Animal Writes

January 24th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 36 Comments »

I don’t want to distract anyone from the fabulous rabble-rousing that’s happening here, but I thought some of you might enjoy this article where a scientist from Oxford pops along to an animal rights meeting to see what they’re all about.

I’ve generally steered clear of writing about animal rights stuff, partly because I don’t often see them making straight bad science claims in the mainstream media, but also because I can’t be bothered with taking my shirt off, strapping an AK47 across my pecs, storming a building single-handed smeared in engine oil while choppers circle above, and rescuing the kids from kidnappers, all over again.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

36 Responses

  1. JohnHankinson said,

    January 25, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    Its an interesting article, but I can’t help but think that on many occasions we put too much thought into exploring the beliefs of Animal Rights Activists.

    For me it is as simple as saying that there is a clear disconnect between what they perceive the scientific process of medical research to be and what happens in reality. They seem to be ignorant (perhaps wilfully) of the huge amount of scientific grunt work that goes into creating finished medicines, much of which relies heavily on animal-based testing.

    There is also a great deal of confusion in the Animal Rights Movement messages (again, perhaps wilfully) regarding the lines between medical research, cosmetic testing and fashion. I personally am opposed to the use of animals in cosmetics testing and to make fur coats, but these practices have very little to do with proper medical research using animals.

    Has anyone seen Penn & Teller’s Bullshit episode on PETA? Its unashamedly biased but its an excellent program.

  2. Natalie said,

    January 25, 2006 at 4:00 pm

    Really interesting article. I am what some of my friends call a rare breed, a biology student who is a vegetarian but who strongly believes that at the moment we need animal testing for medical purposes. For example two year rat and mouse bioassays are still one of the most reliable sources of information regarding potential carcinogens, granted its not perfect but its all we have. In my head that boils down to if we can potentially save lives and suffering by carrying out animal testing than so be it.

    Maybe there is a need to educate the public about what these “nasty scientists” are doing to these “poor animals”. This debate will continue to rage but we need to be rational about it and not simply rise (or sink) to their level. It does make me mad when protestors rant on about the evils of animal testing for medical purposes but as soon as they get ill and have to take medication they forget that that has been tested on animals and try and justify it to themselves.

    What interests me is it seems people in general (and this is an awful generalisation) seem to be more appalled by pictures of animals in cages that will be used for vivisection rather than pictures of people who are starving for example. As a country we do give huge amounts to animal charities, but images from Sudan prompt us into brief action before we go back to our everyday lives.

    Sorry, will get off my soapbox now.

  3. Nick Anthis said,

    January 25, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Thanks for citing my article! Although I felt at the time that I must be crazy to going to an animal rights protest, it ended up being a really interesting experience, as you can probably tell. I decided to do this, though, because as a scientist at Oxford I’ve found that most people in the scientific community here, understandably write off the animal rights protesters as being completely irrational and insane. At the same time, they live in constant fear of the animal rights movement, due primarily to constant threats and the occasional property damage coming from its fringes. Although most of my preconceptions turned out to be true, others were challenged. In the end, though, I found that the belief that scientists perform animal research because they want to hurt and kill animals was very widespread at the protest, demonstrating that objectivity was not a driving force for most of the animal rights protesters. Regardless of how individuals in the scientific community approach this movement, understanding the other side can only be helpful.

  4. A Scientist said,

    January 25, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    The vocabulary of debate is striking on both sides of this argument – anti-AR rhetoric is often either as one-eyed or as uninformed as the accused animal rights protesters. Ben Goldacre’s stance is far more clear, and one which fires back without beating around the bushes of “we just need to explain more clearly, then they’ll understand” and “their arguments are just subjective ranting”.

    All that claptrap is nonsense. Here’s the animal rights stance, taken from the mouth of people I’ve talked to at AR protests:

    Humans don’t have the right to use animals for our gain. Animals have the right to live free of our utilitarian decrees. Therefore there must be no cats, dogs or any other pets that are bred and kept for the sole purpose of being our housebound amusements. Secondly there should be no cows, pigs, chickens or any other animals that have been selectively bred over the past 10,000 years for the sole purpose of being a food source.

    It is not hard to understand these beliefs, and I assure you that while there is a spectrum of beliefs within the AR herd – including some mindless hypocrits standing at the back with their dogs on a leash – the people with the megaphones making the threats would dearly like to see no animals bred for human consumption, whether it be emotional or nutritional.

    This is not a movement that has a problem with drugs testing on animals per se. It is about our right to impose rights on other species (ie. we don’t have one) and the animals’ right to be unused for whatever purpose (ie. as much as a human’s). You either agree with these stances or you don’t. I don’t, and am convinced by the medical, scientific and moral arguments in favour of using animals from the simple Caenorhabditis elegans to the necessarily complex rodents that constitute the overwhelming majority in the population of animals used for medical research.

    On a more pragmatic note, trying to castrate the builders of a site does nothing to change the legal obligation of drug companies to use animals in drug toxicity testing. This strategy by AR organisations implies to me that there may be some people using the protests as a vehicle for their anarchic and violent tendencies. Apparently castration might calm their nerves. But that’s a different argument.

  5. Mathew said,

    January 25, 2006 at 5:33 pm

    These are all good points I think.

    For my part, I’d like to see less of a debate about the rights and wrongs of ‘animal research’ and more of a debate about the rights and wrongs of research into specific animals. I am against research using chimpanzees and other apes. I see no justification for it. Research using drosophila, on the other hand, causes me no problems. I am therefore neither for or against ‘animal research’ as a whole, but for some research and against other research.

    As to individual cases, such as rats, mice, dogs, monkeys, etc. I think that each should be looked at on a case by case basis. A justifcation for using mice in an experiment is by no means a justification for using vervet monkeys, for example, and any mature debate should reflect this reality.

  6. Tessa K said,

    January 25, 2006 at 5:44 pm

    I thoought it was already illegal to experiment on primates in this country.

  7. RS said,

    January 25, 2006 at 6:28 pm

    “I thoought it was already illegal to experiment on primates in this country.”

    Only great apes.

    “There is also a great deal of confusion in the Animal Rights Movement messages (again, perhaps wilfully) regarding the lines between medical research, cosmetic testing and fashion. ”

    Even more interesting is that they totally ignore the value of basic research – the kind of stuff that even those who don’t directly work on animals, but are clinically oriented, need to understand what it is they’re looking at.

    You have to wonder why they spend all their time attacking academic labs and places like HLS, when they should be organising public lobbying of government to have the law changed on the requirements for animal testing and drug licencing. The government is always very quiet on this, and I would guess its because they quite like these companies taking the heat for what is essentially their requirement.

  8. Michael Harman said,

    January 25, 2006 at 7:53 pm

    From one of the comments on the original article: “many animal rights protesters are absolutely convinced that there is no scientific or medical benefit to animal research “. I’ve come across this more than once – the claim that say rodents are so different from us that results obtained from them cannot be applied to us.

    One answer to this is influenza. Birds are a lot further away from us than other mammals are, in evolutionary terms. But flu infects us, other mammals (notably pigs), and birds. So research on birds is directly important to us.

  9. Paul said,

    January 25, 2006 at 9:08 pm

    I think that RS touches on a crucial issue – one argument that I’ve heard time and again is that the basic research has no value – that it could all be done on computer models or cell lines or whatever. The conseuqence is that, whe animal rights campaigners try to win public opinion there is a lot of obfuscation, or more specifically, a conflation of two actually independent questions – First, is it reasonable to improve the lot of humans by experimenting on non-humans? Second, does experimenting on non-humans improve the lot of humans? Now I am perfectly prepared to accept that the answer to the first question is up to the conscience of the individual in question. Disagreement here often boils down to a matter or preference/ethics/call it what you will. The second question, however is not about opinion – in my view the evidence points overwhelmingly to a “Yes”. The real problem seems to me when people who believe that the answer to the first question is No (as I say, a perfectly defensible position I think) try to win support or to score points in debate by asserting that the answer to the second question is No. In some cases, I think that this conflation is deliberately engineered because some of the sloganeers actually don’t want to ask general members of the public the first question – as the answer might be a resounding Yes

    Of course this is pure surmise on my part but I am often struck by this conflation and the way in which it stultifies any meaningful debate

  10. Delster said,

    January 26, 2006 at 11:41 am

    of course one way round the whole problem would be to carry out the testing on the animal rights protesters….. or better yet on homeopathists…. might have trouble getting that one approved i think 🙂

  11. tom p said,

    January 26, 2006 at 11:57 am

    There’s 2 potential ethical questions with Delster’s suggestion: would it harm the subjects and would it benefit society.
    Regarding homeopaths, the answer to the first is a resounding no. After all, they clearly have magical super immune systems that can respond to pure water, so we could test anything we like on them and they’ll recover, no matter how dangerous it is. Like wolverine.
    Regarding question 2, given their magic powers, testing on them couldn’t benefit society since their super healiing force would only get in the way of seeing just how much harm could come to a proper human

  12. Frank said,

    January 26, 2006 at 12:59 pm

    If I had a TV, I’d probably be watching this tonight:

    War on Science

    You have to wonder, are any of the 41% who want Creationism taught in science class also part of the 44% who wanted to see ID in classrooms? After all, ID has *nothing* to do with Creationism, right?

  13. Ian said,

    January 26, 2006 at 1:20 pm

    I must admit, I always thought it would be sensible that anyone (of age and sound mind etc) who believes that animal testing for medical purposes is wrong should carry a card declining any and all medical intervention, except first aid, for the remainder of their lives. Sooner or later, statistically, there would be far fewer extremists….

    This is kind of a local issue; I leave in the area of the guinea pig farm which has shut down following the bodysnatching of the owner’s mother-in-law. Fairly nasty story, really. Despite my best efforts I really can’t emphathise with anyone who believes that animal lives are more important than human ones.

  14. ACH said,

    January 26, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    Hmm. Odd results summarised there. 48% accept evolution, but 69% said it should be taught in the science curriculum.

    rather than break it down by age I would have thought they should look at stated religion to compare it with. I notice there’s no link to the survey itself to find out what the raw data are, who commissioned it, what the sampling technique was etc.

    Also, I’m not sure how many people in the UK are really aware of what “Intelligent Design” is. I was talking to a scientist the other day and used the phrase and she had no idea what it was until I redefined it as creationism.

    Maybe we should be teaching ID/Creatinism in schools – along the lines of “it’s codswallop”. Depressing thought if there really are that many people around who believe it though. I’ll console myself with the thought that maybe the poll was commissioned by born-agains and conducted outside a creationist rally!

  15. Joe Otten said,

    January 26, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    The Bad Science, or rather Bad Arithmetic, in question here, is that of picketing labs rather than farms and supermarkets. More animals are used for less benefit in food than in research. Extreme as they are, these people know they would be on a hiding to nothing if they attacked food rather than the less obvious benefits of pharmaceutical research.

  16. Fontwell said,

    January 26, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    In the end I think it all comes down to this: Either you think is unacceptable behavior to willfully cause suffering to a creature, or you think its OK.

    The only gray area being how much suffering versus how much benefit might be had. In fact, although most people might like to think that they are in the gray area, in practice I think we do tend towards the two extremes. There are a few AR supporters and an awful lot of people who just don’t really care. If they did, as Joe Otten points out, we would all be vegetarians.

    The thing about the two extreme points of view is that neither are based on logic. As such, all the supporting arguments for and against are nothing but a smoke screen and as ever, no one is very likely to change their mind. The battle front is in fact at the boundry between vegans and vegetarians.

    If we all really believed that animal testing was intrinsically wrong – in the same way that we feel non voluntary human testing is – we would either find another way to do tests, or be perfectly prepared to live with the consequences. This is the AR view.

  17. Delster said,

    January 26, 2006 at 3:52 pm

    Regarding ACH’s comment…. there’s nothing wrong with teaching ID or creationist theory so long as it’s not done as science.

    After all ID can be summed up as “We can’t fully explain it so it must have been the big beard in the sky”

    Creationism can be summed up as “We don’t care if anybody has another explanation, it was the big beard in the sky that did it”

    I used to have a very good Religious Education teacher who would cover the whole spectrum of religions but in such a way as to actually make us think about them properly. As opposed to shoving one particular one down our throats which is the way other ones have done it. Personally i think he was a scientist in a previous life 🙂

  18. Another Scientist said,

    January 27, 2006 at 1:50 am

    “As to individual cases, such as rats, mice, dogs, monkeys, etc. I think that each should be looked at on a case by case basis.”
    I would say that they are. Each laboratory requires a project licence from the Home Office listing the animals it may use and the procedures that may be carried out on the animals. Every individual carrying out these procedures must have a personal licence explicitly listing specific animals and procedures.

    As for Chimpanzes my understanding is that they rarely used and only when there is no better animal model (e.g. HIV and parkinsons I think).

    No one enjoys experimenting on animals – it is very far from fun. If there was an alternative scientists would use them.

  19. RS said,

    January 27, 2006 at 8:04 am

    “As for Chimpanzes my understanding is that they rarely used and only when there is no better animal model (e.g. HIV and parkinsons I think).”

    Not in the UK they aren’t. I know that the Dutch have used chimps for AIDS research and also I think the Americans.

  20. Teek said,

    January 27, 2006 at 8:42 am

    “Really interesting article. I am what some of my friends call a rare breed, a biology student who is a vegetarian but who strongly believes that at the moment we need animal testing for medical purposes. ”

    me too…!!!

  21. ACH said,

    January 27, 2006 at 11:36 am

    Not only is it not “fun” to do animal experiments, but even is basic cost terms, it’s not cheap either. Nor is it quick. If you are looking at a naturally occurring animal model for a rare disease (and I’m not talking about knockout mice here) you need the breeding programme to maintain the animals. A particular dog model I know of results in each animal costing around $10,000 – use a few of those in an experiment and it’s a big hole in the budget.

    If tissue culture/cell lines – often quoted by the AR people as “viable alternatives” could be used, it would be a damn sight cheaper and easier, not to mention less emotional, as scientists mostly have feelings about animals too. And of course, those alternatives are used much of the time, but for some experiments you need the real thing.

    Also, the Uk is one of the most higly regulated places to do animal experiments. If it’s driven out of here, there will be a lot of research institutes opening up in countries where there is little or no regulation, which doesn’t seem in the best interests of the AR people either.

    And where do AR people think that “cells” and “tissues” come from anyway?

  22. Natalie said,

    January 28, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    Teek, its really nice to find a kindred spirit. I find I have to justify my point of view constantly to people who think that because I dont eat animals I should abhore anything like animal testing for the purposes of medical research! In my mind its a completely different issue and you can’t extrapoliate from one to another.

    And as for the thought of the animal rights movement that we enjoy testing on animals, that actually makes me really annoyed, what sort of people do they think we are? More misassumptions about those evil scientists who actually have no soul. If there were a viable and cost effective alternative then it would be being used. As far as I know you still can’t fully study drug interactions in cell-cultures as they don’t take into account pharmokinetics for example. When there is a better alternative it will be used, at the moment we do the best we can in order to save lives and in my mind I can fully appreciate the work being done.

  23. Terry Hamblin said,

    January 30, 2006 at 7:19 pm

    There are about eight times as many mice kiled by the domestic cat as perish in research laboratories. I blame Micky Mouse.

  24. Junebug said,

    January 30, 2006 at 11:22 pm

    I used to be a vegetarian, briefly, while I was in school, but perhaps I never “got it” properly. But it seems as if the activists are saying we shouldn’t eat animals because they are as good as people. Reply: then why can animals eat animals–shouldn’t they have to stop eating meat as well? A: Well, humans are supposed to be above that sort of thing because we are thinking creatures. Reply1 (if activist is a Christian creationist): but didn’t God tell Adam that all of the plants and animals are for him to use and cultivate? Reply2 (if if activist is a darwinist): but aren’t humans animals as well, and therefore subject to the dietary requirements and preferences evolved over a milion years? Caveat (I do love that word–it seems to say that everything preceding it is a load of cr@p)–I have met some intelligent, thinking individuals who are vegan, and/or AR for religious reasons (ie: Buddhist) and I don’t wish to impugn their motives, (especially since most are willing to admit that they are morally motivated instead of dressing it up with flawed logic) so I won’t go there.

  25. Natalie said,

    January 31, 2006 at 12:10 pm

    Not suggesting that you are but please don’t automatically link vegetarians and vegans with the animal rights movement. It is my own personal choice not to eat animals, and I don’t inflict it on those around it. I decided to become vegetarian at age 10 after seeing a programme on intensive farming methods and it put me off eating meat. However I don’t damn the rest of the population who do, its all about free choice.

    As I have previously said I don’t align myself at all with the AR ‘movement’, and not all vegetarians and vegans do. We each have our own reasons for becoming ‘veggie’ but it doesn’t automatically mean that we believe that we should stop using animals for medical research for example.

    Sorry if this seems a bit like a counter-attack but its something I deal with everytime I tell someone I’m vegetarian and it can get to be a bit of a touchy subject!

  26. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 31, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    I see the point has been made already in essence that many animals besides ourselves eat other animals, why must we be required to abstain?

    Re laboratory protests, I may have previously made the suggestion that research sites should be twinned with honest-to-goodness animal torture facilities in secure locations on the other side of the world, probably for food production, so that if one is stopped from working then the other is ramped up and the net effect on animal welfare is zero.

    It’s particularly galling to see American business for instance use rhetoric about homeland security and standing up and not giving in to terrorists, but when the animal rights crew just vandalise their cars, they cave in like meringue.

  27. baxter said,

    February 3, 2006 at 3:09 pm

    I imagine most people posting here have seen this before, but there’s the off-chance that it may still raise a chuckle…

  28. RS said,

    February 10, 2006 at 8:51 pm

    “I don’t damn the rest of the population who do, its all about free choice”

    Strictly speaking, while I don’t proselytise, I guess, since my vegetarianism is a moral position, I must be judging others – that is what moral choices are about, we universalise them. I find many meat eaters are quite threatened by me being vegetarian, and always ask why, because I think they rightly recognise that by taking that position I am saying that something they do is wrong – even if I don’t come right out and say it, it is implicit in my position. In practice, I wouldn’t ban eating meat, but given the chance I’d really tighten up animal welfare legislation in the meat industry.

    With regards to the question about why we shouldn’t kill other animals since they also kill other animals, I think the same argument applies as to why we shouldn’t kill young children who kill other humans – they are unable to recognise the morality of the action, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still wrong to kill them.

  29. Nick Anthis said,

    February 27, 2006 at 9:31 pm

    Here’s a follow-up article, this time on the recent pro-research demonstration organized by Oxford students in the group Pro-Test:

  30. Organic Potatoes said,

    March 3, 2006 at 4:50 am

    not that I agree with this, but here’s a link from some antis:

  31. claire said,

    March 9, 2006 at 4:36 pm

    i think animal testing is very wrong. if it was u, u wouldnt like it! u should try living in a cgae for most of ur life.we shoyudle be able to go where we want and so should animals

  32. smelly bum said,

    March 9, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    i think everyone who reads this smells lkie pooo that my dog does

  33. smelly bum said,

    March 9, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    sorry i was only seeing if it worked! i dont realy smell but i know you smell like roses

  34. dwarfkiller said,

    March 19, 2006 at 2:58 am

    Well I’ve come late to this forum (call me slow but at least I’m methodical enough to find the good stuff on the Internet) but this is one topic that really struck me as more than worthwhile – it’s essential. Animal rights activists have monoplised this argument for too long with pictures of distressed puppies and monkeys – animal testing is not only legal in this country, it’s accepted by the majority of real scientists as essential to the devlopment of new drugs and treatments to cure mankind of diseases and conditions which have plagued us for our entire history.

    I will always rate a man’s life as of greater importance to me than any animals – not a view shared by all but tell me whose life you would save – a starving man or a starving animal and I will and have always chose the man. My mum died of cancer 4 years ago and the last 6 months of her life were solely as a result of drugs tested on animals – and I stand by my belief that it was worth it.

    I support every group which wants such testing to be carried out in as humane a way as possible but I’m afraid when it comes down to the choice between man and animal I come down on our side. I take the anthropomorphic tendencies of the animal rights brigade to be a failure to deal with the real rights of animals – it’s always easier to love a puppy than a spider

  35. Who will fight for researchers’ rights? « Faculty of 1000 said,

    October 7, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    […] critic of (in his opinion) the misuse of science, Ben Goldacre, even gave a reason back in 2006 for why he chooses to skirt around the animal rights […]

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