The Courage to Admit Being Wrong

No doubt, no awakening.

—C. C. Chang

World-renowned giraffe researcher Anne Innis Dagg (University of Waterloo) wrote a commentary for The Globe and Mail last year in which she said she was wrong. Her early research (and that of colleagues), based on observation of giraffes in the wild, had cast doubt on whether giraffes form friendships due to the apparently random nature of the observed physical groupings of individuals. Recently it has been discovered that giraffes, like elephants and rhinos, can communicate long distances using vocalizations undetectable to the human ear. With this new understanding scientists have revised their interpretation of giraffe behaviour, recognizing that giraffes may indeed form friendships, and that these bonds can be recognized in patterns of infrasound communication amongst animals even when they are not physically proximate. Dagg’s public acknowledgement demonstrates the character of a true scientist – committed to vigorous examination of her own blind spots and errors, and to open sharing, interrogation, and re-evaluation of research practices and findings, especially as it concerns our chronic tendency to underestimate the inner lives of animals. Her most recent book is called Animal Friendships.

Philosopher Michael Allen Fox (Professor emeritus, Queen’s University) published a book called The Case for Animal Experimentation in 1986 in which he argued that humans are cognitively and ethically superior to nonhumans, and therefore it is okay for us to use them in harmful research to benefit ourselves. Animal researchers lauded the book, which was widely reviewed and cited. But then Fox realized he was wrong. It must have been tempting to ignore his misgivings, and to continue to accrue accolades from the research community, but instead he publicly disavowed and challenged his earlier arguments, and since then has published widely on vegetarianism and animal ethics. (One argument that shifted his thinking was a thought experiment involving highly sophisticated aliens arriving on planet earth, and embarking on a program of scientific experimentation on humans. We wouldn’t think this was justified, even if the aliens were vastly superior to us cognitively and ethically. Relative differences in such capacities do not alter the underlying ethical duty to refrain from harming others in order to benefit ourselves.)

John Gluck (Professor of Psychology) was motivated to become a medical researcher in part because many members of his own family were ravaged by neurological and mental disorders for which there is little effective treatment. He wanted to help them. Over the years he conducted harmful, invasive research on many captive animals: depriving them of nurturing, love, society, stimulation, physical comfort, food and other basic necessities; injecting them with noxious substances; subjecting them to harmful procedures; killing them. He tried to ignore his conscience, which told him this was wrong, but with the passing years it became harder and harder to repress his misgivings. The first chink in his justificatory armour came when he realized how unhappy many of his fellow humans were made by his treatment of animals (including students and colleagues who expressed doubts, as well as animal advocates). He realized his work, far from helping humans, was causing some of them terrible anguish. After this, the entire edifice started to crumble, as he came to realize that the research he was engaged in was both a scientific and ethical travesty.  Gluck now works tirelessly to educated animal researchers about the scientific fallacies underlying the use of “animal models”, and the appalling harms that this research imposes on animals.

At Queen’s University, Department of Psychology researchers (Neurotransmitters and Behaviour Lab) continue to conduct experiments just like those that Gluck spent his early career conducting, and now says are both useless and shockingly cruel. (For example, newborn rats are raised in solitary confinement in order to induce psychological damage. These traumatized animals are deemed to provide a ‘model’ for human schizophrenia and are subjected to a variety of tests and medications in search of knowledge and treatments. As John Pippin, another animal researcher turned animal protector, has noted, no wonder treatment of mental disorders has made so little progress given the crucial dis-analogies of human and rat or mouse brain physiology.)

Bad science is locked into outdated institutional habits and practices. It protects careers, reputations and entrenched business interests over truth and open inquiry. It represses or belittles ethical concern. Good science is open, disinterested, truth-seeking, and firmly grounded in the dictum: primum non nocere. Most of all, it requires the good character to admit when we are wrong, and to be willing to change.

Post written by Sue

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