Monday, March 4, 2013

A few loose ends re UW-Madison's defence of Ned Kalin's cruelty

In my response to UW-Madison's Research Animal Resource Center Director Eric Sandgren's defense of Ned Kalin's cruel use of baby monkeys, I failed to mention a couple of his claims.

I think it worthwhile to address those few claims.

Let me first say that his assertion that monkeys' brains are good models of human brains may have some merit when one is interested in simple gross anatomy and the general concept of physiological compartmentalization of some neurological phenomena. But as even the most casual observation demonstrates, neuroanatomical similarity does not necessarily result in similar affect or capability. This is one of the much written about problems that stem from trying to model complex systems with other differently complex systems. I'll not belabor this point; I leave it to readers to pursue this matter on their own if it is of interest to them.

Eric Sandgren: Peer-rearing will measurably increase anxiety, as required by the experimental design, but does not make a monkey “crazy”.

This is an odd claim. In this context, crazy means mentally ill. Crazy, like insane, are terms that aren't generally used by mental heath professionals any more. Claiming that the maternally deprived, peer-reared, repeatedly frightened monkeys being used by Ned Kalin aren't crazy as a result of these manipulations undermines the very reason for him using maternal deprivation, peer-rearing, and repeated frightening experiences.

Mental health professionals today speak in terms of specific symptoms.

According Wikipedia, "A mental disorder or mental illness is a psychological pattern or anomaly, potentially reflected in behavior, that is generally associated with distress or disability, and which is not considered part of normal development in a person's culture."

Kalin hopes and expects his methods will induce "a psychological pattern or anomaly, potentially reflected in behavior, that is generally associated with distress."

Sandgren's claim that the monkeys aren't crazy, is wrong in two ways.

In lay terms, the monkeys are being driven crazy, intentionally.

Secondly, if the monkeys aren't going to develop a psychological pattern or anomaly, potentially reflected in behavior, that is generally associated with distress, then Kalin's methods shouldn't have been approved, because that's exactly the point of the methods he was approved to use.

Sandgren challenges Professor Lori Gruen's recommendation that public funds would be better spent on direct care and intervention:
She proposes that the research funds be redirected to social programs that “can prevent the psychological harms that arise from childhood trauma.” But when dealing with complex problems, multiple approaches are almost always more effective than putting all of our eggs in one basket. By all means, let’s spend money supporting parenting skills classes, affordable childcare, and so forth. But that approach will never eliminate the problem or reach everyone in need. Given the cost of social programs, redirecting all the research funding from these studies would barely make a dent.
The idea that redirecting the tax dollars going to support Kalin's experiments on monkeys would be like putting all of our eggs into one basket is absurd to an extreme degree.

Sandgren is correct when he observes that solutions to complex problems are more likely to be discovered if many people are working on a problem from a number of different angles; but it isn't true that each and every idea ought to be pursued. In Kalin's case, his decades of frightening monkeys and rats haven't been very helpful to children living in abusive, deprived, or otherwise distressful environments. We wouldn't pay someone to hum to crystals; not every idea warrants funding.

We simply don't have an infinite number of eggs; we should look carefully and critically at the baskets we are putting them in. Right now, there is research going on around the country and even at the UW-Madison that uses human volunteers in research on adult and childhood anxiety. These studies are diverse and come at the problem in a number of different ways.

Additionally, communities across the country use taxpayer dollars to help children directly. I don't know with certainty, but I'll wager that many social workers feel overwhelmed and long for additional help. Sandgren's offhand comment about "supporting parenting skills classes, affordable childcare, and so forth" seems to dismiss the difficulties that social workers deal with everyday.

Sandgren seems to imagine that even unlikely avenues ought to be explored and funded (with other peoples' money) but this is like a poor man spending his money on a lottery ticket rather than on food for his children.

Sandgren argues that even if we were to redirect the money Kalin is consuming and spend it on social programs intended to help children, that it would barely make a dent (in the problem?).

But he hasn't done his homework or else doesn't seem to have thought very carefully about this.

It's true that the approx $1 million a year Kalin gets to experiment on monkeys seems like a small amount when compared to the $235 million Dane County Department of Human Services requested in its 2012 budget, but to understand the impact that an extra $1 million could have had, you have to look at the way the money pie was sliced. Here's a spread sheet that helps give some perspective on the costs of the county's various efforts. It looks like $1 million might have helped a lot some areas.

And consider this from the Wisconsin State Journal:
Parisi: Boost help for victims of child abuse

September 29, 2012 • State Journal staff

MADISON — Dane County Executive Joe Parisi will recommend adding three child protective services social workers when he introduces his 2013 budget on Monday, his office said.

The proposal follows several troubling cases of child abuse and neglect in the area, he said.

The additional positions would increase the number of licensed social workers in child protective services from 51 to 54, said Lynn Green, the county’s human services director. "This is huge for us," Green added.

In one case still working its way through the courts, a 15-year-old girl was found walking outdoors in February in pajamas and bare feet near her home on Madison’s Southeast Side. Authorities say she was starved, tortured and kept in the basement by her father and stepmother and sexually abused by her stepbrother.

Parisi said he also will propose a new "unified family court" to streamline legal proceedings. And he wants $25,000 to go to Domestic Abuse Intervention Services to help the group get adult and child victims out of abusive situations.
Three new licensed social workers in child protective services is "huge." And Parisi seems excited about being able to put an additional $25,000 toward getting children and adults out of abusive situations.

It seems reasonable to wonder how many more children and adults could have been helped if the $1 million being spent to make baby monkeys' lives hell had gone to direct intervention and help for people being abused right now.

Sandgren says: "So to achieve the benefit of reducing anxiety disorders, let’s tackle the problem from several directions. Fund social programs. But when that approach fails to prevent disease, let’s supplement it with effective treatments that only the research can give us."

But "that approach" has never been fully funded. "That approach," because the people served are frequently members of disenfranchised segments of society, is obviously very underfunded, and starkly so when considered next to the arcane and dead-end cruelty of Ned Kalin's project.

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