Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sheep decompression or else!

It probably isn’t unusual for newspapers in college towns to be the schools’ strong boosters; I suspect it is the happy norm.

But there is a difference between being a booster and placing an institution’s interests above the public interest in unbiased substantive reporting. Newspapers’ first responsibility is to assure that its reporting is fair and as accurate as possible.

As possible is a necessary caveat because we all make mistakes and often have to act on less than complete or wholly verifiable information; our recognized likely ignorance sometimes just has to be accepted as we move ahead.

Newspapers, reporters, and editors are probably forced to move ahead in spite of their own acknowledged ignorance much more often than the rest of us, because we expect them to report the news as soon as possible. This acknowledgment rightly results in reporters qualifying their statements when they are less than very sure of their accuracy.

Newspapers do the public a service by voicing and explaining an informed opinion. Opinions, however, should be clearly identified by confining them to the editorial pages or to columns by writers who are voicing their personal opinions.

The public’s trust is violated when bias displaces balance in articles that are presented as news. Because the public expects a newspaper to be somewhat fair and balanced, to present the facts and to call attention to differing opinions when the subject is controversial or when the facts are in dispute, they are easily fooled when a newspaper chooses to do otherwise.

Propaganda is bias passed off as fact. Propaganda is particularly odious when agents independent of government, that purport to be guardians of the public interest in knowing the facts misuse the public’s trust in order to dupe them into holding the opinion that the agent wants them to hold. The case of newspapers or other media that purport to report the facts fairly, but which then shuffle or select facts to say, suggest, or promote a bias is this problem’s zenith.

I said just above that propaganda is bias passed off as fact. I almost said that propaganda is bias knowingly passed off as fact, but whether everyone involved recognizes the bias or not, it hardly matters. Media, particularly daily newspapers, have a responsibility to guard against promoting an agenda in their news reporting. If, for whatever reason, they routinely fail to do this, then propaganda seems to still be a reasonably good name for what is printed and being called news.

So that brings me to the long enduring history of the Wisconsin State Journal’s reporting on research conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and particularly problems associated with its use of animals. On the one hand, it isn’t unusual to see bioresearch conducted at the university showcased on the paper’s front page. On the other hand, it is their pattern to downplay problems with the university’s animal care and use, to downplay or simply ignore controversies related to their use of animals.

More recently, this bias has been applied to the university’s involvement in highly infectious disease research and the problems associated with the university's oversight of biosafety on campus and elsewhere. Years, sometimes decades of past problems with their animal care and use or biosafety are rarely mentioned by the Wisconsin State Journal; every newly discovered problem is typically presented as a new and surprising development and no mention of a possible pattern of problems suggestive of deep institutional or cultural problems gets mentioned. And don’t worry, whatever problem actually seeps out into the light of day, the paper dutifully reports that the problem has already been fixed.

A stark and illuminating instance of the Wisconsin State Journal violating the public trust was the recent front story reporting on a decision by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Amy Smith’s ruling on a petition filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Alliance for Animals, that there was reasonable cause to believe that the actions of at least nine researchers and staff at the university involved in killing sheep by means of decompression were criminal and should be investigated by a special prosecutor.

Instead of covering the story fairly, the Wisconsin State Journal came to the university’s defense and argued, in effect, that the university shouldn’t have to obey the law. But such an overt claim would have been see for what it is. Instead, the paper resorted to a ploy that has become the norm for politicians, they tried to frighten the public:

UW-Madison scientists worry about chilling effect of potential charges
By DEBORAH ZIFF and RON SEELY | Wisconsin State Journal | June 4, 2010

The article was little more than a litany of university officials’ and Frankie Trull’s, the industry’s top propagandist, false and wild claims about the effects of requiring researchers to obey the law. Sprinkled throughout were unverified wild claims about the importance and results of the illegal experiments.

Why did Ziff and Seely fail so miserably to meet their responsibility to the public? Moreover, why didn’t the news editor make them rewrite their story to give it a little more balance?

The answer must lie in the paper’s culture, something like the groupthink and situational pressures talked about by Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2007).

Here are a few things they should have done differently:

They should have asked Eric Sandgren about the many times he has said that the university’s animal care and use is heavily regulated and why researchers shouldn’t have to follow the few state laws that do apply to them.

They should have asked him why he was unaware of the state law barring killing animals by decompression since it is his job at the Research Animal Resource Director to assure that the research at the university complies with all rules and regulations.

They should have been skeptical of claims being made by university staff. When Dale Bjorling, chairman of the department of surgical sciences in the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, said the sheep experiments have saved lives and prevented suffering among Navy divers and that the sheep experiments have resulted in more accurate decompression tables for divers, he should have been asked for evidence to this effect. I don’t think there is any.

When Bjorling said that animal research has led to important advances in science and medicine, he should have been asked what that has to do with the university breaking the law.

When Bjorling said that decompression in humans can’t be (meaningfully, productively?) modeled with a computer, Ziff and Seely should have glanced at the easily accessible NIH National Library of Medicine's on line database of 91 million scientific articles. If they had taken just a moment, they would have found much information on the computer modeling of decompression, and it appears that this, coupled with data from human divers, is the leading edge of research on decompression and the evaluation of dive tables.

It appears that both Ziff and Seely lost track of the subject – university scientists breaking the law – and tried to defend the university’s crimes by appealing to animal research generally. How else to account for the silly non sequitur: “I really think that shows an incredible lack of understanding about this research,” Bjorling said. “If some drugs were not perfected through animal testing, there could have been enormous human suffering...it revolves back to the philosophical question. Who are we going to put at risk?”

But none of the sheep experiments involve drug development. Hello?

And consider this gem:
The controversy attached to UW-Madison animal research could also harm the university's ability to lure top talent, said Donna Paulnock, interim director of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center.

“This could leave the impression that Wisconsin is not a good place to do biomedical research,” Paulnock said. “Certainly recruiting and retaining both the best and the brightest could be affected.”
Apparently, the “best and brightest” vivisectors are frightened off by the prospect of having to obey the law. That's worth following up on; I'm sure the public has an interest in the integrity of researchers at the stste university. No?

This article is simple and not very subtle fear mongering. If scientists have to obey the laws, they fret, all research will stop!, there will be no new drugs!, the (dishonest) best will be frightened away or refuse to come! (why would that matter?), there will be more human suffering!!! all because no one in Wisconsin is allowed to kill animals by means of decompression.

Great reporting. Good job helping the public understand what is actually going on.

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