Computer simulations to “replace” animal research: Garbage in, garbage out

In my recent rehashing, rebranding, and repurposing an article addressing many of the flaws in the so-called scientific arguments against animal research often made by animal rights activists and extremists, I only briefly discussed one common argument among many, namely that computer simulations can replace the use of animals in medical research by modeling human physiology. I pointed out that, for a simulation to be valid, we have to understand quite a bit about the system beforehand and that simulations aren’t much good if they can’t be tested against reality. Mark Chu-Carroll decided to weigh in, and he did it in much more detail than I could. He also did it in a lot more detail than I could, because, well, he’s a computer geek and computer simulations are one thing he can do:

Let’s start at the beginning: just what is a simulation? It’s a model of a real system, which attempts to reproduce the effects and/or behavior of the system that it models. In the case of computer simulations, which is really what we’re talking about, we produce a mathematical model and algorithmically describe how the model evolves over time. In other words, we write a computer program that runs a mathematical model of a process.

And right there is the problem. We produce the model, and we implement the model. It does exactly what we tell it to. We programmers have a saying which applies particularly well to simulations: garbage in, garbage out. Computers do exactly what you tell them to; if what you tell them to do isn’t right, then no amount of computer power is going to change the fact that you didn’t tell them to do the right thing.

Precisely. Mark then goes on to explain why.

Add computer simulations to the list of “alternatives” touted by animal rights activists and/or extremists whose efficacy they never manage to show to be greater than the methods they’re supposed to replace.