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.