The Extreme Consequences of Naivety and Lack of Education in the Animal Protection Community. Part II.

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In Part I, I expressed concern that I seem to be addressing the same questions repeatedly and reproduced a section on the Three Rs and alternatives from FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed. I will now address why most self-described animal protectionists either ignore the facts presented in the FAQs book and my other writings or are unaware of them.

There are four possibilities, or some combination of the four, that explain why most people, self-described as being members of the animal protection movement, appear to lack an understanding of the fundamental scientific issues in vivisection.

  1. They are simply not intelligent enough to understand the arguments. Sadly, IQ (or whatever we are calling raw brain power these days) does seem to manifest in the human population as a Gaussian function, more commonly called a bell-shaped curve. Therefore some people will not have the capacity to understand some concepts. This is a statement about the material universe and does not imply a moral judgment.
  2. They are uneducated (ignorant), either in general or about science and critical thinking specifically, and are simply incapable of understanding the arguments I present without more education.
  3. They are naïve.
  4. They have an agenda and are willing to lie in order to promote it. The agenda may be pro-animal or pro-using animals. Either way these people are lying.

I will now elaborate on reasons #2-4 in more detail.

Reason #2

They are uneducated (ignorant), either in general or about science and critical thinking specifically, and are simply incapable of understanding the arguments I present without more education. There is no shame in this but there are issues. For example, if the uneducated person insists on speaking out on issues of which he or she has no, or inadequate, knowledge. (Yes, everyone has the right to express a point of view but not every point of view is consistent with the facts of the material universe. Moreover just because your mommy told you that you were smart and well educated does mean it is true.) This is especially true of people identified as leaders of the animal protection movement for example, those who publish in the scientific literature or represent significant organizations on science issues—thus making them at presumed intellectual leaders in the view of the rank and file of the animal protection movement.

Being ignorant of any given subject is ubiquitous. In fact, it is impossible for anyone to be educated, to the point of being academically competent in the topic, about a vast majority of subjects. For example, I am ignorant in subjects ranging from engineering to art history to law. Again, there is no shame in this as I chose, and continue to choose, to study medicine instead of these other topics just as others become lawyers or historians. I am an expert in a very small number of medicine-related topics and am competent in a few more science- and critical thinking-related subjects. But that’s it! You don’t have to dig very deep to exhaust my knowledgebase on European history or foreign languages. Nor do I speak out on controversies in these and many more areas.

I am not unique. Most people have very few areas of real expertise and a majority has little to no education in science-related or critical thinking topics. The animal protection movement is merely a representative subset of society at large in terms of their lack of critical thinking skills and scientific incompetence.

Why is science and critical thinking so important in general and to discussions about animal models in particular? To begin with, our natural thinking can mislead us for many reasons.

  • The human brain has evolved to see patterns where none exist.
  • Humans selectively believe evidence that conforms to our predetermined sense of what is right and we believe positive evidence over negative evidence.
  • Humans have selective memories.
  • Humans evaluate new evidence disproportionately based on old evidence or bias.
  • Humans follow the crowd even when we know what they are saying is wrong. [1-12]

As assessing the science behind animal modeling depends on knowledge of science and as assessing anything depends on possessing critical thinking skills, lacking these should disqualify a person from being taken seriously regarding the science of animal modeling.

Why are so many people so limited in their knowledge of the material universe (science) and how to think (critical thinking)?

Because, unfortunately, many people are uneducated in general. By in general I mean they lack a decent liberal arts education that included enough courses on science and critical thinking to be knowledgeable in how to think, how perform research on a topic and come to conclusions about the claims being made, and some facts about the fundamentals of science. (Again unfortunately, this includes many if not most people with college degrees.) As most of the most controversial topics currently necessitate knowledge of some elements of science, a background in science is vital in order to evaluate claims regarding these topics. A working knowledge of science and critical thinking also decreases the likelihood that a person will be naïve and fall for scams and other nonsense.

The material universe is not intuitive. Appearances can be deceptive. You cannot trust your sensory experiences; [6, 13] magic is evidence of this. [14] Humans need the understanding and knowledge of the material universe that science brings. Critical thinking and science are relevant to animal protectionists in general because, as Voltaire stated, “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Animal protectionists take issue with the way people reason about animals. Critical thinking helps us to recognize that there are problems in the way humans as a group reason. [15, 16]

However, science and critical thinking are hard. Moreover, even if a person is smart, well-educated, and determined, understanding enough science to competently point out the flaws of animal modeling requires a lot of time spent studying various fields in science. I have met very, very few people who can competently converse about all of these areas (even people with doctorates in some field of science). Parroting what other people say is not the same as being competent in the subject matter.

Almost every essay I read from a person self-described as an animal protectionist and self-described as competent to address the science of vivisection fails to demonstrate adequate understanding of the science involved much less convey even a small fraction of the knowledge necessary to prove animal models do not now, nor will they ever, have predictive value for human response to drugs and disease. (I will cover this in more detail in essay #3.) A vast majority of animal modelers or vivisection activists also lack this knowledge but they really don’t have to convey knowledge as the status quo is on their side. Granted, their defenses of vivisection are one part disturbing and one part hilarious but very few people who read these missives have the knowledge to catch the mistakes or care enough to point them out even if they do find the fallacies and science mistakes.

So why don’t people comprehend that they have an imperfect brain and very limited knowledge about a vast majority of subjects? Humans also suffer from cognitive biases including the Dunning-Kruger effect.[17-21] Wikipedia explains the Dunning-Kruger effect as follows.

A cognitive bias manifesting in unskilled individuals suffering from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.    

Critical thinking enables humans to think and reason properly. Critical thinking is how to think rather than what to think and most people do not know how to think. [9-12] Critical thinking involves doubting the validity of claims rather than taking them at face value. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, via Michael Scriven and Richard Paul in 1987, explained critical thinking as follows:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. [22]

A critical thinker asks questions like the following.

  • What do you mean by X?
  • How did you come to that conclusion?
  • What, exactly, was said in the text?
  • What is the source of your information?
  • What is the source of information in the report?
  • What assumptions have you made in the argument that led you to your conclusion?
  • Are these assumptions universally accepted?
  • Are there experts who disagree with you? Why?
  • Suppose you are wrong? What are the implications?
  • Why did you make that inference? Is another one more consistent with the data?
  • Why is this issue significant / related to the original issue?
  • How do I know that what you are saying is true?
  • What is an alternate explanation for this phenomenon?
  • Who sponsored the study? Who profits if this position is true?
  • Are these examples or anecdotes?

Critical thinking complements science and vice versa, as without critical thinking the legitimacy of science assumptions and claims cannot properly be assessed and without science it is impossible to think critically about the material universe. [1, 6] For example, one cannot logically derive the laws of motion, how the immune system functions, or how chemical A will react with chemical B. Biologist, philosopher of science, and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar explained that truth comes from the critical testing of a hypothesis, not the strength of one’s beliefs: “I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not.” [23] I am not saying that everyone needs to understand science in-depth; an appreciation of the fundamentals is adequate. But the fundamentals can be challenging enough. By understanding the fundamentals of science, along with developing critical thinking skills, one can distinguish between claims that one is qualified to judge and claims involving topics about which one is not an expert and must therefore seek further information.      

Why not just rely on experts all the time? Because very smart people, even experts in the field, make mistakes. [8] That is one reason why you cannot rely on arguments from authority. Biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci states: “. . . one cannot simply trust authority no matter how, well, authoritative it may appear to be. There is, unfortunately, no shortcut to using one's brain and critical sense and doing some background research before taking a position.” [24] p90 We all must learn how to evaluate arguments. History is replete with examples of very smart and well-educated people making very wrong claims. But you cannot do your own background research if you have no understanding of the relevant science or if you lack critical thinking skills. 

Moreover, there is a difference between what is factual regarding the material universe and what scientists’ claim is factual. Critical thinking enables one to judge aspects of even scientific arguments. One can assess consistency, the presence of fallacies, and use of rational thought in general using critical thinking. In order to evaluate the science content per se, one needs the appropriate science training, but many historically important mistakes would not have been made had the scientists merely utilized critical thinking. Moreover, many people would not have duped by science-sounding nonsense had they used critical thinking.

Unfortunately, having an education that included science and critical thinking is not sufficient. Perhaps the most important aspect of thinking critically is self-honesty. [25] The Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman stated: “. . . the first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” [26] Science is a good partner for this process because so many truths about the material universe are not intuitive and hence the science student encounters many examples of where he was wrong in his initial evaluation. This should result in a student who questions the beliefs she was taught by her parents and learned in her childhood environment, who is consequently open to new concepts in all areas of life, and who does not jump to conclusions but instead seeks out pertinent information before making decisions.

Combine inadequate education with a person’s naturally occurring Dunning-Kruger effect and you can understand why so many people accept nonsense like the Three Rs. Their lack of education, egos, and the way the human brain evolved do not allow them to think rationally and therefore act intelligently.

It is in the best interest of the animals for animal protectionists to learn and apply critical thinking. In my experience, vivisection activists and other animal users usually commit fallacies when defending their position. A proper understanding and application of critical thinking will allow the animal protectionist to counter many of the arguments vivisection activists and others offer. Fallacies commonly used include ad hominem attacks, appeal to emotion, the fallacy of insufficient statistics, the fallacy of presupposition, the false dichotomy fallacy, the straw man fallacy, appeal to authority and the fallacy of composition. Considering the regularity with which vivisection activists use these fallacies, it would behoove every activist to be familiar with them and be able to point them out. But simply parroting others’ critiques is not using critical thinking. If you want to test your critical thinking skills, there are tests on the Internet.      

I am a physician and a scientist and I actively promote science and critical thinking in books and articles. I write and lecture about the scientific inadequacies of using animals to predict human response to drugs and disease. [27-32] Over the years, I have met many animal protectionists who not only lack an understanding of science but either reject science as a method to determine facts about the material universe or dislike it intensely. Based on my experience, a majority of animal protectionists not only dismiss science but also are actively hostile to it. I have interacted with people from college students and community activists to those in national organizations and rarely have I encountered anyone with anything good to say about science. Granted, this is anecdotal, but given over 20 years of lecturing on a regular basis, and interacting with various subpopulations of the animal protection movement, I think it is accurate. There is also evidence that my experience is correct. [33-36] A lack of critical thinking skills usually accompanies this attitude regarding science. This mindset will not allow a competent critique of the science of vivisection.

Lacking a) even a modicum of knowledge about the universe in which one lives and b) even a minimal understanding regarding the challenges to thinking properly is, in my opinion, a poor way to go through life. But I respect people’s rights, even when they exercise their right to make stupid decisions. That having been said, I have the right, and in my opinion the responsibility, to point out when those people make statements that concern, or impact on, the science of animal modeling.

I will address reasons #3 and #4 in the next essay.

Addendum. For a recent related essay see We Need Both Science and Critical Thinking by Steven Novella.


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