Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Robert Streiffer's Ethical Blindness

I'm responding here to comments made by Robert Streiffer, a UW-Madison associate professor of bioethics and philosophy in an article that appeared on the Captital Times website on September 15, 2009, "Is monkey experimentation ethical?"

The relevant passages from the article:
"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 and that all of the researchers here that I've had contact with take their responsibilities very seriously."
Conversely, Streiffer, the UW-Madison bioethicist and philosopher, argues that it's not necessarily a good thing for a university to bow to public pressure when it comes to what its professors and researchers study.

"Is animal research ethical?" Streiffer asks. "It depends. We have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. But the thought that we should restrict anybody's research just because the public is upset strikes me as not a good idea. Part of the reason universities exist is to have a place where a wide range of research can be conducted."
First, a caveat: I've been misquoted, quoted out of context, and have read things written about me that are inaccurate on a number of occasions. I don't know that what was written above and attributed to Streiffer is fair or not. In any case, it is these passages from the article that motivated my comments here, and for the sake of argument, I am responding as if they are accurate.

Streiffer: "I think it's also important to note that this conversation was ongoing."

Coincidentally, UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin had a guest editorial printed just last week. She said:
A new initiative at UW-Madison is designed to make a larger point about what it means to engage in a process of integrated, rigorous and unfettered thinking.... We have developed additional events .... - all to provide opportunities for community participation... I believe promoting rigorous discussion of ideas, including those that are controversial, is one of a university's particular gifts to the larger society.... we hope our community will come away with a greater understanding of the complex issues.... Our long-term goal for Go Big Read is to continue to provoke questions and stimulate debate on issues of relevance. In this way, we hope to instill in our community a lifelong love of learning and a commitment to the continuous "sifting and winnowing" that defines the character of this great university.
Streiffer says that the issue of whether or not experimenting on monkeys (maybe he was speaking broadly, and about animal experimentation more generally?) has been the subject of ongoing conversation at the university. If so, it has been hidden from the public's observation, let alone participation. The faculty senate, as is noted in the Cap Times article, refused to discuss the matter. Where is this discussion taking place? Chancellor Martin's words reflect the role that a university should have when it comes to controversial issues affecting society. Unfortunately, and sadly, the university hasn't lived up to this ideal or even come close on the issue of primate experimentation. It has repeatedly refused, point-blank, to engage in any discussion of the matter. I suspect that they fear the results of genuine and fearless "sifting and winnowing." In light of the reality of the university hiding from the matter, Martin's editorial should be seen as a sad joke that dupes the state's citizens.

Further, who is having this discussion that Streiffer claims is ongoing? If the discussion doesn't include multiple points of view, then it amounts to something akin to Bible study where everyone involved is a devout believer.

Streiffer: "[I]t's not necessarily a good thing for a university to bow to public pressure when it comes to what its professors and researchers study."

But all Marolt is asking for is genuine discussion. And, researchers at universities should not be given the carte blanche implied by Streiffer's comment. There are absolute limits on what can be done in experiments involving humans. The roots of these limits are the direct result of public pressure brought to bear after learning what was being done. (See for instance, my essay, "Human Experimentation".) Public opinion should influence what is and isn't allowed to be done in a university lab.

Streiffer: "Is animal research ethical? It depends. We have to look at it on a case-by-case basis."

But the question of experimenting on monkeys is just that. 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 to subject them to painful or frightening or otherwise distressing experiments?

Maybe Streiffer means that we should consider the individual experiments on a case-by-case basis. But this would sidestep the issue of whether we should use them in the first place. Consider following this "ethic" in the case of innocent humans, Jews for instance, locked into small cells. The notion of considering how they might be used on a "case-by-case basis" would be odious and clearly immoral. Streiffer's suggestion suggests that he has missed the larger issue altogether or else made up his mind (based on some fearless sifting and winnowing that took place in a prayer meeting?)

Streiffer: "[T]he thought that we should restrict anybody's research just because the public is upset strikes me as not a good idea."

This comment reflects profound confusion. Who pays for this research? Who is it that the researchers claim will benefit? Who is it that the university itself claims benefits from its mere existence? The answer in every case is "the public." From Streiffer's lofty ivory tower behind the wide moat it must be hard to see just who is footing the bill and who is supposed to be beholden. Dismissing the public's concerns strikes me as not a good or ethical idea.

Why is it that someone with training as an ethicist, purported to be an 'expert' can view this matter in such a shallow elitist way? I think the answer is that we aren't able to do a very good job of self-policing. Our self-interests are so overwhelming that they blind us to other perspectives and truths. Streiffer is paid by the university. This simple fact biases him. He has made friends with people on the animal oversight committees. (For an on-point look at the difficulty of self-policing see Plous, S., & Herzog, H. (2001). Reliability of protocol reviews for animal research. Science, 293, 608-609. [See also the press release]

As we know from a litany of past problems associated with self-policing, humans commonly find it difficult or impossible to fairly judge and control their own actions or the actions of their friends or close colleagues when self-interest conflicts with societal norms or plain facts. This is exactly why institutions and industries involved in potentially harmful or ethically problematic endeavors must have public oversight of their decisions and practices. This is exactly why broad public discussion and involvement is needed in decisions regarding the use of monkeys in research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and elsewhere.

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