• September 3, 2015

Animal Research: Activists' Wishful Thinking, Primitive Reasoning

Activists' Wishful Thinking, Primitive Reasoning 1

Robyn Beck, AFP, Getty Images

A recent protest at the U. of California at Los Angeles

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Robyn Beck, AFP, Getty Images

A recent protest at the U. of California at Los Angeles

Advertising experts know that if you repeat a message often enough, people will believe it, regardless of whether it's truthful or not. Repetition, we're told, is much more important than accuracy.

Given that, looking back at weeks of being the target of a campaign this summer by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), I could easily have started believing that I am a satanic monster, lacking any soul, a torturer of helpless creatures, a waster of taxpayer money, and a life form slightly above pond scum on the evolutionary tree.

My new identity emerged when PETA issued another one of its "action alerts" in August, proclaiming, "Live Dogs Abused in Heart Attack Tests in OSU Laboratory," perhaps the third or fourth time it has launched an assault on a long-running series of experiments at Ohio State University investigating the cellular causes of often-fatal arrhythmias in the heart, with the goal of figuring out how to thwart them.

During past campaigns, PETA directed people to write a particular researcher or the university president to voice their complaints. And when those objections did flow in by the hundreds, they were rerouted to me, the contents never seen by the intended recipients. As the senior communications officer for research at my university, my job is to explain the work our scientists do. And when people take issue with some of our studies, I'm the one who receives their phone calls and their venom.

Understandably, callers opposed to our work were probably angered by not being able to reach those they had addressed in the past. But it's equally understandable that scientists need to keep doing science, and the president needs to keep running the university.

This time, PETA switched tactics. In its call to arms, the organizers pointed disciples directly at me, offering my e-mail address, office phone number, and even a link to my Facebook page as avenues of dissent.

Ten days into the protest, the complaints exceeded 1,100 and ranged from pleas to curses to accusations and outright threats of violence. Letters, e-mails, and Facebook messages exceeded 4,000, and I personally responded to more than 3,000 of them. Public institutions do, after all, have an obligation to respond to the masses. So if one of PETA's goals was to hand a university official some unexpected "busy work," it succeeded.

But if the hope was to halt the research in question, the efforts were wasted.

The reason is simple: Research universities use animals to do their research, and we are OK with that. (There is also the hitch that the Food and Drug Administration requires that drugs and procedures be studied using animals before they can be approved for use by humans.) While animal-rights activists often argue that computer simulations or tissue cultures, for example, should be used instead of animals, they neglect to point out that those so-called "alternatives" are too technologically unsophisticated to completely replace a living animal in studies. The data derived from such options are far inferior to those arising from animal use.

And herein lies the first of several failures of logic driving those opposed to animal use in research.

Animals actually complicate research. They're expensive and labor-intensive to maintain. If equivalent alternatives were readily available for researchers, scientists would have made the switch long ago. Sadly, effective alternatives are still a wish for the future.

Others argue the alleged wastefulness of using animals—that the differences between humans and animals negate any value in using animals for research. But decades of research have shown strong similarities between animal models and humans in the way their biological systems work.

Pigs are clearly not humans, but heart valves in both species are nearly interchangeable. Some viruses that attack rodents, cats, and primates can do the same damage to humans. And diseases in some species have highly similar "first cousins" that affect people. The key issue for researchers is that the biological mechanisms for many human and animal viruses are highly similar, if not the same. So understanding how to stop one form of virus in humans can provide the key to doing the same for animals, and vice versa.

Opponents of animal use in research are quick to sling the words "torturer" and "torture" at those who do this work, as if scholars and scientists who've devoted their careers to uncovering the causes and cures of human maladies feel visceral joy in inflicting pain on the animals they use in their experiments. Even aside from the fact that there are stringent rules and regulations restricting the care and use of animals, animal-rights advocates seem all too willing to believe that those who do science are the basest members of humanity.

Too bad they don't always express the same compassion and concern for their fellow humans. This latest campaign against Ohio State, for example, included numerous demands to replace animals in research with human prisoners. The ethical problem of that substitution seems to have eluded some animal-rights protesters. (PETA has never endorsed such an alternative, but it has been distinctly silent when the issue has been raised by its followers.)

These advocates want simple answers in a complex world. They see things as black or white: All animal use is wrong. Scientists are sadists. It's like wanting old Chevy carburetors to work in modern-day Volkswagens. But today's cars don't necessarily even have carburetors—modern automobiles are more complex than that. So are biological systems, and our understanding of that complexity seems to be growing exponentially by the week.

The core problem may just lie in the conflict between beliefs and logic. The former is built on commitments of faith, while the latter is rooted in fact. The lure of simple answers, based on strong beliefs, requires no facts and is enticingly addictive. Logic and facts only muddy the waters of belief.

After all, how logical is it to think that complaints directed at a university communications official would stop research aimed at improving human health?

But still, the messages keep coming.

Earle Holland is assistant vice president for research communications at Ohio State University.


1. mbelvadi - November 08, 2010 at 08:20 am

I'm not going to touch the main topic, but just point out an oft-repeated fallacy that to accuse someone of "torture" implies accusing them of experiencing "visceral joy" or being "sadists". Many of us who oppose the use of torture in military contexts at least do not reach to that assumption but merely assume that the torturers are focused on achieving some purpose (eg a confession or information about enemy activity) and are not deterred in their methods by the fact that they are causing suffering. That's quite different from experiencing pleasure from that suffering. No doubt some involved in Abu Ghraib atrocities were sadists, but to not experience pleasure does not take one off the hook of being a torturer. You might argue, however, that, pleasure aside, the label torturer only applies if the suffering itself is necessary to the goal, rather than a side effect of the research technique (cf. the other article in CHE this week about rhesus monkeys and brain screws and water deprivation).

2. rginzberg - November 08, 2010 at 09:11 am

Another point often not considered: Animal research also helps animals. One of my three dogs suffered liver damage as a result of (apparently) eating a poisonous mushroom (or other plant, NOT antifreeze). My veterinarian referred the dog to a research university which had experience with treating this condition, and the dog was treated and lived many good years afterward. My other dogs have been given various treatments too that were discovered in the process of testing human medical treatments on dogs. And an acquaintence of mine had a cat who received a kidney transplant at a research and teaching university. Both the cat and the donor kitty lived many high quality years afterward. These kinds of treatments have been made possible because universities do medical research on animals -- which research also benefits the veterinary community, and thus, other animals.

3. drrne - November 08, 2010 at 09:25 am

Thank you Mr. Holland for a very thoughtful and accurate portrayal of science and scientists. It's high time the public hear this message, without emotion, and from a source other than the committed anti-science activists.

Mbelvadi's comment fails to acknowledge the societal value in scientific progress. rginzberg adds an aspect usually ignored by anti-research activists, that the use of a few animals may also help other animals, now and in the future.

4. yackademic - November 08, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Dr. Holland, would you be willing to share whether it was you or CHE that came up with this article's title?

5. clintoncleveland - November 08, 2010 at 01:09 pm

mbelvadi, While you have a good point, ask yourself why those with extremist positions which do not resonate with a majority of the public feel it necessary to use extremist rhetoric? Why do you parse the intent of the scientist, but do not similarly parse whether or not the word legitimately tortue applies to research subjects for whom pain relief and avoidance of distress in many categories is an explicit requirement? Save only investigations of pain sensation, the entire animal research structure is set up to minimize and avoid pain.

6. deepbluesci - November 08, 2010 at 01:36 pm

Good essay Dr. Holland.

People sometimes forget just how important animal research is to some of the most exciting current developments in medicine, from regenerative medicine, to gene therapy, to RNAi.




This is why the overwhelming majority of scientists support animal research, they know how essential it really is!

7. 11211511 - November 08, 2010 at 03:42 pm

To mbelvadi: The term "torture" usually means violence intentionally inflicted on a victim either out of cruelty or to get information from that individual. Since the animal cannot tell an "interrogator" anything, the term torture and torturer is inappropriate.

To yackademic: As with most periodicals, the editorial staff decides on the headlines in the publication.

Earle Holland

8. imaprimate2 - November 08, 2010 at 05:27 pm

Mr. Holland's misleads his readers. He writes: "The data derived from [non-animal alternatives] are far inferior to those arising from animal use." But he fails to note, or maybe doesn't know, that a growing body of research looking at the outcomes of animal-based basic research is finding little benefit to human patients. papers to this effect are showing up in the PLOS journals and BMJ for instance. Even science writers are starting to ask why the massive increases in spending haven't resulted in much progress. See for instance: Mary Carmichael and Sharon Begley's article Desperately Seeking Cures in the May 15, 2010, Newsweek.

Mr. Holland's misleads his readers when he writes, "there are stringent rules and regulations restricting the care and use of animals." There are rules, but the two most recent reports from the USDA Office of the Inspector General, one looking at animal research in USDA/APHIS's Eastern Region, and the other looking at APHIS oversight or puppy mills, were uniformily critical. The report on research oversight noted that institutions like Mr. Hollands see the small occasional fines levied against then as simply a cost of doing business. In fact, APHIS has made quite a large deal recently of their new get tough plans. Time will tell whether the federal oversight actually begins to matter.

Some things are black and white no matter how much Mr. Holland wished otherwise. It is illegal in most cases to experiment on humans without informed consent. Laws governing experiments on animals should be similar to the laws governing research on children and others unable to give consent.

9. heng2009 - November 08, 2010 at 07:42 pm

As Assistant Vice President for research communications at Ohio State, Earle Holland knows better than anyone how much money is brought in by researchers conducting animal research. Public universities like Ohio State thrive on the millions of dollars supplied by research grants.

All the articles in this issue of CHE neglect to mention that universities, especially public universities of the kind these article writers belong to, need the massive grants brought in even by research of dubious value. Researchers & university administrators like Holland are driven to keep justifying the need to fund their projects.

Successful grant getters learn to be very good at coaxing peer reviewers to approve their multi-year, multi-million-dollar grant requests, whatever of the worth of any single project. We learn how to justify even dubious projects, & to do it well. This is an academic racket few people outside the academy understand with any clarity.

Perhaps CHE should follow the example of the NYT Magazine, & commission articles that ask some tough questions about funded research: ask not only fuzzy questions concerning the morality & ethics of continuing animal suffering in experiments, but about the money universities depend on, of which animal suffering happens to be one casualty.

Animal suffering is not going to go away, as long as grant money forms a major part of university revenues.

10. 11211511 - November 09, 2010 at 06:00 pm

To imaprimate2: There is a huge difference between your statement -- "a growing body of research looking at the outcomes of animal-based basic research is finding little benefit to human patients" -- and what is the proven, effective norm in modern biological research. Until there is overwhelming evidence accepted within the research community that the use of animals in research is generally faulty -- which is not the case now, nor will it be in the near future -- researchers are right to still use animal models in biomedical research, regardless of the anecdotal material carried in Newsweek.

As to your second point, the research at the center of this essay was investigated by both NIH and USDA and found to be fully compliant with the appropriate regulations. Your simply saying that the USDA OIG report found faults in the system in no way reflects that the research I discussed, and which was targeted by PETA, was flawed.

You may believe that informed consent requirements should be applied to animals, in addition to humans, but that is not the case, nor can animals give informed consent.

To heng2009: Your representation of universities and their researchers involved in some grand conspiracy to garner research funding by leveraging "dubious" research is simply indicative of the degree to which you don't understand universities or the research enterprise. This mythology that researchers are just trying to gain big bucks by misusing animals is patently ludicrous, but widely promulgated by animal rights groups. It is sad that it is so readily believed.

Earle Holland

11. ellenhunt - November 10, 2010 at 05:44 pm

Well, it is a fact that some researchers keep the mazooma rolling by finding something to kill animals with. If a person makes their career on that kind of work it is pretty hard to move away from it. It happens. But it is not a large percentage.

There are also big bucks in medical research. Let's be honest, Earle, about the practice of supplementing salary with soft money. It is easy to find researchers who add another $50,000 to their base income on top of a $120,000 to $150,000 yearly salary. Many of those people pad their own lush salary with more money than they pay the top earning postdoc in their labs. Without a grant, they can't do that. So don't pretend that big bucks are not a motive. The money absolutely is a motivation. It does not help, Earle, to misrepresent the facts.

But, aside from that, I mostly agree with Mr. Holland.

I'll go beyound that. I find it extremely obnoxious to meet PETA people who feed their dogs and cats pet food derived from animals as if this doesn't come from far greater cruelty than anything in animal research. Many of these same people eat meat and fish as well. The cruelty in that system is greater.

Meat. It's a reality of our imperfect world. Deal with it. I don't think I could do the primate work on visual system, but I don't think it's so absolutely wrong. It should stop when possible. And if any other way to get the data is found (fMRI, etc) then we should use that. There are alternatives.

12. peegriff - November 13, 2010 at 08:17 am

Oppressors will always find a way to explain their treatment of the oppressed, often eloquently. This does not excuse the suffering. As is usually the case, the oppressed do not have a voice. This time they literally do not have a voice and few are trying to save them. Animal research is a brutal aspect of the investigative process. Alternatives exist and others could be found, but the researchers do not care. They feel the process is not broken so why fix it. To find the source of suffering, follow the money or the sex. In this case, we know it's the money. I don't care what anyone says, many--MANY--of these animal researchers are lazy, opportunists, who make their living killing and torturing helpless animals while pontificating on their discoveries and the good they are doing. Anyone who cares about sentient beings could not participate in this process. They would work to find other and better methods. Yet, they continue in the bloody, brutal business offering their rote justifications to a gullible public.

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