By Douglas H. Watts
February 27, 2010
Carl Sagan said extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Given the extraordinarily large number of animals used and killed for lethal scientific research, it is useful to apply Sagan's dicta to this ongoing practice. Is there extraordinary evidence to justify the extraordinarily large number of animals which die every year in the name of scientific research? Has the case been made? How do we decide?
Lethal animal research fits Sagan's question, since it is elective (nobody is forcing researchers to do it), nobody has specifically asked them to do it (all requests are self-generated, by the research scientists and facilities themselves), nobody has ever done a serious investigation as to how much of this research can be eliminated as needless or so bereft of important societal benefits in comparison to its effects that it should be phased out. And most importantly, much of this research is undeniably and profoundly cruel.
Under Carl Sagan's dicta, the burden of proof is upon the researchers. It's their case to make. In my opinion they have failed to make it.
Where's the Plan?
Until scientists and researchers, profit and non-profit, put forth a program to phase out and end experimentation on animals for alleged human benefit, it is axiomatic that a certain segment of human society will try to publicize these actions and try to stop them. 
Some, but not all, researchers are under the delusion that by denying there's a problem, by supporting legislative limitations on investigation and protest, by criminalizing protest, by using an 'ends justifies the means' approach, by using scare tactics like 'your parent and kids will die without this,' and by calling people who are against animal cruelty 'crazy,' that somehow peoples' profound distaste for the elective use of animals for lethal research will magically go away. It won't.
As in all issues which rile up and inflame the emotions, there are people opposed to animal experimentation and cruelty who improperly allow their emotions and zeal to exceed the bounds of the law. The law exists as a deterrent to rein these people in, and if they flout the law, to mete out punishment.
What is missing, thus far, is a demonstrated commitment by researchers involved in animal experimentation to present a plan and program to phase out this practice and end it. Such a plan would rank research needs involving animals by highest and lowest priority, with a complementary ranking of research methods by a metric of least invasive and harmful and most invasive and harmful. By cross-referencing these two rankings, one could easily identify in a grid those research areas that are most invasive and harmful and are of the least priority. This is not difficult.
Reviewing much of the words written and said by animal research proponents, I am struck by how profoundly they misapprehend why most people have a great distaste and disgust with elective lethal animal research. Their arguments for continuation of the status quo ad infinitum are far removed from the logical, rational, research-driven discourse they use in the papers they publish based upon this same research:
1. People against cruelty to animals are "extremists."
This is logically fallacious since any cause contains a few people who are so zealous they go outside the bounds of the law. To tar and feather people solely based on the actions of others -- whom they don't even know -- is non-rational.
2. People who oppose animal research should focus on factory farming or puppy mills.
They do. A quick look at the Humane Society of America's website shows it is actively involved in opposing and ending all these types of cruelty to animals.
3. The ends justify the means.
Any activity can, eventually, perhaps, increase knowledge by some degree and lead to 'benefits' for some group. The White House was built in part by black American slaves.
4. Much 20th century medical knowledge is based on animal research.
Because so much lethal animal research has been conducted in the 20th century, it is inevitable that a lot of medical knowledge is partly or wholly drawn from this research. A statement of fact is not an argument.
5. Animals are not like us, therefore lethal animal research is okay if it may, perhaps, benefit humans.
This could justify anything done to animals, even the most extreme cruelty. It is the old "they are not like us" argument which has been used to justify endless amounts of cruelty by humans against other humans who were also deemed "not like us."
6. This is an attack on academic freedom and science.
The freedom to do academic research does not magically transcend human ethics or free one from society's bounds of ethical behavior, professional codes of conduct and publicly enacted laws which set bounds on one's behavior.
7. The best justifies opposing scrutiny of the worst, ie. the 'slippery slope.'
Some believe scrutiny of the worst types of animal research could, via the 'slippery slope,' restrict research that is comparatively less cruel and more useful. The public and legislators make these fine-edge distinctions all the time.
8. There are no cruelty-free alternatives.
Do or do not. There is no try.
The Arguments Don't Change, Nor does the Suffering
Carl Sagan said extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Animal researchers have yet to provide the requisite extraordinary evidence to support their claim that this extraordinary level of lethal animal experimentation and suffering is justified.
It's their case to make. Thus far they have failed to make it, nor have they even really tried. It's the lack of trying that gets me.
In the end researchers need to convince the public. And to do that, researchers must accept they have an obligation to do so. If they do not wish to fulfill this obligation they can stop doing the lethal research. Nobody is forcing them to do it.
There is no inherent right to conduct lethal experiments on animals. U.S. and state law have carved out very narrow exemptions for licensed animal researchers, ie. a privilege, as compared to run-of-the-mill animal abusers. And like a driver's license, this privilege must be earned. Inherent within it is an obligation. There is no right to conduct lethal experiments on animals, any more than I have the right to starve my dog to death or feed it poison. This is settled law. The law already comes down on the right of animals in this context. That ship has sailed.
What is left to discuss is the narrow window of exemption from animal cruelty laws which researchers have been allowed to operate within. Is the window too broad or to narrow? Too inclusive or too exclusive? That's the discussion which needs to occur.
50 years ago there were no limitations on lethal animal research. The legal limits which now exist had to have come from somewhere. Yet the arguments proffered for the status quo have not changed an iota from those used to justify what occurred 50 years ago. The only thing that has changed is that treatment today is, in some cases, not "as cruel" as it was 50 years ago. And that change has only happened because of public outcry -- not internal policing by the researchers themselves. The lesson is that researchers themselves have failed to prove they can police themselves. This is why public involvement is essential if we are to move to phase two, just as it was to get to phase one.
What's needed is for the research community to acknowledge that lethal animal research, especially in its most egregious forms, is profoundly distasteful to society at large for the same reason that dog fighting is distasteful. Researchers need to engage the community in a discussion and offer solutions, not bunker-mentality defenses. A starting point would be to offer a plan to phase out and eventually end lethal experimentation, starting first with the animals most closely related to humans and with the most harmful and most egregious types of research. Such a plan, itself a gesture, would be the first step in a path forward.
UPDATE: Science writer Eric Michael Johnson offers a thoughtful take on this issue.
 I say "alleged" human benefits not to dismiss or denigrate concrete medical advances made with the assistance of animal research, but to note that some lethal animal research is being done despite the lack of any clear, demonstrable and important human benefits, while exacting very clear and demonstrable sacrifice and suffering by the subject animals.