Archive for the 'Research with animals' category

Academic freedom, academic responsibility, Speaking of Research, and Steve Best.

Nov 05 2012 Published by under Academia, Research with animals

The Speaking of Research blog has been following the involvement of Steve Best, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso, in providing the philosophical justification for animal rights extremist groups like Negotiation is Over in their "direct action" efforts using threats of violence to discourage animal research.

Recently, they noted that his collaboration with Negotiation Is Over seems to have come to an end, given that he has sought a restraining order against Camille Marino, the most identifiable activist behind Negotiation Is Over.

Best took issue with this coverage, apparently because part of it focused on his own strong claims:

“Let every motherfucker who shoots animals be shot; Let every motherfucker who poisons animals be injected with a barrel of battery acid; Let every motherfucking vivisector be vivisected and thrown away like the shit they are,” he wrote in 2011.

and on what seemed to be evidence that Best assisted Marino in her efforts to raise money to pay college students to give Negotiation Is Over names, pictures, addresses, phone numbers, and other contact information for their classmates who were "learning to experiment on animals". What was the relevant evidence? That donations were requested to be sent to a PayPal account linked to an email address that belongs to Steve Best.

So now, Best has emailed Speaking of Research threatening them with legal action:

you are violating my academic free speech rights with these false unproven claims, and I will take the most aggressive legal action against all of you, just as I have against Marino, who is soon to go down on federal charges for further violations of my PPO.

Specifically, Best is challenging the assertion that letting Marino use the PayPal account linked to that email address of his constitutes support of the Negotiation Is Over campaign against biomedical students.

I think that different people can look at the available evidence and draw different conclusions about the extent of Best's support of the Negotiation Is Over campaign -- and certainly that there might be some interesting discussions (perhaps grounded in moral or political philosophy) on degrees of support and corresponding degrees of responsibility. However, I think Best is overreaching in his claim that Speaking of Research is "violating [his] academic free speech rights" in blogging about his public statements and public activities.

Like free speech more generally, academic freedom is not unlimited. I reckon a tenured associate professor's free speech would not extend to shouting "Fire!" in a crowded movie house. It would surely not extend, either, to ordering a hit on an enemy, whether that enemy was professional or personal.

And, beyond issues of identifying the point at which speech becomes action (whether that action is criminal or not), it is crucial to recognize that academic freedom, like free speech more generally, is not a right to be free from having others criticize what you have said.

Here's what the University of Texas at El Paso Handbook of Operating Procedures says about academic freedom:

Academic freedom is an indispensable element of that larger liberty that includes the right to free expression.  Because a free society and freedom itself rest upon the continuous search for knowledge, and because institutions of higher education are primary agencies for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, a faculty member is entitled to full academic freedom in research, in the publication of results and conclusions, and in the classroom presentation of his or her subject.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Have the posts at Speaking of Research prevented Best from pursuing his research, or from publishing his conclusions or presenting them in the classroom? I have no evidence one way or the other on this, but it would surprise me very much if they have. It's true that the UK Home Office barred Best from entering the UK on account of public statements that were judged to be at odds with a policy prohibiting entry of people who

foment, justify or glorify terrorist violence in furtherance of particular beliefs; seek to provoke others to terrorist acts; [or] foment other serious criminal activity or seek to provoke others to serious criminal acts.

So, Best was prevented from presenting his conclusions (in person) in the UK, but not by Speaking of Research. Moreover, academic freedom is not a guarantee that the academic claiming it will be admitted to any nation in the world.

Here's what the University of Texas at El Paso Handbook of Operating Procedures says about academic responsibility:

Academic freedom, like any other freedom, carries with it concomitant responsibilities.  The requirements of scholarly statement and research in a field of specialization shall constitute the guidelines for these responsibilities. 

Academic freedom does not extend to the promulgation and exploitation in the classroom of material that has no relationship to the subject being taught.

Academic responsibility imposes certain professional restraints on academicians in their roles as citizens.  Because faculty are identified as members of a learned profession and as representatives of the University, they should bear in mind that the public may judge both the profession and the University on the basis of public utterances.  Hence, when acting in their roles as citizens, faculty members are expected to be accurate in their statements, to respect the opinions of others, and to make it clear that they do not speak for the University or their profession.

As employees of a State institution of higher education, faculty members should refrain from involving the University of Texas System or The University of Texas at El Paso in partisan politics.

(Bold emphasis added.)

There's a lot we could say about exactly how academic responsibility might play out, but surely a short-list would include:

  1. You have a responsibility not to knowingly present an untruth as the truth (e.g., fabricating or falsifying experimental results, or making claims that you know are not supported by the available evidence).
  2. You have a responsibility, when presenting yourself as a scholar/knowledge-builder/thinker from a particular academic field, to make use of the recognized methods of that field in arriving at or supporting the claims you're putting forward. A scientist making an assertion needs to be ready to point to the scientific evidence that supports it (and to answer the scientific evidence that seems to be in conflict with it). A philosopher needs to be ready to put up the argument that supports his position, and to answer the objections and counterarguments.
  3. You have a responsibility to recognize that some assertions you might make can be used to harm others -- and, possibly, to do all you can to head off that harm when you make those assertions.
  4. Arguably, you have a responsibility not to threaten the academic freedom of others.

Calling for violence towards other academics who do work of which you do not approve, then, seems like a failure of academic responsibility. And, such calls for violence are arguably more of an impediment to academic freedom than is a blog post critiquing a philosopher's rhetoric or the use to which it has been put by activist groups.

Of course, the folks at Speaking of Research are quite clear that they are not interested in infringing on Steve Best's academic freedom:

We are not acting against his academic freedom. If anything we are merely defending the academic freedom of those of his academic colleagues at UTEP and elsewhere that Prof. Best wants “to be vivisected and thrown away like the shit they are.”  Most universities have an ethical code of conduct that make such speech unacceptable academic behavior.  One must wonder if UTEP has one or not.

Prof. Best is free to speak up his mind and support animal rights extremists and their actions, but he must understand that such freedom does not entail freedom from the consequences of such speech or acts. Here and elsewhere, we have simply explained and documented the connection between Negotiation is Over, their campaigns to harass and intimidate students, the PayPal account they used to accept donations, and its link to Prof. Best email account.

Academics -- especially academic philosophers -- come into their professional world expecting that there will be vigorous disagreements about the conclusions they bring to the marketplace of ideas, and about the arguments they use to support those conclusions. When one's work has clear relevance to issues that matter beyond the ivory tower, it is to be expected that these disagreements will spill over into the broader public discourse. That's the price of exercising your academic free speech -- you may have to listen to critiques.

If Steve Best wants to avoid the critiques, his only sure bet is to drop out of the discussion. He can't simultaneously assert his own right to speech while demanding that his critics shut up.

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Tomorrow on Skeptically Speaking: animal research.

Sunday, May 8th, I'll be on the Skeptically Speaking radio program, as part of an episode looking at "the practical advantages, and the ethical pitfalls, of using animals in scientific and medical research".

The show records live (unlike most of my blog posts!) starting at 6 PM Mountain Time (5 PM Pacific Time/7 PM Central Time/8 PM Eastern Time). Or, if you have plans (perhaps with your Mother) at that time, the podcast will be available for download at 9 PM (Mountain Time) on Friday, May 13th.

If there are questions you'd like to submit for the show, the Skeptically Speaking website is taking them now.

By the way, the other guest for this episode will be Bill Barry, Chief Historian at NASA, who will be talking about the history of animals and spaceflight ... which is a perfect excuse for a Jonathan Coulton video:


Space Doggity

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On the targeting of undergraduates by animal rights extremists (and the dangers of victim-blaming).

This morning, the Speaking of Research blog brings news of an undergraduate science major targeted for daring to give voice to her commitments:

Earlier this week, the animal rights extremist group at NegotiationisOver.com posted an email they received from Alena – an undergraduate student at Florida Atlantic University – in response to their attempts to solicit local activists to attend an animal rights event:

Actually, I’m an undergrad researcher aiming to work at Scripps [Research Institute]! I currently test on animals and think that it is perfectly fine. In fact, it is the one of the only ways that we, scientists, can test drugs in order to treat human diseases. I’m sure someone in your family or even a friend you know has suffered from a disease or pathology that was treated (or cured) by medicines THAT ONLY CAME INTO EXISTENCE BECAUSE OF ANIMAL TESTING.

First off, we applaud Alena for standing up for what she believes in and for expressing support for the humane use of animals in research aimed at addressing the health and welfare of humans and animals alike. Not surprisingly, however, NIO launched an offensive of degrading and hateful emotional abuse that caused Alena to plead for them to:

…please stop saying such horrible, untrue things about me. It’s hurtful.

In response, they no doubt ratcheted up the threats, causing Alena to:

…denounc[e] animal testing and my involvement in it…. I will be looking for other career choices.

Not unlike perpetrators of child and spouse abuse who use fear of further attacks to ensure silence in their victims, NIO hopes that flooding the email boxes of young people with obscenities and rabid missives will ensure that the voices of scientists of tomorrow are suppressed. Even for NIO, this is a new low, and Speaking of Research sharply condemns those who chose to act like shameless bullies when harassing, threatening and intimidating any student, researcher or faculty member.

I'm guessing at least some readers, reading this, are thinking to themselves (or hollering at the computer screen), "Well, what did she expect? You can't engage rationally with animal rights extremists! Sending that email to the extremist website was a rookie mistake, and now she'll know better."

Undergraduates may well be "rookies" in certain respects, but damned if I'm going to encourage my undergraduate students to give up hopes of rational engagement with the other people with whom they have to share a world. Giving up on rational engagement is how you end up with the current state of politics and "governance" in the United States. We can do better.

Anyway, I hope that a moment's reflection will persuade you that blaming the victim of the harassment here is just as inappropriate as blaming victims of bullying or rape. "If she had just done X, Y, or Z differently, this wouldn't have happened to her!" Coming at it this way may convince you that you are safe from such harassment because of how you are doing X, Y, and Z. You aren't. The extremists can decide to target you regardless of what you do or don't do.

Really.

The undergraduate targeted here by extremists was involved in research with fruit flies. And extremists have targeted scientists who no longer perform animal research (and their children). Indeed, they have targeted people who don't do scientific research at all (like me) who have dared to express the view that animal research might be the most ethical of our options.

The extremists are not choosing targets because of what they do or how they do it. Rather, just existing in the public square with a view different from theirs seems to be enough.

Indeed, the extremist website Negotiation is Over offers its readers step by step advice on how to target undergraduate students in the life sciences:

How to Shut Down Vivisectors-In-Training in Three Easy Steps

  1. By and large, students pursuing careers in research science truly want to help people, not victimize animals. Their indoctrination into the world of laboratory torture is slow, methodical, and deliberate. While they are being groomed, we are obligated to intercede and educate these young scientists with truth. As Alena admitted, “I was naive…I really just did not know about all this stuff.” And she is not unique.
  2. Students also need to understand that making the wrong choice will result in a lifetime of grief. Aspiring scientists envision curing cancer at the Mayo Clinic. We need to impart a new vision: car bombs, 24/7 security cameras, embarrassing home demonstrations, threats, injuries, and fear. And, of course, these students need to realize that any personal risk they are willing to assume will also be visited upon their parents, children, and nearest & dearest loved ones. The time to reconsider is now.
  3. Like all young adults, college students are acutely concerned with how they are perceived by their peers. They need to maintain a certain persona if they wish to continue to enjoy the acceptance of their community. This makes them infinitely more susceptible to negative and inflammatory publicity than their veteran-mutilator counterparts. When education fails, smear campaigns can be highly effective. Abusers have forfeited all rights to privacy and peace of mind and, if an abuser-to-be should fail to make the correct choice now, NIO is here to broadcast all of their personal information. Remember, young people document every facet of their personal lives online. In about 30 minutes, we were able to compile an impressive and comprehensive profile for Elena.

We need to begin to actively identify those enrolled in scientific disciplines and isolate the students preparing for or involved in biological research. We need to get into the universities and speak to classes. This poses a minor, but not insurmountable, obstacle for many activists that have been trespassed, banned, or TROed. We need to team up with other aggressive campaigners who excel at engaging and educating. We need to implement a “good cop, bad cop” approach to keep our targets off balance and maximize our effectiveness.

Let's take this point by point.

1. By and large, students pursuing careers in research science truly want to help people, not victimize animals. Their indoctrination into the world of laboratory torture is slow, methodical, and deliberate. While they are being groomed, we are obligated to intercede and educate these young scientists with truth. As Alena admitted, “I was naive…I really just did not know about all this stuff.” And she is not unique.

We start with a recognition that the undergraduates being targeted want to help people. But in the very next sentence, we get a picture of the established researchers deliberately indoctrinating these young do-gooders to transform them into gleeful animal torturers. (There's no explanation here of how the grown-up researchers -- themselves presumably once dewy-eyed undergraduates who wanted to save humanity -- became evil.)

For the good of these young people, the extremists must intervene and "educate these young scientists with truth".

It would be one thing if this were just a matter of dueling fact-sheets. Of course, one of the things we hope we're teaching our undergraduates is how to be critical consumers of information. Among other things, we want them to recognize that the facts are not determined by who shouts the loudest.* So whatever claims the extremists -- or their professors -- make about animal research are only as good as the evidence that backs them up, and finding that evidence may require the student to do some legwork.

I'm OK with that. Moreover, I trust my students to reflect on the best information they can find, to reflect on their own values, and to make the best choices they can.

The extremists, though, want to influence those choices with more than just "the facts" as they see them:

2. Students also need to understand that making the wrong choice will result in a lifetime of grief. Aspiring scientists envision curing cancer at the Mayo Clinic. We need to impart a new vision: car bombs, 24/7 security cameras, embarrassing home demonstrations, threats, injuries, and fear. And, of course, these students need to realize that any personal risk they are willing to assume will also be visited upon their parents, children, and nearest & dearest loved ones. The time to reconsider is now.

Please note that these threats are not tied to any particular kind of animal research -- to research that causes especially high pain and distress, or to research with nonhuman primates, or to research that violates the prevailing regulations. Rather, the bombs, home demonstrations, and targeting of family members are being threatened for any involvement in animal research at all.

The extremists do not have a nuanced view. Merely existing with a view of animal research that differs from theirs is provocation enough for them.

And, they are happy to make their case with threats and intimidation -- which suggests that maybe they can't make that case on the basis of the fact.

3. Like all young adults, college students are acutely concerned with how they are perceived by their peers. They need to maintain a certain persona if they wish to continue to enjoy the acceptance of their community. This makes them infinitely more susceptible to negative and inflammatory publicity than their veteran-mutilator counterparts. When education fails, smear campaigns can be highly effective. Abusers have forfeited all rights to privacy and peace of mind and, if an abuser-to-be should fail to make the correct choice now, NIO is here to broadcast all of their personal information. Remember, young people document every facet of their personal lives online. In about 30 minutes, we were able to compile an impressive and comprehensive profile for Elena.

Who needs facts when you have cyber-bullying?

Indeed, the extremists are pretty clear in advocating "smear campaigns" that they are happy to lie to get their way, and that "abusers-to-be" (that is, anyone who doesn't already agree with the extremist position, or who hasn't decided to totally disengage) have no right to privacy or peace of mind.

Again, I suspect a reader or two in my age group may be thinking, "Well, if those whippersnappers didn't post so much information about themselves on the Facebooks and the MySpaces and the Tumblrs, they wouldn't get into this trouble, dagnabit!" But note again the willingness of the extremists to engage in smear campaigns. They don't need to find embarrassing pictures, videos, or posts, because they can make stuff up about you.

And, regardless of how much online time undergraduates spend in what I (or you) would judge "overshare" mode, I am not willing to tell them that the best way to deal with extremists is to go into actual or virtual hiding. I am not prepared to cede the public square, the marketplace of ideas, or the classroom discussion to the extremists.

Disagreement is not a crime, nor a sin.

Threatening and harassing people because they disagree with you, on the other hand, is a pretty lousy way to be part of the human community. Calling this behavior out when we see it is part of what we grown-ups ought to be doing, not just to set an example for the grown-ups-in-training, but also to do our part in creating the world those grown-ups-in-training deserve.

------
* The one obvious exception here: the fact of which side is shouting the loudest is determined by which side is shouting the loudest.

 

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Is objectivity an ethical duty? (More on the Hauser case.)

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education has an article that bears on the allegation of shenanigans in the research lab of Marc D. Hauser. As the article draws heavily on documents given to the Chronicle by anonymous sources, rather than on official documents from Harvard's inquiry into allegations of misconduct in the Hauser lab, we are going to take them with a large grain of salt. However, I think the Chronicle story raises some interesting questions about the intersection of scientific methodology and ethics.

From the article:

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The value of (unrealistic) case studies in ethics education.

Dr. Isis posted a case study about a postdoc's departure from approved practices and invited her readers to discuss it. DrugMonkey responded by decrying the ridiculousness of case studies far more black and white than what scientists encounter in real life:

This is like one of those academic misconduct cases where they say “The PI violates the confidence of review, steals research ideas that are totally inconsistent with anything she’d been doing before, sat on the paper review unfairly, called the editor to badmouth the person who she was scooping and then faked up the data in support anyway. Oh, and did we mention she kicked her cat?”.

This is the typical and useless fare at the ethical training course. Obvious, overwhelmingly clear cases in which the black hats and white hats are in full display and provide a perfect correlation with malfeasance.

The real world is messier and I think that if we are to make any advances in dealing with the real problems, the real cases of misconduct and the real cases of dodgy animal use in research, we need to cover more realistic scenarios.

I'm sympathetic to DrugMonkey's multiple complaints: that real life is almost always more complicated than the canned case study; that hardly anyone puts in the years of study and training to become a scientist if her actual career objective is to be a super-villain; and especially that the most useful sort of ethics training for the scientist will be in day to day conversation with scientific mentors and colleagues rather than in isolated ethics courses, training modules, or workshops.

However, used properly, I think that case studies -- even unrealistic ones -- play a valuable role in ethics education.

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Americans for Medical Progress names two Hayre Fellows in Public Outreach.

Today Americans for Medical Progress has announced two recipients for academic year 2010-2011 of the Michael D. Hayre Fellowship in Public Outreach, designed to inspire and motivate the next generation of research advocates. This year, I'm especially wowed by their project.

From the AMP press release:
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Ethics case study: science goes to the dogs.

I want to apologize for the infrequency of my posting lately. Much of it can be laid at the feet of end-of-term grading, although today I've been occupied with a meeting of scientists at different career stages to which I was invited to speak about some topics I discuss here. (More about that later.) June will have more substantive ethics-y posts, honest!
Indeed, to tide you over, I want to ask for your responses to a case study I wrote for the final exam for my "Ethics in Science" class.
First, the case:

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Animal research, abortion, and ethical decision making as a matter of balance, not absolutes.

Making good ethical choices in the real world is hard, in large part because it requires us to find the best balance in responding to interested parties whose legitimate interests pull in different directions. The situation is further complicated by the fact that as we are trying to make the best ethical decision we can, or evaluating the ethical decision-making of others, we can't help but notice that there is not universal agreement about who counts as a party with legitimate interests that ought to be taken into account, let alone about how to weight the competing interests in the ethical calculus.
We've talked about these difficulties before, especially in the context of the ethics of research with animals. In these discussions, we've noticed that some folks oppose such research across the board (at least if the research includes anything beyond purely observational studies in the field) on the basis that non-human animals' capacity to feel pain creates a situation where it is unethical for humans to use them in any manner that might cause them pain (or discomfort, or distress, or boredom), no matter what benefit such use might bring to humans. Here, at least one set of people doing the ethical calculus assert that non-human animals need to be counted as an interested party, and that their interests ought not to be sacrificed in favor of those of any other interested party.
Of course, arguments about the ethical status of animal research are not the only place such ethical claims arise. I refer you to the new law signed this week by the Governor of Nebraska. As The New York Times reports:

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Standing up for what we believe.

Lab_mouse_copy.jpg

(Click to embiggen)
Tomorrow, April 8, 2010, Pro-Test for Science will be holding its second rally in Los Angeles in support of humanely conducted, ethical animal research and the people who conduct it. Their first rally last April drew approximately 700 people to the streets to support the scientific research that offers hope to patients (both human and veterinary) and their families.
Speaking of Research has details on tomorrow's rally:

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Common ground and deeply held differences: a reply to Bruins for Animals.

In a post last month, I noted that not all (maybe even not many) supporters of animal rights are violent extremists, and that Bruins for Animals is a group committed to the animal rights position that was happy to take a public stand against the use of violence and intimidation to further the cause of animal liberation.
On Wednesday, Kristy Anderson (the co-founder of Bruins for Animals), Ashley Smith (the president), and Jill Ryther (the group's advisor) posted a critical response to my post. In the spirit of continuing dialogue, I'd like to respond to that response.
They write:

AR activists can rightly accept praise and credit for encouraging the two sides to come together in what was an unprecedented public and civil dialogue. However, one glaring and rather twisted irony too often overlooked is the fact that those very same participants who speak against aggressive campaigns against the animal experimentation industry and who are quick to praise AR advocates' stance on nonviolence are themselves engaged in (or are supporters of) violence and intimidation towards sentient beings on a daily basis.

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23 responses so far

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