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Back to bullying: anti-research activists revert to dirty tricks in Cambridge

6 November 2014

Posted by: Chris Magee

Category: Staff blog

UAR’s Head of Policy and Media Chris Magee considers a campaign group’s lack of understanding underpinning their beliefs.

The clumsily-named National Operation Anti-Vivisection (NOAV) is a new campaign group which has been attracting some media attention recently for their extreme tactics.

Its tactics are fairly familiar: cherry-picking scientific papers in an attempt to prove that animal research is “bad science” and exaggerating the suffering which can occur in labs, but it also has a slightly more sinister side. 

Take its campaign, for instance, to pay students for the names, address, pictures and other details of student researchers who use animals, which was the basis of its poster campaign at Cambridge University. As NOAV told student paper Varsity, it would “contact students conducting experiments and explain the reasons (scientific and ethical) for using human relevant methods rather than animal testing.”

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However, in the comments section below, NOAV instead asserted that:

”Its (sic) very simple. If you abuse animals, we will let everyone know that you do. If you are proud of what you do…”,

which is rather more sinister. A cancer researcher, for instance, might well be proud of what they do, but they don’t want to have a fist fight about it with somebody who doesn’t understand what they do. Polls tell us that public understanding of animal research is poor, stoked of course by the sort of myths and pseudoscience NOAV likes to disseminate. NOAV’s claim that it simply wishes to advise of non- animal alternatives is further perplexing since it is illegal in this country to use an animal in an experiment if there is a non-animal alternative, and has been so since 1986.

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This proposed “naming and shaming” is not an entirely new tactic, having been used in the US by convicted criminal Camille Marino of “Negotiation Is Over”. NOAV’s website also features a video of Gary Yourofsky, who is banned from entering the UK, and has also been sentenced to six months in a maximum-security prison for “liberating” 1,500 mink from a fur farm. Sizable mink releases, as we know, tend to decimate the local ecosystem. So much for ethical. Say what you like about the fur trade but the solution isn’t to sabotage local ecosystems.

So, it seems pretty clear that NOAV’s intentions aren’t as peaceful as it would have us believe, and it is all the more tragic that its campaign is based on such a poor understanding of science. As I have written before, a binary yes/no view of animal research doesn’t get us very far in making progress on issues of animal welfare. Giving a mouse and a dog moral equivalence doesn’t help us decide which should be used for an experiment. Claiming that an experiment is always worthwhile, therefore bypassing the need for ethical bodies, is similarly silly.

There is an exchange in the comments below the Varsity coverage of the NOAV campaign which I would invite you to read because the basis of NOAV’s supporters’ claims is systematically undermined. One claimed that the Home Office doesn’t have a database of alternatives, for instance, when this speech by Mark Harper MP confirms to the House of Commons that there are actually several.

There was then a claim that adverse reactions to drugs are as a result of the animal test giving an inaccurate outcome, but of course all medicines are tested on people before being given a licence . A few animals are used in the earliest stages of safety testing, to determine whether it is OK to give an unproven drug to human volunteers, but thousands of humans will have taken that drug before it’s mainstream. “Adverse reactions” are better thought of as overdoses, or examples of the known side-effects that are listed on the information leaflet inside every pill packet. They are certainly not the fault of animal tests. 

Other posts appear to channel the anti-vivisection movement’s conceptual view which seems to posit that humans aren’t animals. This is a worldview forged in a Victoriana age, where divine creation and the word of the Bible held sway. In contrast, modern ethics sees animals in a continuum, with meaningful cognitive differences beyond simply the ability to feel physical “pain” such as existential crises.

Quite why some people callously do not see, say, childhood leukaemia as involving suffering is confusing, but when they claim that animals haven’t played an indispensable role in turning a 20% survival rate for that disease into an 80% survival rate they are simply in denial. The role of animals is well documented.

It is not that some people perhaps hold a so-called “ethical” objection to some sorts of research, it’s that their understanding of that research is so poor. Groups like NOAV seize on the knowledge vacuum of the general public and fill it with convincing-sounding pseudoscience, and indeed pseudo-ethics. It isn’t harmless, and it would be dangerous enough if its misconceptions merely affected public support for medical, veterinary and environmental research. As it is, it would seem NOAV’s mission is rather more sinister. What a shame it is based on such a poor understanding of the facts.

Last edited: 7 November 2014 10:39