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Pro-Test: standing up for science
Pro-Test: Standing Up For Science
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Post details: Newsnight

29/07/06

Permalink 02:23:00 pm, by admin Email , 1126 words, 906 views   English (UK)
Categories: Information

Newsnight


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One of the major scourges of modern journalism is what media watchers call "false balance". This is where journalists want so much to look "balanced" that they inject balance into a story where none actually exists. We see it all the time as stories degenerate into a "he says, she says" format where the reader is left completely baffled as to whether there's any truth, or just two equally valid competing opinions.

A good example was the Independent's recent feature on animal testing, which presents a "Yes/ No" section at the end with completely contradictory information in it. Since some of the information relates to scientific fact, both interpretations cannot - by definition - be true. One is right, the other is wrong. It's not a matter of opinion.

The same problem plagued the Newsnight debate on animal research on BBC2 this week (view it here). The format itself induced false balance: Mel Broughton, a convicted arsonist and animal rights campaigner was put up in a head-to-head against Pro-Test's Tipu Aziz, who is one of Europe's leading neurosurgeons and a professor of neuroscience at Oxford University. Broughton is interested in only one thing: banning animal testing. He does not care about the science. Last time I challenged him and some fellow travellers at their regular stand in Oxford city centre, Broughton told me that a computer model of the entire human body had just been invented, so there was no need for animal research. Of course, that was a total lie - no such model exists, and as our recent post on the 3Rs illustrated, we are nowhere near developing one. The problem is that anti-science campaigners like Broughton are quite adept at wielding fraudulent statistic and pseudo-scientific language that can sound quite convincing to people without a background in science (which would include me!).

But it was left to Oxford MP Evan Harris to point out that the vast majority of scientific opinion favours continued animal research, and that only a few ideologically-committed and totally isolated individuals like French professor Claude Reiss oppose it. Newsnight was content to let anti-science campaigners from organisations like the BUAV and Europeans for Medical 'Progress' claim that scientific opinion was split. It's not. There is reason and fact on one side of this debate, and anti-reason and pure emotion on the other, as a recent article on Hidden Agendas illustrated.

Claude Reiss has been thoroughly discredited by the scientific community: during his time at the academic journal Biogenic Amines, he allowed articles by his friend Jarrod Bailey from anti-vivisection campaigning group Europeans for Medical 'Progress' to get published in the journal without peer review. Peer review is a process where scientists read each other's work prior to publication to make sure facts and methods have been checked and are scientifically sound. Abandoning it allows people to publish lies or misleading information that are legitimised by the reputation of the journal. The editor of Biogenic Amines said of Claude Reiss: "After his 2 years stay in the editorial board, he did lots of harm to the journal and we all forced him to resign." Yet Reiss is invited to speak with the full authority of the title "professor" and no mention of his completely discredited reputation is made.

Similarly, a remarkable amount of air time was given to Oxford graduate Sharon Howe and her cronies. Ms Howe grabbed a few column inches by "handing her degree back" to Oxford in protest at the construction of the Oxford biomedical research facility. What we don't hear is that she handed back only her Oxford MA - a special degree for which no additional work is required past the undergraduate level and for which a fee is paid, usually about £20, effectively a money-making process for Oxford colleges - and her original degree was English literature, which hardly gives her the authority to pronounce on scientific issues. Likewise, her sidekick, the "fellow of Mansfield college" who scandalously accused the University of suppressing those who dissented from the building of the lab (actually, the reverse is true, but that's another story), is a lecturer in philosophy - again, not scientist. Howe's group, unsurprisingly, contains no scientists and has no backing in Oxford's scientific community. But again, these people are consulted on the specific question as to whether animal research is effective.

Newsnight, to their credit, divided the issue up sensibly into scientific, ethical and political parts. There are indeed different issues at stake: scientifically, does it work, does it yield useful results? Ethically, even if it does work, are we justified in doing it? And politically, if you don't think we are justified, what methods of protest or resistance are valid, e.g., is violence appropriate?

On the science, ask scientists. Don't allow people who are coming at the debate from the ethical side of the argument to spin falsehoods about how it's "backwards" or claim that since "animals are not people", it can't work. There is one point of view in the scientific community, the people who actually know: it does work. Every medical advance and all future cures will flow from animal research. Fact - not opinion.

On the ethics, ask whoever you like. But then we should be curious when someone like Mel Broughton gets all tongue-tied when asks about the ethics, eventually stammering that it's irrelevant because the science is bad. Utterly false. And then to claim, as he did, that he wouldn't kill a malarial mosquito to save his own life, is surely ridiculous. But the convoluted argument he made flowed directly from the fact that he was confronted - as were we all - with the incredibly moving sight of Tipu Aziz's patient, Mike Robbins, demonstrating the amazing device that Tipu installed in his brain to control his Parkinson's. Mike, who has bravely tried to demonstrate this device at Oxford Town Hall in the past, only to be set upon by anti-vivisectionists, went from uncontrollable spasms to completely normal, and vice versa, at the flick of a switch. Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler rightly demanded of Broughton: "would you deny Mike Robbins this treatment?" And Broughton could not, on live TV, answer honestly and say "yes". In reality, that's exactly what he would do.

And this, really, is what the animal research issue boils down to: science provides insight into, and treatments and cures for, all manner of human ailments; some of us want the benefits of modern medical science to be available to everyone and for scientists to feel confident and proud of their work; some of us would deny those treatments by destroying the means by which they are achieved. It is not a battle of animals versus people, it is a political struggle between those who support science, and those who oppose it.

Originally Posted by Lee.

Information and Media


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