November 9, 2010

Lawrence Hansen: Animal researchers and animal rights advocates guilty of groupthink

Thomas Peter, Retuers
There's an interesting and thought-provoking article by Lawrence A. Hansen over at The Chronicle: Animal Research: Groupthink in Both Camps. Hansen, who is an animal researcher himself, makes the case that both animal researchers and defenders of animals are guilty of groupthink, a mode of thought that people engage in when they are profoundly involved in a cohesive in-group. This typically happens when members of a group strive for unanimity and override their motivations to realistically appraise alternative courses of action:
We faculty members with deep concerns for animal welfare are often viewed by our groupthink scientific colleagues as untrustworthy or even treasonous agents provocateurs, since we are inclined to raise both ethical and scientific objections to invasive and lethal animal experimentation, especially when it involves primates and companion animals—that is, dogs and cats.
Meanwhile, our animal-rights associates suspect us of insufficient ardor for animal welfare, since we acknowledge that not all research involving animals is torture, and many of us do not object when transgenic mice are painlessly euthanized after being well cared for during their short lives.
Groupthink among animal advocates, unless it leads to violence, is harmless enough, but it's self-defeating when the goal is to rally public opposition to vivisection (a term that encompasses both the dissection of living animals for teaching, and performing invasive, intentionally mutilating or maiming surgeries on living animals as a way to do research). A huge reservoir of empathy for our fellow primates and for companion animals goes untapped when PETA demonstrators protest biomedical research on mice or trivia like presidential fly swatting. It may well be that a Gandhi-like respect for all animal life represents the ultimate in human ethical evolution, but until that "consummation devoutly to be wished" is realized, apes and monkeys and dogs and cats are being confined, vivisected, and killed while animal advocates are ignored as a lunatic fringe.
But when it comes to animal vivisection in particular, Hansen paints a particularly grim picture of what goes on behind the scenes and the attitudes that perpetuate unethical research practices:
One especially disturbing example of primate vivisection repeatedly approved by many university animal-care-and-use committees is a decades-long series of highly invasive experiments performed on rhesus monkeys to learn more about the neuronal circuitry of visual tracking in the brain. The luckless monkeys undergo multiple surgeries to have coils implanted in both eyes; holes drilled in their skulls to allow researchers to selectively destroy some parts of their brains and put recording electrodes in others; and head-immobilization surgeries in which screws, bolts, and plates are directly attached to their skulls. The monkeys are anesthetized during these surgeries. After a recovery period, they are intentionally dehydrated to produce a water-deprivation "work ethic" so that they will visually track moving objects for the reward of a sip of water.

First impressions are usually correct in questions of cruelty to animals, and most of us cannot bear to even look at pictures of these monkeys, with their electrode-implanted brains and bolted heads, being put through their paces in a desperate attempt to get a life-sustaining sip of water. Such treatment is justified in the corresponding grant application by invoking the possibility that the resulting data may allow us to find the cause and cure for human diseases such as Alzheimer's.

But those of us who have spent decades in research on Alzheimer's disease recognize that such a justification is an ethical bait and switch, since the neural pathway being investigated in these experiments is not even involved in Alzheimer's disease. These experiments in the basic neuroscience of visual tracking are so thoroughly unrelated to the neuropathology of Alzheimer's disease that in more than 28 years of research in the neuroscience of the disease, I have never come across a single reference to them in any scientific literature on neurodegenerative disease.
Since most invasive monkey research is not directly linked to alleviating human suffering, argues Hansen, what is the real motivation of scientists doing such things to our cousin primates? "The investigators are not sadists, although they may seem to be from the monkey's point of view," he writes, "Researchers simply see themselves as doing neuroscience, reasoning that if you want to learn about how brains are wired, the easiest and most direct way is to selectively damage a living brain and see what happens."

Hansen's analysis is both fair and tempered; he concludes on a rather encouraging and enlightened note:
All these efforts reflect a growing awareness that neuroscientists wedded to primate vivisection as a way to conduct research are simply too biased by their own training, research agendas, and career considerations to objectively perform the kind of ethical cost-benefit analysis required before permitting primate vivisection. The trend toward outside supervision of animal vivisection parallels the point made by Georges Clemenceau, a French statesman and physician, who said, "War is too important to be left to the generals." Ethically aware citizens are increasingly concluding that primate vivisection is too important to be left to the researchers who dominate their university animal-care-and-use committees.