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How to Break a Stalemate on Animal Issues

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How to Break a Stalemate on Animal Issues

By Anthony Bellotti, Humane Research Council (HRC)
February 2013

It’s now official: the laboratory mouse is a miserable failure as a model for human disease. In an article aptly titled "Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Humans' Deadly Ills," The New York Times confirms that vivisection – at least experimentation on mice – doesn’t help with issues like burns or trauma and doesn’t cure major human diseases like sepsis.

Even the Director of the National Institute for Health – the world’s largest funder of animal experimentation – states that it “provides more reason to develop better and more sophisticated models of human disease.” Why does animal experimentation persist despite its long track record of waste and failure? And what can be done about this stubborn problem?

A classic and successful example of re-framing a frozen public debate is the rise of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the early 1980s. Before the MADD era, there was no national movement against drunk driving. As sociologist Craig Reinarman notes, drunk driving deaths were “long held to be merely an unfortunately fact of modern life,” as public outrage was not traditionally directed toward the driver.

It’s now official: the laboratory mouse is a miserable failure as a model for human disease. In an article aptly titled "Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Humans' Deadly Ills," The New York Times confirms that vivisection – at least experimentation on mice – doesn’t help with issues like burns or trauma and doesn’t cure major human diseases like sepsis. Mice Prove Useless in Testing Killer Diseases

This new study, authored by Dr. H. Shaw Warren of Massachusetts General Hospital, has massive implications for animal experimenters, medical patients, policymakers, and taxpayers. As the NY Times article states:

For decades, mice have been the species of choice in the study of human diseases. But now, researchers report evidence that the mouse model has been totally misleading for at least three major killers — sepsis, burns and trauma. As a result, years and billions of dollars have been wasted following false leads, they say.

Even the Director of the National Institute for Health – the world’s largest funder of animal experimentation – states that it “provides more reason to develop better and more sophisticated models of human disease.” Why does animal experimentation persist despite its long track record of waste and failure? And what can be done about this stubborn problem?

Dr. Joshua Frank, an economist with the Foundation for Interdisciplinary Research and Education Promoting Animal Welfare, has an interesting perspective on why animal experimentation continues to dominate. His thesis is that vivisection is a classic case of technological “lock-in,” a situation in which sub-par technology takes hold of a marketplace even though the respective technology is inferior in the long run.

As Frank notes, “[c]ommonly cited examples of lock-in include the QWERTY typewriter keyboard, the choice of VHS over beta video recording technology, nuclear power plant cooling technology, and the gas combustion engine for motor vehicles vs. steam technology.” Many analysts also point to the widespread proliferation of the DOS/Windows operating system over the MAC OS in the 1990s and early 2000s. In the case of vivisection, institutional inertia, lousy government policy that incentivizes animal experimentation, cultural resistance, habit, and trial lawyers (among others) have cemented the status quo in which millions of animals and taxpayers continue to pay the price.

These factors present the ultimate challenge for the advocate seeking to break the vivisection deadlock and change the status quo. How, then, do you break an issue stalemate where everything seems to be lined up against you?

In a persuasion campaign, the classic way to outflank an entrenched opponent is through research. Persuasion campaigns are all about allocating limited resources to convince a target audience to accept your campaign’s message. After all, when trying to move public opinion, it makes no sense to spend money communicating a piece of information that your target audience has already factored in to her decision about the issue.

Thus, your mission is always to find new information that can re-frame or "thaw" a seemingly frozen debate and/or re-package old information in a new way to help people see the issue from a fresh perspective. Warren’s study, as reported by the New York Times, is a case-in-point in “game changing” research.

A classic and successful example of re-framing a frozen public debate is the rise of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the early 1980s. Before the MADD era, there was no national movement against drunk driving. As sociologist Craig Reinarman notes, drunk driving deaths were “long held to be merely an unfortunately fact of modern life,” as public outrage was not traditionally directed toward the driver (“The Social Construction of an Alcohol Problem,” 92).

MADD’s challenge was thus to develop a campaign that shifted the debate from a private issue to public policy. “Unlike some other groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose strategy was to work against the alcohol industry’s massive promotion of drinking in general, MADD focused exclusively on the sins of the drinking driver,” and MADD used research to shift the public opinion (ibid, 98).

MADD uncovered powerful data to highlight “the dirty little secret” of drunk-driving (ibid, 98): namely, that 70 Americans a day (one every 23 minutes) perish because of drunk driving accidents, which costs more than $5 billion per year in economic terms. Through aggressive media, savvy lobbying, and research-based communications, the campaign became so successful by 1984 that The Washington Post dubbed it “the year of the anti-drunk driving campaign” as “MADD had effectively made drinking (and) driving into a ‘hot’ issue.” (ibid, 99). And nobody thinks of drunk driving as a private issue anymore.

So next time you face a seemingly intractable issue in your animal advocacy campaign, don’t panic. Remember how research can help you unfreeze and shift public opinion – and quickly. Go back to the body of research and use it to unearth new and practical insights for moving public opinion. Then use it to reframe the debate on terms favorable to animals. With solid research and a little luck, animal advocates can have MADD-like success by affirming animal protection as an important public policy issue.