Yesterday, I made the point that the struggle between those who support animal based research and the Animal Rights activists who wish to ban the use of animals entirely is essentially one for public understanding and public perceptions.
I argued that as things now stand, the supporters of research are playing defense, exclusively and ineffectually, while Animal Rights people are attacking with a very highly effective propaganda machine. The result of that is that the public is caught between two viewpoints, the Animal Rights one vibrant, passionate and compelling, offering a fantasy of a new, kinder, cruelty-free world, and the scientific community relying on its past glory and the authority of itself . . . neither tack being at all persuasive in light of AR responses to them.
You cannot win the day only by playing defense, especially when you're faced with a public who reads, on the Op Ed page of The Boston Globe no less, a distortion of science and scientists that is as bizarre, grotesque and vicious as is this hit piece, which nevertheless exemplifies my point in biblical proportions:
RESEARCHER 1: So, did the technician check out?
Researcher 2: I hope so.
Researcher 1: No PETA affiliation? No hidden videotape?
Researcher 2: Very funny! I don't know where they get applicants anyway. Imagine the job description: ''Decapitate cute mammals and prepare their brains for histologic studies. Put 'em in the incinerator while they're still twitching."
Researcher 1: Once that happened; once!
Researcher 2: ''Section animals over 50 lbs. Keep in fume hoods to prevent ethafume explosions. Must like animals-- but not get too attached to them."
Researcher 1: You forgot, ''Speak to press and go to jail."
Researcher 2: No wonder people volunteer to go to Iraq.
Researcher 1: Yeah. Better air; less security!
Researcher 2: Speaking of security, they installed a video surveillance camera at my home. I don't know if I should feel more secure or less. Joan's terrified every time the doorbell rings. She has Maria opening the mail.
Researcher 1: Wait until they put your name and address on the Internet.
Researcher 2: I worry about the kids.
Researcher 1: Or throw paint stripper on your car.
Researcher 2: Their friends have said things.
Researcher 1: Or tell your neighbors you're a puppy killer!
Researcher 2: How did we become the bad guys, dammit? You spend half your professional life chasing mice, finally get to primates or dogs or even cats and suddenly you're a murderer!
Researcher 1: No kidding!
Researcher 2: Changing ''animal" to ''animal model" fooled no one; they know it's not a computer model. We might as well say animal martyr. [My emphasis . . . ed]
Translation: Scientists will lie to further their ends — don't trust anything they say.
The author has "poisoned the well" in textbook fashion. Once the well is poisoned, every sip of water drawn from it is poisoned too.
Here, no defense a scientist can offer can overcome the accusation that he's a lier, because whatever form that defense takes can't be trusted to be true and accurate.
Researcher 1: Or ''your pet."
Researcher 2: Replacing dogs with pigs didn't help either. Look what happened to Webster at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for trying to study whether Tasers can electrocute pigs' hearts. All they see is Babe.
Researcher 1: In my day it was Wilbur.
Researcher 2: It's not like the pig's going to live out his natural life on a tropical isle. He's going to be killed for food anyway.
Researcher 1: They don't believe in killing animals for food.
Researcher 2: It's not like the cats in the pound are going to live out their natural lives.
Researcher 1: They believe in no-kill shelters.
Researcher 2: And you can't even debate these nuts because you'd have to reveal what you're doing and who you are.
Researcher 1: ''Chino come and get me too."
Researcher 2: So we end up saying most of the work is with rodents and rabbits and we are tapering down which agrees with their premise that it's wrong.
Researcher 1: Like bad food and such small portions?
Researcher 2: Or we fall back on the lives that are saved which is hard to prove with wrinkle creme studies or when an investigator repeats something over and over for the money.
Researcher 1: The public can't judge our work anyway.
Researcher 2: Or we say it is in the interests of the researcher to treat the animal well which flies in the face of the head injury, pain, toxicity, and burn studies.
Researcher 1: No pun intended.
Researcher 2: Or we assure the public we are abiding by government regulations which stipulate the room must be 72 degrees and the cage 18 inches while we exsanguinate a beagle.
Researcher 1: Or the drowned animal had drinking water.
Researcher 2: Or we set up the your-dog-or-your-daughter conjunction and then a Vioxx comes along and it is their daughter.
Researcher 1: Now that really ticked me off! Big pharma doesn't want to lose a year's revenue just waiting for clinical trials so they go to patent prematurely and we all look bad.
Technician: Hello, I'm the new lab technician.
Researcher 1:Yes, we were just talking about you.
So now we know where Rita Skeeter, the erstwhile yellow journalist for the Daily Prophet ends up: masquerading as someone called Martha Rosenberg, a cartoonist for the Evanston Roundtable whose talents were obviously appreciated by the editors of the Boston Globe.
We should all keep in mind that the public forms opinions partly on the basis of unanswerable slurs like this (the well was poisoned . . .).
This is a game of PR — the scientific community and its supporters can remain indifferent, or proclaim past glory as a defense, or resort to appeals to the authority scientists to support their case. But the animal rights people are way ahead of such flacid "defenses." As I said yesterday (op cit):
Mr. Festing and the Nobel laureates are correct [that animal based research is necessary . . . ed] — but that is irrelevant. This approach [to the opinion of Nobel laureates] is in isolation simply an appeal to authority, which lacks intellectual clout. Why should I support science? Because Dr. Smith, who does things I don't understand and couldn't care less about, said I should . . .
In fact, the AR activists can and do parry his point with ease: they can claim — and have — that the discoveries for which the Nobel laureates won their prizes might have been achieved sooner had non-animal alternative methods been used in place of misleading and wasteful animal studies; or that while animal research might have been useful "back then" it is no longer useful today; and they claim that scientists and the institutions they serve are greedy, power hungry yahoos who want only to enhance their own reputations and pocketbooks, even at the expense of helpless animals — so it's natural that they'd try to defend their respective turfs against the enlightened and pioneering AR suggestions for improving both the conditions of animals and the quality of research in one fell swoop.
And they wrap all that malarky in loaded words like "torture," "abuse," "cruelty," and "poisoned bodies."
It is preposterous, of course, but it works, which is why the RDS exists, the Hall family is out of business and why I'm writing this blog.
The AR people use these tactics constantly, catching the public in a colossal game of "he said she said." As things now stand, scientists and their supporters are left trying to defend themselves and their mysterious enterprise against a constant barrage of false accusations, misinformation and outright lies. Inevitably, like water drip-drip-dripping on granite, the defense will be worn away incrementally.
The solution is to stop the water dripping, in addition to thickening the rock. It is beyond me why this is a difficult point to understand, but difficult to understand it clearly is . . ..
Though Ms Skeeter, aka Ms Rosenberg, didn't actually use the words "torture," "abuse," "cruelty," and "poisoned bodies," it would be difficult for the reader not to conclude from Ms Skeeter's screed that such descriptors aren't properly applied to what scientists do to animals.
The bad news is that hit pieces like this are going to continue to happen.
The good news is there really are things that can and should be done to counter them. First and foremost, it is necessary for the supporters of science to take the offense, and make Animal Rights people play defense. It's not that hard to do, and it's wonderfully effective, as the Center for Consumer Freedom is demonstrating.
The alternative is to leave the initiative with the Animal Rights activists, to let the public fill in the gaps from sources that may or may not be friendly to science, but will almost certainly not understand it well, and to leave to chance the success and viability of much of the scientific enterprise.
No scientist would approve a grant proposal in which the PI leaves half the study to variables he could otherwise control, and it's just preposterous that scientists and the supporters of science are choosing to do just that here, in the arena of public opinion, when it would be so easy for them not to.