On May 10, 2013, Tom (that is how he lists his identity) of Speaking of Research (SoR) posted an essay that mentions me so I thought I should address some of the points, despite the fact that they have already been addressed many times. The essay actually concerns an organization in the UK called “For Life on Earth.” For Life on Earth mentions many of the books and articles we have published and this appears to have drawn the ire of SoR.
First, I want to thank Tom for mentioning that Niall Shanks and I wrote much of what For Life on Earth discusses. Most of the time, vivisection activists leave Shanks off their list of villains despite the fact that he and I share the credit (or blame) for pretty much everything that Americans For Medical Advancement (AFMA) has addressed. The reason for this is that Shanks was not an animal rightists or even a vegetarian. It is difficult to label Shanks an extremist and hence dismiss him without addressing his position. (Don’t get me wrong, animal modelers still dismiss him without addressing our claims. It’s just more difficult to appear objective when one summarily dismisses the author of God, the Devil, and Darwin. For more on Shanks see here.)
Tom informs us that veterinarians treat animals in a manner similar to how physicians treat humans: same drugs for various diseases. This is correct in what it affirms but wrong in what it denies. There is no doubt that humans and animals share traits and genes. Humans and animal also share treatments, anatomy and physiology. But similarity and shared treatments are causally unrelated to predictive value. I have stated that if similarity translates to predictive value, then all life scientists should be astronomers because all life is composed of stardust. The fact that some animals respond in the same fashion to drugs and disease as some humans offers nothing in terms of determining predictive value. In order to calculate predictive value one must include all available data and then perform the simple calculations. Cherry picking, especially cherry picking of data determined only in retrospect, is not allowed. If it were, we would all win the lottery, as everyone knows the correct numbers the day after the drawing. The predictive value of animal models has been evaluated and found lacking. (For more on predictive value, see More Misrepresentations, Fallacies, and Other Lies. Part IV, PPV and NPV in Real Life and Exercises in Simple Math Formulas. Also see here and here in Wikipedia.)
Moreover, the theory of evolution and complex systems theory must be violated if animal models per se were shown to be of predictive value. Empirical data can change as better technology and more knowledge are added. Violating theories like the germ theory of disease and the theory of special relativity is unlikely given the massive amount of evidence and explanatory power of these theories.
Tom goes on to suggest that personalized medicine, medical practice and medications based on your genotype, owes its existence to animal models. This is oxymoronic. Tom continues by critiquing the For Life on Earth website: “This makes me wonder if the whole website is not simply a straight marketing tool by Greek and Shanks’ publishers.” I can only say that I wish our books were such money generators that the publishers would even entertain such a notion.
Tom then addresses the notion that animal modelers have debated animal-based research many times. In point of fact, he is correct. Animal modelers will line up to debate nonscientists or scientists with little knowledge of the facts of the science involved with predictive value, evolution, and complexity. They will only very rarely debate me. Tom claims: “Dr Greek himself has debated against scientists like Dr Michael Conn on CNN (contrary to the website’s assertion that such debates have never happened).” I participated in a panel discussion with Dr Conn that lasted about 10 minutes. As I recall, real debate are more along the lines of 90 minutes and involve two participants. The event is on the CNN website (the link is available on the AFAM website) and I offer this as an example that can be viewed by the reader and thus the reader can decide if it was a debate or just a panel discussion. Just for the record, if Dr Conn would like to defend his position in an actual debate, I am available. (He has never accepted my invitation.) Claiming a short CNN interview and discussion among four people is the same as a debate is like saying a photo-op with the two presidential candidates is a debate because each said some words. That having been said, I have debated a very few scientists over the years and most of these are available on the website. Watch them and decide for yourself who presents the better case. Your judgment as to the winner and loser may explain why most scientists refuse my offer.
Tom then addresses the mailing address of For Life on Earth, something I am not qualified to discuss, as I know little about British laws or corporate matters. However, regardless of how For Life on Earth is registered or located, condemning them by who uses a company that they also use in terms of addresses and so forth is an example of the fallacy of guilt by association.
In summary, Tom’s entire essay, save things like the name of the author and the spelling of other people’s names and so forth, is an exercise in identifying fallacies. I suggest everyone read the essay and see how many you can count. (Such essays are not confined to SoR. A similar essay in Nature  bemoaned the notion that important research was being lost in Italy because of animal rightists. The essay states that more than 4,000 researchers from around the globe had signed on to The Basel Declaration, which is supportive of animal-based research. Like most such essays, there was no attempt to prove the predictive value of animal modeling. I addressed some of this in Tears Over Sandy And Italy.)
The next concept I want to examine was recently discussed by Drs Steven Novella and David Gorski* (blogging as Orac). Novella wrote in Science-Based Medicine an article titled: Politics of Public Research Funding. Novella discusses how science research is funded and states:
There is general agreement that this expenditure is an investment on critical intellectual infrastructure for our nation and is vital to our competitiveness and standard of living. The government certainly has the right, and in fact the duty, to ensure that this money is well-invested. Government oversight is therefore understandable. Inevitably, however, politics is likely to intrude.
In the United States, the federal government has long had a prominent role in funding science research. Be it the $30 billion a year or so that funds the National Institutes of Health or the $5 or $6 billion a year allotted to the National Science Foundation, the government funds a lot of basic and applied research, and this is in general a good thing.
I agree completely with the above.
Novella then describes a piece of legislation that would give Congress the power to fund grants as opposed to the peer-review process currently in place. He then spends much of the rest of the article describing the pitfalls of this proposal, which he suggests is a broadside against basic research. I also agree that the legislation probably is against basic research and that basic research is important. Such leaves a lot of room for disagreement however.
I have noticed, however, that researchers have become reflexively good at making up plausible-sounding possible applications for their basic science research – as if they have to constantly justify their research. Every basic-science study that looks at viruses, therefore, may one day cure the common cold. Anything dealing with cell replication may be a cure for cancer. Any materials advance will lead to supercomputers or superlight vehicles. All brain research, apparently, might one day cure Alzheimer’s disease. I would love for a scientist to say something to the effect of “I have no idea what, if any, practical use this research might lead to, but the knowledge is really cool”. I guess you just don’t say that to a grant committee, however.
Ah yes; now we are getting to my issue with basic research involving animals. The fraud part! I have frequently written in support of basic research but I have also frequently stated that society has placed limits on basic research and that I agree with those limits. For example, society does not allow potentially lethal research to be conducted on humans when the only justification is to add more knowledge to the universe (the definition of basic research). Therefore, basic research must meet certain criteria when it involves humans. So must applied research. I have argued that the same applies to animal-based basic research and that society is misinformed regarding what exactly basic research is because of these “plausible-sounding possible applications for their basic science research.” Say that in connection with any other use of government money and you will be in a federal courthouse in short order.
The bottom line is that there is no easy formula or algorithm for deciding what research to fund. You can have criteria, but applying those criteria requires intimate knowledge of the research area, of research in general, and the background science. Peer-review by a panels of experts is the best method for making such decisions.
In terms of basic research in general (physics, chemistry, and so forth), I agree, but in terms of using animals as predictive models, which is the fraud part of the above, there are studies that conclude it is not very productive, even when considered without the specious claims of predictive value. In other words, even evaluating basic biomedical research that uses animals in the fashion they are really being used, as a heuristic device, they do not lead to treatments a vast, vast majority of the time. Combine that with the fraud part and the fact that society has indicated they only want sentient animal used when results are likely to be important for new treatments, and one must conclude that the system that Novella and Gorski are defending has problems.
I am not advocating that we put politicians in charge of funding, but the peer-review systems we currently have has been called by one Congressman “an old boy’s system where program managers rely on trusted friends in the academic community to review their proposals. These friends recommend their friends as reviewers …It is an incestuous ‘buddy system’ ” Another stated: “It appears that the [medical establishment] system has changed from one of NIH giving grants for scientific research to one of scientific research being done solely to get NIH grants.” There are myriad complaints about the grant system at NSF and NIH. We can do better and the first thing that should be done is to honestly evaluate what we are getting for our money.
Gorski acknowledges this to a degree:
This is a huge issue in medical research that scientists have complained about for years, if not decades, namely the NIH emphasis on “translational” research; i.e., research that leads directly to treatments or diagnostic tests. Here’s the problem. Translational research requires a robust pipeline of basic science findings to “translate” into treatments. Most of those basic science findings will lead to nothing, and it’s very difficult to know ahead of time which ones will bear fruit in the form of improvements in treatment and which ones will not. Hindsight is 20-20, but trying to guess which lines of research will lead to cures in advance is almost impossible. Such guesses tend to be more a matter of luck than science, and the complaints of scientists who think their work is so innovative are often sour grapes.
His idea that we need more basic research is like saying: “we know we lose money on each item but we make it up in volume.” Basic research that is human-based would at least eliminate the “other species” variable and much basic research could be conducted with human tissue. But it would not bring in the overhead money that animal-based research does.
I feel for people that do not have the time or expertise to sort all this out. It is their money that is being used and there are many conflicting voices. I offer the following for such people. Gorski wrote in another essay:
All the while, they use highly dubious scientific and moral arguments to justify their stance, such as claiming that simulations can replace animal research or that animals are such poor predictors of human responses as to be utterly useless (a favorite argument of Ray Greek).
I have never stated or implied that animal-based research was “utterly useless.” Dr Gorski is wrong. Moreover, I have corrected him, and others, on this numerous times complete with references (see here, here, and here). Further, I also routinely distinguish areas in science where animals are successfully used and areas where they are not scientifically viable. Shanks and I stated in Animal Models in Light of Evolution:
We are about to begin a detailed analysis of the roles played by ani-mals in biomedical research. This is a good place to make clear, once again, what we are interested in, and what we are not. There can be no doubt whatsoever that if you wish to make discoveries about rats and mice you will be forced of methodological necessity to perform careful scientific studies of R. rattus and M. musculus respectively. In fact, in writing this book, we are the beneficiaries of the results of careful scientific studies of animals. There is no doubt that careful biological studies of rats and mice can help clarify the general contours of mammalian biology. Such studies can also play a valuable heuristic role by prompting new ways of thinking about human biological problems of interest. The issue we are concerned with is this: notwithstanding these cautions, are animal models predictive of human outcomes in, say, toxicology, drug discovery, and the study of the causes and cures of human diseases? (p26)
This book is not intended to be a criticism of the use of animals in the context of basic biological research. There can be no doubt that careful studies of animals have prompted important hypotheses about basic bio-logical principles, and there can be no doubt that studies of animals have contributed greatly to our scientific understanding of life, and there is little doubt that these studies will continue to illuminate these matters in the future . . . (p28)
For more examples, see most any book, blog, or article I have authored or coauthored.
Even in my response to Orac I stated:
We have consistently broken down the use of animals in science into nine areas:
(1) as predictive models for human disease; (2) as predictive models to evaluate human exposure safety in the context of pharmacology and toxicology (e.g., in drug testing); (3) as sources of ‘spare parts’ (e.g., aortic valve replacements for humans); (4) as bioreactors (e.g., as factories for the production of insulin, or monoclonal antibodies, or the fruits of genetic engineering); (5) as sources of tissue in order to study basic physiological principles; (6) for dissection and study in education and medical training; (7) as heuristic devices to prompt new biological/biomedical hypotheses; (8) for the benefit of other nonhuman animals; and (9) for the pursuit of scientific knowledge in and of itself. [(Shanks and Greek 2009) p30] Even nine is too few but it makes an otherwise unmanageable topic manageable. In seven of the nine areas (#s 3-9) we readily acknowledge that animal use is scientifically viable hence useful. (Emphasis added.)
That does not sound like the words of someone who can be honestly accused of holding that animal modeling is utterly useless. So why would Gorski continue with the lie?
I suggest that those with the time, education, and inclination read what Shanks and I have written over the years and what I, alone or along with others, have written more recently (see here and here). But for those that do not have the luxury of doing this, the fact that Dr Gorski has to resort to lies concerning my position should be informative regarding the viability of our respective positions.
(*I again state for the record that a vast majority of what Novell and Gorski write in Science-Based Medicine and Respectful Insolence and NeuroLogicaBlog is rock solid science. But even professionals and skeptics can engage in motivated reasoning and get things wrong from time to time.)
1. News, Voice of Pro-Test. Nature, 2013. 497(7448): p. 158.
2. Crowley, W.F., Jr., Translation of basic research into useful treatments: how often does it occur? Am J Med, 2003. 114(6): p. 503-5.
3. US Congress, Scientific Fraud and Misconduct and the Federal Response., Committee on Government Operations Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations, Editor 1988, US Congress: Washington DC. p. 108.
4. US Congress, US Congressional Hearings on Scientific Fraud and Misconduct April 12, 1989, 1989.