Biology Medicine Politics Popular culture Science Skepticism/critical thinking

How cute. Orac has been targeted by his first petition.

I had originally planned on writing about a different topic today, but, as is so often the case in blogging, something came up that caught my attention, much as the errant thought of a squirrel distracts Dug the Dog. Well, actually, I had to go to an evening meeting for work last night and by the time I came home even the Plexiglass box of blinking lights didn’t have enough of a charge left to deliver up fresh Insolence. Fortunately, there’s some almost fresh Insolence from the other day that can be repurposed, something that seems imperative since one of the targets of today’s Insolence is now popping up with a hilarious challenge to a debate that’s showing up on various conspiracy websites now. Besides, it’ll be fun to see how readers here react, and, yes, I did make some changes to make this more—shall we say?—appropriate to this particular blog.

We all have our daily rituals, and I’m no different. When I wake up in the morning, I usually check my iPhone to see how many e-mails I’ve gotten overnight. If there’s time before I have to leave for work, I’ll frequently go through them all right then, answering ones I can answer quickly and filing for later responses those that I can’t. If I don’t have time (as in I overslept), I’ll check them whenever I get an opportunity. Last Friday morning, I was rather surprised to see that the little badge on the Mail app showed well over three times the usual number of messages I get overnight, even accounting for e-mail notifications of comments on the blogs and the usual smattering of mailing list messages and the odd junk spam that got through the filters. So having that many messages in my unread mail queue caught my attention. Even when a new troll shows up in the comments of one of the blogs (or when an old troll like Greg reactivates), I usually don’t get that many e-mail notifications. I figured I’d better go and check to see what was going on right then, rather than waiting until later. What I found was something that I never would have guessed.

As odd as it seems to me now, very early Thursday morning I had apparently been targeted by a petition Animal Experimenters – JUSTIFY YOUR SCIENCE CLAIMS. The petition was from the UK, accounting for its going live overnight while Orac recharged his Tarial cells.

I was rather puzzled. I’ve developed a bit of microcelebrity (or, as I sometimes refer to it when I’m feeling less arrogant, nanocelebrity) as the proverbial proponent of science-based medicine and scourge of quackery. When it comes to topics that are likely to result in a backlash against me by cranks, to the few thousand people who read my stuff, both here and on my not-so-secret other blog, I’m known not so much for my defense of animal research (although I do from time to time write to defend it and to castigate animal rights extremists who threaten scientists) as for writing about the antivaccine movement, cancer quackery, and other forms of pseudoscience. For instance, antivaccinationists have tried to get me fired from my job. Over the years, cancer quacks have harassed me at work, tried to get me fired, and threatened me with lawsuits. More recently, a supporter of Stanislaw Burzynski complained to my cancer center director and the president of my practice plan about my activism with respect to the Burzynski Clinic. I’ve even been the victim of a frivolous complaint against me to the Michigan Board of Medicine by (I’m 95% sure) a Burzynski patient who didn’t like my analysis of her case. The complaint was promptly found to be groundless, but there is a complaint on my record nonetheless. These are the usual sources of criticism against me, not animal rights activists. None of this is to say that animal rights activists don’t occasionally attack me. The person whose views obviously informed this particular petition, Ray Greek, for instance, most definitely did not like it the first time I criticized him on this blog, but that was almost six years ago, ancient history in blog time, and the last time I launched a broadside at animal rights activists on this blog was in 2008, although the last time I mentioned him was nearly three years ago.

That is not saying I haven’t been vocal speaking out against animal rights activists and how they negatively impact biomedical research, but it’s only been sporadically here. In particular, I’ve made it a point to speak out against a group known as Negotiation Is Over, a group led by a truly scary woman named Camille Marino, who recently got involved in a legal kerfuffle over her activities against a researcher at my home institution that led to her serving a term in prison, from which she was recently released. (She’s also a woman who has made it clear that she is intentionally targeting students as the “soft underbelly of the vivisectionist movement” and has no compunction about justifying violence against researchers, similar to the way that Steve Best does, which is why it’s so ironic that Best is not so happy now that Marino has turned her tactics against him.) It’s just that it’s by far nowhere near the top of the list of my usual topics, which made me honored but at the same time puzzled that I am mentioned in the petition with so many much more accomplished scientists than I. Moreover, I was even more puzzled at being included on this list given that the petition was clearly aimed at the government of the UK, asking MPs to support something called EDM 263, which appears to be a call for public debates on the use of animals in research. Unfortunately, the game is revealed by the way this appeal is described:

Please use our template letter and follow the STEPS 1 – 4 to ask your MP to sign EDM 263, calling for scientists from the vivisection community to agree to participate in properly moderated public scientific debates with leading medical experts who oppose animal experiments on human medical and scientific grounds.

Whenever you see the word “vivisectionist” to describe researchers who do animal research, you can be quite sure that you’re not dealing with people with reasonable questions about how animals are used in research. Real scientists almost never use the term “vivisection” because, although it has taken on a broader meaning with respect to animal research, based on the history of the use of the word, “vivisection” still implies surgery conducted for experimental purposes on living animals to view living internal structures; i.e., dissection of living animals. These days, virtually no animal experimentation can be accurately referred to as “vivisection,” as strict rules and regulations mandate minimization of pain and suffering. Animal rights activists tend to like to refer to all animal research, whether it involves surgery or not, as “vivisection” and to scientists who use animals in their experiments as “vivisectionists” because of the negative connotation of the word. That’s why the word “vivisectionist” is rarely used by scientists but is frequently used by animal rights activists and why use of the word “vivisectionist” is as reliable a tipoff as there is to identify an animal rights activist, every bit as useful as “dis-ease” or “out-fection” instead of “disease” or “infection,” as very reliable signs of a quack or supporter of quackery.

I’ll get back to the group behind this petition in a moment, which is known as For Life On Earth (FLOE), which appears to exist as a propaganda organ for Ray Greek’s ideas about animal research, given that I immediately recognized its claims as near-identical to Greek’s. First I’d like to address the petition itself and its demand for a “debate,” after which I’ll discuss the actual claimed science arguing against animal research a bit and then finish by coming back to this group.

As a prelude, however, let me point out that I won’t be dealing (much) with the morality of animal research, mainly because I believe that whether or not animal research is morally acceptable is not primarily a scientific question. Science can inform the consideration of the question of animal research, but in the end it’s a moral question. That is not to say that science is irrelevant, because part of the consideration of the moral question of whether and when it is acceptable to use animals in research is the issue of how much value to science animal research brings. How utilitarian you want to be considering this question is something that can be discussed, but animal rights activists often invoke an extreme negative version of a utilitarian argument in that they try to portray as animal research as not just useless (i.e., providing no useful scientific information), but even as harmful or providing misleading or mistaken scientific conclusions. If that is the case, then it’s a no-brainer that animal research cannot be justified ever because in that case it would cause suffering to animals but provide no benefit in terms of scientific advancements that could lead to improved medical care. Unfortunately, as I documented six years ago, animal rights activists have a distressing tendency to use truly bad arguments to do everything they can to paint animal research as useless or even harmful to the science of medicine. These arguments tend to fall into one or more of three categories:

  1. Animal research doesn’t teach us anything of value or even misleads us (i.e., it is bad science).
  2. Animal research does not predict human physiology or response to disease, or animals are “just too different from humans to give reliable results” (i.e., it is bad science).
  3. There are better ways of getting the information that do not use animals (i.e., there is better science available than using animals.)

As I’ve said on several occasions, I tend to look at these arguments as three facets of what is in essence the same argument, specifically what I like to call an “argument from imperfection.” In other words, because animal models have imperfections and all-too-often don’t predict human physiology or drug response as well as the critics think that they should, then by implication all animal research is bad science. It is an example of demanding 100% perfection or certainty, a bar that no science can ever meet, and of concrete thinking typical of extremists. Antivaccinationists are particularly fond of this sort of concrete thinking, in which vaccines must be 100% effective in preventing disease and 100% safe, or they are worthless.

Like the case with many holding dubious scientific beliefs whom many would consider cranks, one favorite tool to promote their agenda is “public debate.” I’ve seen it many times myself. For example, I’ve had HIV denialists, supporters of Stanislaw Burynski, and antivaccine activists challenge me to “live” public debates over their favorite topics. This challenge through a petition is no different. In fact, it’s a perfect example of a principle that I’ve called “all truth comes from live public debate.” Besides the challenges I’ve personally had directed at me, I can point to several more examples just off the top of my head. For example, antivaccine guru Andrew Wakefield challenged Dr. David Salisbury to a “live public debate” about whether the MMR vaccine causes autism or not. (Hint to Wakefield: It doesn’t.) Regular readers might also remember another example, Suzanne Somers’ doctor, antivaccinationist, and all around supporter of all things quacking, Julian Whitaker, debating Steve Novella at FreedomFest, which happened to be going on in Las Vegas at the same time as TAM in 2012; Michael Shermer’s “debate” with Deepak Chopra; and antivaccine propagandist David Kirby debating author Arthur Allen. More recently, a fan of Stanislaw Burzynski named Randy Hinton was “calling out” what he referred to as the “medical mafia” to debate. Still more recently, Bill Nye the Science Guy has foolishly (in my opinion) agreed to a “debate” about creationism and evolution with arch-creationist Ken Ham. The debate will be held tomorrow. Worse, he agreed to do it on Ham’s home turf, the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Basically, this petition demonstrates once again the “all truth comes from live public debate” belief so prevalent among cranks. I’ll call it the omne verum est a forensem principle. (Latin sounds so much more cool for this, but I have no idea whether this is the best translation—or even grammatically correct; maybe Latin scholars out there can suggest better.) They seem to think that science is decided in public debates and view the quite understandable reluctance among scientists like myself and skeptics to engage cranks in such spectacles as “cowardice.” It is not, but cranks continue to labor under the delusion that science is somehow decided in such forums, which are a variant of a sort of argumentum ad populum, in which something is argued to be true because it is popular or, in a debate, an argument is thought to be closer to the truth because it is more popular. Science doesn’t work that way. It is decided on evidence presented at scientific conferences and in peer-reviewed journals, where the real scientific debate plays out until it is temporarily settled and scientists come to a provisional consensus. That provisional consensus, of course, is always subject to change as new observations, data, and experimental results come to light, but it takes observations, data, and experimental results to change the consensus, not “live public debates.” Such “live public debates” have only one purpose: To sway public opinion to a viewpoint not supported by science, in the process elevating pseudoscience or the unproven to the same plain as the scientific consensus as a scientifically viable “alternative,” no more, no less.

The fact is, pseudoscientists, pseudohistorians, and cranks desperately want to debate accepted experts in the field in which they apply their crankery. The reason is simple. While, knowingly (or, more commonly, unknowingly) they poo-poo science and the scientific method, at the same time they desperately crave its validation. They desperately want to be seen as “one of the boys,” whose ideas are worthy of being taken seriously by scientists, and such “debates” usually give them exactly what they want. Indeed, debates on college campuses (or, in the case of homeopaths, in academic medical centers) are not viewed as a means of getting at the truth, but rather as a means of P.R. Putting the pseudoscientist on the same stage as a legitimate scientist elevates the pseudoscientist unduly and mistakenly gives the impression to lay people that there is a genuine scientific controversy to be debated when the only controversy being debated is, in fact, ideological. This is because getting a scientist to agree to a debate allows them to portray their pseudoscience as being on equal footing with accepted science, or at least in the same ballpark. Thus, simply being seen on the same stage on an equal footing with a respected scientist, is a victory for the pseudoscientist. Regardless of what actually happens in the debate, it is a virtual certainty that the crank and the supporters of crankery will trumpet it as a “victory” or, at the very minimum, as a “validation” that science is beginning to take them seriously.

If animal rights activists—or antivaccinationists, purveyors of “alternative medicine,” HIV/AIDS denialists, creationists, 9/11 Truthers, or the like—want to convince scientists, there is one way to do so: Publish their data and do battle where scientists normally do battle, in the scientific literature and in scientific conferences. “Live public debates” might sway a few souls when the odd hapless scientist or skeptic unprepared for the Gish gallop makes the mistake of going up against a smooth talking crank, but the scientific consensus remains unchanged. I realize that not all skeptics agree with me, and I find it hard to be critical of Steven Novella, Michael Shermer, or even Bill Nye for feeling duty-bound to answer the call.

In the case of animal rights activists, the call for public debates is similarly dubious, as becomes obvious from some of the verbiage in the petition:

By signing this petition, your letter will automatically be sent to high profile animal experimenters and their supportive colleagues, inviting them to go head to head in properly moderated, public scientific debates with the world’s leading medical experts who oppose animal experiments, purely on human medical and scientific grounds – namely that misapplying results from animal experiments, to try and ‘predict’ human responses, causes immense harm to human patients. Current understanding of evolutionary biology is now able to explain why this is the case.

If you note the two links, you’ll see that both of them are pretty much rehashes of Ray Greek’s arguments, which were not particularly convincing to me the first time around and haven’t gotten any better with age. One of them is a video produced by FLOE:

Particularly irrelevant is the way the argument begins with a reference to Claude Bernard in 1847 as the man who allegedly “institutionalized” animal research as being “predictive” of human responses. Yes, I’m always convinced by an appeal to a 167-year-old understanding of science by one man, who rejected the theory of evolution and apparently believed that experiments on animals were “entirely conclusive for the toxicology and hygiene of man.” One wonders whether science has advanced since 1847. Apparently, FLOE simultaneously doesn’t think so and does. At one point, it is argued that animal testing hasn’t advanced since then, but then at another point, the discoveries of Ignaz Semmelweis, Joseph Lister, John Snow, Edward Jenner, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein (whose relevance to the science of animal research is never explained) are briefly mentioned, after which FLOE fast forwards 100 years to 2009 to Ray Greek’s book Animal Models in the Light of Evolution, whose image appears as the narrator intones that science brings us complexity theory. Particularly insulting to one’s intelligence is how it’s intoned that animal models predict human responses only 31% of the time. What responses? What animal models? Animal models vary widely in how well they predict human responses, depending on the physiological response, the specific animal model, the drug, and the process being studied. To lump them all together into a figure like this is well-nigh meaningless.

A good way to think of it comes from this recent review of animal models for predicting immune responses:

Besides the animal model itself, the experimental setup will also affect predictive value. Differences in dose, immunization route, frequency of administration and impurities in the formulation have the potential to affect immunogenicity and its assessment (32). Moreover, with respect to product quality, preclinical protein products which are used in animal studies do not always reflect the final products used to treat patients. Another difficulty in translating animal results to human patients is a difference between labs in antibody assays that are used. These differences hamper comparison of results gained in different labs and therefore compromise predictive value of animal models. In patient research, several initiatives have begun to standardize antibody assays and thus improve comparability (34). Adjusting the antibody assays used in animal research to these standardized assays would likely improve predictive value of the models.

The video cited in the FLOE petition then compares the predictive value generally required of clinical laboratory tests, which is stated to be 90%, a coin flip (50%), and the purported predictive value for animal tests for human response (31%). Even if 31% is an accurate estimate, do you see the problem with this argument? There is a huge difference between a test that is going to be used on humans to make a diagnosis (like a CT scan or blood test) and a test that is often being used to screen for a response (animal studies). Anyone who says something like this has no clue how clinical medicine works. There are lots of tests in routine use whose predictive value is less than 90%, sometimes considerably less than 90%. Examples include mammography for breast cancer. Only around 25% of those found to have suspicious lesions on mammography actually turn out to have breast cancer.

One point that I find rather odd is how FLOE emphasizes that the medical experts it wants to be part of these debates accept the last seven out of nine uses of animals in research:

  1. Animals as models for disease
  2. Animals as test subjects; e.g. drug testing
  3. Animals as spare parts
  4. Animals as factories
  5. Animal tissue to study basic physiological principles
  6. Animals for dissection in education
  7. Animals as a modality for ideas (heuristic)
  8. To benefit other animals
  9. Knowledge for knowledge sake

It is only the first two that FLOE claims to be contesting, although it can’t resist mentioning that “for these viable methods there already exist some more efficient, less expensive, human biology based alternatives.” Don’t believe it. Focusing on the first two is the thin edge of the wedge for animal rights activists, just as “intelligent design” is the thin edge of the creationism wedge. After taking care of what they view as the “low hanging fruit” of #1 and #2, you can bet that anial rights activists will go after the last seven.

So what is EDM 263? This is its text:

That this House notes the new campaign For Life On Earth which is critical of avoidable experiments on animals; is alarmed that all studies measuring the claimed ability of animals to predict human responses expose a low success rate in the region of 31 per cent; further notes that a success rate in the region of 90 per cent is required by medical practice; further notes that the National Cancer Institute has said that cures for cancer have been lost because studies in rodents have been believed; and calls for properly moderated scientific public debates on the misleading results and bad science of animal experiments.

Again, the use of this 31% figure in comparison to an alleged 90% figure for medical tests is an utter insult to the intelligence of any physician who knows about medical testing for the reasons I mentioned above, but it sure sounds plausible to people who don’t know about the science of medical testing. It didn’t take me long to find out that the source of the claim that the NCI has said that cures have been lost due to too much trust in rodent models is misleading as well. it comes from a 1997 article in Science:

Pharmaceutical companies often test drug candidates in animals carrying transplanted human tumors, a model called a xenograft. But not only have very few of the drugs that showed anticancer activity in xenografts made it into the clinic, a recent study conducted at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) also suggests that the xenograft models miss effective drugs. The animals apparently do not handle the drugs exactly the way the human body does. And attempts to use human cells in culture don’t seem to be faring any better, partly because cell culture provides no information about whether a drug will make it to the tumor sites.

The whole point of the article was that back in 1997 none of the common methods used to screen potential new anticancer drugs for activity—animal, cell culture, or other—had been sufficiently effective in identifying anticancer activity. The entire article was a cry for better methods. Over the last 17 years, a lot of effort has gone into doing this, both using animals and not. For example, mouse avatars are an innovative idea that might have real promise for predictive modeling for individual patients. I’ve written about them before. (If that worked out, wouldn’t that burn FLOE?) Moreover, the NCI, far from saying that animal research is useless, maintains a website that provides information on animal models, when they are useful, and for what purposes. Make no mistake, mouse models have been very useful indeed.

Let’s come back to that 31% figure. As you can tell, it bugs me, but not for the reasons that Ray Greek, for example, might think (namely, that it is such a damning indictment of animal research). It just smells so…fishy. Greek frequently uses it in his talking points and articles, and FLOE flogs it endlessly in its video and on its website. Where did it come from? Speaking of Research tells me! It’s worth going there for the details, but I’ll feed you the summary:

Our ‘region of 31%’, then, is based on a “very approximate estimate” of one small aspect of animal research, by a Department of Health doctor in 1978 based on 45 drugs that happened to have been licenced in the last year. Not only does the paper conclude that animal experiments correlate to human reactions, in terms of prediction it was a generation ago, it was a different regulatory environment, it was based on a 35-year old understanding of toxicology, it had a sample size of 45 and it was a rough analysis. The claim that this paper shows that animal studies have a “low success rate of 31%’” is simply pseudoscience.

As is so common with these sorts of arguments, animal rights activists misconstrue animal testing as animal research. This particular animal rights activist has used a cherry-picked number, a guessed percentage, that was based on an incorrect interpretation of a paper from more than 35 years ago. Based on this, and dubious claims of “harm” from animal research, FLOE demands not just that animal models be phased out, but rather eliminated immediately. I kid you not.

And what, you ask, will replace them? Good question. I’m still asking that myself. All we get are vague references to “complexity” theory and all sorts of fancy gobbledygook about evolution and genetics that do not make the point that FLOE is trying to make. For instance, it is stated that we should study the genetic variation between humans, which can convey medical data. Wow. So brilliant! It’s not as though medical researchers would ever have thought of that on their own. Oh, wait…they have! It goes under various names: personalized medicine, highly stratified medicine, genomic medicine. It’s not as though medical researchers haven’t been doing this for more than a decade, ever since the development of cDNA microarrays allowed the simultaneous analysis of the expression of every gene on a cDNA microarray chip. The movement has accelerated now that next generation sequencing techniques are becoming widely available. It’s not an either-or proposition. We can continue to exploit advances in genomic medicine while retaining and improving upon animal models that have proven useful. What FLOE is promoting is a false dichotomy: Animal research or genomic medicine, as if we can’t do both. Moreover, animal research informs personalized medicine; the mouse avatars I mentioned were just one example of how. Just consider the example of Herceptin if you don’t believe that.

The video concludes with a list of the “many valid research methods” that don’t use animals. These include in vitro studies of human tissue, which we already do; epidemiology, which we already do; the study of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, which we already do; autopsy and cadaver studies, which we already do; genetic research, which we already do; clinical research, which we already do; and post-marketing drug surveillance, which we already do. Indeed, as the video concluded, I really wondered what the point was. We already do all those forms of research. Seriously. The words of the great Robert Weinberg come to mind:

Dr. Greek says the silliest things, […] implying that people are not studying human tumors, and implying that the kinds of experiments that one can do in mice can be done as well in humans — truly mindless!

The sheer oversimplification of complex issues made me wonder what FLOE is. It appears to be a propaganda group to promote Ray Greek’s ideas. The petition demanding a “debate” is nothing more than the typical crank ploy whose basis is a mistaken belief that all truth comes from public debate. Although I’m quite honored to be included on the list of scientists who are being challenged to debate the issue, I must politely decline, just as I must decline Ray Greek’s rambling reiteration of that invitation. If there’s one person skilled at the Gish gallop (all the while denying that he’s doing the Gish gallop), it’s Greek.

The utility of animal research for medical advancement is a legitimate topic to discuss, but the discussion would not be furthered by a public debate of the sort proposed by FLOE. It is a question that is already being debated by scientists and ethicists in the medical literature based on actual data and science rather than dubious arguments. Moreover, the use of animals in research is already being de-emphasized. Regulations mandating the “three Rs” (reduction, refinement, replacement) are already in force and having an effect. The morality of animal research is a question that can’t be answered just by science, but science sure can refute the claims of animal rights activists that animal research provides no knowledge and benefit to medical science.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

60 replies on “How cute. Orac has been targeted by his first petition.”

I’m a vegetarian who uses animals in my research (my advisor’s motto is “In vivo veritas.”) Some people find that strange or inconsistent (or humorous), but it makes perfect sense to me: given that I’m fortunate enough to live in a country where a wide variety of protein sources are available to me, the fact that animals taste good just isn’t enough to justify the suffering and environmental harm caused by modern factory farms. On the other hand, animal research is much more tightly regulated to minimize suffering, has significantly less environmental impact, and the justification is saving human lives. Of course, most people don’t want a nuanced cost/benefit analysis, they want to pick a side.

I’m fortunate in that my research is the kind that’s easy to justify to all but the most virulent animal rights activists: “I’m studying malaria, which kills a child every 30 seconds and sickens hundreds of millions more. Of course it’s easy for an affluent white American to care more about cute little animals than a bunch of poor black kids thousands of miles away.” THAT shuts ’em up 🙂

I’m disappointed : I expected that anti-vax loons or alt med fanatics were at work, not these folks.

Orac, hang in there. Your power grows.

Congratulations, Orac. It’s a pity you’re not actually in the UK for the debate, of course, but I’m sure we, your loyal minions, can raise money to send you there though.

A Plexiglass box of blinking lights can fly in cargo, right?

” The petition demanding a ‘debate’ is nothing more than the typical crank ploy whose basis is the mistaken belief that all truth comes from public debate.”

Right. I’ve heard many invitations to debate SBM: Gary Null often tells his audience that he’ll debate any doctor or scientist or politician on any issue. He trumpets the fact that there are no takers as proof of his formidable skills/ greater knowledge or suchlike. In the old days,he was in “500 debates”,winning each and every one.

In reality, most reasonable people realise that it’s a crank’s way of getting attention, much as some of our visitors drop in and take over the conversation without any qualifications whatsoever, barely able to keep their heads above water despite their furious efforts at paddling .

A woo-meister would only be considered apropriate for a debate by a forum on televison or a pop culture outlet because they have only self-proclaimed expertise rather than scientific acumen: being in a debate elevates a crank levels above his or her achieved merit. That’s why it’s so appealing to them.

I’m a vegetarian veterinary technician with a houseful of adopted animals blah blah blah animal-lover cred. I’m also enthusiastically supporting muscular dystrophy research using animal models at my work.
These animal rights extremists tick me off. They just make it that much harder to be taken seriously when trying to discuss animal welfare.

The extreme animal welfare wackos will only be content after we stop interacting with animals at all. These are the kind of people who probably see pet ownership as “animal slavery”.

Denice Walter #5 wrote:

A woo-meister would only be considered apropriate for a debate by a forum on televison or a pop culture outlet because they have only self-proclaimed expertise rather than scientific acumen: being in a debate elevates a crank levels above his or her achieved merit. That’s why it’s so appealing to them.

True. I’ve been arguing that the exception to this general ‘rule’ regarding not leveling the playing field (and granting unearned status to pesudoscience) would be debates taking place in forums which aren’t academic, popular or neutral. In other words, coming onto enemy turf and addressing an audience which is presumed to be both hostile to begin with — and previously insulated from the scientific “other side” — is an opportunity. Even a “hostile” audience is not a monolithic block of intractable fanatics. If a straw-man is dismantled before their eyes, someone might move. There is only one direction they can go.

That said, what might apply to Bill Nye going into the Creation Museum certainly wouldn’t apply to the topic of this post: a public debate on the science behind animal research. Nor would it apply to many debates against alternative medicine, for the reasons you and Orac have said.

But hey — if asked to come to a woo convention and debate in front of a woo audience, I’d suggest the SBM gods consider it. They can (and probably will )”lose” the debate … but get just one damn good point across very well. Win.

cakesphere @7:

The extreme animal welfare wackos will only be content after we stop interacting with animals at all. These are the kind of people who probably see pet ownership as “animal slavery”.

I don’t think any of them do and I’d respect them a little more if they did. It would demonstrate that they’ve actually thought about things from the animals’ perspectives.
No, they refer to pet ownership as “companionship”, implying that the animals concerned have taken a rational, thinking choice in staying with them. Because of course, what animal could fail to love such selfless, caring people?

@ Sastra:

Sure. I always think that in the long run, reality will win out.

People will see that alt med’s cherished mythology just doesn’t pan out by observing real life scenarios especially when it concerns people they care about.

Vegans can still get cancer; people who take supplements can also get sick; SMI will not be remedied by niacin; locales where vaccines are frequently declined can see epidemics of VPDs despite all of their ‘healthy living’.

And I do agree that there might be a few SB advocates who can declare this unto the heathens…
So who’s to be our prophet?


Mrs. Grimble: To be fair, I know of at least one cat who voted with his feet when his original home no longer suited him.

I like animals.

I also eat them because they are darn tasty, though i have to say i choose the supplier so that the worst horrors of factory farming ( rather more regulated over here) are avoided.

And i generally support animal testing.

Im not certain what influence any of those facts have on each other? why would it be deemed necessary to like animals in order to support testing or vice versa? Are we all so ruled by our emotions that we can only act on fluffiness?

It’s the squee factor, incitatus. None of these activists are lining up to save the fruit fly, I notice.

Heuristic: If it’s a (or avaaz, or any equivalent) petition, opposing it is probably the sensible action.

(To borrow from the gun-rights movement, “Online petitions are what you do instead of something.”

So at least there’s that.)

I’m a total softie when it comes to animals and their suffering, but even I can’t get past the extreme ideology and tactics of these kinds of groups. When I lived in graduate student housing, one of my neighbors was targeted by NIO, which meant a handful of screaming protesters outside my window every Saturday for months. Since this complex houses hundreds of graduate students in every possible field, it felt more like collective punishment than anything else. We used to joke that the protests were actually false flag ops designed to make the “antivivisectionists” look bad, but I know that they don’t really need any help on that front.

Mrs Grimble wrote:

I don’t think any of them do and I’d respect them a little more if they did

Some of them do. I once had a conversation with a girl like that about what, then, to do about domesticated animals that realistically can’t survive in the wild – she ended up advocating some sort of minimal intervention to keep them alive.

(Not that I expect she’ll ever see this, but to be fair, while her animal liberationism was extreme wrt goals, she was moderate wrt means – she wanted to talk people around to her views, and didn’t condone violence.)

One notes that the link Ray Greek posted here is already in the original article, under ‘Ray Greek’s rambling reiteration of that invitation.’

Ah, the “let’s debate” challenge.

When theater replaces science. “Our opinions deserve an equal footing with your facts! And we want YouTube videos for advertisement!”

I recall Andrew Wakefield calling to debate anyone qualified…then he changed his tune when Mike Fitzpatrick called his bluff.

I very much want animals to be respected and well treated in research. For example, creating a study with so few animals and such a poor that no conclusions can be reached (Hewitson) offends me. However, as the parent of a child with epilepsy, I feel that the benefit (good medicine) justifies the use of lab animals for testing.

Lastly, I am reminded of a friend who is the an autism parent and researcher. Said friend once approached others at said friend’s institution and posed the question of collaboration on autism research. The colleagues responded that they’d rather work with animal rights activists than autism parents.

Albert Einstein (whose relevance to the science of animal research is never explained)

Few people remember Einstein’s gedankenexperiments involving mice, a whale, and three porcupines that gave vital clues about the topology of space around a small star when perturbed by a string (often referred to in the literature as the Rube Goldberg Variations). Unfortunately, these conceptual animals lost their conceptual lives in the conceptual experiment, and no conceptual autopsy was performed.

Physics can be a cruel mistress.

Mr. Greek, why do you insist on using the term “vivisection activists?”

Because he’s an animal rights activist, of course. Duh. 🙂

One notes that the link Ray Greek posted here is already in the original article, under ‘Ray Greek’s rambling reiteration of that invitation.’

Which is why I’m pretty sure Greek will be a drive-by poster and won’t engage in any substantive discussion here. (Actually, he doesn’t engage in substantive discussion of animal research anywhere; so I don’t know why I even thought that here might be different. Oh, well.)

Orac – perhaps they’ll make you the same offer that Ken Ham gave Bill Nye to pay your travel expenses and a speaking fee. I’d shoot for a June debate; London is lovely in June. They might have to pay your hotel and meals for several days to avoid jet lag. I strongly recommend a pub near Heathrow called “The Pheasant” as a nice place to eat and get a good real English ale.

Mr. Greek, in your response to Orac’s post you stated “There are better ways of getting the information that do not use animals (i.e., there is better science available than using animals.)”

What exactly are these “better ways” of generating information, that’ is now instead generated by the use of animal models?

Let’s start with something basic–generating an ADME profile for a prospective new small molecule drug.

How exactly can this be done without actually exposing animals to the drug?

Can you provide any documented instance where a researcher actually generated ADME data without using animals?

They might have to pay your hotel and meals for several days to avoid jet lag. I strongly recommend a pub near Heathrow called “The Pheasant” as a nice place to eat and get a good real English ale.

I stayed at the Charing Cross Hotel (attached to, appropriately enough, the Charing Cross train station) the last time I was in London. It was quite a pleasant hotel, centrally located just a block or two from Trafalgar Square and convenient to many of the major attractions of central London. Maybe FLOE would put me up there. I’d need at least a week to prepare. And check out the local pubs with London skeptics.

Too bad Matt Carey posted ahead of me//sigh.

I was about to post a comment about the history of phenytoin (Dilantin) development and licensing after testing on animal models:

Dilantin, still a first line anti-convulsant medication for individuals with seizures disorders, still prescribed prophylactically following head injuries…60 years after it was licensed in the United States.

I’m in exactly the same spot as Sarah at #2 – a vegetarian who does research that sometimes involves animals, and for pretty much the same reasons. (And god damn, it is getting harder to find good vegetarian food in the grocery store that doesn’t have NON-GMO!! stamped all over it as a rather inaccurate tribal identifier – my favorite was a bag of chips trumpeting that it was made with “Non-GMO corn.” Ask McClintock about that.)

To tag on to what Orac said, animal models have a diversity of use that are hard to boil down to any one ‘success or failure’ number. They can be used in more exploratory studies to get a sense of efficacy of a given therapeutic modality in animal models of human disease. They can be used to evaluate potential safety concerns – either as deal-killers, or as heads-up to monitor in trials. They can be used to estimate PK and exposure to guide dosing. They can, as the link to the Springer article discusses, can be used to get a handle on immunogenicity. They can be used to develop pathway biomarkers to potentially translate to humans.

Our group is having an offsite in a few weeks to sit down and discuss, among other things, limitations and caveats of animal models for these various purposes, and to share lessons we have learned in order to get better outcomes from animal studies. This will do far more for animal and human well-being than this petition, I’m pretty sure…

Einstein’s gedankenexperiments

That was back when performing research on gedankens was morally acceptable.


Which is why I’m pretty sure Greek will be a drive-by poster and won’t engage in any substantive discussion here.

I was just amused that in a post complaining that ‘those that refuse to even read the studies are probably never going to admit their errors’, he posted a link already in the original article, thus casting significant doubt on whether he’d actually read the article he was commenting on.

It’s rare to see quite so blatant a self-undermining. Though I agree with both him and you that he’s probably never going to admit his errors.

What’s really hilarious is that if you follow the link and read Greek’s article, you’ll see that virtually all of the sources he cites are written by him.

maybe Latin scholars out there can suggest better

Will high-school do? Omnes veritates emanant de disceptationes ludicrae. (The verb is “misplaced” to give G—le Translate a hint; it should be fine at the end.)

Of course animal models are imperfect but often informative; you could say the same for epidemiological studies, clinical trials with significant exclusion criteria, and, often, every possible type of research into a particular issue. So I don’t question the potential value of animal research. Ironically, though, I recall seeing the opinion expressed on Scienceblogs more than once that animal studies showing beneficial bioactivities and mechanisms of action for herbal products were obviously Worthless – not just in response to any suggestion that those studies were definitive, mind you, but in response to suggestions that they ought to raise the imaginary Bayesian Prior Probability enough to make clinical trials reasonable. If animal studies are potentially informative, they are also potentially informative when the subject is a TM or CAM method.

I recall seeing the opinion expressed on Scienceblogs more than once that animal studies showing beneficial bioactivities and mechanisms of action for herbal products were obviously Worthless

Do you have any examples of this? Usually the argument is that animal-based studies, whether for CAM or non-CAM purposes, are insufficient, not worthless, evidence.

I recall seeing the opinion expressed on Scienceblogs more than once that animal studies showing beneficial bioactivities and mechanisms of action for herbal products were obviously Worthless – not just in response to any suggestion that those studies were definitive, mind you, but in response to suggestions that they ought to raise the imaginary Bayesian Prior Probability enough to make clinical trials reasonable.

“Imaginary”? And what does Bayes’ theorem have to do with this example?

Real scientists almost never use the term “vivisection” because, although it has taken on a broader meaning with respect to animal research, based on the history of the use of the word, “vivisection” still implies surgery conducted for experimental purposes on living animals to view living internal structures; i.e., dissection of living animals. These days, virtually no animal experimentation can be accurately referred to as “vivisection,” as strict rules and regulations mandate minimization of pain and suffering.

Is this vivisection? Maybe it’s not as uncommon as you think.

Did you miss the part in the methods section where the animals were anaesthetised before any procedures, and euthanised, while still anaesthetised, at the end?


I’d also like to see an example of what you’re talking about, b/c whenever I’ve seen bogus animal studies taken down by Orac its been due to some specific problem(s), like a lack of controls, numbers too small to make statistical significance, doses far in excess of what a human could reasonably be given, etc.

this is a conspiracy website. Under the infamous (and illegal) “see something, say something” campaign, I m turning you in.

Kevin @ #46,

Your Poe-fu is weak, young grasshopper. Even I, a man of Very Ltitle BRain, see right through you.

Politicalguineapig @12:

Mrs. Grimble: To be fair, I know of at least one cat who voted with his feet when his original home no longer suited him.

Which pretty much proves my point. Well, as far as cats are concerned anyway. Cats want a warm comfy home with plenty of food and petting and they’re not too bothered who provides it. Dogs, however, loyally stick with their pack leader; they’re much less attached to their home.

Rich Woods @41:

It’s worth pointing out that Paul Flynn MP put the EDM forward seven months ago, and in that time it’s only gained 33 signatures out of a possible 650.

I recognise a good number of the names on that list — about a third of the signatories are his closest political allies.

A couple of names on that list have really disappointed me – I thought they were too bright for this kind of nonsense. But seeing Mike Hancock also on the list gave me a chuckle.

@Ausduck, @glen

So, so true.
My cat returns my affections by refusing to leave my line of sight. He’s like a work supervisor 🙂


I can think of a simple challenge:

If the animal rights anti-research folks honestly believe in their cause, they should get a small “no Western Medicine” tattoo and register in a no-MD database. To help them keep their pledge, they would then be refused entry to any hospital and service by any MD, especially in case of distress which cause them to forget their elevated ideals.

So, should trauma, disease or desire for cosmetic surgery causes them to be impaired or incapacitated and thus vulnerable to victimization by the medical-industrial vivisection complex, they will saved from said depredations and instead safely diverted to a homeopath, Reikki practitioner or coffee-enema center.
I can’t see how they could possibly object.

See if they’ll accept said challenge, otherwise, debate’s over.

Well, they do like their Botox. Maybe the last one is negotiable.

I like how their side of the debate is to be represented by “the world’s leading medical experts who oppose animal experiments.” Because if science was really on their side, their side of the debate would be represented by the world’s leading medical experts, and they wouldn’t need to limit it to only be the experts who also happen to agree with them. It’s like trying to find the world’s strongest man who can’t lift fifty pounds.

After all, if they had their side represented by those who truly were the world’s leading medical experts, then there’d be no problem with this debate. Both sides could then confirm in their opening statements that they were largely in agreement with everything before ending the debate and going out for drinks. Perhaps someone could pitch this as a counter-proposal.

I feel like a contradiction. You rightly say that you don’t want to debate with these guys, who do not deserve it, but actually this is what you do. And there are much more interesting things to say about the use of xenografts in immunocompromised mice for cancer drug testing. As you say, this model is not good at predicting the efficiency of these drugs in patients. I would accept the argument that it is better than nothing if there was no alternative. But in fact, there are genetically engineered mouse models that recapitulate perfectly the development of human cancer, so one may wonder why they are not used instead. Actually, the major problem with anti-cancer drugs is specificity against tumor cells vs. normal cells. This specificity is very difficult to obtain with anti-mitotic agents, as they target dividing cells, and hematopoietic progenitors divide more than most tumor cells. But in the xenograft model, the tumor specificity problem is switched to a species of origin problem, since mouse cells are much more resistant to anti-cancer drugs than human cells. So one may legitimately ask if this is science or business, just to put new drugs in the pipeline.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement that xenographs models are not good at predicting the efficiency of these drugs in patients, given the heterogeneity of cancers. The ability of xenograph models to be predictive of behavior in human patients has been seen to vary greatly with the type of cancer being targeted-for example predictability is poor in breast cancers but good in lung cancers, especially adenocarcinomas.

Anecdotal, but in my experience xenograph panels have principally been used in early development for proof-of-concept and to guide SAR when analoguing around intial hit molecules, and somewhat later in develop to rank order potential lead compounds–not to demonstrate specificity.

And it’s both science and business-science because it’s necessary to characterize a potential new drug’s performance in whole organisms to move forward, while in business the goal is to put new drugs on the market and thus available to patients, rather than simply putting them in the pipeline.

I would agree with you if there were no better alternative like engineered mouse models or comparison of in vitro sensitivity of cell lines with human granulocyte progenitors. The xenograft model does not address the question of specificity, in the same way as gene therapy in mice did not address the main question of vectors for human cells. In a sense, this kind of experiment
is a “show” that masks the main issues.

That’s not how xenograph models are used however–they aren’t used to provide proof a potential NDE will perform well in human patients, but instead to exclude candidate molecules that either do not perform poorly or not at all and are unlikely to perform in humans, and to generate results leading to an understanding of SAR, so that chemsits can analog around the inital hit’s structure to improve potency and selectivity. At some point you do have to go into human subjects–you take your best candidates and get the answers to those ‘main issues’–but that’s only after you’ve laid the groundwork with other tools so that the expense and resources required are justified. Prior to that a number of other moels, including xenographs, can produce results of great utility more rapidly and at the expenditure of fewer resources.

Engineered mouse models are a great tool when available, but they have their own problems with being predictive of behaviour in human subjects for much the same reason as xenograph models do. In vitro models using cancer cell lines is typically where you start characterization (well, probably after you first demonstrate target engagement in a cell free system) but are likely to be if anything less predictive of behavior in humans than a whole cell or whole organism model.

So while xenograph models have their limitations so do engineered mouse lines and cell-based assays. All still generate useful results.

Engineered mouse models do not display the species of origin bias observed with anti-mitotic agents, since both their normal cells and the tumor cells are their own. In addition, there is large evidence for an immunologic response triggered by many drugs that can be useful for the patient, but cannot be seen in immunocompromised animals used for tumor grafting.
Before getting to the patient, it would be good to compare the sensitivity of cancer cell lines to that of human bone marrow progenitors in vitro.
A review of literature indicates that xenografts are much more used than the other two methods, and one can wonder why. My guess is that it is because they give “good” results.

You rightly say that you don’t want to debate with these guys, who do not deserve it, but actually this is what you do.

You’re conflating two different things. Yes, you can say Orac “debates” these cranks by blogging about them, but that is very different from the “properly moderated public debates” that these knobs are calling for. One can be done while sitting in one’s jammies. The other represents a substantial investment of time and logistical effort – which implies, often falsely, that the issue under debate is so unsettled, it can’t be solved without such effort.

Comments are closed.