Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why does Dario Ringach hate people? Or,

Back to the burning building.

The keystone of Dario Ringach's claim about his intuitive sense that we ought to always choose a human over another animal was illustrated by him at his recent lecture in Madison. He showed a slide that looked something like this this:

He makes the simple claim that the only moral option would be to save the child from the burning house and leave the mouse behind to be burned to death.

That's fine, but he could have used other examples, like this one:

A more germane image would have been one like this:

Ringach says things like: "... those working with animals also feel in such a way, but they also feel for the mothers that fight breast cancer, the children with leukemia, the elderly with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s."

"While searching for answers to difficult problems (such as developing a cure for cancer), it is expected for many paths to lead to dead ends..."

"... cancerous tumors can certainly be grown in humans as they are in mice, but we do not consider the practice morally acceptable."

"... if you learn that a member of your family has terminal cancer, you will suffer in ways that a mouse cannot comprehend. If you are exposed to the sights of millions of children with AIDS in Africa, you will suffer in ways monkeys cannot understand. This is real suffering and it should matter to you."

And he is entitled to his opinions. But his frequent appeals to mothers, children, and cancer, particularly cancer, are indeed odd when considered against the backdrop of his own research. Interestingly, when he was asked various questions, he said more than once something like: "Well, I don't do those things," or "I'm not talking about product testing on animals." Indeed. But he wasn't talking about the things he does do either. This image fairly demonstrates his actual practice:

It looks like the hundreds or thousands of humans in the burning skyscraper matter less to Ringach than the people who might be trapped in the smoking house. He must really hate people. Why else would he decide to spend his time working on theoretical details about ocular dominance rather than try to find a way to cure some mother's baby of cancer? Why does he talk primarily about the diseases that frighten people rather than his actual work? Maybe he intuitively recognizes that most people wouldn't be so quick to choose the human over a mouse, or a dog?

Since about 2000, according to the National Institutes of Health, Dario Ringach has recieved about $5 million in taxpayer dollars to investigate "the nature of ongoing cortical activity, what it represents, and how it interacts with external stimuli to generate a "real-time" response in primary visual cortex." From: 5R01EY012816: QUANTITATIVE STUDIES OF CORTICAL VISUAL PROCESSING. $2,839,896.


"A hallmark of primary visual cortex is its organization into maps of visual space, orientation and ocular dominance. Despite remarkable advances in our ability to measure the structure of cortical maps and their mutual relationships, many important questions remain unanswered. How do these maps develop? Why are maps missing in some species? What role do maps play, if any, in cortical computation? The central goal of our research is to seek answers to these fundamental questions of cortical development, organization and function that have eluded us for decades." From: 5R01EY018322: THEORETICAL STUDIES OF VISUAL CORTEX. $2,083,837.

According to the National Federation for the Blind the number of non-institutionalized, males or females, of all ages, all races, regardless of ethnicity, with all education levels in the United States reported to have a visual disability in 2011 were:

Total: 6,636,900
Age 18 to 64: 3,372,400
Age 65 and older: 2,743,600

About 1.2 million people in the U.S. die each year from cancer or heart disease.

No one dies from a visual disability.

Taking him at his word, he'd rush into a burning building and save a child rather than a mouse. But the implication of his actions is that he'd rush into a burning house rather than a burning skyscraper, no matter the number of people who might suffer the consequences of his ethical intuition. It looks to me like his intuition might be colored by the millions of dollars that he thinks is stuffed under the mattress in the house. He studies the arcane details of animals' brains, but defends his choices with appeals to mothers and cancer. It's dishonest, but if he actually used his own work to justify his industry's cruelty, well, even he seems to be less than convinced.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Dreaded Question

Are you vegan?

It's a simple question. And it brushes aside a lot of posturing and pontificating.

Dario Ringach was bothered enough at being asked this simple question during his recent presentation at UW-Madison that he felt compelled to write about it.

His response offers some insight into his perceptions of the animal issue. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, yet again, he seems confused by the lack of compartmentalization of concern on the part of people who are opposed to cruelty.

If one genuinely believes, as Ringach and essentially everyone who experiments on animals claims to do, that he wishes he didn't "have" to hurt and kill them, but that animal experimentation is exactly like having to choose between saving a child or a mouse from a burning building, then he wouldn't eat animals. Deciding to have a meat burger rather than a bean burger is nothing like having to choose between a child and a mouse.

If one chooses the meat burger, then why bother with highfalutin excuses for experimenting on animals? Clearly, someone who is motivated by the simple gustatory delight of flesh isn't dependent on the notion of saving children from a burning building to justify their actions.

Ringach seems to think that in a discussion about experimenting on animals that one ought not talk about one's food choices, but that one should talk about burning buildings.

Ringach provided some evidence to help us make sense of his claim that talking about being vegan in a discussion about the use of animals in research isn't appropriate. He showed this slide, or a different photo of the same display:
It seems to me that someone who eats animals but then reaches to the stars to find a justification for experimenting on them is either a liar or a dolt.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


In Dario Ringach's presentation to university vivisectors, he relied heavily on his claim that the development of Trastuzumab, or herceptin, as a breast cancer treatment is a glowing example of the tremendous benefits that stem directly from animal experimentation.*

It's been my experience that whenever a vivisector makes a specific claim in a public venue about the benefits of animal experimentation that it always bears close scrutiny.

Well, I didn't have to scrutinize very much:
From Wikipedia: Trastuzumab (INN; trade names Herclon, Herceptin) is a monoclonal antibody that interferes with the HER2/neu receptor. Its main use is to treat certain breast cancers.

The HER receptors are proteins that are embedded in the cell membrane and communicate molecular signals from outside the cell (molecules called EGFs) to inside the cell, and turn genes on and off. The HER proteins stimulate cell proliferation. In some cancers, notably certain types of breast cancer, HER2 is over-expressed, and causes cancer cells to reproduce uncontrollably.

The original studies of trastuzumab showed that it improved overall survival in late-stage (metastatic) breast cancer from 20.3 to 25.1 months. In early stage breast cancer, it reduces the risk of cancer returning after surgery by an absolute risk of 9.5%, and the risk of death by an absolute risk of 3% however increases serious heart problems by an absolute risk of 2.1% which may resolve if treatment is stopped. Trastuzumab is controversial partly because of its cost, as much as $54,000 per year, and while certain private insurance companies in the U.S. and government health care systems in Canada, UK and elsewhere have refused to pay for trastuzumab for certain patients, some companies have since accepted trastuzumab treatment as a covered preventative treatment.

*When asked about animal experimentation that was apparently an uncomfortable question for him, he side-stepped the issue with the excuse that he didn't do that sort of work -- like product testing. His work deals with the minutia of brain function in (previously, monkeys) in mice. That did not stop him from cloaking himself in the new clothes of a "cure for cancer."

Dario Ringach Talks to UW Vivisectors

Dario Ringach's talk was sort of interesting. It was very well attended, but judging from the people I recognized and the various greetings I heard as people were coming in, it appeared to me that the overwhelming majority of the attendees were vivisectors. This makes sense because as a group they are worried by the continuing drumbeat of criticism leveled at them and the evidence that the animal rights movement isn't going away. To them, Ringach's willingness to speak in public must seem to be a ray of hope, a balm to their chronic worry, an exception to the near uniform cowardice they see among themselves and their peers.

You can view a portion of the talk here. Unfortunately, the videographer experienced some technical glitches, so all the Q&A (including him attacking me) isn't here. Alas.

I'll share a few of my impressions.

One thing that might seem surprising to readers is the simple fact that I sort of liked him. This has been a fairly common experience for me; most of the vivisectors I've met have seemed like people I wouldn't mind visiting with over a beer.

I suspect that many people are surprised by the fact that very few people are wholly one thing or another. We are patchwork quilts. There is good and bad in most of us, and from work by psychologists like Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo it is matter-of-factly clear that nearly all of us are capable of doing horribly evil things.

It is hard to reconcile the atrocities they committed with the happy faces in this image of Auschwitz staff enjoying a sunny day. But facts are facts.

Back to Ringach's talk. He started out with an image that looked something like this:

He then asked, by a show of hands as he defined each "extreme," where people stood. No one raised their hand to indicate that they believed that animals are mere machines, and I don't think many if anyone raised their hand to say that they agreed with the animal rights view as defined by him, which was that all animals should have rights identical to those claimed by humans. He argued that if you don't hold that view then you can't really be an animal rightist, and must, like "everyone" in the audience, actually be an animal welfarist, like him. (That makes me chuckle.)

For the record: I don't think dogs ought to have the right to drive, but I can't imagine that giving them the right to vote could make the political scene any more discouraging.

Giving Ringach the benefit of some doubt and assuming he wasn't knowingly misleading his audience, maybe he actually believes that someone who thinks animals are mere things or at least could be treated as mere things would identify themselves in public.

Given the long dark history of atrocity in human culture, it is likely that a significant percentage of people don't give much thought to the feelings of others or care at all about their suffering. It seems reasonable to me that the animal labs must appear to be somewhat safe havens for such people. I suspect that the percentage of sociopaths and quasi-sociopaths is much higher in the animal labs than in the general population. It is the nature of sociopaths to try and blend in. Asking for a show of hands from all of those who don't believe in, care about, or give any thought to the potential subjective experiences of animals is like asking the audience how many of them have children chained in their basements.

I don't think Ringach knows what consensus means.

Giving Ringach the benefit of some doubt and assuming he wasn't knowingly misleading his audience, I have to assume that he has a somewhat limited reading comprehension level.

He claimed that there is a scientific consensus that "Animal research is essential to the advancement of biomedical science." As proof, he pointed repeatedly this graph and, if I understood him correctly, said it was from a Zogby poll:

But it's actually from a poll conducted by the journal Nature. He said that the respondent's weren't "just animal researchers," but were also geologists and other scientists.

That's a bit misleading. The graph above is better understood when looked at side by side with another graph from the same article:

What a shock that the majority (but not all?) of those who experiment on animals "strongly agree" that it is necessary. And exactly who were and what did the 29.7% who say they don't experiment on animals actually do? Maybe some of them were "lab animal" veterinarians or were in some other way involved.

Towards the end of his talk, during the Q&A, he singled me out by name and told the audience that I was there to threaten them; he told them that I was there to tell them to stop hurting animals or else I would hurt them. I don't think he's read much of what I've written, and if he has, he certainly doesn't understand or at least believe what I've said.

All in all, it was a pretty typical example of the university vivisectors engaging in an exercise much different than that which they had promised to do. No one who attended learned even one thing about the use and treatment of animals in the university labs. Not one image was shown by them, not one study described. When asked about things that he was uncomfortable answering, Ringach said, "But that's not what I do." That fine point didn't seem to matter too much when it came to asking the audience whether they would save a child or a mouse from a burning building. How stupid. If I could grab the mouse, I'd stick her in my pocket and then grab the kid. Dario would apparently leave everyone but the child behind.

Check out these impressions of his presentation by another blogger:

Dario Ringach… Wrong, Wrong, Speciesist

Dario Ringach… Wrong Again on Animal Research

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I am an extremist. I hope you are too.

Below, you can read UW-Madison's hyped announcement that Dario Ringach will be speaking at the university this week.

He was invited, it seems to me, because Eric Sandgren, Director of the university's Research Animal Resource Center (RARC) has become enamored with Dario's tiny fringe cult that misleadingly calls itself "Speaking of Research." I say misleading because Speaking's representative at the university, Allyson Joy Bennett, quoted in the university's propaganda below, has refused to speak in a public venue about her dead-end often cruel research on abused monkeys. Go figure.

All that aside, I wanted here to simply call attention to the ubiquitous and absurd rhetorical device used by those who do things that they know are morally questionable: namely, the notion that they hold the middle ground and that their critics should be dismissed because they are "extremists."

The Middle Ground

It seems to me that very many moral issues don't have a defensible middle ground. Here are a few examples:

Nuclear war. Call me an extremist, but I'm 100% against it. Those in the "middle" of the issue appear to me to be very very dangerous people. Ditto on a nuclear arsenal. Nuts. Pure and simply nuts. Maybe Dario and Joy think a little nuclear war is a good thing.

Dog fighting. Call me an extremist, but I'm 100% against it. Is there really a middle ground? The middle grounders ought to be put in jail in my opinion even if people enjoy watching dogs rip each other to shreds. Maybe reasonable middle grounders like the folks at Speaking for Research have a different more moderate and reasonable view on the matter. Or, maybe they are extremists too.

My list could go on and on. I'm an extremist on many issues: whaling, women's right to vote, slavery, sex with children, protecting the remaining ancient forests, and hurting animals, to enumerate just a few of my extremist positions.

I wonder what the middle ground is on slaughtering dolphins? Or on draining toxic chemicals into our rivers and lakes? Undoubtedly there are many people who hold very un-nuanced views on these issues. They are extremists.

Imagine the arguments put forth by the middle grounders on issues like these: A little mercury in the stream won't matter; saving old growth forests will cost us jobs; there's a fortune to be made by drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

When the middle "moderate" position leads to more pain and suffering, more environmental devastation, more poor people, more money for the rich, it's easy to understand why those opposed are labeled by the "middle" as extremists. Instead of feeling uncomfortable with the brand, extremists ought to acknowledge that on important ethical matters, the "extreme" position is frequently the right view to hold.

UW-Madison News Release:
Target of animal rights protests kicks off animal research ethics forum
Oct. 17, 2013
 by Chris Barncar

Any research that includes animals presents ethical questions, but they are questions Dario Ringach believes we rarely address together.

“There is a moral dilemma everyone has to recognize,” says Ringach, a professor of neurobiology and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Rejecting that isn’t responsible, and is not based on any sound ethical thinking. But once we recognize that, there is a very useful discussion to have.”

Ringach, the next speaker in UW–Madison’s Forum on Animal Research Ethics (FARE) series, believes that nearly all conversation on the controversial topic is driven by the most extreme opinions on the issue.

He was invited to deliver a lecture — “The Ethical Dilemma of Animal Research,” at 7 p.m., Oct. 24 in the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch, 201 W. Mifflin St. — because he hopes to bring some informed discussion to the middle.

“Dario has been very interactive with the public on this issue,” says Eric Sandgren, director of UW–Madison’s Research Animal Resource Center and a FARE organizer. “He is one of the few people out there from the scientific community actually engaging people in conversation about the ethics of animal research no matter their background or stated feelings on the topic, and that is exactly the point of FARE.”

The forum, which began in 2011 to provide a venue for discourse on the use of animals in science, is free and open to the public. Speakers — including researchers who conduct experiments that include animals, scientists advocating limited use, philosophers and animal rights leaders — have been chosen by a committee representing campus and the Madison community.

Ringach, who studies the way the brain represents images, knows the arguments of those who oppose animal research well.

He became a target of animal rights groups more than a decade ago while working with non-human primates in his UCLA lab, and his family endured some rough treatment.

“In my case, late at night, anywhere between 30 to 40 people wearing ski masks would surround my house, banging on windows, chanting that they are going to burn the house down,” Ringach says.

A colleague was singled out by activists who left an unlit Molotov cocktail on her doorstep as a message — though they got the address wrong, and delivered it to the scientist’s neighbor.

“When this happens, you are forced to ask yourself what kind of beliefs drive these people to act this way,” Ringach says. “That’s how I got interested in the moral philosophy behind this movement.”

That philosophy is not always articulated by the critics of animal research in a way that acknowledges the true moral dilemma, according to Allyson Bennett, a UW–Madison psychology professor who blogs with Ringach on animal research at speakingofresearch.com.

“The speakers on the animal rights side often do not articulate their position — as in, are there any instances in which your ethics would allow animal research?” Bennett says. “And they will almost never acknowledge that there is any benefit from animal research. You can’t have a genuine discussion about the ethics without that.”

Ringach’s run-in with protestors was well known, but it did not keep him from writing and speaking about the issue.

“What happened to Dario was a wake-up call to the scientific community,” Bennett says, and one example of intimidation she worries will keep grad students from entering academic research, and chase the work into parts of the world that have not established the sort of structure and oversight established in the United States.

While it was terrifying for Ringach and his family, the experience did not keep him from conducting research with animal models. These days his lab includes mice in its work. And it only served to focus his thinking on the animal research issue.

“I felt an obligation to defend work that I think is producing the benefits that will improve the lives of my children and the children of others. There are lives at stake here,” says Ringach, who plans to leave plenty of time for discussion with the audience after his FARE presentation. “And I believe scientists have the obligation to talk to people about their work, but you should not be obligated to talk to someone who says it is justifiable to kill you.”

Friday, October 18, 2013

When pigs fly

I was both shocked and delighted to read an opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times [10-5-2013] by a neuroscientist talking about his experiments on dogs. See: "Dogs Are People Too."

Neuroscientists who use animals in their research are callous assholes. This is a truism, "a statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting," explains one dictionary.

But Gregory S. Berns, a scientist at Emory University of all places*, is the exception that proves the rule.

Even more exceptional is the strong pro-dog side-taking in one of his recent scientific publications: Functional MRI in awake unrestrained dogs. Berns GS, Brooks AM, Spivak M. PLoS One. 2012. The authors write:
The possibility of future canine fMRI must be tempered with the acknowledgement that dogs will do almost anything humans ask of them, and this makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In the design and implementation of this study, we adopted a set of principles that places the dogs' welfare above all else, and which we hope will provide ethical guidelines for future work in this area. First, no harm must occur to the dogs. With MRI, the main concern is for the dogs' hearing, which is more sensitive than humans'. Considerable effort was spent fitting and training the dogs to wear ear muffs and head wraps that mitigated the effects of the scanner noise. Second, the dogs should not be restrained. Although it is technically possible to implement a wide range of restraints, from harnesses to implanted fixation devices, we believe this violates a basic principle of self-determination that is normally reserved for humans, but in this case should be extended to dogs: they should be free to exit the scanner at all times. Similarly, this means that purpose-bred laboratory dogs should not be used as they have no choice. Third, positive reinforcement should be used whenever possible. Although we can imagine experiments in which one would like to know the differential effects of positive reinforcement versus punishment, we favor positive reinforcement for ethical reasons. The use of punishment should be carefully weighed against the alternatives, especially since the animal training literature does not indicate that punishment leads to more effective learning than positive methods.
You should read the entire Discussion section.

*Emory University is home to the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and a consumer of large numbers of animals in cruel experiments.