Sunday, September 19, 2010

Christopher Coe on Res 35

The Dane County Board of Supervisors received emailed letters from twenty-three people and organizations opposed to Resolution 35. Two of these were from local private citizens. The two organizations were BioForward and the National Association for Biomedical Research, both adamant promoters of vivisection and the vivisection industry. The other nineteen were from people with a clear financial or professional interest in the continuation of publicly funded experiments on monkeys. I listed them here.

I thought it might be interesting to look at some of these letters and give some thought to the claims that were made. I'll start with Christopher Coe's. For comparison, you can read eleven letters written in support of the resolution here. (Which group contains the more cogent letters? This is good evidence that facts and reason may be insufficient to convince people to act reasonably or responsibly.)

You can read Dr. Coe’s original email here. I've rebutted his oral statements here.

Let’s look at his specific assertions:

1. “There are many reasons why this is not an appropriate domain and approach for the Dane County Board to take, including the obvious issue of whether the question and implicit conclusions aren’t based on inaccurate information.”

I don’t think Dr. Coe is someone who thinks very clearly. I’m of the opinion that employment in a field that awards mediocrity and provides lavish salaries in the absence of useful productive work breeds intellectual laziness and a grotesquely false impression of one’s opinions. Vivisection may be the penultimate example of this phenomenon.

Coe’s guess as to the resolution’s “implicit conclusions” looks as if he is projecting his belief that an unbiased close look at the use of monkeys at the university will necessarily be unfavorable to him and his colleagues.

But his assertion that the questions raised by the resolution are based on inaccurate information is either laughable or another instance of a UW-Madison professor’s abuse of authority. First and obviously, the university uses monkeys. Second, criticisms of the labs’ daily practices have come from well-informed experts, including two past veterinarians from the UW primate center and the USDA. And third, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that monkeys’ subjective experiences are much like ours.

2. “Many would argue that it is, in fact, unethical not to conduct research on incurable and debilitating illnesses when we have the means and tools to do so.”

This is an example of the shallow thinking nurtured by white coat welfare. Following Coe’s logic, it would have been unethical for J. Marion Sims not to have experimented on slave women.

3. “While most members of the animal rights movements are well intentioned, many of their views are misguided and based on insufficient and biased information.”

Animal rights movements? Maybe we should look these up on the Internets.

This is another example of Coe’s false self-image. The arrogance in this claim is clear. I strongly doubt that Coe is very well informed. How many USDA inspection reports has he read? How conversant is he with the evidence regarding monkeys’ emotions and cognition? Is he even aware of the growing recognition that modern basic biomedical research is largely an embarrassing failure?

The confusion and illogic of his claim are made even clearer when he states later that the majority of Americans support animal research. He must believe that the average person sampled in the typical opinion poll is well informed about the use of animals in research, but that people with an interest in this matter are not. He argues on the one hand that critics are uninformed and thus their opinions should be discounted, but then defends his industry by pointing to the opinions of likely uninformed people. Such muddle-headedness is unlikely to lead to answers to difficult medical questions. He should be fired.

4. “It seems that the Board is overreaching and stepping onto a very slippery slope by considering a resolution that even hints at censorship and the imposition of constraints on intellectual and academic freedom.”

But Coe will also (mistakenly) say if asked, that his industry operates under tight regulation and is subjected to oversight from a number of bodies. Arguably, every germane regulation imposes some constraint on intellectual and/or academic freedom.

Moreover, as was pointed out by nearly everyone, the county has no power to regulate the university. It can only state an opinion. Coe’s claim is way out in left field completely adrift from reality.

5. “What would come next? Would one be prohibited from teaching about the knowledge gained from prior studies with primates?

6. “Would the Board consider going so far as to propose that we not use vaccines and other medical treatments that were derived from research on primates?

Is Coe suggesting here that women should forgo repair of a vesicovaginal fistula, the procedure developed on slave women by J. Marion Sims? I wonder whether he was frothing at the mouth when he wrote that.

These two claims are not only silly, but also wildly misleading. There are few clear examples of primates as irreplaceable elements in the development of vaccines, medicines, or treatments. Coe’s claims are nothing other than his expression of faith, like a belief in the Holy Ghost or a hollow Earth.

7. “Recent polls indicate that the majority of Americans still favor the use of animals in biomedical research providing that it is done humanely.”

Aside from the twisted logic that compelled him to make this contradictory claim, he seems to have made it up. What recent polls is he referring to? His claim is misleading or uninformed.

Here’s a recent summary of the results of opinion polls on this topic
Concerns about poll methodologies are also voiced in the academic literature. For example, Hagelin and colleagues published an overall analysis of 56 surveys on animal research [from around the world]. They discovered that between 27% and 100% support animal research, and a range of 0–68% people are opposed. Part of the explanation for this dramatic variation is due to design issues, for example how questions are phrased. Hobson-West P. The role of 'public opinion' in the UK animal research debate. 2010 36: 46-49 J Med Ethics.
The most recent poll on this question I know of was a 2009 poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. See my post regarding this poll here. I don’t think Coe knows what he is talking about.

9. “There are many other compelling reasons...”.

Which must be even less compelling than the top “reasons” he cited above.

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