On the Trail of an Untruth: the Sequel

A few weeks ago, this blog highlighted a plainly false statement in Oxford University’s online account of animal research (titled ‘Research using animals: an overview’) and traced it to its source: namely, the web-site of the PR organisation called Understanding Animal Research. The statement claimed that the numbers of animals used for research in the UK had nearly halved over the last thirty years, whereas in fact the numbers have risen by about 5% since 1987. They really did go down during the rest of that century, but since then have been going briskly upwards, with occasional modest dips. Perhaps this mis-statement may not seem to matter much; I’ll say something about its significance later on. Meanwhile, here is its latter fate.

Since nothing came of outing it in the blog or, before that, of reporting it to the Public Affairs Office which controls the University’s web-site – making five months or so of conscious misrepresentation – we wrote a letter about it to the University’s independent house journal, the excellent Oxford Magazine. This produced a very civil e-mail from the PAO. There had been some doubt as to what data had been used to substantiate the claim, we were told, and it now seemed right to remove it.

So far so good, but a more general claim was allowed to remain, namely that the number of animals had been “dramatically reduced”. We pointed out that this meant the same thing, though less mathematically. Yes, the Office conceded that the claim “referenced old national figures” (2001 figures to be exact). That phrase too was therefore removed, and a larger revision made of the whole web-page.

So let’s re-visit this page. Some of the old favourites are certainly still there. As before, we’re told three times that “There is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” Perhaps this repetition is thought to have persuasive value, but it rather suggests that the page is pasted together out of contributions from various sources rather than through-composed, a point I’ll come back to. The statement itself is not evidenced, true as it probably is, nor is the more tendentious statement that “Most people believe that in order to achieve medical progress . . . animal use is justified.” In fact the whole page needs foot-noting. Why should we take it all on trust? Academics shouldn’t expect us to.

Then, as before, the point is made at least twice that this research doesn’t only serve humans: “animal research benefits animals too. I’ve always felt that this is a dangerous justification, though one very frequently used. If it’s right, for instance, to make some dogs suffer for the benefit of other dogs, their equals in moral status (whatever we take that status to be), why isn’t it right to make the same rule for humans and their equals (i.e. each other)? But let’s put it the better way round: if it’s wrong to make humans suffer for each other, why isn’t it wrong in the case of the other animal species? Anyway the point is a disingenuous one: we know that these animal beneficiaries are not being helped for their own sakes. They’re mostly farm animals, whose routine dosing with medication is simply a commercial investment, or else they’re pet animals, likewise lent their value by humans. It’s the human valuation, in cash or affection, that does it.

And also still there on the ‘overview’ page, as part of the account of research with non-human primates, is the Escher-like statement, “At the end of its life the animal is humanely killed.” This formulation I used to think was intended as a sort of philosophical conundrum. Now I know it better as a bit of PR, a way of implying, without having to tell a lie, that the monkey has reached its natural term. But of course it is a lie, not just because the killing causes, instead of happily coinciding with, the end of the monkey’s life; the point is that it’s the monkey’s usefulness alive that has ended and prompted the killing, not its life.

Those are some of the familiar details which suggest that nothing essential has changed in the page, or in the habits of mind and practice which it represents. One of the most disturbing features of this ‘overview’ is its preoccupation with the treating of disease, as opposed to prevention or positive health. In fact these latter are not mentioned (except as vaccination). The page begins by stating that “Around half the diseases in the world have no treatment.” Accordingly, animal studies form one part of a “wide range of research techniques” whose aim is to find “cures, vaccines or treatments”. In the course of the text, some of these cures are listed, and their success evidenced. For instance, in the UK alone, “More than 50 million prescriptions are written annually for antibiotics.” (Can this be true?)

No doubt antibiotics, as well as many other such treatments, have been a very great blessing indeed to human health: which of us hasn’t profited from them? But the use of antibiotics – for humans and (notoriously) for animals – has illustrated the flaws in this adversarial model of health. Forty years ago, in the fine pioneering book The Moral Status of Animals (1977), Stephen Clark warned against this “arms race in which our ‘foes’ are always winning . . . Is it not time,” he asked, “to see what other attitudes there might be to the living world?” No doubt it’s unreasonable to look for these “other attitudes” in laboratories where vivisection is used, or in their promotional texts. Still, we can wish they were there. For unfortunately the whole practice of medicine has been conditioned by the militaristic world-view taken by those who service it with science.

Nor is there any suggestion in this ‘overview’ page that change is on the way for the animals. Despite the talk of reduction, replacement, etc., there is no expressed hope or expectation that the cages will ever be empty. In fact it’s noticeable that concessions to the ethical motive tend to appear in subordinate clauses of the type “While we are committed to reducing, replacing and refining animal research . . . “ or “While humans are used extensively in Oxford research . . . ”, the follow-up main clause showing that business must carry on as ever: for instance, “. . . there is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” The last paragraph of all is headed ‘How will humans benefit in future?’ The given answer is that new drugs and medical technologies will continue to be developed from (among other things) “the carefully regulated use of animals for research”. No end in sight, then.

It’s not possible to know how far this ‘overview’ really does represent the thinking in Oxford’s biomedical sciences. The disconcerting thing about that original mis-statement (to return there) is that any one of the scientists using animals at Oxford would have spotted its absurdity at once. That means that not only is this public account of Oxford University’s scientific practice not composed by the practitioners; they don’t even bother to read it. Even their Ethical Review Committee can’t have looked it over. I suppose that contributions have been canvassed from these people, who have come up with material of various kinds (including, no doubt, accurate numbers, but also resounding phrases like that one about the scientific consensus), and these have been patched together with prose connections and fixatives, and some material from such other sources as UAR, into the finished product which we see (but which they don’t feel the need to see). In fact, nobody has really said it or can take responsibility for it. It’s a PR collage, in which we may be seeing things really thought and done, but which cannot be relied upon at any particular point or as a whole.

This indeed has been the gift of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, of which so much has been said in this blog: we can now enjoy the illusion of knowing what’s going on.


Notes and references:

The original post, ‘On the Trail of an Untruth’, can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

‘Research using animals: an overview’ is here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

A very clear chart showing the statistics of animal research since 1945 is provided on p.13 of the Home Office statistical report for 2016: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627284/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2016.pdf

The Moral Status of Animals by Stephen R. L. Clark was published by Oxford University Press. The quotation is from pp.172-3 of the 1984 paperback edition.