Sunday, September 20, 2009

In response to Robert Streiffer

I’m writing in response to Robert Streiffer’s comments on my earlier post “Robert Streiffer's Ethical Blindness.”

He begins the substantive part of his response trying to counter my assertion that a passage in the Capital Times is essentially false. (“I think it's good to have an active, informed discussion about these things and I think Rick Marolt has helped to stimulate that debate,” says Rob Streiffer, a UW-Madison associate professor of bioethics and philosophy. “But I think it's also important to note that this conversation was ongoing.”) He says that my assertion that such conversation isn’t ongoing is an overgeneralization.

There is a chance that we are talking past each other on this matter. The debate Mr. Marolt is trying to stimulate isn’t about “these things” if by that Streiffer is referring to animal use in society generally. As is made clear in the title of the article (“Is monkey experimentation ethical?”), his presentation to the All Campus Animal Care and Use Committee, and throughout the article, Mr. Marolt is asking the university to take up the very narrow question of whether or not experiments on monkeys -- as practiced at UW-Madison -- is ethical.

Assuming that Streiffer’s comment was on point, and that by “this conversation” he means the ethics of experiments on monkeys at UW-Madison, he points to one instance that he feels disproves my contention that the university has repeatedly refused, point-blank, to engage in any discussion of the matter. He writes: “[Eric] Sandgren and researcher Richard Davies [sic] had a brief, televised discussion with Rick Marolt (whose letter to UW sparked the article by Finkelmeyer) and Bogle about the ethics of nonhuman primate research.”

This brief televised discussion is the sum total of all formal public conversation dedicated to the topic of primate experimentation at the university that has included university staff and critics. That’s it.

In the twelve years that I have been actively engaged with this topic, the university has been asked repeatedly to participate in public discussion about its use of monkeys. In every case, it has refused. The instance above isn’t even an exception to this refusal because Davidson and Sandgren made it clear that they did not represent the university. In spite of that, it is still the single instance that can be pointed to of a dedicated public discussion of the matter. (As an aside, I am aware of no other such discussion in the sixty-plus year history of primate research at the university.) The university has repeatedly refused, point-blank, to engage in any discussion of the matter. This isn’t hyperbole or overgeneralization; it is a simple statement of fact.

Streiffer points to two other instances of debates on campus concerning (apparently related) topics: a debate between Ray Greek, MD and Eric Sandgren regarding the predictive value of animal models of human disease and a debate about the ethics of eating meat. Neither of these addressed the question being raised by Mr. Marolt.

The question of the predictive value of animal models sidesteps the question being raised by Marolt. (The moral question of the appropriateness of experiments on Jews in Nazi Germany for example, has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not Jews are predictive models of non-Jews.) I have no knowledge of the debate on meat-eating (it must not have been very well advertised.) Going back as far as 1998, there have been a total of four public debates addressing the use of animals in laboratory research generally. (I participated in three of them.) It would be an overgeneralization to characterize these four events (the two Streiffer mentions and two others) as “ongoing conversation.”

Streiffer then says that internal discussions between researchers and staff (whose livelihoods depend on the use of animals, I must add,) amount to other examples of this conversation occurring on campus. I have read years of UW Animal Care and Use Committee (ACUC) minutes and am unaware of any discussion regarding the ethics of using monkeys. If such minutes exist, I hope that Streiffer or someone else will make them public. Discussion at these committee meetings begin and are firmly planted on a fundamental conviction that experiments using monkeys and the other species used are good things: ethical, laudable, and worthy of public support. This is the ground from which all discussion at the ACUCs grows. Streiffer’s claim that discussion by these committees amount to “this conversation” is far-fetched. These meetings are, as I noted in my original post, more akin to Bible study groups.

In his final effort to show my comment to be an overgeneralization, he calls attention to classes at the university that occasionally address the ethical use of animals. He admits however that “these fall short of the kind of open and robust discussion at a higher level in the university which Bogle and Marolt have in mind.”

[As an aside, consider the apparently similar classes at UCLA being taught by Aaron Blaisdell who argues that humans are the only sentient species on the planet, or at UW-Madison, the classes taught by Patricia McConnell who tells her students that she raises and eats sheep because she is worried that without us eating them that they might go extinct. I’d be pleased to learn that the ethics of experiments on monkeys at UW-Madison is being given serious consideration in university classrooms.]

Taken together, Streiffer’s arguments fail to bolster his original claim that “this conversation” is ongoing on the university campus. The conversation that does occur is led by strong supporters of the university’s practices.

Streiffer says that he teaches classes and contributes to classes that address the larger issue of animal use in agriculture and research. That’s great, but without conversation with informed critics, I don’t believe that the students are receiving a balanced and fully-informed education. I wonder whether Streiffer himself has engaged in much conversation with critics. He met with me and a small group of people a year or so ago. We asked him for help creating “this conversation” on campus. Nothing came from out meeting.

Here’s an email I sent to him five years ago that likewise led nowhere.
Mon 10/3/2005 1:39 PM

Dear Dr. Streiffer,

I was asked to contact you by an indirect common acquaintance, Ms. [H.] You don't know Ms. [H.], but she was at a birthday party for her grandson that your wife attended. [She and Ms. H.] had a conversation concerning the use of monkeys (and animals generally) at the UW and our efforts to foster greater public discussion about this matter. Your wife suggested to Ms. [H] that we might find a discussion with you worthwhile.

After reviewing abstracts of your work, I am certain that any discussion with you regarding the use of animals would be enlightening and interesting.

I hope this note will serve as a polite request for some further conversation. The two links below will adequately explain [sic] my position and our current efforts. If you have any interest in talking about our undertaking, how to create dialogue with the UW, or anything else, please contact me or suggest a time that we might chat over the phone or a cup of coffee.


Rick Bogle
[my phone number]

National Primate Research Exhibition Hall

How like us need they be?
Before leaving this notion of overgeneralizing the refusal of the university to openly discuss the matter of experiments on monkeys, let me go one step farther. Not only does the university refuse point-blank to engage in such discussion, it actively and aggressively works to avoid and quell such discussion, and has actively worked to demonize its critics.

Though a small example, such discussion in the ACUCs apparently isn’t entertained. In the Cap Times article, chairman Norlin Benevenga admits that he lied to Mr. Marolt when he said that his committee had discussed Mr. Marolt’s request.

The most telling example of aggressively quelling public debate on the matter of experimenting on monkeys at the university is the $1,000,000 the university recently spent to block my acquisition of private property adjacent to the primate center and the Harlow Lab where we intended to establish an educational facility dedicated to a critical examination of the use of monkeys and other animals throughout society.

Jordana Lenon, in her role as public relations director for the primate center and urging them to be wary of my intentions concerning the property, wrote to the Madison Alders and made false allegations about me. She wrote that I was “very careful not to get arrested himself, but rather [recruited] minors to do his dirty work [and law breaking.]”

It’s worth noting too, that the debate between Greek and Sandgren mentioned by Streiffer was almost cancelled after university police contacted the Wisconsin Historical Society (where the debate was held) and warned them that violence could break out if the debate was allowed to proceed.

Streiffer’s claim that “this conversation” is ongoing on campus is false. His claim that I overgeneralized this lack of discussion has no foundation.

Strieffer's second and third points concern my disagreement with his claim that the university’s practices should not be strongly influenced or controlled by the public.

Streiffer writes:
[W]hile public discussion can bring to light important reasons for restricting research, the basis for those restrictions is not that the public wants them; the basis for those restrictions are the reasons which public discussion brought to light. Bogle conflates these two kinds of reasons, and it is important that they be kept distinct.
I agree with Strieffer to a degree. This is the ideal, but it seems to only rarely happen this way when the issue at hand is both controversial and financially beneficial to the university. One example is the May 1966, UW student occupation of an administration building to protest the draft. The protest was resolved by a promise that the faculty would review the school's draft policy. Prior voiced concerns and ideas had been dismissed. And certainly, in the case of Paul Soglin and other UW-Madison students, university authorities were willing to beat them senseless rather than seriously consider their concerns and their reasons for their concerns. It can be argued, I think, that it was public pressure -- rather than government seriously considering the reasons for concern -- that forced the US out of Viet Nam.

Has there ever been a case of the university acting positively on the public’s concerns involving a controversial and financially lucrative area of activity by the university? If not, then the distinction noted by Streiffer isn’t very compelling. If there are such examples, I’ll wager that they are exceedingly rare and outliers of the nom.

Streiffer writes:
Restricting animal or human subjects research out of concern for harms to the subjects can be perfectly appropriate; restricting animal or human subjects research out of concern to avoid a negative public reaction is a different matter altogether, and would threaten the very basis of academic freedom, an idea essential to the core of the university’s mission.

Whose “concern for harms to the subjects”? Not the public’s. The university dismisses the public’s concerns and won’t engage in public conversation about them.

I recommend reading Martha Stephens’s The Treatment: The story of those who died in the Cincinnati radiation tests (Duke University Press, 2002) and Allen M. Hornblum’s Acres of Skin: Human experiments at the Holmesburg prison (Routledge, 1999) as a starting place for understanding the realities of public pressure as essentially the only real curb to research excesses. This relates back to my original post and my observation that we are woefully unable to monitor and make decisions about our actions and especially so when our careers and egos are tied to those actions and decisions. This is why codes of ethics are established and ethics boards are created. In the case of primate research at UW-Madison for instance, for seventeen years Ei Terasawa restrained awake fully-conscious female rhesus macaques for up to 48 hours at a time while she pumped and sucked a cacophony of potential bio-active chemicals into and out of (literally) the deepest recesses of their brains. Throughout this episode, her experimental methods and practices were repeatedly approved by the ACUCs in spite of concerns voiced by critics. Only when the United States Department of Agriculture discovered that monkeys were being left unattended and dying during the procedure – albeit in violation of her approved protocol – did the university ban her use of push-pull perfusion. Sandgren had the audacity to claim that this proves that the oversight system works. Where was the ACUC discussion about the ethics of Terasawa’s methods during the seventeen years prior to the USDA citation?

Let me address this notion of academic freedom being “essential to the core of the university’s mission.” I fully support the right of people everywhere to say and write about whatever they want. But talking, writing, and physically injuring others and killing them should not be conflated under academic freedom, and doing so is odious.

It is this unsavory appeal to academic freedom that allowed Harlow and his students to isolate monkeys for years on end; it is what allows Richard Davidson to identify highly anxious young monkeys and then to frighten them before and after damaging their brains (all the while being promoted by the university’s PR machine as a champion of Buddhist compassion and meditation!) Academic freedom is not an adequate answer to the public’s concerns, and using it as such has a long and ongoing history of leading to cruelty and atrocity.

Streiffer defends his comment that research using animals must be decided on a case-by-case basis:
Bogle says, “In the case of monkeys, is it ethical to capture them, breed them, keep them in conditions that lead to self-mutilation, chronic diarrhea, mental illness, and subject them to painful or frightening or otherwise distressing experiments?” But not all research on nonhuman primates raises these issues.
But all research using monkeys at UW-Madison does raise these issues. And it is research with monkeys at UW-Madison that motivates Marolt’s question and motivated the Cap Times article. If, in the article, Streiffer had delineated the difference between observational field studies and laboratory experiments we would not be at odds on this point, but it isn’t clear that this is what he means. He writes:
A nutritional study, for example, designed to test whether a slightly modified diet improves the monkey’s health in comparison to the standard diet, would be ethical even on the assumption that it was wrong to capture monkeys, breed them, and so on. So would a study investigating how to improve normal housing conditions to ameliorate the very problems to which Bogle is pointing.
I disagree with both of these examples if it is assumed that, otherwise, the status quo is maintained. For instance, when Carole Noon took control of the chimpanzees at The Coulston Foundation, it was ethical to strive for improvements in the animals’ diet and the housing conditions because the goal was genuinely an improvement in the welfare of the chimpanzees driven by a belief in the inherent right of each of them individually to live free from torment by us and free from incarceration. But similar efforts at UW-Madison would not be ethical because the underlying goal would be the supply of healthier less mentally deranged monkeys for use in painful or frightening or otherwise distressing experiments. Even if the person performing the experiments naively had the monkeys’ best interests at heart, the experiments would be unethical still because the reality behind the funding for the improved diet or housing would be the production of “better” monkeys for research. To me, (skipping ahead a bit) the idea that any experiments can be deemed ethical when the backdrop happens to be a laboratory intent on breeding and using monkeys the way the university does seems to miss the larger issue all together, as if it can be simply overlooked or dismissed, or as if it simply can’t be seen.

Streiffer misses my point when he writes:
[C]ontrary to what Bogle, incredibly, implies, in saying that animal research must be decided on a case-by-case basis, I am not appealing to the same “ethic” used to justify Nazi experiments on Jews.
It would have been immoral to decide on a case-by-case basis the experiments conducted on Jews held in what was an entirely unethical system. Or, maybe Streiffer would argue here, as above, that experiments on their diet and housing wouldn’t have been unethical if the goal was to ameliorate the problems in the prison and death camps. My point here is that the ground condition – the labs, the camps – is so far to the evil end of the scale that “ameliorations” are swallowed up and discharged as just more evil. A case-by-case basis sounds reasonable when talking about student admissions to a college or even sentencing in a criminal trial, but the profundity of the backdrop of the labs and the camps trumps any notion of a case-by-case ethical decision-making methodology.

Streiffer finishes up with a lament on the title of my post and tone:
Finally, I feel that I must express my disappointment with Bogle’s choice of title for the blog post, as well as with his jumping to the conclusion that I view this matter in “a shallow elitist way” and that I am biased. To characterize me as biased, ethically blind and with a shallow elitist view on the basis of four comments in a newspaper article is obviously an unjustified attack on my character.
But defending the university’s history of avoiding and resisting “this conversation” does seem elitist to me. If Streiffer comes to realize that such conversation isn’t taking place, then what appeared elitist to me may have been a false impression or misunderstanding on his part. The notion that scientists should be allowed to do pretty much what they want to animals is elitist. Arguing that some experiments on monkeys in the university labs might be ethical seems to miss the depravity of the setting altogether. Does that reflect a shallow understanding of the realities of the labs or some ethical blindness? It seems to me that it does. This observation doesn’t attack Streiffer’s honesty, morality, intelligence or any other part of his character. It notes merely that he is missing the bigger picture and the details of the monkeys' daily lives and why their lives and experiences matter.

I agree with Streiffer that the issue is important, but his desire that discussion of the matter not devolve into an unconstructive, disrespectful exchange of insults comes over a century too late. At best, we can hope to raise it up from that devolved state.

Let me end with this: Streiffer claims that there is an ongoing discussion on campus concerning the ethics of using monkeys in the university’s labs (or at least that’s what I think he has claimed.) If so, who are the critics involved in this discussion?

An acquaintance of mine retired from the university a few years ago. That person, I’ll call him Bob, was adamantly opposed to the use of not just monkeys but most other animals as well by the university. But he was afraid to say anything about his concerns in public. He was afraid to come to protests, to speak out at faculty meetings, to allow his name to be used. He was afraid of possible retaliation by the university and the NIH.

Bob conducted NIH-funded research. Even after retiring, he remains afraid to speak out because he worries that he will be punished by having the project he started killed by a cut-off of funding. I understand Bob’s concerns.

The best known case of similar retribution came when Roger Fouts testified to an NIH committee when Jane Goodall was unable to attend. Fouts was adamant that the standard manner in which chimpanzees were being kept in government-funded labs was immoral. His funding was stopped very shortly thereafter.

If there is an ongoing conversation on campus concerning the use of monkeys in the university labs, Dr. Streiffer should help expose it to the light of day and let the public listen in and even participate. Maybe he can even help Mr. Marolt find some university body that will try honestly to answer Mr. Marolt’s question: “Is monkey experimentation ethical?”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The "ethical" conversation is obviously a topic no researcher/scientist is willing to discuss, its their worst nightmare, because how can one be "ethical" (true to the definition) when purposely maiming, infecting, slice and dicing helpless animals,then coldly "observing" the animal's torment, or their elongated death as a result of intentionally inflicted torment. Ethical? Kind Cruelty? Of course, they won't discuss this subject.