Animal Research Articles Draw Fire

A Scientific American forum on the controversial issue has some scientists crying foul, contending editors failed to delete misstatements. TRUST BUSTED: UC-Berkeley’s Sharon Russell says her faith in Scientific American has been shaken. Some biomedical researchers are responding with disappointment and concern to the February issue of Scientific American, contending that portions of the magazine's cover package, a forum on the benefits and ethics of animal research, were misleading and

Mar 31, 1997
Thomas Durso

A Scientific American forum on the controversial issue has some scientists crying foul, contending editors failed to delete misstatements.

TRUST BUSTED: UC-Berkeley’s Sharon Russell says her faith in Scientific American has been shaken.
Some biomedical researchers are responding with disappointment and concern to the February issue of Scientific American, contending that portions of the magazine's cover package, a forum on the benefits and ethics of animal research, were misleading and untrue. They worry that the magazine's primary audience, the general public, may be unable to discern what is and what isn't scientifically legitimate. Critics also note that the coverage enables animal-rights groups to cite a respected science periodical as one that has published their views.

"ACCURATE": Neal Barnard, coauthor of the piece under the most scrutiny, contends the disagreements are matters of opinion.
The piece that has caused most of the controversy among scientists is an article entitled "Animal Research is Wasteful and Misleading," written by Neal D. Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and Steven R. Kaufman, cochairman of the Medical Research Modernization Committee. The two argued that there are better ways to conduct research than using animals, and that "pragmatic issues alone should encourage scientists and governments to put research money here" (N.D. Barnard, S.R. Kaufman, Scientific American, 276:80-2, February 1997). Some researchers have written as-yet unpublished letters to the editor of the magazine to complain that Barnard and Kaufman were allowed too much leeway in presenting ambiguous or untrue material as factual. The critics argue that the two simply failed to acknowledge the wealth of contributions animal experimentation has made to medicine and that they misrepresented history to back up their claims.

"Much of [the Barnard and Kaufman piece] is complete misrepresentation. It's dishonest," contends Charles S. Nicoll, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Nicoll and his wife, Sharon M. Russell, a research physiologist in the same department, are among those who wrote to Scientific American. "This is not science," Nicoll tells The Scientist. "Because they are distorting and misrepresenting science, it's anti-science. It's equivalent to asking astrologers to contribute their thoughts, or people who claim to have been abducted by aliens."

WORRIED: Penn’s Adrian Morrison believes the magazine issue has caused "real harm."

STARGAZING: Charles Nicoll of UC-Berkeley compares the authors of an article opposing animal research to astrologers.
The issue's cover featured a solitary laboratory rat peering out from under the headline "Animal experimentation: the debate continues." Inside, the 15-page package included an introduction by Andrew N. Rowan, director of Tufts University's Center for Animals and Public Policy. He noted the parameters of the debate and told readers: "We leave it to you to judge the case" (A.N. Rowan, Scientific American, 276:79, February 1997). The Barnard and Kaufman essay followed Rowan's piece. Defending animal experimentation as crucial to both past and future "progress . . . in biological and medical science" were Jack H. Botting, a former scientific adviser to London's Research Defense Society, and Adrian R. Morrison, director of the Laboratory for Study of the Brain in Sleep at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, in an article entitled "Animal Research is Vital to Medicine" (J.H. Botting, A.R. Morrison, Scientific American, 276:83-5, February 1997). Staff writer Madhusree Mukerjee's article, entitled "Trends in Animal Research," reviewed the changes in the use of animals and in scientists' attitudes over the past several decades, as well as efforts to find a middle ground (M. Mukerjee, Scientific American, 276:86-93, February 1997).

Others have joined Nicoll and Russell in accusing Barnard and Kaufman of misstating the truth. For example, Barnard and Kaufman wrote that "animal experiments can mislead researchers or even contribute to illnesses or deaths by failing to predict the toxic effects of drugs." They state that animal testing may not have allowed researchers to predict the devastating effects of the drug thalidomide on developing fetuses. However, Morrison tells The Scientist: "The thalidomide tragedy occurred because there wasn't adequate testing, particularly of pregnant animals."

In a February 6 letter to the editor that had not been published as of The Scientist's press time, Thomas J. Lauterio, an associate professor of internal medicine and physiology at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, wrote: "In no case . . . has adequate animal research led to human illness or death, as every animal study is followed by a clinical study afterwards. The statement that use of animal models has prevented numerous illnesses and deaths by screening out toxic drugs would be truthful."

Barnard tells The Scientist that he and Kaufman were accurate in their Scientific American piece. "Like us, [Morrison and Botting] had to [work] with the editors to substantiate everything we said, and none of it is very difficult. The disagreements are on those matters that can be reduced to opinion, not fact." The magazine's editor-in-chief, John Rennie, agrees, stating that any disputes researchers may have with the essay are over matters of interpretation, not fact.

Morrison, in particular, has been critical of how Scientific American treated the debate. In letters to Rennie, Morrison and Botting insist that the Barnard and Kaufman piece should have been edited more carefully to screen out what they call "the various misrepresentations."

"I think real harm has been done," Morrison tells The Scientist. "Now, in the literature of a respected scientific periodical, we have misrepresentation of medical history. The good that can come out if it is that it will illustrate to my colleagues the degree of garbled thinking about this whole issue. . . . If it points out to them the need to understand the issues clearly and then state them clearly to the public, then that will be good."

The Barnard-Kaufman and Morrison-Botting pieces went through several layers of editing at Scientific American before they were printed. Each side was given the other's essay to review before publication, and the authors were permitted to change their own pieces in response to the others'. According to Rennie, the magazine's board of editors, composed of individuals with a variety of scientific backgrounds, read the articles as well. In addition, editors working with the authors gathered backup materials to fact-check the articles, and Rowan, who wrote the introductory piece, reviewed the essays for factual errors.

Rennie says the result is that both pieces were free of provable misstatements. "In cases where the authors were making statements of unsubstantiated fact, we obliged the authors to change them. In some cases, however, the statements were matters of interpretation, and these we did usually let stand."

Rennie adds that he supports the use of animals in research, a point he also made in his "From the Editors" column at the beginning of the issue (J. Rennie, Scientific American, 276:4, February 1997). "The only way we felt it would be possible to refute [Barnard and Kaufman's] views was by giving them a chance to state them first," he remarks.

Morrison acknowledges that while he and Botting pointed out what they saw as errors to Scientific American, they did not address those errors in their article. "We thought the readers of Scientific American deserved a well-documented account of the important role animals have played in biomedical research. . . . We did not think it was up to us to do a complete rewrite of our article, which would have required all of our allotted words to correct what Barnard and Kaufman were foisting on to their readers."

The animal-experimentation debate is often in one spotlight or another. "This issue is addressed in the scientific literature, in the lay literature, on television, on the radio, in Congress," observes Barnard. "Scientific American, like other journals, has taken on controversies in research that have been important, and this is certainly among the most important." Considering the magazine has an audience that includes both scientists and "the lay public that doesn't read most scientific journals," he believes that the issue is now "in a forum where it needs to be."

'DISTURBED': James Schafer of Alabama-Birmingham accuses two article authors of making "sly and disingenuous arguments."
That mixed audience worries those who believe Barnard and Kaufman to be guilty of misstatements. In a February 28 letter to Rennie that hasn't been published yet, James A. Schafer, president of the American Physiological Society, and Bruce S. McEwen, president of the Society for Neuroscience, wrote: "Honest differences of opinion do occur when evaluating scientific research, but the rules of fair play make it impermissible to advance one's views through sly and disingenuous arguments. We were disturbed that Barnard and Kaufman were permitted to do so and believe that as the publisher of a magazine dedicated to providing scientific information for the lay public, you have an ethical obligation to tell your readers which of their statements were distorted interpretations or just plain wrong."

Schafer, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, tells The Scientist: "An ordinary reader who might not be skeptical [is] going to accept it as matters of faith. They're just going to buy that story. That's my concern."

TAKING EXCEPTION: Molly Greene of ARENA is concerned about "misconceptions" the magazine’s coverage may have caused.
The Applied Research Ethics National Association (ARENA), a Boston-based group of administrators overseeing the quality of animal care at institutions, also is writing to Scientific American. ARENA president Molly Greene, an executive assistant to the vice president at the University of Texas Health Science Center, states that ARENA is concerned that the magazine's readers "may have been left with a few misconceptions-that there are no regulations involving rats, mice, and birds; that scientists are not animal-welfare advocates. We took exception to the fact that in the 'further reading' section, there was no recommendation about reading about the important role of laboratory animals in biomedical research."

The National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), based in Washington, D.C., is asking its members to write to the magazine to protest what executive vice president Barbara Rich calls "a very disappointing article." According to Rich, scientists have for some time been considering animal-welfare issues. "We need the debate, but this didn't really add to it."

In the end, though, NABR wants its members to make up their own minds. As Rich says, "We never prejudge things, and we don't tell our [newsletter] readers how to think. . . . Botting and Morrison did a very able job of making their case, and that the objective person will see. The editors of Scientific American also trusted their readers will see the difference. It's just a shame they didn't challenge some of the inaccuracies in that Barnard and Kaufman piece. This was put out there as factually accurate, and it's hardly that."

Whether the handful of protest letters will grow is yet to be determined. Rennie says the magazine has so far received few letters expressing anger over the package, and that many of them came from Morrison. (In letters and E-mailed messages, Morrison wrote at least three times to Rennie.) "Even those few [not from Morrison] have not specifically argued the factual inaccuracy of the articles, only their annoyance at seeing expressed a view they did not share," Rennie contends.

Other observers credit Scientific American for taking on the issue in the first place. Alan M. Goldberg, director of the Center for Alternatives to Testing at Johns Hopkins University, applauds the magazine for printing what he calls two "extreme" positions and allowing readers to make up their own minds. And while Morrison and others criticized Mukerjee's review article as leaning toward the side that opposes the use of animals in research, Goldberg calls it "a very well-done piece" that reflects "mainstream American thought. . . . People want to see the use of animals decrease without compromising the health of the public."

As for the Barnard-Kaufman and Morrison-Botting essays, Goldberg states: "In political terms, they're spin pieces. I think neither side is correct in their arguments. The information is skewed, is incomplete, and argues for a specific point of view."

NO ROOM: Tufts’ Andrew Rowan wishes there had been more space for greater debate.
Rowan's only regret about Scientific American's coverage is that there was not enough space for greater give-and-take among the authors to further the debate that he feels the animal-experimentation issue desperately needs. "That would have at least given us some sense of correction-the usual correction of scientific debate."

Rowan sees himself as a centrist, a critic of some use of animals in research who acknowledges that animal experimentation also has produced "significant" advances. He agrees with Rennie's assertion that disagreements over the truthfulness of the pieces are more matters of interpretation.

"Is it as strong an argument as it could be?" Rowan asks of the Barnard-Kaufman essay. "I'm not sure that it is. Does it come from a particular point of view? Yes. Their basic position starts off with a totally different assumption than the average scientist [holds]."

For those who believe that experimentation on animals has unquestionably improved human life, the Scientific American package has emerged as a betrayal of sorts. Rennie acknowledged in his column that some would think the magazine was "giving comfort to the enemy." Russell, the UC-Berkeley research physiologist, says: "It was as if something I trusted turned out to be less than trustworthy. I don't know how this is going to strike the general public. That's why it's so bothersome."