Answering other arguments of animal rights extremists

I hadn’t really planned on writing anymore about animal rights extremists. The topic seemed as though it had played out over the few days. But those who’ve followed this blog know that I’m nothing if not tenacious when I grab onto a topic, and sometimes certain topics demand several posts. More importantly, over the last few days, I’ve had a minor infestation of animal rights extremists into my blog. Heck, Camille Marino even made an appearance. However, one animal rights apologist has been particularly persistent, someone named Douglas Watts, who’s been a particularly persistent pest, spewing bad arguments and logical fallacies hither and yon. AS a result, he managed to draw my attention to a particularly logic challenged defense of animal research that demands that I apply one last heapin’ helpin’ of Respectful (and not-so-Respectful) Insolence regarding this topic. You can tell where Doug’s coming from when he starts his post thusly:

Carl Sagan said extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Given the extraordinarily large number of animals used and killed for lethal scientific research, it is useful to apply Sagan’s dicta to this ongoing practice. Is there extraordinary evidence to justify the extraordinarily large number of animals which die every year in the name of scientific research? Has the case been made? How do we decide?

Lethal animal research fits Sagan’s question, since it is elective (nobody is forcing researchers to do it), nobody has specifically asked them to do it (all requests are self-generated, by the research scientists and facilities themselves), nobody has ever done a serious investigation as to how much of this research can be eliminated as needless or so bereft of important societal benefits in comparison to its effects that it should be phased out. And most importantly, much of this research is undeniably and profoundly cruel.


Carl Sagan is probably doing backflips in his grave at the abuse of one of his most famous catch phrases. Whether Sagan supported animal rights or not (and there is certainly evidence that he was sympathetic to some of the arguments of animal rights activists although he might have realized that he owed how long he managed to survive myelodysplastic syndrome to animal testing) doesn’t make one difference to this abuse of his words, because it’s the way Sagan’s quote is being used that is the problem. It’s a classic example of simply labeling a claim as “extraordinary” when it is not really extraordinary and then use that label as an excuse to invoke Sagan. Unfortunately for Doug, simply declaring something “extraordinary” does not necessarily make it so.

Also, note the framing. “Lethal scientific research.” The way Doug asks whether the case has been made and how we decide makes it very clear that he thinks the case hasn’t been made and that he has no intention of objectively examining the scientific evidence for and against animal research. Moreover, I would postulate that he’s shifting the burden of proof because he knows he doesn’t have a case. Why do I say this? Because the evidence that animal research, humanely carried out, benefits humankind is overwhelming and irrefutable. Yes, I know that animal rights extremists frequently try to refute the contention, but, as I described before, their refutations almost always rest on a load of rotting dingo’s kidneys, scientifically speaking. Doug’s post is no exception, except that he also seems to be enamored of playing “name that logical fallacy,” as well. His reasoning is particularly bad when he concludes that, by Sagan’s dictum, the burden of proof is on scientists. It’s a classic case of a non sequitur, not the least of which is because Doug hasn’t established that the claim that the benefits of animal research are so minuscule or that no one has ever done a serious investigation as to how much research is needless–or that much of this research is “undeniably and profoundly cruel.”

As has been described many times before, the regulations governing animal research are tight and getting tighter. Animal research is one of the most heavily regulated areas of biomedical research. Federal regulations cover all aspects of animal research facilities, and animal laboratories are regularly inspected for compliance with these regulations. Veterinarians staff them, and all applications to the NIH proposing any kind of animal research require a detailed description of the use of animals, a statistical justification for the number of animals used, and a detailed description of the measures that will be taken to alleviate any pain and suffering that might be inflicted. Unlike the rest of the grant application, there are no page limits on the section justifying animal use.

Of course, none of this matters to Doug, as is demonstrated by this:

Some, but not all, researchers are under the delusion that by denying there’s a problem, by supporting legislative limitations on investigation and protest, by criminalizing protest, by using an ‘ends justifies the means’ approach, by using scare tactics like ‘your parent and kids will die without this,’ and by calling people who are against animal cruelty ‘crazy,’ that somehow peoples’ profound distaste for the elective use of animals for lethal research will magically go away. It won’t.

Logical fallacy: Straw man.

Note how Doug implies that researchers believe all animal rights supporters are “crazy.” Not at all. It’s just the ones who threaten violence, who intimidate researchers, who vandalize property, who reserve for themselves the right to flout the law and to harass researchers’ children at their schools, who earn our ire and harsh criticism. Moreover, it is not “criminalizing protest” or suppressing free speech to support laws and the enforcement of laws to prevent these sorts of tactics. Animal rights extremists are free, as they have ever been, to protest peacefully. They are not free to intimidate, bully, harass, destroy, or use violence. This is true for every citizen, and it is true for them too. They simply reject these limitations. they even say as much; in fact, they make no bones about it.

Doug then makes a number of charges and excuses. First an excuse:

1. People against cruelty to animals are “extremists.”

This is logically fallacious since any cause contains a few people who are so zealous they go outside the bounds of the law. To tar and feather people solely based on the actions of others — whom they don’t even know — is non-rational.

Pot. Meet kettle. Project much, Doug? After all, animal rights extremists tar and feather pretty much all animal researchers based solely on the actions of a few, and, in fact, they distort, exaggerate, and even lie to do it, often in incredibly lurid terms. More importantly, Doug seems to generalize the criticism of the animal rights extremists who threaten violence to all supporters of animal rights. In doing so he unwittingly lets us all know exactly where his sympathies lie. He relates to the extremists, and when he sees criticism of their actions he takes it personally. He seems to think that these criticisms apply to him as well. Whether they do or not I don’t know. I can’t know whether Doug supports violence against “vivisectionists” or not in his heart, his protestations otherwise notwithstanding. However, his language certainly suggests at least strong sympathy with the aims ALF and other animal rights terrorists and their choice to break the law.

Doug also lays down a few howlers in rapid succession, for example:

3. The ends justify the means.

Any activity can, eventually, perhaps, increase knowledge by some degree and lead to ‘benefits’ for some group. The White House was built in part by black American slaves.

Is it just me, or does the above passage sound as though Doug’s equating African American slaves with animals? Bad choice of analogies, I’d say, and one that was already dealt with on DrugMonkey’s blog.

Doug’s next bit:

4. Much 20th century medical knowledge is based on animal research.

Because so much lethal animal research has been conducted in the 20th century, it is inevitable that a lot of medical knowledge is partly or wholly drawn from this research. A statement of fact is not an argument.

No, a statement of fact cannot be insolent.

Well, actually, not really. We all know that a statement of fact can be very insolent indeed. (Even my ‘nym-sake Orac almost certainly realized that, as he was constantly stating facts in a most insolent manner.) A statement of fact can also be an argument, which apparently Doug is too obtuse to realize. At least I should give him credit for one thing. At least he seems to acknowledge that huge swaths of our knowledge of biology and medicine derive from animal research, in addition to human research and in vitro studies using cells. Animal research, done humanely, ethically, and correctly, yields great dividends. I could reiterate the example of the Blaylock-Taussig shunt, which was developed using an animal model for blue baby syndrome, using that animal model to develop a surgical procedure to correct the syndrome, and practicing the procedure on animals until all the technical kinks were worked out. Only then did Dr. Alfred Blaylock attempt the procedure on a baby, and he was successful. That’s just one example. Virtually every major surgical advance required animal research to develop: Transplantation, cardiopulmonary bypass, medical devices. I’ll admit that surgery is one specialty particularly dependent on animal research for rather obvious reasons, but no area of medicine hasn’t been touched by advances made through animal research, in particular the discovery of insulin.

I also note how specifically Doug specifies 20th century medical knowledge. I’m sure this is intentional, but, quite frankly, this new century is still too young to be able to determine how much of our medical knowledge will end up being based on animal research. Whatever the fraction of that knowledge ends up being, any knowledge we gain from such now in the 21st century will for quite a while still be based on research dating back decades, if not longer–back into the 20th century, even deep into the 20th century. Science is a continuum.

Not that any of that matters to Doug. First, he puts the onus on scientists:

In the end researchers need to convince the public. And to do that, researchers must accept they have an obligation to do so. If they do not wish to fulfill this obligation they can stop doing the lethal research. Nobody is forcing them to do it.

On the surface, this is not entirely unreasonable, as far as it goes, even though it is in essence blaming scientists for the extremists, much as, for example, much as Ward Churchill blames America for 9/11. Unfortunately for validity of this criticism, scientists are constrained by science, evidence, and the truth. Animal rights extremists are not. Hyperbole, misinformation, pseudoscience, and lies are their stock in trade. It’s just like any other bunch of cranks, only that these cranks are potentially dangerous. In that context, Doug is disingenuous at best when he puts the onus on scientists to make their case. Will he put a similar onus on animal rights extremists to stop lying? Somehow I doubt it, if this next passage is any indication:

There is no inherent right to conduct lethal experiments on animals. U.S. and state law have carved out very narrow exemptions for licensed animal researchers, ie. a privilege, as compared to run-of-the-mill animal abusers. And like a driver’s license, this privilege must be earned. Inherent within it is an obligation. There is no right to conduct lethal experiments on animals, any more than I have the right to starve my dog to death or feed it poison. This is settled law. The law already comes down on the right of animals in this context. That ship has sailed.

Doug concludes:

What’s needed is for the research community to acknowledge that lethal animal research, especially in its most egregious forms, is profoundly distasteful to society at large for the same reason that dog fighting is distasteful. Researchers need to engage the community in a discussion and offer solutions, not bunker-mentality defenses. A starting point would be to offer a plan to phase out and eventually end lethal experimentation, starting first with the animals most closely related to humans and with the most harmful and most egregious types of research. Such a plan, itself a gesture, would be the first step in a path forward.

Doug has clearly drunk the Kool Aid. Note the comparisons between animal research and starving dogs to death, feeding them poison, or even dog fighting. Every example he chooses makes it very clear that he believes that animal research is always torture, always cruel. Even worse, the examples appear carefully chosen to reinforce the image of scientists as sadists, which is exactly the same image that Camille Marino tries to paint. In fact, I will remind you once again what Camille Marino wrote about researcher Dario Ringach:

At least intellectually, I think I understand how you are able to commit such despicable atrocities. Like all torture-murderers, you devalue and objectify the victim in order to enjoy the fetishized obscenity. I think the closest comparison I can draw is to David Parker Ray. He imprisoned, restrained, terrorized, and, with masterful precision, sadistically tortured and mutilated his victims — exactly like you. Ray referred to his victims as “packages.” You refer to your victims as “research.” The two of you may have been twins separated at birth. But Ray is dead.

What is Doug’s rhetoric but a toned down version of Camille’s hysterical rhetoric? The comparison of scientists to sadists is the same, as is the implication that scientists get some sort of twisted, sadistic glee out of “torturing” animals, much as people who go to dog fights get some sort of sick, twisted, sadistic glee out of watching dogs rip each other to shreds. The only difference is that Camille “kicks it up a notch” (well, several notches) to paint scientists as rabid serial killers. The essential message is the same, regardless of whether it comes from Doug Watts or Camille Marino.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Whether or not animal research is justifiable is a moral and ethical argument more than anything else. The reason is that the science is clear when it comes to the benefits such research produces. Animal rights activists such as Doug or Camille may believe that animal research is so evil that any conceivable benefits are not worth the evil. In fact, that is exactly what they appear to believe. Camille, although about as nuts as they come, is at least honest in stating this belief plainly even if she is not honest when she lies about various medical advances that derived from animal research. Animal rights activists also appear to realize that it doesn’t take much to persuade people of the benefits of animal research; one need only point out to them that without animal research medications and new treatments would have to be tested on humans at a much earlier stage in their development, with a vastly increased risk as a consequence. Also, given that most people have no moral qualms about eating meat or wearing animal skins, most of them have little difficulty accepting the humane use of animals for research.

That’s why, I suspect, animal rights apologists like Doug Watts and animal rights loons like Camille Marino share at least one thing in common. They have to try to convince people that there are no benefits to animal research, or at least that the benefits are hugely oversold. People don’t buy the moral argument as long as they perceive considerable benefit from animal research. Doug and Camille also share one other thing: They’re not too concerned with niceties such as scientific accuracy when they propose “alternatives” to animal research with no good evidence to support them as more accurate than animal testing and paint scientists who do animal research as depraved vivisectionist-torturers. There is a moral argument to be made against animal research, but apparently most animal rights extremists are not sufficiently confident in their moral arguments. After all, if their moral arguments were so compelling, why would they have to distort science and exaggerate so much to make animal research seem hopelessly cruel and its contribution to science close to nonexistent? Can’t they persuade people on the power of their moral arguments alone? At the very least, can’t they stop distorting the scientific arguments to the point of unrecognizability when they attack animal research?