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The Animal Protection Movement Should Embrace Science and Critical Thinking

Steven Novella, MD is a Yale neurologist who is very vocal in the science-based medicine and skepticism communities. He is the president of the New England Skeptical Society and hosts a podcast called the Skeptics Guide to the Universe to which yours truly is a fan. Novella also has a blog titled Neurologica. His current blog is Shark Cartilage – No Benefit for Lung Cancer. That blog is the topic of this blog.

Novella and others in the science-based medicine and skeptic communities apply critical thinking to issues like homeopathy, acupuncture, alternative medicine, whether vaccines are worthwhile (they are) and so forth. They also address issues that overlap with the concerns of the animal protection movement. For example, whether shark cartilage can cure or prevent cancer. In my opinion, every animal protectionist who is involved in issues that touch on science, such as the use of animals in research, the slaughter of animals for their parts in alternative medicine and so forth should read the blogs by Novella and his colleagues. The thinking they exhibit and the concepts they explain should be understood and incorporated by animal protectionists when dealing with issues like rhino horn for treating impotence, bear bile for treating whatever, shark cartilage for cancer and so forth.

My wife, Jean, and I formed Americans For Medical Advancement (AFMA) in 1999 in order to focus on the science of animal-based research. It was and still is our opinion that science and critical thinking have much to offer the animal protection movement. The best arguments against murdering rhinos for their horn come from science. Namely, rhino horn does help cure impotence. Please do not misunderstand. I agree that rhino slaughter is just plain wrong. But the compassion argument has not worked out well for ending animal suffering. The science arguments have and will continue to change minds. Much suffering in the animal world is caused by superstitious beliefs that are addressed, at least conceptually, by people like Novella.

One key to changing minds is to present clear, rational arguments that the people can relate to. That is very difficult to do if the presenter is not a critical thinker himself. If the animal protectionist believes nonsense, for example that vaccines don’t work or that homeopathy, acupuncture, or aromatherapy should be tried before consulting a medical doctor, it is going to be next to impossible to use science to explain why practices like shark cartilage are bad. The first thing many people look for when trying to refute an argument is inconsistency on the part of their opponent. You cannot claim rhino horns are useless for treating impotence while simultaneously claiming homeopathy works. The same science refutes both.

Finally, I need to warn my animal protection friends that I have no idea what Novella thinks about whether animal models are predictive for humans or where he stands on animal protection per se. Further, people like David Gorski—a strong supporter and user of animals in research—also post on the Science-Based Medicine blog site. Good news rarely comes uncorrupted. (By the way, Gorski has still not responded to my question regarding his claim that “the correlation between cell culture studies is even more unreliable than that of animal studies.” But I will leave that for another day.) Regardless, I still encourage everyone who fights for the animals in areas that overlap with science to read Science-Based Medicine and Neurologica and listen to Skeptics Guide to the Universe because the good is far outweighed by the bad. Critical thinking and understanding the science behind many of our arguments is vital if we as animal protectionists are to prevail.


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