Another spectacular show of numbers has just been put out on the subject of vivisection, this time by the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The new numbers aren’t about the supposed facts of the matter, which is Home Office business (see post for 1st August). They’re aimed instead at charting ideas and opinions about the facts. This may explain why the pictorial motifs on the cover of Ipsos MORI’s report, Public Attitudes to Animal Research in 2016, include no animals – otherwise a rather curious absence. The stylized ‘isotype’ images of test-tubes, helices, etc. may be there to make the point: it’s all in the mind – at least, in the minds of the 987 individuals interviewed for this survey.
And some of the ideas and opinions are certainly quite a way from the real thing. For instance, many of the respondents believed that vivisection was wholly or mainly illegal: in fact the percentage of those who knew that any one of the particular varieties of vivisection (medical research, testing drugs, testing chemicals, etc.) was lawful never exceeded 50% [p.11]. This is a bewildering figure. The authors make no comment on it, though you’d think that it affected all the rest of the survey, perhaps even subverted it. Commendably, 24 % of respondents did realize that they were “not at all informed” about animal research. 1% didn’t like to go even that far; they preferred to say that they didn’t know whether they were at all informed or not [p.25].
I’m certainly not meaning to make fun of their doubts or ignorance. How can we tell what we really know of this secluded activity, unless we’re actually practitioners? As a later question shows [p.34], there’s a wise distrust of the available sources of information. Laboratory vets get the highest rate of trust at 41%, then universities, then ‘animal protection organisations’ with 33%, fading on down at the far end to ‘organisations that support the use of animals in research’ (e.g. Understanding Animal Research) with their 8%, and politicians on 6%. Businesses selling the products of animal research come bottom with 4%. And the most commonly chosen characterization of the institutions which practise animal research was “They are secretive” [p.17]. The wonder is, then, that so much was elicited in the way of laboriously calibrated opinion on a subject which, after all, most people would be happier not thinking about at all.
As I’ve said, the survey is based on interviews with only 987 adults, the results being weighted to match the social make-up of the U.K. population as a whole. This may not seem a persuasive number (it certainly doesn’t to me), but presumably the statisticians at Ipsos MORI know what they’re doing. And anyway this survey is only the latest in a series conducted over several years, and although the surveys have not all been identically designed and worded, some of their results are cumulatively consistent in a very convincing way.
Most important of them is the acceptability or otherwise of animal research, the fundamental question with which this 2016 survey very reasonably starts its own summary:
A majority (65%) say they can accept the use of animals in research as long as it is for medical purposes and there is no alternative – down (but not statistically significantly) from 68 per cent in 2014. [p.1]
The equivalent number for 2012 was 66%. That in turn represented a fall from 76% in 2010. It was this fall which prompted a sudden PR effort on the part of the vivisection industry, specifically the portentous ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’ of that year. These subsequent numbers, 66, 68, 65 – none of them showing what Ipsos MORI regards as a statistically significant change – suggest that nothing much has come of that PR push. And we’ve already seen how far the “openness” has been trusted by the public, or by 987 representatives of it. But note that these percentages comprise support for the use of animals in medical research only. There is no majority at all for the real present situation, where medical research forms just one part of the great U.K. vivisection scene. Only 39% of respondents are said to be happy with that scene as a whole [p.5], assuming they know what it is. Even this number is precarious, as we’ll see later.
Meanwhile, the numbers opposing animal research for ethical reasons has grown from 30% in 2010 to 32% in both 2012 and 2014, and 35% this year. Those wishing the government to ban it outright have grown in that same period from 17% to 26%. The survey chops up these numbers by age, gender, class, ethnicity, even newspaper readership. For instance, this last category of outright abolitionists rises to 37% among women aged 15-34. That’s a finding which anyone involved in the animal rights movement would easily recognise – and be both moved and encouraged by. In fact the survey is at its most readable and illuminating in these social details, mystifying and almost nonsensical as some of them are.
But the most striking results of all in this 2016 survey arise from the questions about particular animal species [pp.8-10]. Here the respondents are invited to think about vivisection not in the abstract terms illustrated on the report cover, but in terms of imageable animals. This is the form of the question:
which, if any, types of animals do you think it is acceptable to use for .. medical research to benefit people / research into animal health / environmental research?
And now there is no majority in favour of any variety of animal research. The nearest to it is for medical research using rats (48% approval) or mice (47%). Approval for the use of fish (a growing category in vivisection, notably at Oxford University) scores only 23%, rising to 27% if the research is said to be for “animal health” (for which fraudulent term, see the post on 14 August). In the case of pigs, it’s 25% and 27%; for frogs and other amphibians it’s 22% and 26%. For none of the other species is there an approval rating of even 25%. Where the purpose is ‘environmental’ (testing the effects of chemicals in the food chain, etc., a very busy department of vivisection), the approval rate for all the species is consistently lower. Finally, those who think “any/all animals” may properly be used in any of the varieties of research comprise just 1% (one per cent) of the 987 respondents.
What? I’ve stared carefully at this chart, which has a pleasant sky-blue colouring scheme, and as far as I can understand it this 1% does indeed finally represent the number of people who, when obliged to think it through, still approve unconditionally of vivisection as regulated by the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. Can that be right? I’d be glad of further advice.
Anyway, here is the Ipsos MORI comment on these particular numbers: “Public views broadly align with statistics on the actual use of animal species in research”. That’s a curiously upbeat, even disingenuous, interpretation. It would be more exact to say that public views are remarkably dis-aligned from actual use in the case of every animal species, never rising to a majority in favour, but that they’re especially opposed to the use of the ones that U.K. scientists exploit only in their hundreds or thousands, rather than in their millions.
So you see what happens to that first figure of 65% when real animals, or at least real species, are brought into the picture, as they conspicuously aren’t on the report’s cover. In fact that cover design is a helpful reminder of how much the public discussion of animal research is done in generalisations and abstractions which actually keep our minds off the real thing. Effectively they’re euphemisms. Even numbers, for all their factual appearance, have this effect; once they exceed picturable quantities, they simply cloud the view. Charts and tables beguile the attention even more efficiently (the Ipsos MORI ones are multi-coloured, and very nice to look at). Even the division by species is largely a mental imputation, managing animals into great uniformed cohorts which obscure their individual beings. And yet these individual beings are the only forms in which any pain and privation can be felt. They are therefore the sole reason for all the statistics and surveys which so diligently conceal them.
But that’s not, I guess, how politicians, scientists, and civil servants see it. For them, the statistics, etc., are there to address the human question: what animal suffering is “acceptable” to humans? Their subject is the human politics of vivisection. After all, being animals ourselves, we already know what the animals think about their suffering. It’s what we think about it that matters. It would simply confuse the issue, then, to have them cluttering up that cover.
The Ipsos MORI survey can be read at https://www.ipsos mori.com/Assets/Docs/Publications/sri-public-attitudes-to-animal-research-2016.pdf .