Sunday, August 16, 2009


Once more into the animal abyss.

There seems to be some inferential evidence that a disagreement on the use of animals for medical/research experiments exists in the skeptical world. First, let me note that I do not think there is a right or wrong answer that a cold hard review of the facts can result to bring about one universal and undeniable answer. This is not a hard scientific fact i.e. whether evolution occurred, but more of an ethical/moral question. There has been some off handed remarks in a few podcasts in the past week or so, which started me thinking on this topic.

In the Skeptics Guide to the Universe episode #212 when Bob Novella discussed a possible new treatment for MS in mice, Rebecca Watson made a comment that this would have an "interesting" effect in animal research and was ammunition for those who wish to continue with animal experiments. (I could not get a read if this was a pro, con, or neutral statement from the tone or context.) Bob and Steve Novella both seemed to either be oblivious to or disregarding Rebecca mention of the the plight of the mice.

As discussed in an earlier post, the hosts of "Reasonable Doubts" have embraced vegetarianism to reduce the suffering of animals. Unfortunately, animal suffering in scientific experiments is unavoidable to one degree or the other, so I can image that they may oppose such experiments. However, they also noted that there were no bright lines with being a vegetarian. I cannot tell for sure what their stance is towards animal experimentation. However, I would find it interesting if it were discussed on their show.

In "Skepticality" during the interview with Dr. Marc Bekoff, Dr. Bekoff indicated that there were proper uses of animals in experimentation. However, it was only discussed in passing and he seemed to indicate that it was appropriate in a more passive circumstances such as to observe cancer in an animal population. This seem to indicate that he was opposed active experimentation upon animals to advance a line of study. Although, this was not followed up by Swoopy during the interview, and I do no feel that I can draw any solid conclusion on Dr. Bekoff's or Swoopy's distinct thoughts on animal experimentation. Dr. Bekoff noted that humans are not above other animals, and we should celebrate that we are animals. The direction of this line of reasoning would be to opposed to animal experimentation in the tradition "lab rat" sense. Again, it was not directly discussed on the podcast.

To me there seem to be two lines of thought that can be inferred in the scientific skeptical community. One is that we are animals, we are not superior to other animals. We really are not all that different from dogs, monkeys, apes, cats, mice, rats, etc. Therefore, we are in no position to cause suffering to other animals for our own benefit.

The other side seems to be that we cannot do random tests on people to see if a treatment will work, or give people an infection to see if new therapy X will work. The only way to safely go from the test tube, the computer model, and the hypothosis is the intermediary step of some manner of animal test. It is a necessary step in order to help scientists find safe reliable ways to treat people.

When I was in law school, I took a tour of an animal lab. I turned a corner to see land turtles being used for some experiment that had electrodes in their turtle heads. I gasped audibly. At the time I had a pet turtle. (I still have him thirteen years later.) I now also have a beloved dog and equally beloved cat. I am abhorred by people who would harm our close human companions, such as backup quarterback to the Philadelphia Eagles, Michael Vick. It's beyond words how inane, callus, and sadistic his actions were in the name of nothing. Yet, I'd really like to see more effective treatments for MS, cancer, and a nearly every other medical disorder as soon as possible.

I do think there is at least sufficient inferential evidence of a disagreement in the skeptical community that a thorough discussion or debate would be illuminating. If there has been such a debate within the skeptical realm I would love to know about it.

Perhaps Rebecca, Swoopy, Steve Novella, and Reasonable Doubt hosts would all agree, and there really is no major disagreement. However, my guess is that the devil is in the details on what the line is between necessary and unnecessary suffering for animals. I hate the idea of turtles with electrodes in their brains, but if it ends up as a sign post on the road for effective treatment of epilepsy (as an example) might it be acceptable?

I promise to try and stay away from animals topics.

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