By: Adrian Morrison DVM, PhD  Date: 01/15/2012 Category: | Animal Rights vs Animal Welfare |

Foolish, outrageous claims against the necessity or even usefulness of animal-based research are common in animal rights literature. These are as irresponsible as they are silly because they can lead the unwary with a natural, compassionate concern for animals to contribute money to a cause actually working against the contributor's best interests. Although I believe the political leaders of the animal rights movement know better and lie deliberately, they are not the most dangerous or even the most culpable in my mind.

I am bothered by the intellectuals -- scientists and non-scientists -- who have stoked the fires with gross misrepresentations of the nature and necessity of biomedical research. Indeed, the acknowledged founder and chief guru of the movement, Australian philosopher Peter Singer, played a major role in unleashing the virulent attack on researchers with his descriptions of their work in the chapter "Tools for Research" in Animal Liberation.

Singer's utilitarian philosophy depends upon the demonstration that insufficient good has come from animal research to justify the pain and suffering it has caused. But two scientists, Sharon Russell and Charles Nicoll, recently reviewed "Tools for Research" and demonstrated in detail just how much Singer misrepresents research to support his thesis. Their results were published in a scientific journal, Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine1 with a rebuttal by Singer2 and their reply3. Even Singer's rebuttal is revealing.

Russell and Nicoll's analysis is very harsh, but in my opinion, deservedly so. As they note, Singer is held up as a model standard-bearer of the movement, one who has provided intellectual rigor to replace emotionalism and sentimentality. Yet, a close look at the chapter revealed a reliance on distortion and selectivity that was surprising in the work of a noted scholar, one who wrote the section on ethics in the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Were I to make a blanket condemnation of some activity as Singer has done in the case of biomedical research, I believe it would only be fair (and certainly most accurate) to sample various aspects of that activity for critiquing. Did Singer choose to focus on experiments that have led to various safer anesthetics or focus on surgical techniques and apparatus that make previously impossible operations possible, such as the heart-lung machine that permits prolonged open heart surgery? Did he emphasize studies aimed at understanding what causes cells to run wild in cancer? No, he chose to put most of his emphasis on behavioral experiments for analysis. These are, without a doubt, the hardest experiments for the untutored to see as justified. I am sure this is the reason Singer zeroed in on them to make his case.

How unbalanced was his treatment?

Of those pages strictly devoted to the use of animals in research, half deal with studies on animal behavior and drug addiction. Yet in 1993, the National Institutes of Health doled out only 11 percent of its budget to those institutes funding research on behavior, mental health, and addiction while 37 percent went to those institutes concerned with research on cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Considering that these percentages would translate roughly to the number of animals used in studying the problems, one can conclude that Singer shied away from picking on research that the public regards with greater sympathy than mental health and addiction.

Not only are there many distortions, the chapter is sloppy in handling literature citations. Russell and Nicoll checked the accuracy of 49 of the 132 references for the chapter and found that 16 (one-third) were inaccurate or could not be found. That is an astounding record.

How does Singer introduce distortion beyond focusing attention away from more central concerns such as cancer and heart disease? One trick is to confuse the reader into thinking he is reading about a species that may merit (or at least attract) more human concern when the subject is actually quite another.

"Tools for Research" begins with this ploy: Singer reminds readers of the Hollywood film Project X in which chimpanzees are used in experiments to test their ability to fly a plane after being dosed with radiation. He then segues into descriptions of actual US Air Force studies to determine capabilities of previously trained monkeys to "fly" a simulator after exposure to radiation or chemical poisons. Singer leaves the reader wondering about the point of subjecting animals to such conditions, for he never provides the rationale: uncertainty about a pilot's ability to function in defense, a grave concern during the Cold War era.

In his rebuttal to Russell and Nicoll, Singer pooh-poohs their concern that he intended to mislead readers into thinking that the Air Force experiments on monkeys were performed on chimpanzees as a way of upping the ante of species concern.

Russell and Nicoll replied: "Although Singer does not state that chimpanzees were used, neither does he state they were not. Even if it was not intended, we suspect that many readers of Singer's book come away with the mistaken impression that chimpanzees have been used for this type of military research."3

One cannot state with certainty what he intended, but he clearly misled two of his fellow philosophers, Lawrence and Susan Finsen, who describe the experiments in their book The Animal Rights Movement in America4, which is not a model of accuracy itself.

"The popular film Project X (1987) made many Americans aware that radiation research on animals is an ongoing military activity. The film is a dramatization of actual research on chimpanzees who are trained to operate a flight simulator using extensive aversive conditioning (i.e. electric shock) and are then irradiated. They are observed to determine for how long and at what doses of radiation they can continue to perform their tasks. Former military researcher Donald Barnes resigned in protest of the pointlessness of this research which had been conducted for years on hundreds of chimpanzees."

However, Barnes had worked with rhesus monkeys, not chimpanzees.

Russell and Nicoll's dissection of the chapter "Tools for Research" in Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, Singer's rebuttal, and the writers' reply to his rebuttal can all be found in Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine (211/2 [1996]: 109:109-154)

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