Ten times Dr Ray Greek misled Ricky Gervais about animal testing

29 November 2021

Posted by: Chris Magee

Category: News

Top 10 times Dr Ray Greek misled Ricky Gervais in the film ‘Black, White and Vivisection’.

A film ‘Black, White and Vivisection’ features Ricky Gervais in conversation with animal rights activist Dr Ray Greek. Dr Greek uses a wide array of tricky techniques in his work to try to discredit animal models and employs these across numerous channels including papers, books and talks. The techniques he uses will be familiar to those who follow the work of science denialists in other areas of research. 

They include an attempt to shift the conversation about animals in research away from scientific journals and towards a debating format – essentially the opposite of science - cherrypicked evidence, limited data sets, factual inaccuracies confidently expressed, the occasional ‘Gish Gallop’ of quick-fire myths and the redefinition of key terms being discussed.

It makes a for a pretty wild ride for anyone who understands how medical research works. 

In Dr Greek’s world there are no clinical trials and patients are given experimental drugs based on animal tests alone. He thinks there’s an animal testing industry. It’s ever so odd.

With a runtime of 31 minutes and 15 seconds, Dr Greek packs in a demonstrable misconception every minute and more. Here we look at ten of the most egregious, although there are many more. At the core of Dr Greek’s narrative is a common conspiracy theory – the same levelled at climate scientists – that scientists only say what they do for money. Apparently, just as it’s inconceivable that climate scientists have found a warming planet, it's impossible to believe that cancer scientists have discovered key things – Nobel Prize-winning things - using mice.

Hence, ever more people are implicated in Dr Greek’s conspiracy theory. He names journal editors, university vice-chancellors, researchers, peer-reviewers, funding bodies, politicians and ‘lobbyists’ as complicit in a vast cover-up, falsifying results. Of course, it’s the government that requires regulatory testing so they must also be involved, and a PETA employee used to sit on the committee that advises the Home Secretary so who knows how far up this goes?

The selection here doesn’t tackle Dr Greek’s failure to correct Ricky Gervais’s many misconceptions, as it becomes increasingly clear that Gervais’s opposition to research is based on a misunderstanding of what it involves, and what horrors would result from prematurely moving away from animal models. Although a noted atheist, Gervais seems nevertheless to have adopted a faith, with scientific organisations like ours cast as ‘propaganda’ in this heavily distorted worldview.

1. Myth: Ray Greek claims you cannot study human disease using animals (2:12)

At the 2 minute 12 mark, Dr Greek first airs his central claim, falsely claiming that ‘science’ shows you can’t model human diseases in animals. There are so many examples of this being incorrect it’s hard to know where to start but, to look at just a couple, the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was won in 2018 by researchers who developed human cancer treatment immunotherapy by using mice www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2018/press-release/

All COVID-19 vaccines were not only tested on animals, but derived from the knowledge that came from animal experiments. The UK’s medicines regulator the MHRA goes to some length summing up the animal experiments using mice, ferrets, non-human primates (NHP) and pigs that showed an immunogenic response to the AstraZeneca vaccine and supported the move towards human trials.

2. Myth: Animals are only used because they’re the ‘status quo’ and there’s money in testing (3:00)

Animals used in research numbers against timeTwo claims, both false. We can see that animals aren’t used simply due to the status quo because how they are used is constantly changing. For instance, in the late eighties, animals started being bred to have a certain genetic condition. The experiment was just the animal being born, and the nature of those experiments has changed over the years. Since then, such experiments have grown to comprise around half of the total which is itself on a long-term downward trend. Without them, animal numbers in labs would have halved in the last 20 years. It can’t be the status quo if it’s constantly changing, especially with a trend towards reducing numbers.

Where animals are considered the best way to do something, it’s because they’re effective. For instance, in testing drugs for safety their predictive value is north of 90% for most target systems (see later points).

The second claim is bizarre. Yes, there are a handful of businesses which breed animals for research, but they don’t drive demand for the animals, they meet demand. The people behind the demand, the scientists and government regulators, make the same money regardless of whether they use an animal or not.

The research councils which issue grants to fund studies look for the best science, irrespective of whether an animal is used or not, and most of the time they are not. Universities, which could benefit from hosting researchers, get money whether it’s an animal study or not.

www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2016/university-funding-explained.pdf

3. Myth: Researchers just pretend it works to get money / There’s a huge vested interest group / There’s a huge lobby

Dr Greek makes variations on certain claims repeatedly throughout the interview. At 6:54, for instance, Ricky Gervais asks ‘do people pretend these things are working because they know they’ll get funding?',the correct answer to which is: Of course not. They get funding either way and their reputation as a scientist rests on them doing good work. But the kinder thing to do would be to point out that the question itself misunderstands research.

Who are we talking about here? Scientists working for a Contract Research Organisation testing a drug at the behest of the medicines regulator? Universities get funding either way – there’s no motive to falsify results, and the risks of doing so and having a paper retracted as fraudulent are in no way commensurate to the potential rewards.

Also, every journal paper that claimed animals modelled human disease would have to be bunk BUT not get filtered out in the peer-review process or called out by the other readers of said journal, most of whom will be using non-animal methods. This doesn’t make any sense.

Dr Greek takes the answer in another direction to the responsible one by declaring 'Oh yes, absolutely' they just pretend animal models work, demonstrating that he either doesn’t understand how research is undertaken or is deliberately misleading Ricky Gervais.

'What a PhD researcher will do is start with one animal and one disease process', he’ll then establish a reputation then he’ll get millions of dollars’ over the course of his career, according to Dr Greek.

The average salary of a research scientist working in, say, molecular biology is £31,195 pa. You won’t find a job description for ‘animal researcher’ because the job does not exist. This is the ‘fat’ salary, apparently, which is one motive for Dr Greek’s conspiracy.

A researcher may well start with one disease process but won’t necessarily use just one animal species or just use animals. In Dr Greek’s mind, animals are used instead of other methods as the only data point. In fact, an animal model will be one of several methods used to investigate a given question. Researchers will use non-animal techniques alongside animal models, with the animals answering questions the other techniques do not.

We have already seen how the ‘vested interest’ claims do not stack up, but what about ‘lobbyists’? Again, this is an inversion of the truth. Understanding Animal Research, for instance, has a budget a fraction the size of the main anti-research groups and a policy team of ½ of one person since that person also heads up media relations. The latest UAR annual report and accounts are here showing that our income is a fifth of Cruelty Free International’s and 130 times less than PETA. The animal rights lobby is far bigger.

There is a bioscience sector coalition, made up of about a dozen organisations involved in animal research, which has the same access to government as the anti-animal research groups like PETA and Cruelty Free International (quarterly meetings with the Home Office) but, unlike those groups, doesn’t have lobbyists and doesn’t have a budget.

4. Myth: There are a lot of alternatives to experiments (12:20)

By 12:20 Dr Greek is claiming that 'There’s a lot of alternatives to them, we don’t need to do them', which isn’t true by law in the UK. The relevant law, hailing from 1986 but updated in 2012, states that '… wherever possible, a scientifically satisfactory method or testing strategy not entailing the use of protected animals must be used instead of a regulated (animal) procedure.'

The UK is also home to the world’s foremost centre for finding alternatives – why would the UK spend more than £10 million a year looking for alternatives if they already exist?

5. Myth: Animal research is all about drug testing (10:45)

By 10:45 we’re suddenly talking about drugs again, which aren’t tested at universities. Dr Greek prepares the ground with another of his false statements that frame the issue a particular way:

'The way animal research is sold to society is because of the predictive value for drugs.'

Not so. Testing drugs constitutes no more than about 15% of research and isn’t very representative of the other 85%. I don’t believe, as someone who frequently talks about this issue, I’ve ever used it as a reason to support research. It’s a global regulatory requirement, to prevent humans being harmed in clinical trials. For this conspiracy to work, it involves the complicity of every government in the world. Dr Greek goes on…

'Is this drug going to be safe and effective in my grandmother.'

Not so. Safety testing is not to protect your grandmother, it’s to protect human volunteers in human clinical trials. No drug is released to the market without being extensively tested in humans then, if appropriate, introduced via hospital consultants and general practitioners to a growing number of patients as they learn how best to apply the new drug.

'That’s where animal models fail.'

No. They are very good at safety testing, which is why there are so few serious problems in clinical trials. The following data comes from the IQ Consortium, an international association featuring a who’s who of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, which looked at different animals’ successful prediction of safety and found a high concordance. The table below shows the percentage similarity of results between humans and dogs across the major target systems.

Organ category

Dog negative predictive value

Pulmonary

96%

Biochemical

95%

Renal

95%

Ophthalmology

94%

Haematology

93%

Cutaneous

91%

Musculoskeletal

91%

Cardiovascular

91%

Nervous system

90%

Liver

88%

Gastrointestinal

76%

Other

15%

This is strongly in line with previous analysis by UAR.  Under Dr Greek’s preferred mode of Bayesian statistical analysis, dogs, rats, mice and rabbits all correspond to human outcomes over 90% of the time. They are not the only data point, of course, but if they were they’d work most of the time.

The IQ consortium came up with an average figure of 86% Negative Predictive Value across all species, but of course we know that combining species data and in vitro findings pushes confidence in the safety of a compound higher still.

6.  Myth: Animal researchers are in charge of the regulatory system (14:30) / Parliament/congress are in charge, but they’re not good judges of what should, be funded in science or not (16:35)

In response to Ricky Gervais asking who’s ‘in charge’ of animal experiments, Dr Greek claims that 'It’s the animal experimenters themselves.'

Not so. Different countries have different regulatory systems, but in most instances it’s the government that’s in charge. In the UK, that means the Home Office, which has run an inspectorate since 1876, licenses and polices experiments, while the requirement to undertake medicines testing sits with the medicines regulator the MHRA.

In the Home Office, ministerial responsibility is usually devolved to a junior minister but that minister acts on behalf of the Home Secretary. The decision to allow or deny experiments themselves are taken by an ethical review committee whose members must include an Animal Welfare Officer (usually a NACWO* in the UK), a named veterinary surgeon (NVS) and sometimes a lay member. The lay member might be an individual from outside the institution or might be an individual from another department in the institution. Their decision is then checked by the Home Office, which also checks whether the decision is compliant with the law banning experiments that could be done another way. The Homes Office makes the final decision on whether the licence is granted or not. Especially difficult or controversial experiments, and many involving primates, are considered by the Animals in Science Committee, whose members have included people working with animal welfare and animal protection organisations.

None of Dr Greek’s various claims, that it’s Parliament or researchers themselves, are even vaguely accurate. 

7. Myth: Medical research is like Creationism (12:30)

In an attempt to ‘falsify’ his belief that using animals is ethically wrong, Ricky Gervais plays devil’s advocate and says ‘why don’t we keep testing in case we find a cure’, which Dr Greek equates to deciding that just one of earth’s species was created, not evolved.

It’s a bizarre analogy which doesn’t work on any level since faith is irrelevant to the ethical and scientific issues under discussion. However, an extra degree of irony resides in the fact that early animal researchers pioneering the scientific method entirely rejected religion and were actively avoiding the sort of baseless beliefs that had for years misled medical practice. Meanwhile, the anti-animal research movement was premised upon the ‘Catholic doctrine’ and Dr Hadwen of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was a lay preacher for the creationists Christian sect the Plymouth Brethren.

As an annoying aside, Dr Greek states, correctly, that ‘a theory is one of the most powerful tools that science has’, but then incorrectly that ‘once Darwin said this evolved from that, that settled it’. Er, no it didn’t. Darwin had an unproven hypothesis at that point, and some compelling data. It only became a theory in the scientific sense when a mountain of further studies backed up Darwin’s hypothesis and it was accepted as a theory by 1950. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_theory The aforementioned inventors of blinded experiments were sceptical about Darwin’s hypothesis precisely because it lacked the mountain of evidence and was going to be difficult to recreate in the lab at that time.

8. Myth: People who speak out against ‘the system’ are being ignored (15:37)

It’s always amusing watching people who are on TV or in newspapers claim that they are being silenced. Dr Greek claims that, despite having knowledge of the system (which is demonstrably untrue), ‘no one is going to listen to me. I can’t go to my Congressman and say ‘Hey, I’ve got science that proves this wrong.’

Actually, Dr Greek can and does. Other anti-research groups have also been doing just that. An example is the US group White Coat Waste, headed up by Republican strategist Anthony Belotti who moved on from defunding abortion services and opposing ‘Obamacare’ to concentrate on ending animal research. The group has had a number of ‘successes’ including ending veterinary research through the KITTEN Act https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kittens_In_Traumatic_Testing_Ends_Now_Act.

Dr Greek also had a platform at the European citizens’ initiative hearing in favour of banning animal research. His ideas were rejected as bogus and the European Commission released a statement contradicting Dr Greek’s assertions https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_15_5094

Dr Greek’s work in part inspires a national disinformation campaign in the UK and has for years featured in annual Parliamentary motions.

Dr Greek has a platform, but his words don’t lead to change because he’s factually incorrect.

9. Myth: All the people politicians talk to have a vested interest in animal experimentation (16:50)

An inversion of the truth. Anti-animal research groups have excellent lobbying reach and healthy lobbying budgets. They have good relationships and frequent contact with Members of Parliament and hold regular meetings with the Home Office (as ‘special interest groups’) to discuss and influence regulation.

10. Myth: Ray Greek isn’t spinning a conspiracy theory

Dr Greek claims that his account is not a conspiracy theory when that’s exactly what it is, even by his own definition in the film. He describes a conspiracy as 'a few people at the very top that are profiting from something and they’re fooling everyone else ..' and 'what I’m saying is there are millions of people involved in this and every single one of them has a vested interest.'

Dr Greek does this kind of redefinition a lot, but that’s not what a conspiracy theory is. A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.

Yet Dr Greek talks, at the 4:50 mark about ‘people in the upper echelons of the animal experimentation industry’ being the ones driving the ‘fraud’. He talks about researchers in their 30s and 40s fooling early-career researchers. He’s just now reminded us that ‘there’s a huge money aspect’ at 23:07.

Dr Greek’s claim is it is a conspiracy, but not a theory, yet he has no evidence of this shadowy cabal, this huge lobby, these older researchers misleading the young. They’re all his invention, hence this is a conspiracy theory.

In terms of ethics, repeating the easily-busted myth that animal experiments are junk science is a fig leaf to avoid facing the consequences of inaction. There is nothing ethical about standing in the way of scientific research that will have medical, veterinary and environmental benefits, allowing yourself to exaggerate the harms visited upon animals whilst denying any benefits.

Animal research sits at an ethical crossroads, dealing with the most important existential questions we’re likely to encounter. The animal models themselves are not some perfect panacea, but often provide vital pieces of the puzzle. To make the right decisions we need good information and adult discussion, not sophomoric conspiracies about ‘money’ that can be debunked by 10 minutes on Wikipedia and don’t even line up with the real-world flow of cash.

Ricky Gervais was right to be perplexed by what he was hearing. None of it made any sense.

 

Named Animal Care & Welfare Officer (NACWO)