Blog 1: To demand certainty from science is to misunderstand it

Insisting that animals be used only when the results of experiments have guaranteed benefits for human health is to misunderstand science, even to  undermine the  drive for scientific knowledge.

Science is rarely as certain or a simple as some expect. It is never possible to know for sure how new knowledge will be used.

Nor is it reasonable to promise that a series of experiments will deliver a particular benefit. If the results were known in advance, the experiment would not be needed.
So the idea that the use of animals in research should be limited exclusively to cases where the investigator can say with confidence that the outcome will produce tangible results is to misunderstand scientific endeavour.

It also stifles scientists’ curiosity; curtailing the quest for knowledge that has taken us to where we are today.

Small steps lead to giant leaps
For example, researchers studying octopuses’ nervous systems decades ago hardly realised their work would be critical to understanding multiple sclerosis in humans. The octopus experts were deepening our understanding of how animals work because they were fascinated by the question.

Science is incremental. Breakthroughs often look from afar like giant leaps but they are in fact just the latest in a series of small steps.

The same goes for the people whose work on the brains of song birds gave us much of our current understanding of the pre-frontal cortex – an area associated with personality and behaviour but also with addiction and psychological disorders.

All of that basic science, conducted 30 years ago, was the first step on the long road that gave us medicines for people with schizophrenia and depression.

Those researchers didn’t know precisely how their work would be used, just like the electronics experts and computer scientists who helped us understand sound had no clue that one day someone from another branch of science would use that information to design a cochlear implant for deaf children.

Guaranteed uncertainty
Most of the animals used in labs right now are for basic research. Guaranteeing a direct human benefit in the short term is impossible.

Some experiments, of course, will not yield results even in the long term. That too is part of how science works.

Just as most successful entrepreneurs have failed ventures behind them, there are few scientists who can’t think back to a wasted weekend in the lab where a promising line of inquiry came to naught.

Science is imperfect and unpredictable. Long may it remain so.

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  1. Hello Richard,

    More than 25 billion animals are unnecessarily killed in the labs each year. In one study, the baby monkeys were taken away from mothers, and were abused. The conclusions were drawn that neglect and abuse leads to social maladjustment and psychological damage. Such animal testing does not justify the suffering of millions of animals, and wasting billions of dollars. It is a cruel act of violence forced upon those that cannot speak up or protect themselves from the slavery that some humans seem to believe is still okay in our modern world.

    Kind regards,
    Tasha Smith
    Treatment for depression reviewer

  2. Richard says:

    Hello Tasha,
    First thank you for commenting. You have interesting perspectives. First a small correction. You say that 25 Billion animals are unnecessarily killed each year in laboratories. Numbers are are really complex but the real number is closer to 28-100 million (Taylor K, Gordon N, Langley G & Higgins W. Estimates for worldwide laboratory animal use in 2005. Altern Lab Anim 2008; 36: 327–342.) This is still a lot of animals so I won’t dwell on this. You should at least get the numbers right. Furthermore since 2005, numbers (in the pharmaceutical industry at least) have gone down. Unnecessarily can also be discussed. I assume that you are vaccinated, that you go to the veterinarian with your pet (if you have one), that you know people who have survived cancer, heart disease, or who live better lives with severe illnesses that previously killed or severely reduced the quality of life for the sufferer. All of these treatments have come about through science carried out using animals. Whether these studies were necessary or unnecessary only the person who has benefited can tell or judge. The time may (or may not come) when you will (or may already have) be offered a treatment. You are free to query whether it was based on studies with animals. You and only you can judge in that context whether the use was justified and then accept or reject the treatment with all the consequences that this may have for you or a loved one. I would also like to discuss the famous (or infamous) infant isolation study. This was work done by Harry Harlow in the 60′s. You cite a study that showed what neglect can cause if monkey infants removed form their mothers. The study was not one of neglect but an attempt (and in my opinion a crude attempt) to understand what happens when new-born infants are removed form their mothers and isolated – this happens across the globe in times of famine, war and disease. Mothers die and newborns are left without the bond that forms in the critical period after birth. Harlow’s research, though controversial, has provided insight into the behaviours of abused or neglected infants and has improved methods of providing care to traumatised, institutionalised children.

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