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Animal Research

Does it help people? Is it any use otherwise?

Three years ago, conservative TV and radio commentator Glenn Beck produced a short documentary called Socialized Science: The animal testing debate. (Subtitle: White-coat Waste). The film has two themes. First, biomedical research with animals is a waste of money because it has no relevance to human beings. The second theme takes the form of repeated clips of suffering animals, mostly cute animals like baby chimps or puppies, as backing to narration or interviews with advocates and opponents of animal research. The conclusion is clear: research with animals is not only wasteful, but cruel and inhuman.

The film produced a reaction from the American Psychological Association and other professional groups associated with research using animals. Working scientists were urged to defend animal research. As an animal-experimenter, I responded to the request and submitted a commentary. No response. The silence of the requester seemed to be because I had some criticisms of research as well as of Mr. Beck.

The film’s first theme, that animal research is useless, is obviously false. Much of what we know about basic physiology of the heart, the lungs, the digestive system, infection and many others, would not have happened without research on live animals. But animal research in psychology, especially when framed in terms of direct human benefit, is often extrapolated beyond justifiable limits. The editor evidently disagreed, perhaps feeling that science should appear spotless. Hence my piece never saw the light of day. So here are some updated comments that are especially relevant now, when behavioral research with animals in psychology is under threat and much diminished compared to twenty or thirty years ago.

The focus of Beck’s film is on drug testing with ‘animal models’. Here there is a kernel of truth, much obscured by horrific intercuts of bloody carcasses and wounded dogs and monkeys. The general equivalence of animals and humans is indeed assumed by many. I have long been critical of the ‘animal model’ idea because it is too often taken literally. For scientific purposes the model is not the animal but the underlying process, be it circulation of the blood, source of infection or immune reaction. Only if the processes are identical in their essentials can the animal be a model for the human.

Sometimes the underlying physiology is different in humans and an animal model. I’m told that chocolate (contains theobromine) is bad for dogs. It’s not bad for me, though. An adequate understanding of the physiological differences between man and canine would show why. In other words, before you use an animal to test a drug, you need to know enough about its physiology to be sure that it will react in the same way as a human being. Otherwise, the study is just testing the human risks of chocolate with a dog model.

The animal-model idea has all too often degenerated into simple analogy. Once the phrase took hold, it became too easy to ignore the basic questions and just assume a simplistic equivalence between one species and another. Too much animal research has been of this sort. Unsurprisingly, through 2004 more than 90% of animal-tested drugs failed in clinical trials with humans.

A related issue is the continuing pressure to justify research by its human application. The tendency of government grantors to require practical justification – even for supposedly basic research and even though long-term effects are impossible to foresee – has only increased over the years. Uncritical acceptance of animal models has only encouraged this kind of claim, justified or not.

I grew up in Skinner’s operant lab at Harvard in the early 1960s. I wanted to know how animals learn, how reward schedules work and so on. My interest was to understand how pigeons adapted to reward, not to cure mental illness or improve primary schools. But Skinner’s interest was application – control of behavior. He extrapolated the results of a fledgling science not just to human behavior, but to the very design of human society. His unidimensional approach was taken seriously for many years. Maybe it still is, by some, although many of Skinner’s proposals are simplistic utopianism at best. Underpinning all is the idea that the pigeon is a model for the human in every significant respect.

JS pic
Source: JS pic

Skinner was not alone in his scientific imperialism. The eclectic Berkeley learning theorist E. C. Tolman famously said many years ago “I believe everything important in psychology (except perhaps such matters as the building up of a super-ego, that is everything save such matters as involved society and words) can be investigated in essence through the continued experimental and theoretical analysis of the determiners of rat behavior at a choice point in the maze.” It is interesting that the (cognitive) behaviorist Tolman accepted the reality of the super-ego, a vaporous notion long discarded by science. And what of very human endeavors like art and fashion, not to mention moral issues – virtue and vice? How will the rat in a maze –or a pigeon in a Skinner box – help us with those? Tolman might have hesitated to answer. Skinner did not.

Most operant research is excellent, has told us much and could tell us much more. But the simplistic use many have made of it gets mixed reviews. We will have to go well beyond pigeons and rats before we have – if we will ever have – a true understanding of the springs of human action. Pigeons are not a model for humans. But just as the circulation of the blood occurs in both species, so similar principles, including those studied by operant conditioners may be studied in both. In other words it is not the pigeon that provides the model for humans, but the same underlying processes in both.

The animal-model idea has allowed too-ready extrapolation of incomplete science. The premature emphasis on human applicability has harmed not just animals but human beings. Teachers, therapists and planners place excessive confidence in supposedly science-based treatments and educational policies which are often based on little more than metaphor and weak analogy.

But Beck’s film misses on its key point, cost. In relation to the massive sources of real waste in the Federal government, the cost of biomedical science is trivial. People don’t do science for the money and don’t get rich as successful scientists. It is true that once you’re in, the pressure to get research grants, which may pay a little salary but mostly support the research and the institution, is strong. Nevertheless, the overall impact of science funding on the national budget is minute.

Beck’s movie is flawed. But one reason for its bad reception is flawed also: the fact that Beck produced it. The film must be bad because Mr. Beck made it. The genetic fallacy is to judge a claim by its source not its content. Many people demonize Mr. Beck and accuse him of lies, deceit and religious lunacy. Even some I respect, like the late Christopher Hitchens, followed this crowd. This film basically misses the point about animal research, but Mr. Beck does sometimes say things that are worth hearing, whether you agree with his political and religious views or not.

More from John Staddon, Ph.D.
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