Scientists, Activists, and Trust

Signs at UCLA Pro-Test

Hey, y’all. The rally went well. Several hundred people showed up at UCLA to condemn domestic terrorism and support medical research. As you can imagine, there’s been a ton of commentary on blogs recently about this issue. One of my favorites comes from the blog of a science ethicist. She pointed out that one of the major roadblocks to open dialogue between those for and against animal research is mistrust. From what I’ve seen and read and who I’ve talked to, this is fundamentally and inescapably true.

Before I discuss trust on a larger scale, I’m going to try to convince you that you can trust me. Look at my blog picture – don’t I have a trustworthy face? Okay, maybe not, but I have personally seen this issue from both sides. I’ve always felt a special bond with animals. I was a strict vegetarian for 10 years before anemia forced me to start occasionally eating meat. I only used products like toothpaste and face wash that were made by companies that didn’t test on animals. I wore an animal rights t-shirt to high school and once saved a half-frozen mouse I found at school, taking it home, warming it up, and releasing it in the woods in warmer weather. So I hope that those of you who support animal rights will trust that I am neither sadistic nor indifferent to animal rights.

However, I’ve also seen how mental illness could destroy people’s lives. In college, I decided to dedicate myself to neuroscience so we could improve prevention and treatments. I started graduate school working with rat and mouse models of mental illnesses. My discomfort with the work didn’t fade with time, and after a year I switched to a lab working entirely with human subjects. Still, I’ve met hundreds of people doing animal research, some on mice and rats, some on small primates, none on great apes (which are very rarely experimented upon).

It seems as though animal rights activists mistrust scientists in part because they assume that anyone with such a job must be sadistic and enjoy hurting animals. I can tell you from personal experience that this is absolutely not true. Many of the warmest, most loving people I know conduct animal research. This is not a coincidence, but I’ll get to that later in the post. Just believe me when I say that no one chooses animal research because it’s fun. It entails much more grueling work than science conducted on computers or with humans. These scientists aren’t eager to harm living things; many have pets they love and cherish.

Some animal rights proponents also distrust scientists’ claims that animal research can’t be replaced with other methods. They claim that everything can be tested now in humans or in Petri dishes or with computer modeling, without the need for animals. Here’s another point where trust would come in handy. Animal rights activists may be smart people, but most of them haven’t had years of training in biology and experimentation. Because they are passionate about animal rights, they don’t trust the claims of scientists that research with living animals can’t be replaced with these methods. They probably won’t trust me either, but I want to emphatically state it here anyway. The other methods are nowhere near replacing animal research for the development of medical treatments and procedures (both for humans and for other animals). Since my research is on humans, I can tell you from experience: we would be lost without the information gained through animal research.

Animal rights proponents cite examples of failed oversight and animal abuse, but they don’t trust scientists and vets and regulators who say that these instances are far from the norm. If you investigated daycare facilities, there’s no doubt you’d find places where child abuse is taking place. This doesn’t necessarily mean that most daycare providers are abusive, or that all daycare facilities should be abolished. Instead, it means that regulations should be more carefully enforced. This is common ground that scientists and activists alike could agree on, if there were enough mutual trust for everyone to sit down and listen to each other.

Scientists harbor misconceptions too. Some feel like animal rights protesters are themselves sadistic or that they’re terrorists. Of course most animal rights supporters don’t threaten scientists and don’t intend to. They serve an important purpose: to be advocates for creatures that can’t advocate for themselves. Advocates, be they for animals or children or prisoners, can push for the best possible enforcement of strict standards of care.

Before we part, I want to return to the question I left unanswered. Why do many of the kindest people I know do animal research? To answer that, let me first ask you a question. Imagine a scenario in which you’re forced to choose between the life of your pet and the life of a loved one (child, parent, spouse, sibling . . .) No way around it; you can only save one. Which would you choose? I imagine that most of you will save your loved one, even if losing your pet would be a terrible loss.

Now consider that on a larger scale. Scientists bear the responsibility of developing life-saving medications, immunizations, and surgeries. If all of them chose not to do animal research, our society would suffer terrible setbacks in medical advancement. Consider the rapidly mutating strains of bacteria that will eventually make our current antibiotics useless. Do we really want to halt the march of medical progress? Despite the intimidation and unpleasantness of conducting animal research, scientists choose to do it because they want to continue medical improvements. They face the choice between animals and loved ones everyday. They choose the loved ones, not just theirs, but yours and mine and everyone’s everywhere. Imagine the kindness it takes to do that.

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