Notice what I did there? Setting a bias right from the start with click-bait headlining?

Well, that is just how a buzzfeed piece entitled “The Silent Monkey Victims Of The War On Terror” starts.

“Victims”.

I called this piece out for being sleazy and dishonest in a tweet and the author, one Peter Aldhous, Buzzfeed News Reporter, took exception. He emailed me asking how I could possibly accuse him of being a shill for the AR agenda, asserting he has no allegiance whatsoever to animal rights and complaining about how someone as allegedly influential as me could damage his professional reputation.

So I felt I owed him an explanation.

First, I make no apology for my distaste for AR adherents. They are terrorists, yes, terrorists, and they inhabit a nihilist, anti-social ideology. Of terrorism.

Second, I’ve written a few posts about the use of animals in research (see below for Additional Reading). There is a pretty good dose of information at Speaking of Research as well. I mention this not so much to draw specifics as to show that there is information available on the web, readily searchable, for a journalist to quickly find for an alternative viewpoint to the AR nonsense. That is, if they are interested in researching a story. I’ll also point out that the Science Editor at Buzzfeed is someone who spent years pounding the floors at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and has even written on the use of nonhuman primates in autism models. Again, the point is that this journalist has a route to further education and balance, if he had only chosen to use it. The piece does not reflect any such background, in my reading of it.

What I want to dissect today, however, is the way this piece by Aldhous is carefully crafted to attack nonhuman primate research, as opposed to providing a reasonable discussion of the use of animals in specific research.

The article starts with “victims” and has chosen to describe this as resulting from “The War on Terror”. Right away, we see a sleazy link between something that many Americans oppose, i.e., the description of the Bush agenda as a war on terror and the Bush agenda itself, and the use of animals in research. It is a typical tactic of the AR position. If you can establish that one area of research is unneeded in the eyes of your audience then you are three quarters of the way home.

And this is AR thinking, make no bones about it. Why? Follow the logic. There are sizable swaths of Americans who disagree that we should spend public money investigating any number of health conditions. From infectious disease like HIV (although see this) to obesity to diabetes to depression to substance abuse. Simply because they do not agree that these are topics that are worth of investigation. Anthrax, botulism and nerve gas are no different in this respect. Some people feel that the war on terror is overblown, the risks of a bio or chemo weapon attack are small and we should not put any public money into this topic whatsoever- from research to law enforcement.

So if you argue that your particular agenda should rule the day when it comes to research, you are saying that everyone’s agenda in a pluralistic democratic society should rule the day. This leaves us with very little science conducted and certainly no animal science. This is why I call this a bit of AR shillery. The logic leads to no animal research on any health topic.

Note, it is fine to hold that belief in pluralistic democratic society but let us be honest about what you are about, eh? And sure, I can see that there would be some agenda so narrowly focused, so out of the mainstream that we cannot reasonable credit as being a legitimate concern of the American people. It should be self-evident from the support for the Bush administration’s war on terror (and our public discussion over bioterror) that this is not the case here.

Ok. But what about the converse? Is just any use of animals in research okay then? No, no it is not. Certainly, we have a cascade of federal law, federal regulation and widely adopted guidelines of behavior. We have rules against unnecessary duplication. We wrangle, sometimes at long length, over reduction and refinement of the research that uses animals. Even an apparent exemption from the full weight of the Animal Welfare Act for certain experimental species doesn’t really exempt them from oversight.

Getting back to the article, it next pursues two themes including the idea that there are a “lot” of monkeys being used and that they are all “suffering” and in pain. The article includes this pull quote:

“Wow, that’s a lot of monkeys,” said Joanne Zurlo of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies alternatives to animal experimentation. “It’s quite disturbing.”

It is? How do we know this? How are we to evaluate this with any sort of context? How is it “disturbing” unless we have already decided we are against the use of monkeys in this, or for that matter any, research?

The piece brags about some exclusive review Buzzfeed has conducted to examine the publicly-available documents showing about 800 nonhuman primates used in “Column E” (the most painful/distressful category) US research in the 1999-2006 interval and a jump to about 1400 in the 2009-2014 interval.

Speaking of Research maintains an animal-use statistics page. The US page shows that of the species not exempted from tracking by the Helms Amendment, non-human primates account for 7% of the total (all categories of research use) in 2014. This is 57,735 individuals- note that given that non-human primates can be used for years if not decades in some kinds of research, this does not equate to a per-year number the way it would for a species that only lives 2 years like a rat. But at any rate, the 600 extra [ETA: “E” category monkeys] that the Buzzfeed piece seems to be charging to the war on terror is only a 1% increase in the annual “E” use of non-human primates.

This is “disturbing”? Again, I think this alone shows how disingenuous the piece really was. A “one percent increase in the use of monkeys for bioweapon research” doesn’t really have the same punch, does it?

What about other frames of reference? From the Speaking of Research page:

Scientists in the US use approximately 12-25 million animals in research, of which only less than 1 million are not rats, mice, birds or fish. We use fewer animals in research than the number of ducks eaten per year in this country. We consume over 1800 times the number of pigs than the number used in research. We eat over 340 chickens for each animal used in a research facility, and almost 9,000 chickens for every animal used in research covered by the Animal Welfare Act. For every animal used in research, it is estimated that 14 more are killed on our roads.

Or what about the fact that Malaysia culled 97,119 macaque monkeys (long-tailed, i.e. M. fascicularis and pig-tailed, i.e. M. nemestrina; common research lab species) in 2013. Culled. That means killed, by rough means (by the reporting) without any humane control of pain or suffering. No use for them, no scientific advances, no increase in knowledge…probably not even used for food. Just…..killed. 167 times the number scored as used in bioweapons research were just eliminated in a single year in a single country.

Failing to provide these contexts, and writing a piece that is majorly focused on the number of research monkeys used for bioweapons studies is dishonest, in my view.

Okay, so what about the pain and suffering part of the piece? Well, Aldhous writes:

BuzzFeed News has calculated the number of primates used each year for what the USDA calls “Column E” experiments, in which animals experience pain or distress that is not fully alleviated with painkillers, tranquilizers, or other drugs. Because monkeys are emotionally complex creatures that are thought to experience suffering similarly to how we do, such experiments are especially controversial.

The number of primates used in these ethically fraught experiments

Notice the slant? First of all, human introspection about the “pain and suffering” of nonhumans is suspect, to say the least. Yes, including monkeys, dolphins or whathaveyou. The statement about monkeys being “emotionally complex creatures” is pure AR theology. The idea that nonhuman suffering is identical to human suffering is entirely unproven and there are large numbers of people who disagree with this characterization (see the Malaysian culling, above, for an example). If you try to get people to define terms and provide evidence you devolve into really bad eye-of-the-beholder anecdata on the one hand up against a profound lack of evidence on the other. Humans are demonstrably different from all other species we know to date. And efforts to view nonhumans as “like us” invariably involve some very convenient definitions, goal post moving, blindness to the quality or universality or ease of the human trait, etc.

Calling it “especially controversial” and “ethically fraught” is hardly even handed journalism. Where is the balance here? The people who shout loudest about the use of monkeys being “controversial” don’t believe in any animal research. Seriously, probe them. What use of animals isn’t ethically fraught? Hammering this idea over and over throughout the piece is poisoning the well. It is acting like this is established fact that everyone agrees with. Not so. And the slant of these terms is certainly on the side of “this research is bad”. You use other terms when you want to describe a neutral disagreement of sides.

One very important point is the lie of the truncated distribution. We know perfectly well that there is a big part of the American distribution that is essentially unconcerned about animal use and animal suffering. If you know anyone who uses sticky traps to deal with unwanted household rodents…they are doing Category E research. Catch and release fishing? Ditto. People who own large dogs in city apartments and walk them just twice a day….well it isn’t Category E but it sure doesn’t sound humane to me. The point is that research and researchers do not operate in this part of the distribution. They operate in the well-regulated part of the distribution that is explicitly concerned with the welfare of animal subjects in research. Notice all the pull quotes he included from researchers seem to express caution? Obviously I can’t know how selected and cherry picked those comments were (I suspect very) but they do testify to the type of caution expressed by most, if not all, animal researchers. We are always looking to reduce and refine. And look, individual scientists may view different research priorities differently…but it is hardly fair to only present the skeptics. Where are the full throated defenders of the bioweapons research in this article? Well, they wouldn’t talk on record* due in very large part, I assert, to a well-informed skepticism that journalists ever care to be balanced on these topics.

The Aldhous piece goes on to a very sleazy sleight of hand by mentioning a violation report in which an animal research facility was cited for failing to follow care protocols. He picks out three institutions:

three institutes have dominated the most ethically contentious primate experiments: the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio.

Since 2002, these three institutions have collectively used more than 6,400 Column E primates. In 2014, they accounted for almost two-thirds of the monkeys used in these experiments.

Again with the “most ethically contentious” charge. Nice. But the point of this is…what? Many bioweapons pathogens can only be studied at very high cost isolation facilities. It is good and right that there are not many of them and that they account for the majority of the animal use. It is also good and right that they are subject to regulatory oversight in case any slip ups need to be corrected, yes?

After a routine inspection in March, Lovelace was cited for failing to provide monkeys with the care that was supposed to be delivered — including intravenous fluids, Tylenol for fever, and antidiarrheal drugs.

The report shows that three animals did not receive Tylenol when they should have, and three did not receive anti-diarrheals when they should have, for 2-4 days of symptoms. There were 57 animals in a Cohort that did not receive injections of fluids but there is no indication that this resulted in any additional pain or distress and we can’t even tell from this brief protocol language whether this was supposed to be as-need-per-veterinarian-recommendation or not. There are two additional Cohorts mentioned for which it is noted the animals were treated according to protocol and the table in the Aldhous piece lists 431 animals used at Lovelace in 2014, probably the year for which the above citation refers. Naturally, Aldhous fails to mention these citation numbers leaving the reader free to assume the worst. This is classic misdirection and smearing at work. Which is why I call it dishonest. “Loose stools or fever for 2 to 4 days in less than 1% of individuals” sounds more like an over the counter medication warning or a threshold for when to finally call the doctor to the average ear.

Aldhous next diverts into a fairly decent discussion of how animal models may or may not fully predict human outcome but I think that in the context, and with his shading, it falls short of the mark. I’m not going to step through all of his examples because there are certain fundamental truths about research.

1) If we knew the result in advance, the experiments wouldn’t be necessary. So if we sometimes find out that animal models are limited, we only come to this conclusion in the doing. There is no way to short circuit this process.

2) We use animals, even monkeys, as proxies and models. Sometimes, they are going to come up short of full prediction for human health. This does not mean they are not valuable to use as models. Again, see 1. We only find this out in the doing and most research is novel territory.

3) The overlap between animal testing and research is fuzzy in this discussion. If you want to evaluate medications, your research may not be dedicated to, or idealized for, novel discovery about the disease process itself. This doesn’t make it less valuable. Both have purposes.

4) It is dishonest to point to places where animal research failed to predict some adverse outcome of a medication in humans without discussing the many-X more potential medications that were screened out with animal models. Protection from harm is just as important, maybe more so, than identification of a helpful medication, is it not?

So as you can see, I think this piece in Buzzfeed is written from start to finish to advance the AR agenda. It is not by any means fair or balanced. This is relatively common with journalism but that is no excuse. It is sleazy. It is dishonest. There is every reason to expect that balanced information and opinion is readily available to a journalist, even one who has no scientific background whatever.

I do not know the heart and mind of the author and as I mentioned at the outset, he protested vehemently that my take was not his intent. Which is why I have tried to focus on the piece and what was included and written. I will suggest that if Aldhous is sincere, he will read what I have written here, follow the links and take a very hard editor’s look at what he has written and the impact it has on the average reader.

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*I don’t know the solution to this problem. A piece like this one Aldhous wrote is the type of thing that hardens attitudes. Which makes it harder for the balanced story to get out. It’s a vicious cycle and I have no idea how to break it until and unless science journalists stop with this sleazy and biased AR shillery on their own.

Additional Reading

Logothetis driven out of monkey research

UCLA scientists have been under attack for over a decade

Repost: Insightful Animal Behavior: A “Sufficiently Advanced Technology”

Dolphins ain’t all that either