Truths, Euphemisms, and Statistics

Thursday 22 October was publication day for the Home Office statistics of animal research conducted in the UK during 2014. BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme, broadcast on the same day, discussed the subject, and especially the inclusion in these statistics for the first time of information on the actual (as opposed to predicted) ‘severity’ of the experiments recorded. The presenter, Adam Rutherford, began by establishing the necessity of such research, its strict regulation in the UK, etc., so the programme’s point of view was made clear enough. Then he interviewed Dr Sarah Wells, Director of the MRC’s Mary Lyon Centre (mouse genetics) at Harwell. Dr Wells said that scientists themselves cat-animal-testing-pictureenthusiastically welcomed the innovation, and that the new statistics would be, for the general public, an “absolute true reflection” of the costs to animals of what happens in laboratories.

I’m sure she meant what she said about the enthusiasm, although as a matter of fact this kind of tonic response to public attention is what subscribers to the portentously named ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’ promise each other to make (see their Annual Report, September 2015). But in the event neither participant could quite live up to the ideal of the absolutely true. When Adam Rutherford was asking Dr Wells to give Radio 4’s listeners an idea of what the different categories of pain implied, he seemed to feel that her truths had better fall some way short of absolute: “without being too graphic”, he warned her. And certainly her answer was reassuringly obscure. Her preferred word for pain of all types was ‘discomfort’ – plainly a euphemism when applied to anything worse than indigestion. When she came to define the ‘severe’ category, she blurred that somewhat unpleasantly evocative term by attaching it to the duration rather than the intensity of the animals’ suffering: “quite a severe period of time where they’re under discomfort”. It’s a strangely oblique, almost tortured bit of English, evidently the outcome of a struggle between candour and its opposite.

At the beginning of 2014, the Home Office published its own guidance on these categories specifically for the scientists. These Advice notes on actual severity reporting of regulated procedures are necessarily free of euphemism: free, that is, except in so far as the scientific outlook and terminology, having to be accurate at the expense of personal engagement, are themselves a variety of euphemism (“altered gait”, “autotomy”, “challenge with an inflammatory agent”, “repeated vocalisation”: yes, these surely are euphemisms, though with a motive behind them different from Dr Wells’s). Anyway, the Home Office text is surprisingly plain-spoken. Words like ‘pain’, ‘suffering’, ‘distress’ are used just as any reasonable person might use them of his or her own experience. In fact a reference to what we humans know of pain is indeed made at one point, when ‘severe’ is said to include “any state that a person would find difficult to tolerate”. It’s a great pity that this human reference is not used more in such discussions, but of course it violates a long and convenient tradition in science of resisting any suggestion that human experience can guide us in our understanding of animals. That would be called anthropomorphism, and accordingly unscientific. The way in which a quite proper scepticism has been stretched so as to justify denying to animals the rights of ‘painience’ (Richard Ryder’s term), makes an especially dishonourable theme in the story of animal research.

Still, a matter-of-fact bureaucratic survey, such as the Advisory notes provide, of all the varieties of suffering in laboratories (no, not all: suffering not caused by experiments, but by confinement itself, or by transport, or unintended illness, or fighting, or non-procedural accidents, etc., are not part of these returns) is liable to sound pretty heartless, and this one often enough does. See, for instance, a note on the ‘moderate’ category: “Pain of any significant intensity is of no more than a few hours duration.” Only a few hours? That’s all right then. Or “generalised seizures (in excess of one hour) with recovery will generally be considered severe.” There’s a history and prospectus of casual cruelty implied even in that one word “generally”.

You’ll notice that, in this last quotation, “recovery” seems to be regarded as compounding the severity, as well it might. And indeed failure to recover, a.k.a. death, is not regarded, in official animal-research ethics, as an existential evil, though it may be a professional nuisance: again, there’s a grim wisdom in that. The actual business of killing – the Home Office advice sensibly does call it ‘killing’, only once using the more refined ‘euthanasia’ – is expected to belongcosmetic-testing-equipment to the ‘mild’ category. (Let’s try not to picture those occasions when it strays into ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’.) But killing does not by itself count as a procedure at all. In fact the grand euphemism at work in every Home Office report on the animal research scene is the making invisible of this killing, not just of all or very nearly all the animals that feature in the ‘procedures’, but also of all the animals never used – the ones bred in excess of need, or found in some way unsuitable, and therefore dispatched uncounted. Yet much, perhaps all, of the mental distress felt by these animals while alive must consist in the very well-founded fear, however imperfectly understood, of premature death. Oxford University’s web-site boldly addresses this situation with its own prize-winning euphemism: “At the end of its life, the animal is humanely killed.” If only the animals themselves could read those consolatory words, and realize that they won’t, despite all their fears, be killed until the end of their lives!

Euphemism or heartlessness: it’s evidently a hard subject for practitioners to speak or write about without offending in one direction or the other. That’s a very strong indication, I would suggest, that there’s something wrong with the practice.

Brigid Brophy

Princess Michael of Kent’s recent unthoughtful observations about animal rights were the occasion for a piece in last week’s Sunday Times, written by Charles Clover. He’s the author of a most important book, The End of the Line; How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat, but the very modest claims to significance of this particular article were indicated by its title: ‘With One Wild Pot Shot Princess Pushy Fells Our Animal Rights Folly’. Clover’s argument, or journalistic drift, was that allowing rights to animals – which he absurdly formulated as “the doctrine that animals deserve the same rights as humans”, and then as “treating animals like humans” – would lead to more suffering than it saved, even to the animals. But his case was really that of the haves throughout history, namely that we humans had so much to lose in convenience and pleasure (he lists it all) by conceding such rights, that “we should tip our fur hats to Princess Pushy for making us think twice”: a vulgar conclusion to a very slight piece of writing.

Therefore the article wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that its time and place are reminders of a glorious anniversary. It was on 10 October 1965 – almost exactly fifty years ago, then – that the novelist Brigid Brophy wrote her momentous article ‘The Rights of Animals’ for that same newspaper. “The relationship of Homo sapiens to the other animals”, it began (establishing at once the Darwinian collective which Clover noticeably avoids conceding), “is one of unremitting exploitation.” Then, in a manner which must have astonished her readers, she flew at the subject, and at all that it entails of weakness and wickedness in human character. Her piece had none of the columnist’s flourishes or (of course) the man-to-man worldliness with which Clover euphemizes the subject. In particular she spoke unequivocally about vivisection, “the only one of these matters” – as she said in a later essay – “to raise a moral dilemma at all.”

It was not, for her, an insoluble dilemma: “I believe it is never justified because I can see nothing (except our being able to get away with it) which lets us pick on animals that would not equally let us pick on idiot humans (who would be more useful) or, for the matter of that, on a few humans of any sort whom we might sacrifice for the good of the many.” There, in its parentheses, is the true and durable rationale for subjecting other species to experimentation: our being able to get away with it. The arrogance, cowardice, and essential scoundrelism of vivisection are hit off in that aside.Matthew S 1

Brigid Brophy’s Sunday Times article was a prospectus of the animal subject as it was about to become – as indeed she prompted it to become: not the former miscellany of cruelties, calling for particular remedies, but a single story of systematic wrong requiring a fundamental change of mind and conduct. And that was how the subject appeared in the 1971 book of essays Animals, Men and Morals, a book which can be traced back to her Sunday Times article, and which was in its turn the founding text of the modern animals rights movement. It was edited in Oxford, and most of the contributors had Oxford connections, including Brigid Brophy herself (St Hilda’s, 1947). Her chapter is mainly about vivisection, and constitutes a thorough deconstruction, in plain and dispassionately accurate English, of its politics, sociology and psychology. Like George Bernard Shaw, she sees, living on in vivisection, the ancient superstition of expiatory sacrifice, with the animals, as ever, paying our price. More largely, she sees in vivisection man’s timorous refusal to grow up and become what we really are: “the species uniquely capable of imagination, rationality and moral choice.” We catch exactly what she means when Charles Clover writes, “why should human beings have obligations towards animals if animals don’t have obligations to humans or to other animals?”

In fact that 1971 essay provides an answer to Clover’s bluster about rights, and Princess Michael’s too, supposing they do raise a serious question. For it starts by analysing one of the classic statements of human rights, the American Declaration of Independence, and showing that it is founded on exactly that essence of our nature – the sentience that impels us to seek pleasure and shun pain – which is in fact the property of all animal life. Hence Brigid Brophy’s beautifully absolute statement of the case (quoted on all VERO’s leaflets): “Once we acknowledge life and sentiency in the other animals, we are bound to acknowledge what follows, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This was Brigid Brophy’s conviction throughout her writing life. In fact her first published novel, Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953), had already expressed it in the witty and subversive story of a monkey confined in Regent’s Park Zoo and marked down for an even worse confinement in a space shot. And the conviction was part of a wider faith in liberation – of women, of sexuality, of all that was unwillingly subject to arrogated authority. She was a dauntless, highly original and intelligent woman, whom everyone that values freedom – their own and that of all who can enjoy it, including the other animals – should remember with love and gratitude.


[The photograph of Brigid Brophy is kindly provided by Kate Levey. Quotations from ‘The Rights of Animals’ are taken from The Extended Circle (see ‘Victorian Attitudes’ below), and other quotations from ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’, Animals, Men and Morals, pp.125-45.]

I’d rather be bonkers than ignorant …

Before her promotion to the Shadow Cabinet, Kerry McCarthy was interviewed for the Viva! Life magazine. In the published article she states: “I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco, with public campaigns to stop people eating it.” Unsurprisingly, this generated a lot of media interest owing to her much publicised appointment as the Shadow Minister for DEFRA. All the nationals covered the story, and they all used a variation of this banner headline: “Treat meat eaters like smokers, says Labour’s vegan MP.” Obviously, this a distortion of what she actually said, and one paper described Viva! Life as “a magazine for vegans” (which means nobody else could possibly be interested in reading it?). Anyway, KM’s main point was that eating meat is unhealthy, and the more you eat the greater the risks. Therefore, people should be encouraged (via government health campaigns) to reduce or stop eating it. This makes perfect sense to anyone with the slightest awareness of the impact of increased meat consumption on the nation’s health. Basically, there is a direct correlation between the amount you eat (especially red meat) and the risk of serious medical conditions and reduced life expectancy. The biggest killer in the western world is heart disease, and saturated animal fat is the crucial factor.

Subsequently, on R4’s Any Questions (25/9/15) a specific question was asked about KM’s comment in Viva! Life magazine. The panel of esteemed idiots rose to the occasion with these statements. Firstly, Dr Ruth Lea (chair of Economists for Britain) stated: “I thinks she’s bonkers. Meat eating is, on the whole, meant to be good for your health. I don’t think anybody would dispute the fact that smoking is unhealthy, but it’s just not comparable [with eating meat]. The comment is just bonkers.” Secondly, this was followed by the dazzling insight of Sir Vince Cable (ex-Business Secretary in the Coalition Government). He stated: “The remark she made is fatuous. The problem with smoking is passive smoking; it harms others. I’m trying to work out what passive meat eating is [audience laughs] and how you harm other people by eating meat.” At this point the chairman (Jonathan Dimbleby) interjected: “Gas is given off by cows, and this damages the atmosphere.”

Where to begin with these comments? Firstly, they demonstrate a staggering level of arrogance and ignorance. Do these people really have no knowledge about the modern western diet with its high intakes of saturated animal fat, and the diseases of affluence (obesity, heart disease, diabetes and bowel cancer, etc)? Secondly, the huge environmental impact of meat production. At least this was mentioned by the chairman, but are they really unaware of the fact that the vast global livestock population is responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all of the world’s transport systems? Thirdly, Ruth Lea and Vince Cable should have a basic understanding of the economics of sustainability. It’s pretty simple really; if (for example) red meat production requires a feed conversion ratio of 10:1 (that’s 10 kilos of feed for each kilo of meat) then it’s unsustainable. In fact, it isn’t just unsustainable, it’s bonkers.

Paul Freestone