronary artery disease can be explained by a Theory derived from complexity science and evolutionary biology. The combination of complexity science and evolutionary biology (including evo devo and genetics) allows us to conclude the following:

Living complex systems belonging to different species, largely as a result of the operation of evolutionary mechanisms over long periods of time, manifest different responses to the same stimuli due to: (1) differences with respect to genes present; (2) differences with respect to mutations in the same gene (where one species has an ortholog of a gene found in another); (3) differences with respect to proteins and protein activity; (4) differences with respect to gene regulation; (5) differences in gene expression; (6) differences in protein-protein interactions; (7) differences in genetic networks; (8) differences with respect to organismal organization (humans and rats may be intact systems, but may be differently intact); (9) differences in environmental exposures; and last but not least; (10) differences with respect to evolutionary histories. These are some of the important reasons why members of one species often respond differently to drugs and toxins, and experience different diseases. Immense empirical evidence supports this position. 1 p358

The use of kitties will not predict human response to drugs or disease, yet this is exactly what is claimed by those with a vested interest in the process. Why? The data are clear and readily available (see 2-6) and anyone that argues against creationism understands the difference between hypotheses and theory and anyone in biomedical research understands the differences between predictions and predictive values as determined by the table above.

So why not just admit that the kitty experiments are an example of basic research, research performed with no end in mind except to generate more knowledge. (That's not my definition of basic research it is the definition. See Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable? for more on this.) The reason is that society will not allow the above experiments on kittens unless it thinks the research will be directly applicable to humans.7 Therefore, the vivisection activists must sell it as such. Note what Tom Holder stated in the Mirror:

There are some areas of science where the only way to treat human illness is to use animal models. . . . The history of animal research is a catalogue of medical breakthroughs that includes vaccines for polio and meningitis and treatments for asthma, diabetes and HIV. All these breakthroughs could not have happened without the limited use of animals for which there were no alternatives.

Holder is correct in stating that scientists can do things to animals that they cannot do to humans. He is incorrect in saying or implying that animal models lead to treatments frequently enough to be considered predictive or even frequently enough to be considered a viable use of money.8,9 And that's the rub! Scientists that use animal models want to get funding and the only way they can do that is by selling their research as directly related to human disease. Don’t take my word for it. Consider the following from James W. Hicks, PhD. Dr Hicks is Professor of Comparative and Evolutionary Physiology at the University of California-Irvine as well as the recipient of the Morris F. Miller Faculty Development Award. (For more on Dr Hicks see http://compphys.bio.uci.edu/hicks/hicks.htm.) In a debate with me, Hicks stated:

What motivates a lot of biomedical scientists is using animal models to generate novel and new ideas.  However, what has happened -- and Dr. Greek is entirely correct -- is that to sell the idea, quote, unquote, sell it, I would -- I would agree that many biomedical scientists can be accused of over promising and under delivering.  But the over promising is what's required or the -- or is what they have to define why are you doing this research and how's it going to directly benefit humans? 

(For a full transcript of the debate see here.)

In Animal Models in Light of Evolution we provide numerous example of researchers doing just that—claiming their research will directly result in cures for human disease. A simple search of NIH RePORTER will reveal many more such instances.

Myers closes his diatribe with the following:

(By the way, this was an animal surgery that was also used as a training unit for the medical school. One other thing I learned there was that while Ph.D. researchers were people with a deep affection for their subjects, M.D. students were assholes who didn’t give a damn. I hope they learned some humanity later in their careers, because I didn’t see it at the early stage when they were practicing on animals.)

OH MY! Anger issues PZ? Or just jealous of the difference in pay scale between “those that can” and “those that teach?”

In light of the above, I extend my debate invitation, previously offered to Dr Gorski, to Dr Myers. My list of concessions should make Dr Myers very happy and very comfortable participating in a debate. Drs Gorski and Myers frequently complain that debate opponents do the Gish gallop and therefore have reservations about debating people that disagree with him. By going first, taping my first part of the debate, and allowing referees to judge the content there certainly can be no Gish gallop or any other fallacy from me. I bet that Myers and I even have enough people in common to find mutually agreeable referees for the debate. No need to even go outside of our little circle. Other debate issues Myers and Gorski frequently complain about (and rightly so) should also have been addressed in my offer. It's a fair offer if I do say so myself.

Which is why it will look so BAD when Gorski and Myers decline it. And make no mistake, decline it they will. They do not have the science on their side on this one hence their defense of the practice will be exposed for what it is—unrelated to science and very related to money and ego.

It is not a mark of scientific excellence or sophisticated critical thinking to debunk nonsense in the form of alt med or creationism. (Although I am glad that people do.) The test of critical thinking and scientific skepticism is applying those principles to one’s self. Myers and Gorski routinely turn their education and skills against people who spew easily refuted nonsense (and rightly so) and some conclude that the two must therefore be outstanding critical thinkers and brilliant scientists. But when challenged to back up their position on an issue like animal models against someone with their level of education, they cower. Neither is exactly shy so their cowardly behavior cannot be excused because they are wallflowers afraid of controversy. Nope. These boys speak their mind. So why would either give up the opportunity to point out all the flaws in my position? To publicly humiliate me? Yep, that’s a stumper. Unless of course everything I have said about their having a vested interest in the topic along with no science to support their position is correct. In which case, their behavior is exactly what one would expect.


1.         Shanks, N. & Greek, R. Animal Models in Light of Evolution, (Brown Walker, Boca Raton, 2009).

2.         Greek, R., Hansen, L.A. & Menache, A. An analysis of the Bateson Review of research using nonhuman primates Medicolegal and Bioethics 1, 3-22 (2011).

3.         Greek, R., Menache, A. & Rice, M.J. Animal models in an age of personalized medicine. Personalized Medicine9, 47-64 (2012).

4.         Greek, R., Pippus, A. & Hansen, L.A. The Nuremberg Code subverts human health and safety by requiring animal modeling. BMC Med Ethics13, 16 (2012).

5.         Greek, R. & Shanks, N. FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed, (University Press of America, Lanham, 2009).

6.         Greek, R. Animal Models and the Development of an HIV Vaccine. J AIDS Clinic Res, S8:001 (2012).

7.         Giles, J. Animal experiments under fire for poor design. Nature444, 981 (2006).

8.         Greek, R. & Greek, J. Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable? Philos Ethics Humanit Med5, 14 (2010).

9.         Crowley, W.F., Jr. Translation of basic research into useful treatments: how often does it occur? Am J Med114, 503-505 (2003).


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