Animal Pains and Human Attitudes: the new Ipsos MORI survey

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 sri-public-attitudes-to-animal-research-2016.jpgabout 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 .


Frosting the Glass (more on Euphemisms)

I ended the previous post (‘Public Labs’) with a quotation from the journal Comparative Medicine, chosen to show that ‘environmental enrichment’ – i.e. introducing natural or at least interesting features into the cages or boxes where laboratory animals are kept – has itself become a going animal-testing-equipmenttheme for research. But the quotation is also worth attention as a fascinating and instructive sample of animal-research prose. Here it is again:

However, animal wellbeing, as reflected by normal growth, development, and reproduction with low likelihood of injury, illness, distress, or maladaptive behavior, can exist even in housing situations in which the animal cannot perform its entire repertoire of species-appropriate behaviors, particularly if the animal will be maintained for a relatively short portion of its lifespan.

Let’s begin by appreciating that prize euphemism in the last clause, so rich in evasions that even now I don’t feel sure that I’m understanding it rightly. I take it to mean ‘particularly if you kill the animal unusually young’. If I’m right, this is something more sophisticated than the ordinary patch-words like ‘sacrifice’ or ‘euthanize’. A sort of smoke-screen has been laid down over the whole scene. The animal itself is, of course, made the victim of a passive verb (“will be maintained”): how often, in such journals, is a person ever seen doing anything to an animal in the active voice – assessing its ‘hot-plate latency’, for instance (see previous blog-post), by putting it on a hot plate? But, ingeniously, the verb in this case, though admittedly sharing in the general semantic fog, is detectably a beneficent rather than injurious one: ‘maintaining’ means looking after, doesn’t it? And it’s not even in the negative. In fact there’s no telling at what point in this clause the animal ceases to “be maintained”, a.k.a. is killed. The whole idea of time is helpfully obscured by converting it into space or quantity: ‘lifespan’ and ‘portion’. (For another instance of this same conversion technique, see the earlier post ‘Truths, Euphemisms, and Statistics’.) A hint seems to have been taken from the famous lines in the Victorian poet Arthur Clough’s ‘Latest Decalogue’:

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive / Officiously to keep alive.

Clough’s poem is indeed largely concerned with what we allow others to see us doing. In that respect, the words of the article are the equivalent of well-frosted glass.

I don’t mean to pillory this text. It’s at least a more or less grammatical sentence, using unpretentious vocabulary. The trouble is that it’s so much in thrall to abstraction that the real and material subject – cages, and the animals inside them – is not so much illuminated as replaced by the words. Thus, instead of an animal being well, ‘animal wellbeing exists’; instead of a cage, a ‘housing situation’. In fact, instead of animals or an animal, that devitalized generic term “the animal”. And so on. The point is more simply made by translating the sentence back into real life:

However, an animal can remain in good health – that is, it can grow, mature, and reproduce, without injury, illness, distress, and neurotic behaviour – even in a cage where it cannot do all that it wants, particularly if it is not allowed to live long.

Has anything gone missing in this plain-spoken version? Perhaps the full sense of that phrase “low likelihood of injury …etc.”? But surely the sense is quite adequately expressed in the word ‘can’, meaning simply that it is possible, but not certain, that the animal will suffer none of these set-backs. The authors have presented this idea as a probability, implying that a known proportion of any collective of such animals will be free of illness. But in either version, the proposition only makes helpful sense if quantified, or linked to other studies which have quantified it, and this the authors do not do here. I would guess, therefore, that they have preferred “low likelihood” to “can” for the same reason that accounts for all the rest: it’s more abstract, further away from unscientifically particular animals suffering particular injuries – the equivalent in prose of cleaning up the cosmetic-testing-animal-remainsdisgusting mess on the work-bench before anyone else sees it.

The article in question is a review of other work rather than a report of original research, so there wasn’t any mess of its own to clear up; the sanitized style is really just professional habit. But it’s a thoroughly bad habit. No doubt we need euphemisms in our personal communications, for the sake of kindness and decency. And of course sciences all need their particular technical vocabularies, though probably not as much as their initiates like to suppose. But with the horrors of the 20th century laid out behind us, it hardly needs saying that – in public discourse – euphemism, and abstraction more generally, make life easier for every bad practice, from casual cruelty to mass slaughter. The more plainly we speak and write, the better we ourselves, as well as others, can see what we’re really doing, and whether we ought to be doing it at all.

I should briefly add that the article in question proposes that ‘enrichment’ is not the invariable good it might be supposed, for science or even for the animals. The study was connected, in some way not specified anywhere in the text, with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, at Natick, Massachusetts. That’s not an encouraging association (see the post ‘Remembering (some of) the Fallen’), but at least the article has been made freely available, and you can read it, if you wish, at


The photographs are by Brian Gunn (

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.