25 August 2008

Censorship vs Terrorism? Animals vs Science?

The cars of two UCSC scientists and their families were firebombed earlier this month, reportedly by an animal-rights group. In response to these detestable attacks, some scientists have proposed internet censorship as a method of preventing this violent harassment. More than simply ineffective, this measure would be counterproductive. There is another, more transparent way that we should pursue immediately.

To be clear, no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and the animal-rights community is divided over the issue. The Humane Society has gone so far as to offer a reward for information about the perpetrators of the incident.

In their editorial in Science Magazine, M. R. C. Greenwood, Gordon Ringold, and Doug Kellogg (GRK) correctly characterize the situation while lamenting the lack of public outcry:
These are criminal acts, being investigated as an attempted homicide by local, state, and federal authorities. It is of serious concern that these acts of terrorism and their associated incendiary statements were not immediately condemned by our political leaders. There have been no high-profile or unified statements about the incidents, and days afterward, California's governor had still declined to comment.
GRK further identify the need to address underlying issues in this conflict:
Those responsible must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Those who oppose animal research, even when conducted under strict federal and state laws, are free to express those beliefs. They are also free to reject the medicines--the fruits of animal research--that now allow us to treat disease and lead healthier lives. But they are not free to conduct a terror campaign.
Though, most animal-rights activists would probably counter that they don't have an alternative; that is, they don't have the ability to reject products that have resulted from animal-testing because there's no rigorous tracking and labeling in place to identify viable alternatives. (Instead, the Center for Consumer Freedom, an industry-sponsored organization, fights all efforts to make products transparent, including nutritional labeling.)

But the proposed legislation, promoting secrecy as a solution, is where GRK really stumble:
State laws that reinforce these protections need to be enacted. A proposed bill in the California Legislature (AB2296), which would extend protection to "animal enterprise workers" similar to that provided for politicians and reproductive health workers, has been much weakened from its original intent. In its original form, it would have prevented the posting of personal information on Web sites with the intent to incite acts of violence or threaten researchers and their families.
This approach of locking down information to prevent violent harassment is wrongheaded and counterproductive. Data leaks do happen. If these lists are going to exist anyway, we are much better off having them in the open. That way, at least we know who's being targeted.

Here's what we should do:
  • As a society, we should prosecute these terrorists as criminals, and treat these actions as what they are, organized crime. That means bringing sophisticated financial tracking systems to bear, and applying relevant statutes like RICO to break down the support network for the groups that exist now. Financial transparency of all organizations is a way to prevent such groups from forming in the future.

  • As a scientific community, we should isolate these extremists by working closely with animal rights groups like the Humane Society and individuals like Stephen Kaufman of the Christian Vegetarian Association and Eric Markus of that have denounced violence as a means of progress. Along with pharmaceutical and cosmetic manufacturers, we should create clear tracking and labeling protocols to give citizens real information on how much and what kind of testing goes into each product on the market. This market transparency allows us all to see the real benefits of animal testing research, as well as the opportunity to reject those benefits.

  • Above all, we should not lean on censorship and secrecy for protection against violent harassment! Secrecy is a short-term solution at best, and is inherently unstable. Instead, as individual scientists, we should humanize ourselves to the animal rights community by engaging vigorously with those non-violent groups, to show them, first-hand, the science being done and the results generated.
Both scientists and activists agree that both human and animal suffering should be minimized. Let us use that as an opportunity for more transparency on all sides.


  1. pretty provoking eh..


  2. Yeah, it deserves a strong response, but it's pretty frustrating when the response is counterproductive!

  3. Disturbed people will pick up any cause as an excuse to wreak havoc and do harm. They are no better than any terrorists, anywhere, in fact worse, because they are cowards who are not willing to die for their cause. They live to hurt other people, and most times don't actually care about the cause at all.

  4. While I don't claim to understand their motivations, these extremists definitely have support. I've seen as much just in my research for this post. The scientific and animal-rights communities have a real opportunity here to advance both of their agendas while isolating the extremists and starving them of that support.

  5. ohkay!
    i hope mine wasnt as bad as you sound it to be.

  6. Thanks, vibs. I always appreciate your comments!

  7. Wow, this totally reminds me of those ELF folks who bombed the UW Center for Urban Horticulture, which, ironically, caused the university to lose tons of endangered plant seed specimens.

    Scary that they're focusing on individuals. It's totally terrorism.

    Interestingly, since I have left science, and have 2 dogs, I've become very sensitive to animal rights stuff. Not the crazy causes, but now I do seek out cosmetics and cleaning products that are not tested on animals.

    I get that for scientific progress, animal models are required, but it seems like the less important stuff, like testing shampoo, can and should be done without animals.

    I didn't care before, but actually living with 2 dogs changed all that.

  8. Yeah, I'm with you on that. It's super scary. I'm not exactly sure it should be labeled as terrorism, per se, but it should definitely be fought like a syndicate.

    I'm also all about real free-market solutions like labeling. I think, given the choice, a whole lot of consumers would agree with you and choose products resulting from less or no animal testing. To me, that seems like the best way of spurring research into alternatives to animal models.

  9. pretty provoking eh..