post hoc != propter hoc

Lest I scare you away immediately, let me clarify that the topic of this blog is only marginally about the ethics of animal research. Rather, it’s about making a cogent argument. And more specifically, about the sense of nausea I feel when reading terrible arguments from people who should know better.

Last week, the New York Times published an op-ed questioning the morality of animal research, particularly in regard to primates. Perhaps my own biases are at play here, but I found this op-ed to be well written with nothing overly offensive in its content. The relatively banal take home message is that the U.S. should establish a “commission to develop the principles to guide decisions about the ethics of animal research”.

Rather, I plan to discuss a rebuttal of sorts that found its way to my eyes via Twitter which ~90 scientists purportedly signed on to. As far as I can see it, there are 2-3 main arguments put forward in praise of continuing animal research in this essay. All are quite frankly logical abominations, but I’m going to focus on the main one and leave the others as an academic exercise to the reader. I’ll return to discuss my opinions on animal research later, so if you’re interested you can stick around for that, but for now this is an argument about argumentation.

Point: “HPV kills people. We developed a vaccine for HPV using animal testing and it has saved countless lives. And almost every other treatment/vaccine we have developed has relied on animal testing. Ergo, all treatments/vaccines must clearly need animal testing. Or at very least the development of treatments/vaccines would be unacceptably slowed down in a world without animal testing”
Counterpoint: “Uhhhh…. I honestly can’t tell if you’re being serious right now?”

The argument above makes zero sense if you look at it with even the slightest critical eye. I’m desperately trying not to violate Godwin’s Law even though it would be ever-so-easy to do so. Instead I’ll make the argument that GPS technology has revolutionized our modern world. And GPS technology grew directly from the space race. Which was a direct result of the cold war. Ergo, without massive global conflict bordering on mutually assured destruction, it’s clear that we can never expect to develop a technology as revolutionary as GPS ever again…Q.E.D.

Such conclusions are outrageous, surely. We developed the HPV vaccine and lots of other vaccines and medical treatments, and we relied on animal models to do so. But this little tale speaks nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, about whether an HPV vaccine could have been developed without animal models. Or whether development of the next ground-breaking, life-saving vaccine/treatment requires animal experimentation.

Were I a better medical historian, I’m sure I could point to some antiquated medical advances that were built on the backs of prisoners, mental hospital patients, disabled people, and otherwise marginalized individuals because for a long time this was seen as okay. But let’s start by saying that everyone’s favorite polio vaccine inventor co-authored a paper where he injected experimental flu vaccines into senile patients at a state mental institution before exposing them to the flu. Because science. (Fun fact: the story of smallpox vaccine development includes a few prisoners and orphans too). Surely we gained valuable knowledge from these and other reprehensible experiments, but does that mean we could not have gotten flu/smallpox vaccines any other way and that we thus have a moral imperative to continue these practices?

When I see arguments like these, I don’t know how to respond. Because they’re almost mathematical in their complete wrongness. And yet. People seemingly pass it over without a thought. Not just people. Scientists! With doctorates!

We produce a lot of valuable medical research within our given framework of animal testing, but since this framework has dominated biomedical research, there is simply no telling how difficult and/or impossible research would be if we altered this framework and didn’t allow for it. We may never know, but it’s logically incoherent to assume that medical science wouldn’t advance (or even that it would advance more slowly) simply because of the fact that our current medical interventions were built on animal models.

Put more generally, when research operates within a dominant paradigm, any other paradigm seems ludicrous to consider because after all, “look at all the great stuff this paradigm produced!”. That is, until we recognize that these paradigms do, and have, changed continuously over time.

There may be great arguments in favor of continued animal research that include chimpanzees and other primates, and I’m truly open to hearing them. But this, quite frankly, isn’t one of them.

And thus concludes my piece on incoherent arguments. If you want to stick around to read my hastily thrown together thoughts on animal research, here they are:

First off, I don’t feel confident enough about the logic behind my personal beliefs about animal research to co-author either a New York Times piece. What do I believe in regards to animal research? Well, I actually agree with most people that treatments would be harder to develop and may take more time (at least initially) if we banned all mammalian research tomorrow: maybe a little more time, maybe a lot more, but we’ll never know until we try. Ethically, especially if your ethics are at all utilitarian, that extra time causes some problems when you think about the people who might die in the meantime.

And yet, it’s ludicrous to think that biomedical research wouldn’t be sped up by the continued use of prisoners, orphans and other non-consenting patients as lab guinea pigs. How many promising findings fail to translate as we move up the taxonomic chain? If we just did the majority of our biomedical research on unwilling human participants, I can assure you the pace of discovery would speed up and lives would be saved as a result (if someone debates that premise, I’d sooo love to hear your qualms). But I personally see that utilitarian gain as not being worth it because, you know. Morals. All animal rights advocates seem to be saying is “whatever moral reasoning prevents you from being okay with experimenting on non-consenting individuals is just a tick or two away on the exact same spectrum from my reasoning that prevents me from being okay with experimenting on chimpanzees.” Or rhesus macaques. Or pigs. And deeper on down the rabbit hole we can go. Or rabbits.

I can’t vociferously tell you why I support an outright ban on chimpanzees and other apes. Or why I feel slightly better allowing research on other primates, but kind of think that I’d prefer if that was banned too. I think that some animal research is probably necessary but if restrictions made it even more difficult to perform animal experiments, scientists would find ways to innovate within this new framework and pretty soon the pace of discovery would be as fast if not faster than it currently is. And based on my years of experience working with lab animals, I think it absolutely should be made more difficult and that in spite of the tremendous progress that has already been made over the last 50 years at reducing the pain and suffering of lab animals, there is a lot of room for improvement.

I can’t really justify the logic behind these beliefs, because the people who I think have the most logically consistent beliefs are the utilitarians who think killing 100 people to save 101 is a moral prerogative. People like me, for whom that conclusion is unacceptable draw some arbitrary moral line about the value of life and what it means to be human, or to feel pain, or to be conscious. We draw these lines at different places on the phylogenetic tree, with various guises of justification but let’s not kid ourselves to the complete and utter arbitrariness of it all.

If only a few hundred scientists could sign-on to that.