06/14/2013 04:07 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

No One's Moral But You and Me -- and Now I Wonder About You

Oh, thank goodness! Even though the presidential election is over, we can still count on polls to inundate us with data and provide opportunities to opine about the meaning of those data. As one who performs scientific research and who appreciates the value of research using animals, I was spurred to write this blog by the passionate, sometimes inflammatory, approbations of a recent Gallup poll of Americans' views on the morality of major societal issues. Amongst other things, the poll asked whether those who responded to it thought "medical testing" in animals was "morally acceptable." The poll may suggest that the American public's support for use of animals in medical research is declining, but in that the only significant fall in support was seen in those aged 18 to 34, a broad generalization about the decline is not warranted. The public was polled about "testing," not about "research." With all the propaganda over the immorality of "testing" such things as cosmetics in animals, it is no surprise that there would be antipathy toward "testing" of any kind in animals. Furthermore, given the volume of propaganda equating all research involving animals with torture, it should be no surprise to find growing antipathy toward research. Very serious and well-meaning people can have very different views over what is "moral" and what is not. One can see that some of the things that respondents to the poll found morally acceptable would be anathema to others. Particularly noteworthy is that buying and wearing clothes made of animal fur was considered more morally acceptable than testing in animals.

Putting aside the question of morality, I found it intriguing that it was younger people, not those in the older age brackets, who showed the only significant decline in support for biomedical research; and I asked, Why? I suspect that the tendency for those aged 18-34 to respond quite differently from those who were older reflects the influence of a multimillion-dollar campaign that has been developed to attack anything and everything that relates to use of animals in research. Our children from their earliest school years are targeted with messages from antivivisection groups. The messages come via comic books, television, and Internet at a time in their lives when children see animals almost exclusively as beloved pets but when they have little, if any, understanding of the scientific value derived from studying the biology of disease in other animals. The propaganda goes beyond simply trying to encourage people to oppose use of animals in research. A video game recently released by PETA on their website uses mixed martial arts fighters to promote violence against those of us who seek to cure human disease through use of animals in research. I guess they've decided to forget the morality message!

Research with animals is an ethically charged consideration for everyone regardless of age. It is not just animal rights advocates who take this issue seriously; researchers do as well. Before performing any research using animals, scientists must balance the potential value of findings from their research against use of a living creature to achieve those findings. In fact, even if they were not so inclined, scientists would be mandated to do so by existing federal regulations. After the scientist decides that use of animals in planned research is appropriate, multiple levels of review must occur before the research can move forward. Even then, more checks are in place to assure the best and most humane treatment of animals, that any potential pain or distress is minimized, and that the fewest animals that allow valid conclusions from the study are used.

Are the scientific goals and the ethical approaches we take to reach them not recognized and welcomed by those we seek to help? Are we losing support of the American public for our work to find cures and to better understand how the body works so that we can fix it when it doesn't? Those questions make me worry that public opinion has been successfully influenced by a propaganda war equating all research involving animals with torture.

Who can better debunk that concept than scientists, who know the lengths taken to do research in the most ethical and humane way? However, for scientists to get on the front line in forming public opinion, they will have to divert their attention from research. Valuable time will have to be spent disabusing the American public of propaganda being peddled, apparently successfully, by those who would see medical research stop dead in its tracks if continuation of research means using a single laboratory animal to find a treatment or cure. That statement is not polemic but a restatement of opinions of leaders in the antivivisection movement. Ingrid Newkirk, founder of PETA, was not alone amongst those opposed to animal use when she said, "Even if animal experiments did result in a cure for AIDS, of which there is no chance, I'd be against it on moral grounds."

Newkirk, like others amongst the antivivisectionists, puts her argument on "moral grounds." I have to acknowledge the effectiveness of their emphasizing the "morality" of their position and the implied immorality of those who oppose their view. Theirs is a clever tactic. Who wants to side with the immoral, unethical or stupid? When you consider how the American public has been influenced by organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which shows impassioned TV ads featuring horribly abused domestic animals and asks for our financial support through those ads, it is no wonder that the same public would think that HSUS must be on the moral side when they oppose what we scientists do.

My point here is not to attack any who base their opinions on their own "moral views" but instead to point out that we have to be careful in letting anyone else define our own moral compass. A really effective ad campaign can, like a magnet, shift our compass away from true North. We need to temper near religious "morality" with reasoned analysis before forming an opinion. Otherwise, our decisions can be biased or prejudiced by emotion rather than reason. People who are opposed to abuse of animals can make camp with us scientists. We feel the same way. Many would find that they could accept the scientist's decision to use animals as justified, and even moral, if they were to recognize that the decision has been made in attempts to ease suffering among humans and even other animals. Where's the lack of morality there?

Don't expect a Twitter barrage from scientists in response to the Gallup poll or its interpretation. Fortunately for us all, scientists are carefully acquiring and analyzing data that could serve to help both us and Fido to a better life. Now back to that life's work.