Impediments to dialogue about animal research (part 7).

In this post, it’s time to pull back from the specific kinds of dialogue blockers we’ve been examining (here, here, here, here, here, and here) to start to consider other ways we might get around them. Here, I want to start with some insightful remarks from a friend of mine, philosopher Vance Ricks:

When you describe “dialogue” in that post, it sounds as though you’re mostly focusing on communication between A and B. One wrinkle in the animal research case (and many ethical cases generally) is that A and B aren’t just (not) talking to each other; they’re talking to each other AND to an indeterminate audience they’re hoping to reach.
I know (from my own experience) that there are plenty of times when I have not trusted my actual dialogue “partner” in the ways that you mention, but where at the same time I knew that behind/beside/near that person, there were other people who I did trust slightly more — and so, I wasn’t really addressing my ostensible partner so much as I was addressing a range of people including that person.
Do you think that that makes a difference to what we count either as “dialogue” or as impediments?

I think Vance raises a really important point.

While it would be wonderful if every participant in a dialogue prioritized engaging seriously and honestly with all the views being represented, including his or her own), it’s hard to shake the feeling that sometimes people who say they want a dialogue are really just interested in winning an argument, or at least scoring points. It can seem like they would rather change minds (even if doing so requires lies or bullying) than understand while reasonable people hold views that differ from their own, or that they have decided that emotional appeals are preferable to reasoned arguments.
If this is how you see your “partner” in dialogue, you’ve got the presumptive mistrust that makes attempts at dialogue seem like trying to reason with a brick wall at best (and maybe more like talking to a hidden tape recorder installed by someone determined to use your own words against you). However, it can be hard to call your partner out for suspected bad faith without looking like you’re the one who has no intention of engaging in real dialogue.
If it’s just the two of you, and you know you don’t trust each other, the stakes of giving up on dialogue are pretty low. But if others are watching from the periphery, you are playing for an audience. And here, I’m inclined to think that playing for an audience is not a bad thing if it involves reaching out to that audience with an invitation to think really carefully about the substance dialogue that could be happening but is foundering instead.
Part of what’s at stake for those watching abortive attempts at dialogue is whether the competing views are coherent and defensible enough that the people who hold them can enter into a real dialogue about the disagreement and play fair in the examination of the differences. If one side storms out of the dialogue in the face of seemingly reasonable questions, the onlookers may ask themselves why that side didn’t have good answers. If one side persists in representing the other in a way that doesn’t fit with the position that other side is putting forward, the audience may wonder whether the first side’s challenges all rest on a misunderstanding (or a willful misrepresentation) of the other side’s stand. Some of what the onlookers judge is the dueling positions, but they’re also taking account of how the people representing these positions treat each other. Engaging fairly may be as important as having a well-reasoned, evidence-backed view.
Arguably, in discussions of animal research, the audience on the periphery that supporters and opponents of animal research hope to engage is the broader public. The public has an interest (even if the public doesn’t always act interested) in what kinds of questions scientific research tries to answer and in what kind of data scientists can marshall to find good answers to those questions. The public also has an interest in how animals are used — not just in scientific research, but in other areas (like food production). And, members of the public have an interest in working out the priorities they assign to their various interests and values in cases where these might pull in different directions.
Beyond interests directly related to scientific advancement and animal welfare, the public has other interests at stake here. For example, members of the public have an interest in deciding whether people’s decisions are governed by laws and regulations, or by fear of violence at the hands of people determined to be a law unto themselves.
Whether real dialogue happens, and whether the public is involved in these dialogue, may make a difference to the state of the laws and regulations, to the state of public funding for scientific research, to the state of public acceptance of medical interventions (including veterinary medical interventions), and to the degree to which society can include scientists, physicians, and veterinarians. As preoccupied as the public may seem with other things, members of the public do communicate with their lawmakers (and vote in the elections that put those lawmakers into office). They do make choices as consumers, including choices about healthcare for themselves, their family members, and their companion animals. And they do live in communities where some of their neighbors may include scientists and medical professionals. They may have kids with aspirations to study science and medicine.
How the people with strong, settled views engage each other, or don’t, can shape the views of people in the middle. How, and whether, the people in the middle get involved in a larger dialogue about these issues can shape the civic environment we all share.
How does the presence of the public on the sidelines change dialogue about animal research? What can look like tilting at windmills may really be aiming for a broader audience that is undecided, or that hasn’t yet spent a lot of time thinking about how the issues under discussion connect to their interests and values. If you think the public has interests and values that should make them sympathetic to your position, getting them to see these connections can be important.
Moreover, behaving as though people with whom you disagree could, ideally, be engaged reasonably might encourage more reasonable engagement. People might even get a taste for it and decide they like it better than the battlefield mentality.
It’s possible, of course, that overcoming apathy is just as hopeless as engaging people with entrenched positions that oppose your own. But I think this is an empirical question — which means someone ought to at least try.
My big fear about abandoning dialogue (or attempts at dialogue) with people with whom we have big disagreements is that it might lead to abandoning dialogue altogether — even with people with whom we share much common ground, but with whom we have important differences that we might benefit from exploring. Dialogue, after all, is a process of thinking things through with other people — a process that can help us notice important things we might miss thinking things through alone, and that can help us to come up with new ways to tackle persistent problems. As such, dialogue is the sort of activity I would hope happens routinely in research groups, in IACUCs, between IACUCs and researchers, between patients and physicians, between scientists and the public.
If we lose our knack for dialogue, collectively we will be a lot dumber. So I think we owe it to ourselves not to give up too quickly, and to be aware of the potential dialogue partners lurking nearby, the ones who haven’t quite realized that they care yet. Once they realize that maybe they do care, we will have lots to talk about.
Tomorrow, I’ll try to wrap up this series with some positive steps we might take to dodge the obstacles and make productive dialogue about animal research a reality.

Posted in Communication, Ethics 101, Research with animals, Scientist/layperson relations, Tribe of Science.


  1. Excellent comment Janet, all to often it’s tempting to try to score points against your opponent who will never be won over when the ones you really should be convincing are those who haven’t made their minds up already or have decided on a moderate position.
    I have to say that one of the effects of AR extremism/terrorism and the tendency for institutions and individuals to keep their heads down is that it has crippled the ability of scientists to engage with the undecided, those who care about both medical progress and animal welfare. Just look at the big medical research charities, they’re usually happy to discuss animal research when it’s a new discovery or research program that’s being announced, but at the slightest hint that of “the animal research debate” and they clam up completely. Their failure to engage is a huge loss to the debate, and leaves only a few small pro-animal research organizations and individual scientists to take on the far larger and wealthier AR groups in the debate. I realise that in some cases they also do not wish to alienate potential supporters, but really is that any excuse for avoiding involvement in the dialog when the results of the failure of tha tdialog could be very serious for them.
    Finally I have to say that in facing up to people like the ALF a little of the “battlefield mentality” is necessary, without it we’ll never create the conditions for the dialog that we and you want.

  2. “Tomorrow, I’ll try to wrap up this series with some positive steps we might take to dodge the obstacles and make productive dialogue about animal research a reality.”
    Well, I can’t wait until tomorrow. Maybe I’ll finally get a solution as to how to dispose of ~15 death threats, how to avoid looking under my car each morning, how to stop scrutinizing every piece of mail that arrives to my home, how to stop parking in a different location each day, how to stop looking over my shoulder, and how to sleep better at night. Those are my obstacles… please, please, tell me how to ‘dodge’ them.

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