Impediments to dialogue about animal research (part 8).

After considering the many different roadblocks that seems to appear when people try to discuss research with animals (as we did in parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 of this series), it might be tempting to throw up your hands and say, “Well, I guess there’s no point in doing that, then!”
Resist this temptation!
As we noted in part 7, there are good reasons that we (by which I mean scientists and the public) ought to be engaging in dialogue about issues like research with animals. Avoiding dialogue altogether would mean cutting off the flow of information about what actually happens in animal research and about how animals actually matter to scientists and non-scientists alike. Given that what the public knows and cares about has some influence on how much public money is allocated to support scientific research and on what kinds of laws and regulations govern the treatment of animals (including the treatment of animals in scientific research), opting out of dialogue altogether is a risky move.
Therefore, in this post, I offer suggestions for how to have a productive dialogue about animal research.

1. Find a safe venue for dialogue.
Here, I don’t mean a venue where you won’t have to seriously engage with your own position and the positions of the others involved in the dialogue. That is the one kind of safety a dialogue should not offer. But it is completely reasonable to hold out for a venue where you will not be the target of actual or threatened violence or harassment. Thus, it’s completely reasonable to turn down invitations to debate on a TV or radio talk show or on a stage at City Hall. (These kinds of events tend to be more like debates than dialogues anyways, geared toward the scoring of points and the “gotcha!” rather than serious engagement and follow-up questions that might lead to deeper understanding.)
What might be a safe venue for dialogue? Possibly a small gathering of people who have a shared stake in each other’s safety and in understanding each other better (e.g., because they are part of a shared workplace, school, church, or neighborhood). It’s also possible that a safe space for a dialogue might be a well-moderated online venue (with participants using pseudonyms, if that feels safer).
2. Don’t engage with people who have repeatedly demonstrated that they’re not willing to engage in good faith.
Just don’t. Maybe they’ll change, but it’s not your responsibility to give them another chance. Explain why engaging them is a bad call, in light of their past conduct, but don’t apologize.
3. Do see if you can include some people who are still making up their minds.
Ideally, everyone in a dialogue is open to reexamining his or her own views and modifying them accordingly, but inviting some people who are open about not knowing quite where they stand can be productive. They may contribute important thoughts about why they are undecided and about what sorts of things are helping them to evaluate their options. In turn, this may help participants with more settled views to identify pieces of those views that are worth reexamining, even if only just to see what’s holding them in place.
4. Designate a facilitator.
Enlist the help of one or more people who commit themselves to facilitate a productive dialogue (rather than winning the day for one side or another). Empower your facilitator(s) to put any of the participants (including you) on notice or in time-out for behavior that undermines the dialogue.
5. Work out a set of ground rules up front.
It’s nice if the facilitator(s) and the participants can come up with the ground rules together, but it’s also fine for the facilitator(s) to present a set of ground rules for the participants to endorse before kicking off the dialogue. These should probably specify boundaries you all agree not to cross (e.g., not calling other dialogue participants murderers or poopyheads, not insisting that other dialogue participants must accept your philosophical commitments about the grounding of right and wrong or the status of animals). They can also set out the scope of the discussion (e.g., we’ll discuss scientific research but not other commercial uses of animals; we’ll discuss medical research but not testing of non-medical consumer products).
6. Commit to voicing your concerns.
If you have a fear that something is getting in the way of a real dialoguic engagement, don’t remain silent about it, but put it out there so the group can work together to remove the potential obstacle. Saying, “I worry here that you will move the goal posts,” or “I’m afraid you might dismiss my objection out of hand rather than really understanding it and responding to it,” puts the focus of the other participants (and of the facilitator(s)) on keeping the goal posts where they are, or on making sure the objection you voice is understood and addressed.
7. Be honest about the limits of your knowledge.
While the questions may come up in your dialogue, you might not know precisely how many animals are used, to what extent they experience pain or discomfort, how good the compliance of animal research with animal welfare regulations actually is, or what percentage of animal research projects ends up yielding important or usable results.
If the answers to these questions matter to the dialogue and there’s a way to track them down from sources that all the participants would regard as credible, do it. Otherwise, acknowledge where your collective knowledge about the specifics is gappy and put a pin in it.
8. Be clear about which issues are connected and which are separable.
For example, you may be able to come to some agreement about whether certain scientific questions can only be answered with animal research and still have deep disagreements about whether non-human animals are rights-bearing beings.
9. Be clear about which areas of disagreement are unlikely to be resolved on the basis of facts, or even of rational arguments.
These may include your deep commitments about the ethical relationship between human and non-human animals, and the order in which you prioritize your values and interests. That such areas of deep disagreement exist is part of why we benefit from dialogues with other people.
10. When faced with intractable disagreement, explore the question of whether there is a middle ground.
What could you offer to address the concerns you’re hearing from the others in the dialogue? What could they offer to address your concerns?
Don’t ignore the possibility that the present state of affairs is that middle ground.
11. Better understanding is also a positive outcome.
Even if you can’t identify ways to improve the situation from the point of view of all the participants in the dialogue, try to underline the things you understand better at the end of the dialogue about the other participants’ commitments, hopes, and fears. See if there are misunderstandings about each other’s positions or motivations that can be put to rest.
No, this is not a sure-fire recipe for world peace, but better understanding is something, isn’t it?

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


  1. > No, this is not a sure-fire recipe for world
    > peace, but better understanding is something,
    > isn’t it?
    I’d argue that in a lot of ways it *is* a recipe for whorled peas.
    When dialogue is active and healthy, and people know that their grievances have an audience, and they feel engaged in the process, they’re much less likely to gravitate to a wild fringe.
    More to the point, when what you describe above takes place, it limits the ability of the wild fringe to affect the dialogue. If everyone is sitting around discussing their differences, it’s awfully hard for a polarizing view to gain a lot of converts.

  2. Dear Janet,
    Personally I’m in the grey area when it comes to animal research. I definitely believe that is a tricky area. I would however like to ask you about your position on diet. In short : do you think it is ethical to raise, slaughter and eat animals, given that a healthy vegetarian diet is available ?

  3. Ecogeek,
    I’ve been vegetarian for almost 22 years now (and am raising my kids vegetarian). In the U.S., I don’t regard meat eating as a need, given the abundance of plant-based foods that can meet our nutritional requirements.
    Conditions for animals in factory farms are pretty appalling, but it’s worth noting that large-scale production of fruits and vegetables can also lead to the suffering and death of animals (as when tillers meet gophers). And, having read Michael Pollan’s description of the experiences of animals raised by farmers committed to giving them good piggy (or chickeny, or whatever) lives before they become food, I’m not convinced that all animals that end up on a plate necessarily suffer to get there.
    So, I guess I’m inclined to say that meat-eating is *generally* more ethically problematic than some other human uses of animals, but there may well be circumstances that can significantly reduce the ethical “load” of it. Myself, though, I wouldn’t be eating flesh even from an animal who lived very happily and died without any suffering. It’s just not what I want on my plate.
    (There’s still the question of the sustainability of meat-eating in terms of the resources required to produce meat compared to plant-based foods, and I’m inclined to think how we share resources is another area where people bumble through without thinking much about the ethics.)

  4. Janet,
    Great posts, but there are (at least) two issues that I think need further discussion. The first is that the very topic “animal research” (or even “cancer research with animals” or “stem cell research” for example) may be too broad. Someone might be opposed to a certain type of experiment conducted at a particular type of institution, perhaps because of the track record of that institution with animal welfare act violations, or because it is not a top ranked research institution, or because the researchers planning to conduct the research appear to be “jumping on a well funded band wagon” but may not have the expertise to conduct productive research. Opposing the circumstances of particular research often ends dialogue, but recognizing various gray areas seems important to moving the discussions forward.
    The second topic is that the public relations officers for some labs refuse to allow scientists and scholars and activists to engage in meaningful dialogue. I have been confronted with this problem on numerous occasions. My request to initiate a discussion with X gets referred to PR person Y. My most recent difficulties are with Yerkes Regional Primate Center. I have been working for many years on the topic of chimpanzee experimentation. So as not to hide anything, I am opposed to the use of chimpanzees for invasive research (and this is not an outlier position, chimpanzee research has ended in all the countries in the world that performed it, except the US and possibly Liberia, for both ethical and economic reasons). As a philosopher, I’m perfectly capable of engaging in reasoned discussion and more than happy to have such dialogue (part of why I think these posts are so important). Sadly, not only is such discussion blocked by p.r. people, my archival research is also being curtailed by them. I developed a website to document and memorialize the first 100 chimpanzees used in research in the US. I hope and believe that this site is in the spirit of Robert M. Yerkes, who had a very complex and nuanced view of his research subjects. When I sought to return to the archives I was told they were closed to me by the public relations office. When I have spoken with the public relations officer, she has told me she doesn’t agree with the content of my work or my conclusions and thus doesn’t want me to have access to the historical materials. She even tried to have the Yale archives closed to me, but the professional archivists at Yale understand the dangers of restricting scholarship because someone disagrees with it and, of course, their job is to provide scholarly material for research. I have a suspicion that I am not the only person who has encountered this sort of problem. As you quite rightly point out, not having information is a serious obstacle to dialogue, but being denied access to such information means that the opportunity for dialogue will remain in the hands of those whose job is spin.

  5. Janet,
    Thanks for the quick response. You’ve convinced me that you are being sincere about having a dialog on animal research. I too believe a good case can be made for certain research. I do, however, believe that a fair percentage of animal research is not justified. Things like new cosmetics, etc.. are obvious examples too me.
    Kind regards from Belgium,

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