The Chronicle Review

Animal Research: Activists' Wishful Thinking, Primitive Reasoning

Robyn Beck, AFP, Getty Images

A recent protest at the U. of California at Los Angeles
November 07, 2010

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.