Will the Real Truth Please Stand Up?

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Will the Real Truth Please Stand Up?

By Ken Shapiro, Ph.D., Animals and Society Institute
September 2010

On a TV talk show with a proponent of laboratory-based animal research, Cleveland Amory described an even more than usually gruesome animal experiment. The scientist immediately indicated his knowledge of the research and provided the usual justification. Of course, Cleveland had fabricated the study.

Professor of psychology Marc Hauser, who studies animal cognition and has written popular works including Moral Minds: How Nature Designed a Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (2006), will be on leave for the coming academic year.

This morning's Boston Globe (8/27/10) reports that the leave follows an internal investigation that found "evidence of scientific misconduct" in Hauser's laboratory and led to the retraction of a journal article for which he was the lead author (Harvard Magazine).

Who and what are we to believe? On almost any issue we find contrary viewpoints, each with the support of experts and facts. We now have access to storehouses of information the extent of which no one would have believed possible even two decades ago. Most of it is accurate but how are we to sort out the grain from the chaff? I recall the story circulating in the movement years ago of the animal magazine that provided a bounty of information of which, it was agreed, 90% was true - but not which 90%. On a TV talk show with a proponent of laboratory-based animal research, Cleveland Amory described an even more than usually gruesome animal experiment. The scientist immediately indicated his knowledge of the research and provided the usual justification. Of course, Cleveland had fabricated the study.

Science is dedicated to truth-seeking and operates in a sophisticated system constructed to guard against error and bias - e.g., double-blind studies, peer-review. We animal advocates are justifiably critical of the misuse of animals in research, but we all marvel at what the broad enterprise of science and its handmaiden, technology, have produced. (Whether it has resulted, overall, in more good than evil is a different issue).

Recent philosophy and sociology of science tells us that we should not be surprised at fraud in science as, like any human enterprise, it is shaped by personal and group motivations responding to economic, institutional, and political pressures - in addition to the classical ideal of seeking truth. (The extreme position, which I do not buy, is that scientific "facts" are merely "social constructions.")

So what are we to do as we seek scientific support and guidance for those policy innovations to which we devote our lives? Traditional answers - be informed, think critically - still help and may be all we have. But, again, in this new world of almost infinite information we find evidence for contrary views and for all those in between. Even in the courtroom, we can round up a set of experts who, under oath, support positions as fundamentally distinct as "A and B are related/unrelated."

Another traditional answer is - add ethics to curricula - in science, law, and business. This is where the contemporary animal advocacy movement started, the ethics of our treatment of other animals. Perhaps when society takes hold of the broader acceptance of the importance of ethics, our specific message will have greater purchase. How about a PhD in whistle-blowing?