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Rules of Engagement

This blog addresses concerns and issues raised in the discussion about my previous fallacies blog.

There are certain prerequisites that must be met before a productive discussion on any topic can happen.

First, one needs to be familiar with the facts. This is true in discussions about politics, travel, and even the weather but it is especially true in science. One problem in the creation evolution debate, for example, is that the creation community does not appreciate the facts of science as they pertain to evolution. An understanding of basic scientific principles as well as basic biological principles is a prerequisite before discussing issues that use these facts and principles. Likewise, if someone wishes to discuss the use of animals in science one must understand how animals are used (see my blog on the nine ways) and have an appreciation of the relevant scientific facts. If one wishes to discuss our position on the use of animals in science, then he needs an appreciation of the facts we present in Animal Models in Light of Evolution.

Second, if one wishes to discuss our position on the use of animals in science, in addition to having read Animal Models in Light of Evolution the person or critic must honestly render an interpretation that is consistent with what we wrote, not what the critic wishes we had written, or what the critic thinks, without foundation, that we wrote, or what the critic has been told we wrote. The participants or critic must be stating sound science in the criticisms, not misrepresenting the science so as to meet the critic’s particular agenda. There is essentially an unlimited amount of nonsense that can be spouted and most people, including me, do not have the time or inclination to pick apart each and every misrepresentation. This would essentially necessitate that I teach a philosophy of science course or Introduction to Science 101. Even that would not suffice for the critic whose intent is not honest.

Intent underlies everything in science and, for that matter, in life. When the above two prerequisites are not followed, one party in the discussion will probably be wrong. When nonscientists are following the discussion and they see scientists disagree on what should be noncontroversial, they naturally ask, “Why, if what you say is true, does X act the way he does or say the thing he does?” Unfortunately, the answer leads us away from science and into social dynamics and psychology. It is times like this when I quote Upton Sinclair who said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Medawar is also relevant here:

I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not. The importance of the strength of our conviction is only to provide a proportionately strong incentive to find out if the hypothesis will stand up to critical evaluation. Advice to a Young Scientist (1979)

I cannot explain, because I do not know myself, why people believe or pretend to believe something that does not stand up to scrutiny. But the fact remains that many people do believe and advocate things that are not true.

Third, the critic must avoid fallacious reasoning and other errors of thought and not only honestly represent our positions, but honestly criticize them as well (see my blog on fallacies). There is no sense in commenting on straw man arguments or other fallacies other than to point out what they are, as the number of lies that can be perpetrated are essentially infinite and time is finite. This includes telling the reader what my coauthors and I really mean or what we really think and asserting that irrelevant questions are relevant.

Fourth, since a discussion implies at least a two-way communication, the participants must answer the questions posed, if the questions are serous and in the spirit of the discussion; in other words, notred herrings or other fallacies. If reasonable questions about a position are posed but the critic ignores them then one can conclude the critic is not really interested in having the discussion. Perhaps the critic merely wishes to use ad hominem attacks and is using the discussion as a venue.

Fifth, when discussing science, the standard is to cite references to scientific literature or similar authority to prove or support one’s position. (Of course the references must actually support the position they are purported as supporting.) Anyone asking the reader to accept his opinion as authoritarian dogma is not engaging in a scientific discussion. Science is anti-authoritarian and anti-dogma. Science also does not appreciate anecdotes. That is not to say anecdotes are unimportant in science, many great discoveries have stemmed from anecdotes, but they are not as respected as the organized, systematic study of the phenomenon in question. Everyone has an anecdote supporting some notion that is not true. This is the nature of being human.

Sixth, perseverating a position that has been refuted elsewhere is not conducive to having an intelligent discussion.  I refer critics to Animal Models in Light of Evolutionfor answers. There is no sense in reinventing the wheel especially when we have already made very thorough arguments that people can easily access. But if the critic then refuses to acknowledge that the answer can be found there, we really do not have enough in common to continue a discussion.

Facts, intent, avoiding fallacies, actually engaging in the discussion, following the scientific standards, and just generally being honest are pretty good guidelines regardless of the topic being discussed. In the final analysis, the reader must acquaint herself with the appropriate material and use critical thinking in order to evaluate the topic of using animals in science and research. I have no fear as to what the honest reader will conclude if she follows these guidelines.

(For more on how using critical thought supports our position that animals are not predictive models for human, using terminology meant to appeal to the scientifically perplexed, please see FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed.)


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