Sunday, April 25, 2010

Center for Investigating Healthy Minds

The banner above probably invokes a sense of dark irony and distrust in many of us. It would me, so maybe I am projecting my emotions on my readers, and maybe you are not anymore bothered by it than you probably are by this:The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, a program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is under the direction of Richard Davidson, who, readers of this blog will know, I have criticized often for his two-faced, misleading, and mutually contradictory positions of promoting himself as a spiritually realized friend of the Dalai Lama who is concerned with the happiness and well-being of all beings (as he expresses by frequently reciting the quote above from Albert Einstein), with his lessor known and rarely mentioned by anyone other than me, research collaboration with UW Department of Psychiatry Chair, Ned Kalin, and Kalin's glorified diener, Steve Shelton.

I find the Center's banner grotesque, like the banner for the Eichmann Center. Compare what they say on their website with the other work Davidson does:But here's another part of his work:
An experienced surgeon made an opening in the frontal bone posterior to the brow ridge to expose the frontal cortex. Both hemispheres were lesioned in a single procedure by lifting the brain to expose its ventral surface. Using microscopic guidance, electro-cautery and suction were applied to the targeted brain area.” From: Role of the primate orbitofrontal cortex in mediating anxious temperament. (Kalin N. H., Shelton S. E., Davidson R. J. Biological Psychiatry. 2007.)
This just doesn't jibe with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds stated mission:
Goals of the Center include the study of people's brains during contemplative practice and the use of contemplative practice to "nurture positive qualities of mind such as kindness [and] compassion...".

I suspect that there are kind and good people affiliated with the Center who intend to do good work. But imagine that the same could be said of people working at the imaginary Eichmann Center. Would the good works of some good people overshadow Eichmann's crimes or the nastiness of the Nazi's racial policies generally?

Maybe, like the carnage and monstrosities that occurred in South Africa and Rwanda, some forgiveness could be mustered if the perpetrators stepped forward and enumerated their crimes and asked for forgiveness; maybe. But that hasn't happened in the case of Richard Davidson. Davidson wants it both ways.

On the one hand, he wants to be seen and known as someone who has embraced the message in Einstein's quote: "Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty," while on the other, he argues that the potential benefit to humans from his highly invasive brain and behavioral experiments on particularly fearful young monkeys are excusable because he has "good intentions."

These two claims are mutually exclusive. It is highly unlikely that such diametric positions can coexist in a healthy mind. This leads me to wonder about possible research at the Center.

Richard Davidson should identify others who simultaneously hold similar contrary opinions regarding kindness and invasive experimentation (there are a number of such people.) This cohort should be randomly divided into two groups.

Group 1 should engage in a putatively compassion-enhancing contemplative practice while their brain is scanned, and once their brain activity settles and remains static for some period of time, they should be told of the details of Davidson's research on fear in young fearful monkeys and be asked to contemplate the monkeys' experiences.

Group 2 should begin by contemplating the details of the fear experiments and then be asked to stop thinking of that and begin the putatively compassion-enhancing contemplative practice, with their brains being scanned throughout.

Control Group 1 should be composed of random people selected only for age and gender similarity with Group 1. They should repeat the conditions in group 1.

Control Group 2 should be likewise composed and duplicate the the conditions in Group 2.

Post-screening by competent psychologists blinded to the participants' group assignments should attempt to identify those with healthy minds as defined by the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and those who don't. I hypothesize that the psychologists will identify the majority of those in Groups 1 and 2 as individuals with unhealthy minds, and will identify a significantly larger number of individuals with healthy minds from Control Groups 1 and 2.

If my hypothesis is borne out, we will have a collection of brain scans from people with unhealthy minds that might lead us to possible therapies to cure them. There would finally be hope for people like Richard Davidson.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

UW Madison Seeks Legal Exemption from Having to Provide Sufficient Food and Water

Update on the post below: Fortunately, AB-747 did not pass out of the Wisconsin State Senate, so died without passage. The university is thus violating the state law requiring adequate food and water for all confined animals in every instance of inadequate nutrition, vitamin deprivation or overdosing, and water deprivation. Primate center vet Saverio “Buddy” Capuano recently reported to the All Campus Animal Care and Use Committee that monkeys used in common brain experiments in which they must perform some task (like tracking a light across a screen) typically lose weight due to, according to Capuano, the severe water restriction they are subjected to. The monkeys are kept chronically thirsty in order to motivate them to perform whatever task the vivisector has invented.

It is just a matter of time before the university renews its efforts to exempt itself from the state's Crimes Against Animals statutes.


For the moment in Wisconsin, it is a violation of one of the state’s Crimes Against Animals statutes not to provide food and water to a confined animal sufficient to maintain good health:
Wisconsin Statutes > Criminal Code > Chapter 951 > § 951.13 - Providing proper food and drink to confined animals

951.13 Providing proper food and drink to confined animals. No person owning or responsible for confining or impounding any animal may fail to supply the animal with a sufficient supply of food and water as prescribed in this section.

(1) Food. The food shall be sufficient to maintain all animals in good health.

(2) Water. If potable water is not accessible to the animals at all times, it shall be provided daily and in sufficient quantity for the health of the animal.

A while ago, a bill was introduced by State Rep. Nick Milroy in response to a horrible situation involving an abandoned colt who literally froze to the ground during an especially harsh winter and despite an 11th hour rescue, eventually died. One motivating factor in the bill’s introduction was the fact that a young boy was witness to the colt’s misery and the adults' callous attitudes. The proposal, Assembly Bill 747, is known as Windchill’s Law. The wind chill at the time of his rescue was reportedly 50 degrees below zero.

The bill is laudable and stiffens the penalties for abandonment, the failure to provide adequate food and water, and provides enhanced penalties if a child witnesses the abuse or is forced to participate.

But like many otherwise good ideas, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s self-interested involvement has injected a dark and ugly pathogen into its core with only little notice. [See: Isthumus 04/08/2010. "Will more animals suffer if law is 'strengthened'?"] The State Assembly, accepting the university’s council in good faith, was duped into exempting the university from one of the statutes affected by Windchill’s Law, WI 951.13, quoted above.

Currently, every animal at the university undergoing an experiment in which adequate food and water necessary to good health isn’t being provided, is yet another instance of the university's ongoing violations of the state’s Crimes Against Animals statutes. If Windchill’s Law passes as written, the university will be exempt from providing adequate food and water.

Once again we can see its arrogant belief that it should not be held to the same standards as the rest of the state.

The university genuinely that it shouldn't have to obey the same laws as everyone else. It sees itself above silly concerns like animals’ pain and suffering.

Friday, April 16, 2010

UW-Madison: "Animals in Research and Testing"

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has launched a new website dedicated to defending its use of animals. Only time will tell whether they will update the site or, like a similar page once produced by the Wisconsin Primate Center, it will be quietly removed when the silliness and vacuousness are finally recognized even by its authors.

The university has a tendency to rewrite history to serve its interests so I will take little screen shots to preserve them for posterity, or at least for a while.

They start of with an outlandish claim:
"This university accepts responsibility..." No, it doesn't and never has. It makes excuses for its repeated oversight failures and puts the consequences for its repeated failures squarely on the backs of the animals that were harmed.

Examples of this shirking and transfer of responsibility are too numerous to enumerate, but a few instances will demonstrate the plain facts.

1. When it was discovered that the university had lied in writing to Dane County repeatedly for eight years regarding its use of monkeys from the Henry Vilas zoo, at first they denied the plain undeniable facts, and then "accepted responsibility" for their lies, and then broke their repeated promises not to use the monkeys from the zoo in harmful experiments yet again by sending them to Tulane University to be experimented on there.

2. When it was discovered by the USDA that Ei Terasawa was violating her approved protocols, and as a consequence monkeys were dying, and that she may have been violating her protocol for 18 years, the university "accepted responsibility" by declaring that the discovery demonstrated that the oversight system was working. Although they suspended Terasawa's use of monkeys for two years, there was never an admission that the oversight failure is what led to the problems in her lab.

3. In 2003, the university convened a special committee meeting to review and deal with the multiple problems associated with Michele Basso's methods. In 2009, the university finally got around to suspending her protocols and use of monkeys. But after her threat of going public and exposing the Research Animals Resource Center's alleged failure to provide adequate care and follow-up, they "accepted responsibility" and reinstated her and let her go back to work screwing hardware to monkeys' heads.

The university makes a simple argument in defense of its use of animals: the ends justify the means. "... from the discovery of vitamins A and B complex and the elimination of rickets and pellagra, to the stunning promise of stem cell research." This is a bizarre statement. The advances they mention, the "elimination" of rickets and pellagra were not due to the isolation of vitamin A and B complex.

It is a matter of history that observations of variation in human diets led doctors to speculate that the causes of pellagra, beriberi, marasmus, kwashiorkor, scurvy, and rickets were diet-related. Sometimes, these observations were then tested by feeding animals various diets and looking for signs of illness. By 1906, it was recognized that dietary deficiencies were the likely causes of these diseases, and that diet modification could prevent and cure them. The isolation of vitamins A and B complex, though interesting, is not what led to the "elimination" of rickets and pellagra. (For more on the interesting history of the discovery of nutrition and diet related illnesses, see The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. Roy Porter. 1997. 551-560.)

Beside the false claim regarding the university's role in "eliminating" rickets and pellagra, the new web page points only to its unfulfilled promises: "Today, we conduct research on cancer, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart and kidney disease, transplantation, diabetes...". Here, we see more wild promises and more suffering: The university argues that it really isn't the ends that justify the means, it is the infinitesimally small likelihood of benefit that justifies the certainty of the animals' misery.

Here's their wildest claim:"Research with animals, like research with people, must pass rigorous scientific and ethical review." This is complete nonsense. There is no ethical review. None. Their silly self-serving claim rests on a single fill-in-the-blank form that is required prior to a project's approval. For those scientists who have a hard time getting the answers just right -- answers that won't cause the USDA to raise an eyebrow in the unlikely event that an inspector happens to choose that particular form to review -- the "oversight" committee provides them with the exact wording they should use. The oversight committee's sole job is to assure that the project comports with the minimal requirements of the Animal Welfare Act.

In fact, The IACUC Handbook, Second Edition, Silverman, Suckow, Murthy Eds. CRC 2007, states clearly that the oversight committees can't make ethical decisions regarding the use of animals, let alone a "rigorous review."
Funding agencies and corporate administrators may weigh financial costs against potential benefit in distributing funds, but their is only a limited weighing of benefit against the harm to animals in any setting.

For the most part, the IACUC does not and cannot conduct this explicit ethical review. The IACUC is charged with reviewing the rationale (preferably statistical) for the animal numbers chosen, for instance, but not whether a particular line of research warrants that number. Similarly, the IACUC evaluates a technical claim that nonhuman primates alone are likely to provide the sort of data sought, not whether a particular project ethically merits the use of primates. Because the IACUC does not have the tools (or the regulatory mandate) to conduct a thorough assessment of the scientific merit (i.e., the potential benefits) of a proposed project, it cannot make a thorough cost-benefit ethical analysis. (p 159)
Rigorous schmigorous.

"The ethical foundation is the philosophy of utilitarianism, which deems an action acceptable only if potential benefits outweigh potential harms." They have shot themselves in the foot. There are only actual costs to the animals; musings about the potential costs are distasteful and underscore the hollow claim that the animals' experiences are given even a moment's notice.

"Animal research ethics are applied and taught at multiple places within the university and are built into the review of every proposed use of animals." Gibberish. If anything about the ethics of animal use is "taught" to the aspiring vivisectors it must be by means of rote recitation. Clearly, from the above mealy-mouthed nonsense, nothing approaching critical though is attempted.

I can't wait for the updates.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I’m just finishing up Phillip Zimbardo’s 2008, New York Times bestseller, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Zimbardo, a boyhood friend and schoolmate of Stanley Milgrim, author of Obedience to Authority, was fairly well-known prior to The Lucifer Effect for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in which normal mentally healthy male college students randomly separated into either “prisoners” or “guards,” almost immediately internalized their roles: “guards” became increasingly abusive and “prisoners” often became obedient to the point of participating in cruel and demeaning tasks designed off-the-cuff by the “guards.”

The SPE, I learned from the book, is but one data point in the body of social psychology research that has looked at the behavior of otherwise normal people who find themselves in situations or working in systems that condone, encourage, or fail to stop behavior that would ordinarily be deemed cruel or monstrous.

The early part of the book is dedicated to a reenactment of the SPE, replete with much transcribed dialog and comment. It is a bit tedious. The middle section of the book is engrossing and provides insight into the characteristics of situations that can and have led to many instances of abuse and widespread atrocity. The latter part of the book is a look at the system and situation that led to the abuses that occurred during the Bush administration’s War on Terrorism.

For anyone with an interest in the factors that lead to the expression of the dark side of human behavior, The Lucifer Effect will be worth your time.

One commonality in many of the instances of abusive behavior, both in the controlled scientific studies and the historic episodes surveyed by Zimbardo is the dehumanization of the enemy, prisoners, or intended victims. Seeing someone as less-than-human apparently invites ill-treatment and even extermination. Zimbardo says repeatedly throughout the book that dehumanization goes far in explaining how and why someone feels motivated and empowered to harm someone else.

I was struck by this observation and Zimbardo’s consistent reliance on it to explain so many people’s abusive and even murderous behavior. Zimbardo does not need to explain to his readers why dehumanization is synonymous with the permission to inflict harm because it is an a priori assumption that hurting and killing non-humans isn’t a very serious matter and that it is even to be expected.

This deep and largely unexamined assumption is the bedrock upon which rest institutional guidelines governing animal care and use.

This goes a long way in explaining why, in an institution like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, animals are treated so poorly, situations that contribute to their detriment and suffering are allowed to continue for so long, why the internal inspections are so cursory and ineffectual, and why job performance related to the quality and efficacy of oversight of animal care and use is of little concern to the administration.

The system itself is intended to exploit to the fullest those who don’t need to be dehumanized because they aren’t human. Given the key role that dehumanization has played in atrocities like the Holocaust, the Rwandan massacres, the Rape of Nanking, the Melai massacre, the hundreds of instances of abuse and murder of prisoners during the War on Terrorism, and so very many others cases, it should come as no surprise that animals are abused so often in situations designed specifically for their systematic exploitation.

What Zimbaro’s and others’ work demonstrates is that those who are generally kind and compassionate easily transform into monsters in the right situation. The people involved in the atrocities named above were not exceptionally bad people; they were and are you and me. The evidence seems clear that our behavior is controlled to an overwhelming degree by the circumstances we find ourselves in. This explains why no one did anything about the boar who was unable to walk without falling down because of the inappropriate and slippery surface in the pen he was being kept in by researchers at UW-Madison. It is the "normal" behavior of those who work around the animals -- created and condoned by the system and situation they find themselves in -- to ignore the animals’ plight.

A recurring argument defending the use of animals is that they were made to be used by us; first, it is sometimes argued, by God, but now through our breeding programs. So not only are they less than human, and thus OK to harm, but additionally, they were made by us to be harmed, plastering on a further layer of justification for the suffering we heap upon them.

In the vernacular of the labs (and in most other industrial settings using animals), animals raised to be used as experimental subjects (or as food or fiber) are termed: purpose-bred. Using purpose-bred animals, it is argued, is less odious than using wild-caught ones. [See for instance: This Monkey Died for You. OHSU animal researchers fire back at their critics. Willamette Week, March 31st, 2010.] Set on a human stage, the weakness and ugliness of this argument becomes clear: would it be less immoral to raise children for the sex trade than to kidnap them off the street?

If dehumanization explains in large part our inhumanity to one another, it isn't difficult to see why people who hurt animals are confused by the arguments and outrage of their critics.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

WSJ: Much more than a day late

My last post, Basso: Cover-Up? Conspiracy? Scandal. generated some (unpublished) letters to the Wisconsin State Journal asking them why they had not made the details of the Basso case public after having received at least 180 pages of documents from the university.

Perhaps embarrassed by their apparent soft-pedaling of the hard truth about the failures of their patron, the paper has now, after the fact and thus unlikely to be noticed by the general public, placed two documents on line. The first is the one first made public here, the May 4, 2009 letter from Welter to Mellon, and the second is Basso's and her lab's response to that letter, a document I did not have.

They are both now available on the WSJ website here.