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Experimenting on Animals

In response to:

'Animal Liberation': An Exchange from the November 5, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Nicoll, Russell, and Lau questioned Peter Singer’s intellectual integrity in their critique of his book, Animal Liberation [“‘Animal Liberation’: An Exchange,” NYR, November 5, 1992]. Singer’s rebuttal did not reassure me; for he merely shouted louder the same misinformation—and carped that Nicoll and Russell, who have revealed elsewhere other dishonesties of the animal rights movement, were aided this time by “an academically more junior colleague.”

For example, Singer continued to disparage Steven Maier’s work on learned helplessness after being caught in the act of omitting in his book much of Maier’s rigorous assessment of the complexities of clinical depression. He then recast Maier’s conclusion, that learned helplessness cannot be regarded as a model for all of this complex disorder, as an admission of a wasted career. However, as Maier concluded (and Singer omitted), “Animal ‘models’ seem useful precisely because they do not duplicate the full clinical phenomenon but can allow the study of a single ‘route’ in isolation.” Nature does not release her secrets easily, thus all hypotheses in science undergo modifications as a consequence of new data and new insights. Religious tracts like Animal Liberation, on the other hand, allow no room for ambiguity. Singer succeeds no better in responding to the other two examples of dubious scholarship revealed by Nicoll et al.

Because his evaluators did not comment on his descriptions of more than fifty other experiments, Singer concludes—recklessly, given his detractors’ revelations—that they found no fault with the rest of his assessments. It is more likely that Nicoll et al. believed that three obvious examples would suffice. I hope they accept his challenge.

Adrian R. Morrison
Director
Office of Animal Research Issues
National Institute of Mental Health
Bethesda, Maryland

Peter Singer replies:

Any impartial reader who takes the trouble to look up my reply to Nicoll, Russell, and Lau will see that in respect of each of the three examples of my alleged use of the “techniques of propagandists” I was able to rebut the allegation. In the case of the quotation from John Bowlby, I showed that Nicoll, Russell, and Lau had themselves omitted to quote a crucial sentence that would have revealed the weakness of their case for the justifiability of Harlow’s heartless isolation experiments. As for what I said about Maier’s work, I was certainly not “caught in the act of omitting in [my] book much of Maier’s conclusion…” because as I indicated in my reply, in Animal Liberation I did mention Maier’s own hypothesis. I simply found it a weak excuse for thirty years of exposing animals to prolonged and inescapable electric shock. Finally, by quoting at length from a British Department of Health and Social Security report on product testing, I was able to show that it was my interpretation, not that of Nicoll, Russell, and Lau, that was in keeping with the tenor of the report as a whole. Ironically, Morrison’s own letter contains two significant errors that, if I had made them, would no doubt have been seized on as further evidence of the “masquerades” of scholarship of which I was accused by Nicoll, Russell, and Lau. (But let’s be charitable; anyone can slip a little, even in a letter consisting only of three brief paragraphs.) First, Morrison says that “tracts like Animal Liberation… allow no room for ambiguity.” But in Animal Liberation, after putting forward a proposal for a non-speciesist test of when an experiment might be justified, I say: “This is not an absolutist principle….Admittedly, as with any dividing line, there would be a gray area where it was difficult to decide if an experiment could be justified.” I also pointed out that the situation regarding animal experimentation in the United States could be considerably improved by the adoption of a system of genuine committees of review—made up of committees that have, among their members, advocates of the interests of animals, and other independent members. Such committees are now required to approve all animal experimentation in Australia, Sweden, and some other countries. If this is not allowing room for ambiguity. I do not know what is.

Second, in his final paragraph Morrison says that Nicoll, Russell, and Lau did not comment on my descriptions of “more than fifty other experiments.” and refers to my conclusion that this meant they found no fault “with the rest of the assessments” [my italics]. But the point I made in my response is that none of the three examples of alleged misrepresentation provided by my critics refers to a description of an experiment. They are all concerned with my suggestions that the experiments were unnecessary. That is why I doubt very much that Nicoll, Russell, and Lau were able to find any fault with the descriptions of the experiments. Their examples are not only very far from being “obvious,” they are also quite peripheral to the case against animal experimentation that I make in the second chapter of Animal Liberation. That is why I think I am entitled to take the fact that Nicoll, Russell, and Lau do not challenge even one of my fifty descriptions of experiments on animals as an endorsement of the accuracy of those descriptions.

That my reply did not “reassure” Adrian Morrison is unsurprising, for he is scarcely an impartial reader. His own animal experimentation has been severely criticized by some members of the animal liberation movement; and he is, now, effectively, paid by the National Institute of Mental Health to be a full-time defender of animal experimentation. That NIMH should appoint such a confrontationist figure to this post is a sad indication of the fact that those in charge of animal experimentation in the United States are not interested in sitting down to discuss constructive changes with their critics. Until they are ready to do this, no doubt we will continue to have polemical exchanges like this one, and the United States legislation covering animal experimentation will continue to be, as a 1992 article in New Scientist described it, “remarkably weak.”*

  1. *

    Helen Gavaghan, “Animal experiments the American way,” New Scientist, May 16, 1992, p. 32.

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