Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The strange case of smoking animals, tobacco companies and research - Part I

British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently said that he would sign a public petition in support of animal testing in research. And the ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, almost as if in reply, claimed: “Animal Tests Are Unreliable and Cruel”.

The debate over animal research has never been as public and centre stage as it is now.

There are both medical and ethical reasons to ban animal testing. Most people are mainly interested in the medical aspect, so I’ll focus on that here.

First of all, it’s no good to say that animal research is essential because researchers say so. People in the biomedical field are part of animal research, have a vested interest in it, and therefore their views are biased in favour of it. So it’s important that the public, who after all have to bear the consequences of it (and in many cases pay for it through taxation as well as by buying its products), make up their own mind.

Animal research is unreliable in the extreme. Let’s analyze one particularly important and significant example, before giving general arguments to back it up.

Smoking and cancer

The link between smoking and lung cancer was discovered by the British scientist Sir Richard Doll in the 1950s, by means of a study of human lung cancer patients in twenty London hospitals. He used the epidemiological method, i.e. the statistical study of diseases in human populations. The practical application to medicine of this all-important discovery had been hindered and delayed by animal research. Why?

First, because animal experiments had previously failed to demonstrate this link and they had ruled it out. Medical researchers were dismissive of Doll’s discovery. They had already tried to trigger cancer in animals using tobacco tar but had failed, they pointed out. Only later was it shown that their experimental procedures contained serious errors.

And then, even after Doll’s theory was published, animal researchers tested it by trying to reproduce the carcinogenic effects of smoking in animals. Some of this animal research was funded (you may guess) by tobacco manufacturers. Look at what they said: "No clearcut case against cigarette smoking has ever been made despite millions spent on research ...The longer these tests go on, the better our case becomes." (Phillip Morris, 1968)

Smoking beagles

It took 50 years to induce lung cancer in laboratory animals forced to breathe tobacco smoke (remember those pictures of rows of smoking beagles with cigarettes fixed in their masks?), thus delaying the health warning to humans and resulting in millions more unnecessary deaths.

In the end, it was the so-called British doctors study, a prospective clinical trial which ran from 1951 to 2001, that provided convincing statistical proof that tobacco smoking increased the risk of lung cancer. Doll’s study has provided the foundation for all other research into the impact of smoking cigarettes on health. It has arguably helped to save millions of lives.

This was a particularly important discovery, because it shows the role of lifestyle in cancer prevention (it actually paved the way to other discoveries linking cancer and diet) and, as we know, prevention is better than cure. There is here an analogy between the animal research lobby and the tobacco manufacturer's lobby, an analogy that goes beyond the fact that in this case they formed an “unholy alliance”.

Some smoking experiments on animals, intended to disprove its link with lung cancer and to give smoking the okay, were financed by cigarette companies. The analogy goes beyond this “unholy alliance” because both lobbies (animal experimentation and tobacco manufacturers) put the interest in their own self-preservation above public health.

The strange case of smoking animals, tobacco companies and research - Part II

Why animal experiments are unreliable

At this point people might say that yes, this was a case in which animal research retarded science and misled medicine, but it is an isolated case, the odd exception. But it is not an exception: it is indeed the rule, for obvious and necessary reasons, which will become apparent.

Animal experimentation is by its own very nature unreliable for application to humans. One of the reasons is that minuscule differences in biochemistry and miscroscopic composition of organisms produce enormous effects, hence the huge differences existing between not only species, but also individuals.

It’s easy to see that it is so. Think of how an incredibly tiny alteration at the microscopic level in the DNA can give rise to so many dramatic changes between individuals. In fact, it can give rise to a new species if the DNA change is a mutation.

Moreover, the differences between species will be greater and more difficult to compensate for exactly in those areas which interest animal researchers. This is the case, for example, of metabolic differences between species, which are centrally important in toxicological (effects of drugs and chemicals) and teratological (effect on the fetus) investigations.

Researchers refer to animals as models. But models which are useful to inspire hypotheses are not necessarily good to test them, in fact they often are terribly and disastrously bad at that.

For instance, to see what this means in practice, think of the planetary model of the atom in physics, according to which in atoms the electrons orbit the nucleus the way planets orbit the sun. In the early stages of the atomic theory, when knowledge was limited, the solar system has indeed served as a useful tool, something known to help understand the unknown.

But no one would dream of testing on the solar system a hypothesis about electrons’ behaviour, for example, even if it were physically possible.

If you are inclined towards logic and formal arguments, read Two Models of Models in Biomedical Research. Otherwise, what was just said would suffice.

The fundamental mistake of animal research is to transfer an experimental technique (replication of phenomena) from physics to biology. The problem is that biological entities like animals, including humans, are extremely more complex than physical objects. This technique which is valid in physics is not valid in biology, where such regularities as “effect B always follows cause A” do not apply.

Biological beings behave in a probabilistic way, not in a deterministic one. This is a major factor of great uncertainty in predictions. Even when animal research results were later confirmed, we only know that they were valid because they were confirmed by their application to humans. So, the latter was, in the end, the final test of the former, not the other way around.

It’s a classical case of post hoc propter hoc fallacy (mistaking time sequence with causation), as Prof. Pietro Croce, MD, an eminent pathologist, puts it in his brilliant book Vivisection or Science - A Choice to Make, which anyone who would like to develop a serious position on the subject, fruit of thought rather than pre-conception, should read. You can also find a short version of it published online.

Here’s an analogy that helps picture the problem of unreliability. Suppose I like mushrooms but I cannot recognize the good ones from the poisonous ones. I go and pick them in the wild. Then I call a mushroom expert, and he says they’re okay. It does not mean that I did the right thing by choosing them myself, I could just as easily have picked up the poisonous mushrooms. And it was only after, not before, the mycologist gave his opinion that I knew if the mushrooms were edible or not.

So it is with animal research: it’s only after, not before, its results are applied to humans that we know whether they are valid (for us humans) or not. And believe you me, when they are not, some of us are going to pay for it with our health. That’s why so many drugs are quietly and surreptitiously withdrawn from the market after they have caused some disaster. Remember that a new drug being introduced will make headlines, but a drug being withdrawn will likely be ignored by the media.

The strange case of smoking animals, tobacco companies and research - Part III

Alternatives to animal experiments

There are many methods and techniques which could replace animal experimentation, and are more precise, cost-effective, and humane.
The main ones are:

  • the epidemiological method, the study of human populations, which was used to discover the smoking-lung cancer link discussed above;
  • in vitro techniques, ie cultures of cells and tissues on which to conduct tests - penicillin and streptomycin are historical examples of in vitro discoveries;
  • clinical research, ie careful observations and analyses of patients;
  • computer and mathematical modelling, a relatively new branch of medical research using complex software to simulate biochemical reactions by recreating our body components structurally and in terms of healthy and diseased chemical reactions, then submitting them to chemical and curative substances;
  • genetic research, often used alongside epidemiological evidence;
  • autopsies - practically every disease has either been discovered or clarified as a result of autopsy, which also indicates aspects of illness missed in diagnoses;
  • post-marketing drug surveillance (PMDS), the reporting of effects and side effects of a medication after its release, which unfortunately is not required at present and only relies on voluntary and infrequent reporting. The current situation therefore makes it impossible to maintain comprehensive data on any drug’s potential for negative reactions.
  • technology, for example ultrasound, blood-gas analysis machines, monitoring devices, DNA sequencing, gene chips, combinatorial and solid phase syntheses, bio-compatible materials, polymerase chain reaction, separation and purification methods, the Fast Fourier transforms used in spectroscopy and CAT scans, fast sequence alignment and database methods used in genomics, conformational search and optimization methods used in protein folding.

These methods would represent an improvement if they replaced animal research now, even considering the little money and time that have been spent on them in comparison to the gigantic resources invested in animal experiments. The main problem is not that there are no alternatives, but that there is no or little political will to make that choice. If funds and energy were devoted to these other methods, great progress could be made.

And, to go back to the fungal analogy above, in case you were thinking that I could have fed the mushrooms to some animal to test them, don’t. It is well known that a mushroom can be eaten by squirrels, rabbits, or other animals and still be dangerous for humans.

The Illinois Mycological Association, for example, says: “According to Dr. John Rippon, an IMA member and world expert on fungal diseases, squirrels have an interesting adaptation that allows them to eat mushrooms containing deadly amanita toxins without being affected.”

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I have no more doubts about vivisection

I must confess.

I have always been opposed to animal experimentation on ethical grounds. For this reason, the anti-vivisection medical arguments of great authors like Hans Ruesch and Prof Pietro Croce have always made me feel that, in true reality, they were just like me: people who abhorred vivisection morally, and tried to use scientific reasons simply to reach and stir an indifferent public opinion.

Deep down, I thought, they know that some benefit must have derived from animal research, if for nothing else because of statistical reasons: the sheer, huge amount of animal experimentation performed must have produced some benefit, sometimes.

I don’t think that any more.

Now I am sure that their medical arguments are entirely correct, and that animal research is indeed dangerous to humans as well.

What’s the reason of this change?

I have done more research myself into the issue, recently, and also I entered a debate with some defenders of vivisection who work in the biomedical field, and I’m telling you: go ahead, anti-vivisectionists, our adversaries have no arguments able to stand a modicum of scrutiny.

In fact, I find it extremely interesting what Dr Vernon Coleman says in his website:

“Many supporters of the anti-vivisection movement are concerned that they do not know what to say when vivisectors make specific medical or scientific claims about the value of the work they do. Vernon Coleman debated many times with vivisectors (including several television debates). He never lost a debate when the audience was asked to vote. Today vivisectors refuse to debate with him [my emphasis] and so you won't see or hear Vernon Coleman allowed to discuss vivisection on television or radio. Producers of programmes who invite Vernon Coleman to debate are quickly told (by the vivisectors) that they must find someone else if the debate is to go ahead. (When Vernon Coleman was invited to debate vivisection at the Oxford Union in the UK not one vivisector or vivisection supporter in Britain would debate against him. Oxford Union subsequently withdrew their invitation to Vernon Coleman and found someone else to oppose vivisection.)”

I have no problems in believing it.

I shall post here my original article to Blogcritics in 3 parts, with the subsequent debate.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The origin of moral judgements

A user of this blog posted a comment saying:

"Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (at the University of Virginia) argues that people make moral judgements not through rational thinking but through the same sort of intuitive process by which they make aesthetic judgments. Rational reasons are generated after-the-fact as a plausible 'cover'."

I'm not convinced that the hypothesis of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, although it has some merits, can serve as a total explanation. It seems to me that such a complex question as the origin of moral judgements is unlikely to be resolved by means of a single, simple cause (eg intuition).

I am more inclined to believe that there are several factors at work.
Reason and emotion often work together, subjectively, as mental faculties, and ethics is an area where this happens more frequently than in other areas.

I think that it is only our idea that reason and emotion should be in opposition.

In fact, I would say that it is a measure, if not of mental health, at least of mental well functionality how much reason and emotion can influence and complement each other.

The more dysfunctional a mind is, the more conflict there is in that mind between reason and emotion.

It seems to me that Haidt has chosen for his experiments particular cases of ‘scenarios’ which are bound to provoke disgust, and consequently ‘moral’ rejection with or without a reason.

(Actually, I’m not even sure whether we could call a condemnation of ‘wiping your toilet with a national flag’ a ‘moral judgement’ at all. It’s more akin to an aesthetical appraisal.)

But it’s doubtful that all moral judgement adhere to that pattern of following from disgust or similar feelings.

So, it’s impossible to generalize from his experiments, because they portray only a sub-class of moral judgement, a special sub-class to which his theory may find suitable application.

His examples of moral judgement are not the ones that you would find philosophers debate about in ethics books.

That he is blurring the line between moral and aesthetic judgements he is aware himself, as one can see from the following quote from his interview:

“Now, by moral judgment I mean any time you have a sense that someone has done something good or bad. Think of how often you have that sense. If you live in a city and you drive, you probably have that sense many times a day. When I read the newspaper, I think unprintable thoughts, thoughts of anger. So I think moral judgment is ubiquitous. Not as ubiquitous as aesthetic judgments. As we walk around the world we see many beautiful and ugly things. But we don’t deliberate about them. We just see things as beautiful or ugly. My claim is that moral judgment is very much like aesthetic judgment. In fact, whenever I’m talking with philosophers who are trying to get me to clarify what I’m saying, if I ever feel confused, I just return to aesthetic judgment, and that saves me.“

He seems to define ‘moral judgement’ in emotional terms (‘you have a sense’, ‘I think thoughts of anger’ and so on), so it’s not surprising that he finds that moral judgements, as he defined them, have a non-rational source.
QED. It is rather circular.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Green Party and ritual slaughter

Abattage rituel halal sans étourdissement
Uploaded by GAIA-TV. - News videos hot off the press.

If you'd like to have an idea of what ritual slaughter of animals without pre-stunning is, watch the above video.

The first animal in the video is slaughtered according to the EU law, i.e. with a captive bolt which is shot into the brain. Brain death is virtually instantaneous. The animals are then hung by the hind legs, the throat is slit and the blood is allowed to drain out.

The other animals on the video are killed in the ritual halal and kosher way, still permitted as exemptions to humane slaughter laws in most western countries, with their throat cut without prior stunning. The time they take to die while still fully conscious and in excruciating agony can be up to 2 minutes. If an occlusion occurs, preventing the blood draining from the brain, the animal remains conscious for a considerable time.

One user of this website has sent this e-mail to the Policy Development Coordinator of the Green Party:

“I'm interested to know what is the Green Party's policy regarding ritual slaughter, ie halal and kosher.”

The following correspondence has ensued.

Green Party

“At the moment the Green Party has no official policy on ritual slaughter, although I am aware that our animal rights groups has been discussing the issue in order to take a policy to our conference for agreement.

“However I think it is fair to say that most of us feel that it is incumbent on those who want to eat meat to be responsible for causing the animal as little suffering as possible and are aware that halal and kosher slaughtering methods are attacked for being particularly cruel. But equally, some argue that the techniques used mean the animals die more quickly than with conventional slaughter.
“Rules state that the knife must be sharpened between each killing and the animal must be cut with one stroke from ear to ear and never within sight of another animal.

“Care must be taken not to pick on one method and criticise it when there are faults in all methods and perhaps the focus should be on improving conditions in slaughterhouses.

Brian Heatley
Policy Development Coordinator
The Green Party”


“I find the position of the Green Party on this matter less than satisfactory.

“I resent the implication contained in ’Care must be taken not to pick on one method and criticise it’.

“I don't wish to ’pick on’ any one method.

“I am a long-standing vegetarian (almost vegan) and animal rights activist, and have been throughout all my life.

“Of course there are faults in all methods of slaughter, as you euphemistically put it. Slaughtering animals for food is murder, nothing less.

“Which is why your party's policy on this is hypocritical.

“The Green Party website says:

’Real Progress towards a better society means respecting the right of animals not to suffer. We believe that Real Progress is not farm animals growing faster than their hearts can stand or cows producing drugs instead of milk. That's not progress.

’Greens oppose factory farming and advocate banning cruel live exports.’

“This creates an ambiguity, by giving people the impression that you support animal rights (that ‘the right of animals not to suffer’ phrase), whereas in fact you don't do that at all.

“There is a right which is just as basic as freedom from suffering, and that is the right to life.

“And even the right of animals not to suffer, which you theoretically accept, cannot be respected by simply opposing factory facrming and cruel live exports.

“A lot of animal suffering is a necessary part of any form of rearing animals for the slaughterhouse.

“If you really respected the right of animals not to suffer, you would oppose it in all its forms.

“Its abolition is a long-term goal, and perhaps not realistic in the near future.

“But banning ritual slaughter is achievable (Sweden has done it), that is why your policy (or lack of) on this is particularly unexcusable.

“The reasons you give for justifying it sound more like excuses than real reasons.

“’Some argue’ that it's better, you say. But who?

“Exactly the people who have a vested interest in maintaining it.

“Would you prefer to have surgery performed on you while conscious and ‘more quickly’, as you put it, or would you rather be made unconscious first?

“Here is a description of ritual slaughter (from Vegan Outreach website):

“‘Ritual slaughter – Animals are fully conscious when their carotid arteries are cut. This is supposed to cause unconsciousness within seconds, but because of blood flow through the vertebral arteries in the back of the neck, some animals can remain conscious as they bleed for up to a minute. Additionally, Temple Grandin, PhD notes “Unfortunately, there are some plants which use cruel methods of restraint such as hanging live animals upside down.” This can cause broken bones as the heavy animal hangs by a chain attached to one leg.’

“And this (from Animal Aid website):

‘Nor can I stomach hearing protagonists of religious slaughter claiming their method is swift and painless - when the evidence shows that animals can take minutes to die, are often cut about the neck numerous times rather than the prescribed one clean cut; and young calves can actually choke to death on their own blood.’

“If, in confronting this issue, you were here dealing with, say, a corporation, a multi-national for example, rather than religious lobbies, would you blindly believe what the corporation says, or wouldn't you be suspicious of its vested interest in the matter?

“Ritual slaughter is actually a remnant of ancient animal sacrifices performed in the past and, in the case of Islam at least, still in the present:

“’When in Mecca kissing the Ka‘aba, it is also incumbent upon pilgrims to kill an animal in the Mina valley on the tenth day of the month of pilgrimage, since Allah, like the Yahweh of the Jews, is believed to enjoy having animals killed for his viewing pleasure. (It is amusing to imagine what will happen if P.E.T.A. and the Animal Liberation Front ever get wind of this. How Muslims would deal with the threat of animal-rights terrorism would be something worth watching closely.) After killing a goat or other suitable sacrificial species (for some reason, dogs and pigs are deemed unsuitable), most pilgrims then betake themselves to Medina (Yathrib), a city located 210 miles north of Mecca, in order to pray at what is claimed to be Mohammed's tomb.’ (from An Atheist's Guide to Mohammedanism webpage,

“It is highly hypocritical of these religious groups to pretend that their method has anything to do with considerations of animal welfare.

“The reason why humane slaughter laws have been introduced throughout Western countries is because they are aimed at preventing suffering.

“Exceptions (or rather loopholes) in those laws, permitting ritual slaughter (including EU directives and national laws in Europe, the USA, Australia), have been introduced only to make happy some ethnic minorities, and certainly NOT for the animals' sake.

“The issue is now particularly important, not in order to ‘pick on’ anything but because the number of halal shops, restaurants, outlets and similar has grown enormously, particularly in the UK, and is bound to grow even further, due to the high number of Muslims in this country, their rate of reproduction (the highest among all groups) and their increasing intransigence in the application of their own laws and prescriptions.

“Even many non-Muslim and non-Jewish Britons who eat meat are more and more unhappy with this situation, because it's a well-known fact that much of halal and kosher meat ends up being bought or served without their knowledge to people who abhor these methods.

“So, there is a growing public opposition to halal and kosher methods of slaughter being allowed in the UK under British law.

“I think that the Green Party should do better than putting its fear of offending minorities (in particular, paranoid and vociferous minorities who are extremely easily offended and see enemies everywhere) above even extremely basic animal welfare.


Green Party

“Thank you for your reply.

“As I said, this is something we are currently considering, and the fact that we are doing so is because many in the party are not happy with the present position. However, we are a democratic party, and our policy can only be changed by our party's conference when a proposal is put before it.

“So I tried to answer your query with our present position, and I can understand why you did not find that satisfactory.



“Thank you.

“I do sincerely hope that the Green Party will change its policy.

“The reason of my e-mail (and perhaps others) is to offer points for reflection and information that can be used by the Green Party in deciding its policy and hopefully change it in the right direction.


Friday, May 05, 2006

Green Party and animal issues

Local election time in England.

It’s a good time to look at the Green Party and its hypocritical stances about animal rights issues.

From the UK Green Party’s website:

“Real Progress towards a better society means respecting the right of animals not to suffer. We believe that Real Progress is not farm animals growing faster than their hearts can stand or cows producing drugs instead of milk. That's not progress.
Greens oppose factory farming and advocate banning cruel live exports.”

So, the GP thinks that ‘respecting the right of animals not to suffer’ implies only opposition to factory farming and cruel live exports.

There is no mention in the GP’s documentation of any opposition to rearing animals for the slaughterhouse.

And, even more seriously since this could be more easily preventable by eliminating the loophole in the humane slaughter law, there is no mention of ritual slaughter.

Sweden has, after all, banned ritual methods of slaughter, so it is obviously a realistic short-term goal. But not for the Green Party.

The Green Party is not opposed to halal (Muslim) and kosher (Jewish) ritual sacrifices and has no policy aimed at banning them.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

When appeal to authority is misleading

Here is a very interesting argument for not presuming that an appeal to authority is always appropriate.

The argument is part of a website entirely devoted to the analysis of logical fallacies of all types. “Appeal to Misleading Authority”, the title of the above-linked web document, is one such kind of fallacy.

Of particular interest to us when opposing animal experimentation on medical grounds is the point n. 3: ”The authority is an expert, but is not disinterested. That is, the expert is biased towards one side of the issue, and his opinion is thereby untrustworthy.”

How many times animal research has been defended on the basis of its common acceptance among ‘experts’ in the bio-medical fields?

These ‘experts’ are exactly the kind of authority to which this fallacy relates, ie ‘not disinterested’ and ‘biased towards one side of the issue’.

It is not anything new, but it is useful and interesting to have a formal argument to which to resort.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Obsession with avoiding health risks is unhealthy

One fifth of all Americans has asthma or other allergies. More Americans than ever before say they are suffering from allergies. Allergy is among the country's most common, yet often overlooked, diseases.

And the picture is similar in other developed countries. Allergies are increasing among the populations of the affluent Western world, but they are relatively rare in poor countries. Children, in particular, seem to be more and more prone to allergies in rich nations.

Allergies are often considered a minor ailment, but the truth is that they can be very serious, and sometimes fatal.

Although allergies have a genetic component, a shift in the human gene pool is an unlikely explanation for the increased prevalence of allergies, because it would require several generations and a much longer time.

A plausible hypothesis to explain this increase is that our immune system has weakened, because of excessive hygiene and sterilization.

Basically, allergies are an overreaction of the immune system to practically harmless substances (the ‘allergens’) that should not cause a reaction. They are a disease of the immune system.

The immune system's role is getting rid of any organism that should not be in our body, from microscopic parasites to viruses, from cancer cells to bacteria to fungal spores. Aids occurs when the immune system is not capable of carrying out its function. Allergy is the contrary: it develops when the immune system is too sensitive and performs too much.

Why should allergies be increasing? A theory proposed, the Hygiene Hypothesis, says that inadequate exposure to genuinely harmful agents leads to immune dysfunction. Under normal circumstances, the immune system is exposed to various viral, bacterial and other challenges, getting strengthened after successful defenses. Today's over-cleanliness and phobias of germs have minimized these opportunities.

Supporting evidence is ample. Children who have had early infections manifest less tendency to allergies. Populations in which parasitic infestation is common show lower levels of hay fever and asthma. People who have had measles have fewer allergies, as do children who have multiple siblings and therefore more infections in childhood.

New Scientist magazine reported a discovery that microorganisms found in dirt influence maturation of the immune system. The lack of connection with these organisms through soil may be the reason why allergies, bowel diseases, chronic fatigue and other immune disorders are now reaching epidemic proportions.

This is to me one of the classical cases of defeating the object.

Parents are particularly prone to this kind of obsession with protecting their children from any possible risk, as the furore in the UK about MMR vaccine's alleged link with autism has shown, leading to decrease in vaccination and increase in diseases.

But it is a common trend.

The problem is that we obviously cannot live in a risk-free environment, and we should instead learn to accept and live with the risks, and perhaps develop a more intelligent understanding of risk assessment, based on reason rather than emotion.

How does all this relate to the issue of animal experimentation?

I think there's a lesson to be learned from the allergies case.

There was a time when people sacrificed animals to the gods (tragically, they still do in some religions and in certain parts of the world), in the hope that the sacrifices would deliver them from evils.

The times have changed, but the hope that sacrificing somebody else, someone who cannot defend himself, will save us is still present.

Animal experimentation is the heir to the ritual sacrifice. And similarly it is founded on an attitude which, rather than accepting risks and developing a rational method to control them, relies on an emotionally charged hope of protection and salvation by risk-displacement, by transferring the risks on someone else.