Friday, April 04, 2008

Animal experimentation public opinion. An Update

Painful experiment on dog
A mixed bag of updates on the front of public opinion on animal experiments.

UK opinion polls on animal research

A UK national public opinion poll conducted by YouGov and published on 23rd July 2007 showed that 80 per cent of the British public supports a ban on experiments which cause suffering to animals.

The poll was sponsored by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Before regarding this as a victory for the anti-vivisection movement, we should consider that results of opinion polls tend to vary according to on whose behalf the research is conducted.

A similar UK national poll conducted by TNS and commissioned by the BUAV (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) in 2003 revealed that 76 per cent of the British public thinks that the Government should, as a matter of principle, prohibit experiments on any live animals which cause pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm.

At the same time that the BUAV survey was conducted, other vivisection opinion polls were giving very different results. The reason of these variations lie in the way questions are formulated and how sympathetic to a certain cause the questioner is, because this latter fact influences the respondent’s answer by creating a certain expectation.

Besides, on the subject of animal research the people who have definite views - always against or always in favour - are few, with the absolutely favourable ones being fewer than the absolutely opposed. The vast majority do not have enough knowledge of the topic to develop an informed opinion, and therefore are particularly susceptible to the wording of the question because in that wording a certain amount of information is perceived to be hidden and a guide to the answer is found. Usually questions on complex issues like this are preceded by a statement, which gives away the position of the questioner but at the same time is used by the people polled as a help in making up their mind.

Consider this question:

“Non-animal research methods have replaced many tests previously done with animals. These are used if the Government judges them to be as good or better than animal methods.
The organisation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) estimates that the Government spends up to £10 million each year on developing non-animal research methods and that the Government's total science research budget is around £5,000 million per year.
On the basis of this information do you think the Government should:
Increase the allocation of funds for developing non-animal research methods
Leave the funding unchanged
Decrease the allocation of funds for developing non-animal research methods
Don’t know”.

Now consider this:

“How strongly do you agree or disagree with this statement: I agree with animal experimentation for all types of research where there is no alternative?”

The first gives ample information that strongly suggests that animal experiments could be replaced if only there were a political will. The second does not seem a “leading question” as the other does, but it is exactly that, only more subtly, because it assumes, and conveys the impression, that there are cases where no alternative to animal experimentation exists, whereas this is entirely to be demonstrated; however, only a respondent who has devoted time and effort to study the issue would spot that (or a respondent intelligent enough to understand that the question’s underlying assumption is wrong in principle, even before one knows the relevant facts).

The lesson to learn from all this is that public opnion on this issue is not easy to assess without a bias inherent in the method of assessment which will skew the results (who is familiar with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics will see here another example of the observer’s interference with the subject). So, when for instance animal experimenters and their apologists make statements about widespread public support for animal research, we must remember that the members of the public are only responding to the sort of data (or pseudo-data) that they are feeding them.

USA opinion polls on health charities and animal research

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, in July 2005 another poll conducted in the USA found that 67 percent of people said they were more likely to donate to a health charity that has a policy of never funding animal experiments than to one that does and 57 per cent said they would never donate to a charity that finances animal experiments.

Again, though, the sponsor of this investigation was an organization which opposes animal experimentation, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).

Two more surveys had been previously conducted on the same subject. All three were held by Opinion Research Corporation International of Princeton, New Jersey, on behalf of PCRM. The percentage of people giving the above answers had increased regularly over the past 10 years, and the highest increase had been among the older generation, since the youngest were already mostly supporting humane donations even in previous polls.

The generation gap is a welcome result, showing that younger people are more opposed than others to animal experiments and therefore indicating a future trend away from support to vivisection.

This age-related difference in response to questionnaires on animal research very probably explains why opinion polls conducted online regularly favour anti-vivisectionist views in comparison with offline ones. The demographics of internet users, who belong disproportionately to younger age groups, are at work here.

This result is in harmony with what we know, i.e. that youngsters are more sensitive to animal issues generally, as other data show, for instance in the much higher percentage of vegetarians among teenagers and people in their 20s than in other age groups.


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