I recently got two kittens. If you know me, you know this, because they’re all I can talk about. I love them completely, and I know they already see me as family.
I’ve also accidentally become an expert on animal research. It started as a simple 700-word article for the School of Journalism newspaper, The Thunderbird (read here). I’m now writing a follow-up article and compiling Canada’s situation into a feature for my science writing class. To make a long story short, a local animal advocacy group, STOP UBC Animal Research, has submitted plenty of Freedom of Information requests to UBC, all of which have been denied. The refusals are, on the surface, due to a section of the BC privacy law that deems information about ongoing research does not have to be disclosed.
STOP’s director Vincent calls this stubborn and misleading, and that UBC has something to hide. But there are nuances to this, like there are in every debate. UBC is not an island: there is a whole culture of federal laws, privacy tradition, and the competitive nature of medical research. Vincent point to the USA, where the process is much more transparent. But that didn’t happen overnight. UBC has released the number and type of animals used in research, and also broken that down by “category of invasiveness”; a move that no other Canadian university has done voluntarily. They are not obligated by law to do this. But Vincent just says that the data is useless and even raises more questions, and refuses to acknowledge it as a step in the right direction, calling it only a baby step and being more derivative about it. He will not give the UBC a gold star. But while this may seem trivial, UBC has done this to set itself up as a guinea pig for all Canadian institutions and has committed itself to reviewing all it’s disclosure on animal research. But to reveal all this information is a paradigm-shifting, and it cannot be done alone, and it cannot be done overnight. I’m not defending UBC per se, it’s just that by ignoring the much larger picture and focusing all it’s disdain on one small component of the system, UBC, STOP is not doing itself any favours.
Sometimes, when I talk to Vincent I can see some rational arguments, sensible points of view. His bottom line is show me the evidence, which any scientist can respect. But sometimes when talking to him I get the impression he is simply convinced this evidence doesn’t exist, and if he were shown it, would deny it anyway.
This is what I’m talking about: how do we justify animal research? Because it helps relieve the suffering of humans. Vincent argues, however, that is doesn’t, that animal research is misleading and actually harmful to human health advances. He cites a couple of examples, and the work of some people who were previously animal researchers, particularly one who has written a book on the subject of the matter. The problem I have with this is it’s such a grand sweeping statement, which the scientist in me abhors. Animal research cover such a gigantic range of animal species, for an even wider range of reasons, from medication development to therapies to cover every disease from migraines to diabetes. And everything in between. It would be hard to accurately grasp the extreme range of situations “animal research” covers, and to say all of it is misleading and harmful just seems naive and simplistic. Vincent encouraged me to read some of the work by the guy who wrote a book (he’s sending me an email about it, so I don’t have his name right now), and I will, but I expressed to him that I cannot read that guy’s work without reading the other side. As a journalist, that’s what I do. And as a human being too: to make these kinds of decisions, you need to judge all the evidence.
You cannot say that one set of anecdotes proves that all animal research is flawed. Vincent says they are not anecdotes: but a set of examples given by one person (or group of people) on one side of an argument is just that. I feel the need for balance. I don’t doubt that there truly are examples of animal research being a bad thing, but I also don’t doubt there are examples of the opposite, of it helping humanity. I just need to get off my ass and find those examples. Sometimes that can be difficult, as there is undoubtedly much PR, but I’m confident that someone has put as much thought and effort into defending decades of research, as some people have put into attacking it.
During our conversation today, Vincent brought up a classic argument. If you kidnapped your neighbour’s cat, and did some of the sorts of experiments permitted in “science” (his air quotes, I personally cannot stand the categorization of “science” in this way), then you would be arrested and charged with cruelty to animals. I argued back, of course, that the purpose is different: researcher are not doing it to be purely masochistic, they are trying to alleviate human suffering. Vincent says the suffering to the animal is the same, which of course it is, expect one helps cure the diseases of the people you care about.
Vincent says he would ask researchers if they would take their own pets into labs and conduct the same experiments. I looked at my kitten Coal, licking himself clean, and said of course I would, if it cured my mother of a terrible disease, or relieved her suffering.
He calls this a false comparison, that it doesn’t work that simply. No, it doesn’t, but neither does his original “ethical quandary” work that simply either.