Dialogue is key?

18 February 2010

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Category: Antivivisection & extremism

news-article.jpgIn a febrile atmosphere, a 'panel discussion' took place on a Californian campus earlier this week between antivivisectionists and research advocates. The discussion and its participants had been threatened by animal rights extremists. One of the antivivisectionists on the panel, Ray Greek, earlier posted a long polemic about their attempts to scupper the discussion (warning: extremist site).

Security concerns meant that what should have been a public debate was a closed meeting limited to about 120 UCLA personnel and students. One of the organisers, a founder of UCLA Pro-Test for Science, and himself the subject of extremist attacks, was positive about the discussion. He said:

'For the most part, all the panellists made some sort of progress towards directly addressing the points raised by the others. The audience saw the points of contention where they were clearly defined and the areas of compromise where they existed. They had an opportunity to personally experience the viewpoints of those in favour of or more critical of research. And all of this occurred within the context of a civil and reasoned exchange.'

While the panellists on both sides seemed convinced that dialogue is key to dealing with extremism, there was little meeting of minds on the central question of animal research. As we have seen before, common ground – between the abolitionist view and the scientific view that animal research is crucial for medical progress – is difficult to find.

The abolitionist view was well rehearsed during this discussion. Niall Shanks used old canards such as thalidomide to claim that animal research is not relevant to the human situation, and Ray Greek said that the vast majority of animal research does not lead to cures for human diseases. That may be true, but evidence clearly shows that treatments for the vast majority of human diseases – and animal diseases – are reliant on animal research.

Perhaps the point of such sterile debate is simply that it takes place, especially in the face of extremist threats that seem to be all too prevalent on west coast USA.

Professor Colin Blakemore told Nature that scientists in the UK have made progress in dealing with the problem by engaging with the media and the public. Media and public engagement have certainly been important in setting the tone for tackling animal rights extremism. We should not forget the key roles played by government, the police and the judiciary, because without new laws to tackle extremism the UK might be still be facing the excesses of five years ago.

'The only way to breakthroughs is to have the courage to be open', Colin told Nature. According to the journal, examples of such dialogue have been few and far between in the USA. And the threats there continue.

A previous piece by organisational psychologist Edwin A Locke, posted today on the liberationist site Thomas Paine's Corner, welcomed the UCLA discussions but said:

'if the defenders of research are to win out, they must be more firm in opposing the vicious inversion of morality inherent in the notion of animal rights, in the name of which terrorists have committed hundreds of violent crimes.' He said their real goal was the 'animalistic treatment of human beings' rather than the humane treatment of animals. The aim of the site in posting the piece seems to be to make thinly veiled threats: at the end it says 'Please call or email Edwin and educate him about animal rights and the animal rights movement.'

So much for civil exchange.