Author: David Jentsch

Join Pro-Test for Science to End the Age of Terror!

Somewhere in the United States, there is a scientist reporting data that says that humans are causing the world to warm at an alarming rate. In return, he receives email death threats.

In another case, a pediatrician is harassed and shouted at because, in her expert view, vaccinations are necessary and safe for children and prevent a whole range of childhood diseases.

And then there is the medical researcher who is threatened because he has been responsible for generating embryonic stem cells and suggesting they might be a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, there is the law professor who is nearly killed by a bullet because of his views on Middle East politics.

These are not hypothetical situations. This is the real work of a growing number of fanatics living on the fringe of society.  The anger generated by their failure to make a persuasive argument to the public, amplified by their sense of self-righteousness, is sufficient to convince them they are entitled to use violence to achieve their goals.

One of the most salient examples of this type of fanaticism is exhibited by animal rights extremists.

Researchers, professors and students at UCLA have been the targets of terror tactics for so long that it’s easy to forget the history or to ignore the fact that it continues today. The present wave of criminal attacks goes back more than a decade.

Here is a very short summary:

Back in 2003, Neurobiology Professors John and Madeleine Schlag saw their property vandalized at a home demonstration. “The way it proceeded … we felt that the door was going to be kicked in,” they commented in an interview.

In 2006, Professor Lynn Fairbanks was targeted with an incendiary device. It turned out animal extremists got the wrong address and planted the firebomb at the doorstep of an elderly neighbor.

In June 2007 another firebomb was placed under the vehicle of Professor Arthur Rosenbaum, who dedicated his life to pediatric ophthalmology by helping children with strabismus. His wife later received a threatening note which told her to persuade her husband to stop his research or “…we will do exactly what he does to monkeys to you.”

In 2007, Professor Edythe London finds her home flooded by animal rights extremists, and received the threat, “water was our second choice, fire was our first.”  She decided to reply by explaining, in a thoughtful OpEd in the LA Times, the reasons for her work.

In 2008, the UCLA community saw once again an incendiary device char the front door of a home owned by a Professor, the vandalism of three vehicles parked outside the home of a postdoctoral student, and the firebombing of a university commuter van.

Then, in 2009, the car of Professor David Jentsch, parked in his driveway, is set on fire while he was sleeping at home.  He subsequently received a letter containing razor blades and a threatening note that fantasized about sneaking up behind him and cutting his throat. He replied with an open letter to these coward terrorists.

Car arson at Professor Jentsch's house. The Animal Liberation Brigade would claim responsibility for the attack 2 days later.

Car arson at Professor Jentsch’s house. The Animal Liberation Brigade would claim responsibility for the attack 2 days later.

Though these events are graphic, frightening and chilling, they were neither the beginning, nor the end of the violence propagated against us. These criminal vandalistic acts have been accompanied by monthly “home demonstrations,” conducted by screaming mobs who shout obscenities and taunt researchers from the street.  These assaults on our residences are the essence of violence, aiming to turn safety and security into fear and panic.

Picketers demonstrating in the street in front of a researcher's home.

Picketers demonstrating in the street in front of a researcher’s home.

These groups (which have organized under a range of monikers: “See You in the Streets”, “FUCKHLS” and [now, quite ironically] “Progress for Science”) claim that their demos are educational, a form of genuine activism or simply “prayer vigils” that honor the lives of animals involved in research. No one should be deceived. They are little more than liars and thugs whose goal is to inflict fear in researchers and our neighbors, and their own words show this to be true.

Over the years, these demonstrations have typically been followed up by “wrap-ups” written by the protesters, right alongside the publication of “anonymous communiques” that include direct threats and patent lies about our research. Their words show them for who they really are.

On Feb 19 2011, this group (including members who still protest to this day), marched out front of the home of Dr. London. Knowing that she is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, they cut right to the chase:

“… Edythe London – aka “Hitler with a cunt”. She does things to primates that even Dr. Mengele didn’t do to Jews, gays, gypsies and other disenfranchised people in Europe. Though she claims to be Jewish, she must be somehow related to Hitler, since she uses the same methods of hideous deprivation, abuse and killing of our closest living relatives, non-human primates.” (WARNING: the following link takes you to an AR website: Click here for the full post).

On another occasion, this group marches in front of Professor Jentsch’s home, with a reporter from Los Angeles Magazine in tow. The reporter is writing a feature on the struggle between researchers and activists. Even with the scrutiny of the press, they can’t help themselves:

“David Jentsch—you cocksucking bastard!”
“David Jentsch—you sick pervert, I hope you die!”

And later, the leader of the group whispers to the reporter:

“Wasn’t Jentsch’s car burned or something?” Then, above the din of chants, she adds, “I don’t know how to put this—I only wish he were in it.”

That kind of language is hardly surprising when you see the general pattern of behavior during these aggressive and hateful demonstrations. An April 2010 demonstration is summarized here:

When we attempted to open up dialogue on the science and ethics of animal research, including the points of view of animal rights activists, by organizing a discussion panel at UCLA, the only thing we got in return from these activists was more threats:

Activists protested him [Dario Ringach] and will continue to protest him because he has become a defacto leader of the pro-vivisection group ‘PRO-TEST’ where he now speaks out to anyone who will listen regarding the need to torture and kill animals, especially primates. In fact, he is one of the speakers who will be at the “discussion” panel February 16th at UCLA’s Covel Commons.

All the neighbors came out to see what was going on and activists filled them in on Dario’s long, atrocious history of abusing, torturing and killing primates and now his NEW job of going around PROMOTING it! The neighbors were actually very supportive of the activists and in fact, one neighbor told an activist and we quote, “I’ll be watching that asshole; I don’t want that piece of garbage and his family living in this neighborhood. He ought to be experimented on.”

They went as far as targeting his children because of his pro-research stance (here and here).

So do not believe a single word when extremists argue that what they want is dialogue.  Here is their rephrasing of the truth:

When attempts at dialogue and peaceful attempts to make change and alleviate suffering are frustrated, some activists are willing to use more forceful means to help animals. North American Animal Liberation Press correspondent Camille Marino makes an apt comparison: “LA citizen Richard Ramirez, known as the “Nightstalker”, was a cold, sadistic and violent serial murderer — his behavior was eerily similar to that of any vivisector. While he was actively inciting an atmosphere of terror, the media relentlessly covered the newsworthy developments. While vivisectors like J. David Jenstch and Dario Ringach are active, the animal liberation networks are committed to relentlessly cover their sociopathic reign of terror. When average citizens finally apprehended Ramirez, they beat him mercilessly for his crimes. Jentsch and Ringach have earned the right to fear retaliation for their crimes. … They each make a potent case for individuals who need to be stopped by any means necessary.”

How have scientists reacted?  In a couple of occasions the UCLA community conducted campus rallies in support of our faculty and the fantastic work done at our university.  The message was that we are not going to tolerate such attacks any more.

So it should not come as a surprise to anyone that after a decade of harassment, intimidation and threats,  we have decided to mount counter-demonstrations when these animal right terrorists show up at our homes.

These activists now have the shameless audacity to play the victim of this encounter. Incapable of understanding the message, they are now recruiting more misguided individuals to join them in their fanatical crusade and come back to harass us at our homes on February 15th.

We will be there to meet them once more and convey one simple message,

We are not going to take it anymore!

Please join us to defend UCLA, our science, and the hope for medical advances and new cures.

When: February 15, 10:15am sharp!
Where: Outside Franz Hall on the UCLA campus (near the intersection of Hilgard and Westholme Blvds)

Join us to end the decade-long age of terror at UCLA!

David Jentsch and Dario Ringach

Scientists, their pets and research…

Some presumably animal rights-leaning visitor to my blog dropped a GOTCHA! question on me this morning. This is a question she expected I would answer in a way that would poke holes in my arguments in support of humane animal research

“Well, if animal research is so important,” she says, “would you give your dogs to me so that I can use them to conduct a research project on addiction?”

This is my youngest dog, Oliver. He is, quite possibly, my favorite living being on this planet.

This is my youngest dog, Oliver. He is, quite possibly, my favorite living being on this planet.

GOTCHA, she thinks! She believes that I will either say “No, I’d never give my dogs to research”, and all my arguments that animal research is justifiable because of the benefits to human and animal welfare will fall apart. Or possibly, I’ll say “Yes”, and she’ll claim I am cruel and heartless. Either way, she wins. GOTCHA!

Here’s the thing; my answer to this specific question from this specific person is most certainly “no”, but a discussion of why shows just how pathological and uncaring some animal rights folks are and how much researchers concern themselves for both humans and animals during the conduct of their work.

My answer to her is “no” for several simple and straightforward reasons:

1) She is not a scientist. She has no concept of what quality research on addiction is or how to conduct it. She doesn’t know what has been discovered and what has not. She doesn’t know how to conduct a meaningful experiment and obtain meaningful answers. She has likely never been trained in either the scientific background or techniques needed to do anything approximating competent or valid research. For that reason, giving two sponges for her research makes no sense, much less two domesticated dogs.

2) Because she failed to articulate anything like a meaningful scientific objective for her “research”, it’s far from clear that dogs are needed for the research. Perhaps mice or even zebrafish would accomplish the same goal, and in that case, she would have defied the concept of “replacement” … the effort to use the simplest model organism possible in the course of research.

3) She hasn’t described how the research will be conducted and how she will prevent unncessary harm to the subjects in the course of it. She hasn’t described how she will obtain oversight from a veterinarian to ensure her techniques are good or how she will ensure that her work is inspected by the US Department of Agriculture (which she must, by law, as a consequence of the Animal Welfare Act).

4) She hasn’t convinced us that the research has the potential to benefit humans or animals in a way that justifies any harm (large or small) done to the subjects involved.

So, why should someone entrust a researcher like me with animals for doing work that addresses addictions?

1) I am an experienced addiction researcher with almost 20 years of accrued knowledge and experience on the brain mechanisms of addiction. I read the literature, so I know what has already been learned in past experiments and can reason what new accomplishments and findings are needed. I discuss my ideas and plans with clinical psychologists and psychiatrists to ensure it is meaningful in light of their clinical practice. My ability to do this has been recognized by my peers in many forms, and my contributions (it’s fair to say) have had a major impact on the clinical and biological understanding of addictions.

Despite my experience, my own perspectives are not enough to justify my plans. Before I ever started any project, I outlined my ideas, the approaches I would use and the rationale behind the work to a panel of elite researchers and to the scientists at the National Institutes of Health. They scrutinized my plans and approach and found it to be excellent, leading to their financial support (a grant) for my research (at least 4 out of 5 research proposals are not funded by the NIH, showing how esteemed a particular project must be in order to get supported).

2) Before starting my work, I carefully considered the species to be involved in the studies. Monkeys are involved in some very limited studies in my lab when needed, while much of the other work we do involves mice. The species chosen is appropriate to the goals and objectives of the research and the need to translate information to humans (results from monkeys are simply more valid for understanding people because of the closer relationships).

I also considered how various species may be affected by the conduct of the research and made sure that the environment was suitable for their needs, e.g., by making appropriate considerations for socialization of social animals. We also developed species-specific procedures that allow us to train subjects to participate willingly in the experiment without causing distress (e.g., voluntary blood collection, conducting behavioral tests for very palatable foods instead of using water restriction, etc.).

3) My plans are reviewed by veterinarians on campus who provide feedback on how to reduce any harm or distress in the conduct of the work and who train me and my lab if our techniques require improvement. My research is overseen on a daily basis by these vets and regularly by the US Department of Agriculture when it conducts unannounced inspections of my University.

4) Before starting my work, I’ve deeply considered the potential for the study to generate important and useful knowledge that benefits people and animals, and I’ve convinced my Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which involves unaligned community representatives, that the work is valuable.

This is the key difference between entrusting animals to responsible researchers and to nuts with GOTCHA questions. Still, underneath it all, there is a really important question that both she and I should consider deeply before answering.

If it was possible to conduct a research project that had a certain or even very high probability of alleviating substantial human harm, what would we be willing to do to see that it happens?

If I could give my two dogs, and in return breast cancer or HIV would be cured (meaning that millions of people now and in the future would cease to suffer and die needlessly), would I do it?

If I could give MYSELF, and in return breast cancer or HIV would be cured, would I do it?

These are hard questions, despite being hypothetical, and I don’t know what my final answer would be.

But I know this: to immediately say “no” is irrational and evil. The goals of such a project are so important that I would most certainly at least consider giving my own life or that of my dogs to see it done.

I once discussed this with an animal rights-leaning person. He said he absolutely would not give his dogs to research to cure HIV and that I was heartless and cold to say that I would even consider it.

I agree, it is.

But it’s nothing near as cold and heartless as those that say “No, I won’t do anything to see that life-saving research gets done” or “I place myself and these animals over the profound suffering and needless death that the work could prevent.” In circumstances like this. inaction is not a neutral position. It’s fundamentally selfish and unethical.

The commenter thinks my answer to her GOTCHA question will expose me, but I think that her question exposes her. It exposes the profound lack of empathy, concern, love and care for others that so many in the animal rights movement suffer from.

I care for my dogs deeply. But I also care for others, even people I’ve never met, and I want to see the most harm alleviated that is possible. And importantly, I believe that through limited, regulated and humane animal research, we do exactly that.

Allies in the struggle against animal rights extremism

I received a comment on my blog post addressing the strong stand UCLA researchers took against animal rights hooligans in Los Angeles this weekend; the commenter made a clear statement that resonates with me:

Hooray for AMP!

For those of you who do not know, AMP stands for Americans for Medical Progress, a non-profit organization that supports advocates working to get the message out about the importance of humane and responsible research involving animal models. Some of their work is shown below, and more can be found here.

AMP creates messages that link the reality of human life and disease to the necessary research that addresses it.

AMP creates messages that link the reality of human life and disease to the necessary research that addresses it.

Long before I even finished my dissertation, this organization was working to support researchers around the country, including me – whether I was aware of it, or not.

For decades, they have been working to advocate for ground-breaking medical research, leading to benefits to research near you. If you are a biomedical researcher (whether your research involves animal models or not), AMP has aided the cause to propel our colleague progress towards scientific knowledge, treatments and cures.

And when animal rights activists struck hard in Los Angeles, setting cars ablaze and sending razors and threats in the mail, AMP stood up with us. By the time the arson at my house occurred in 2009, a more than 5 year campaign by animal rights activists against UCLA investigators was underway. No national advocacy or scientific organization had done anything directly to support us.

But AMP changed all that. They reached out to us, made crucial connections and aided our formation of the group now known as Pro-test for Science. Today, I count the AMP staff as friends, as well as colleagues in this struggle.

Every single day, they are working to contribute to our community’s effort to make the world a better place. Most of you don’t even know it, because neither money, nor fame drives their hard work. They do it for the cause – the cause of making the world happier, healthier and safer for scientific research.

Because AMP also needs support from the scientific community, I am writing this post and asking you to give a small donation to the organizaiton (click here). It’s the right thing to do, given all they have done for us.

The beginning of the end…

For more than a decade, the streets in front of the homes of UCLA researchers have been the scene of regular, brutal, vitriolic and hate-filled campaigns by animal rights hooligans. With little direct knowledge of the truth, as well as a exceptional willingness to lie and deceive, they show up with signs and dated chants and disrupt our neighborhoods. Their stated goal is to make us and our neighbors uncomfortable in the conduct of these insane and sometimes illegal protests.

As I have written before, their behavior and conduct is really no different than that of Fred Phelps and his family when they are on their bigoted campaign against LGBTQ individuals or Operation Rescue when it targets women in need to legal medical care. The parallels with the antiabortion protests are, in particular, remarkable. They are, in every way imagineable, a hate group to be classifed right alongside racists, misogynists and homophobes, alike.

Since the inception of these protests, researchers have had little respite and few tools to call upon to address the harm done by these protests.

This weekend, we created a new tool, and it’s one that we plan to use again and again until these demonstrations are over. We have decided to act, with our voices, our messages of scientific progress and – most importantly – with the unity of our community.

UCLA affiliates meet up on campus, in preparation for our march

UCLA affiliates meet up on campus, in preparation for our march. We are NOT afraid.

When the ironically named animal rights group, Progress for Science, appeared at the home of my beloved and treasured colleague this Saturday evening, they encountered something they neither expected, nor knew how to deal with.

Conveying our message to the neighborhood and to the protesters

Conveying our message to the neighborhood and to the protesters.

They found 40+ UCLA researchers, staff, students and friends who were waiting on the streets of Westwood. We outnumbered them 4:1, and the look on their faces as we marched towards their meeting site and intercepted them was priceless. It was unregulated surprise and confusion.

As they began to collect themselves, we broke out in our chant:

Progress for Science, LEAVE NOW!
Carol Glasser, LEAVE NOW!

They were, in a word, speechless.

No chants and threats from the extremists when surrounded by researchers! One wonders if Carol Glasser's constant text messaging were panicked calls for help.

No chants and threats from the extremists when surrounded by researchers! One wonders if Carol Glasser’s constant text messaging included panicked calls for help.

How does this differ from their usual behavior? Like night and day. Here’s a video I captured last fall when they protested out front my home.

During this current weekend’s demonstration, they took up a position in a normally peaceful cul-de-sac for about 45 minutes, while our group let them know – in no uncertain terms – that they were not welcome. Their lies, threats and hypocrisy (leather shoes, really?) were all addressed, front and center.

In the end, they turned back in the direction that they came and retreated. Determined to make it clear that they were unwelcome in this neighborhood, our members pursued them. When the extremists approached neighbors and people on the street with their rhetoric, our students and researchers swept in and countered the lies at every opportunity. Progress for Science was flushed right out of the area.

Our message was simple. "DON'T COME BACK!"

Our message was simple. “DON’T COME BACK!”

Later that evening, when the victorious UCLA group had broken up and gone back home, the hooligans showed up once more . It seems that they were determined to have the last word, if only after we left, because their lack of courage made it impossible to speak in our presence. They chanted for 10 minutes and then left again. Big deal!

Here’s our message to those extremists and to anyone affiliated with them:

This wasn’t the last word.

It was the beginning of the end for you and your tired and useless group.

We are watching and waiting. When you come back, you will find us waiting for you.

The reign of terror you have brought to our neighborhoods is over.

POSTSCRIPT: Another telling of events just appeared the Speaking of Research website, here. Thanks to Dario for his take on the events of Saturday.

When defending “free speech” means defending “hate speech”

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the petition of an anti-abortion protester who claims that the State of Massachuetts is trampling her first amendments right to free speech. The state of Massachuetts passed a law which makes it illegal to approach a woman within 35 ft of the door of an abortion-providing clinic. They passed this law after literally decades of indecent behavior by anti-abortion protesters who shouted at, shamed, harassed, spit upon and even attacked women seeking a legal abortion and those who were providing them legitimate medical services.

Of course, the protesters now claim that all they want to do is have a civil, “polite” conversation with the women going into the clinic, with the hope that they can dissuade them from doing so.

Justice Scalia, always a proponent of individual human rights (/sarcasm), seemed to warm to this argument:

“This is not a protest case,” he said. “These people don’t want to protest abortion. They want to talk to the women who are about to get abortions and try to talk them out of it.”

Even though his conclusion seems to fall down under the fact that the same protesters stand in front of the clinic carrying signs with anti-abortion propoganda (which is, almost by definition, a protest – not a “conversation”), the point he tries to make is only one simple-minded view of the subject.

In fact, what these people want to do is to REMOVE the freedom of self determination and autonomous control over the body from women seeking an abortion by arguing or shaming them into submission. Again and again in our society, we see examples of people who claim a Constitutional right to speak, when their very goal is to deprive others of their legitimate speech, actions or associations.

Of course, this is not a tactic reserved for use by antiabortionists. Tea party members shouted down congresspeople in town halls around this country but a few years ago. Fred Phelps and the members of the Westboro Bapist Church have been spreading their hate across the country more or less continuously since they demonstrated out front the funeral of Matthew Shepard. And closer to home, animal rights extremists have repeatedly used the same threatening, dehumanizing, angry, hateful tactic against biomedical researchers whose search for cures and knowledge involves the study of animal models.

The face of "Free speech"

The face of “Free speech”

The relationships between antiabortionists who seek to control womens’ reproductive rights, the Westboro Baptist Church’s desire to control sexual rights and anti-research extremists who attempt to suppress legal, humane and responsible research goes well beyond shared use of tactics.

Instead, what is shared between them is the almost religious sense they all have that their position – and their position alone – is the “right” one and that those that do not follow their “higher” path should be punished. They exude narcissim, believing their superior point of view entitles them to force you to listen to them, even while they need never listen in return.  They are twisted by psychopathology that has warped their minds and ethical framework so badly that hurting others, blowing up cars, sending razor blades in the mail, damaging lives and frightening children are all “legitimate tactics” in their minds. It’s why Animal Rights Extremist groups are now recognized as hate groups, right alongside Operation Rescue, the Westboro Baptist Church and white supremacists.

Animal rights protesters "politely" sharing their points of view in my neighborhood.

Animal rights protesters “politely” sharing their points of view in my neighborhood.

It is regrettable that it is so common that the 1st Amendment is called up to protect hateful and vitriolic speech. Instead of just spewing hate because of their “right” to do so, these groups should be thinking about taking responsibility for the pain and suffering their hatred causes. In my view, the law has every reason to intervene when conversation becomes harassment, when words become threats and when one person is determined us use their speech to deprive others of their rights.

Dogs aren’t people, and we wouldn’t want them to be

A compelling opinion piece appeared in the New York Times this weekend, entitled “Dogs are people, too”. It was written by a faculty member at Emory University who has used magnetic resonance imaging to map brain activity in dogs. After successfully training 2 dogs to lay motionless for the scan, the author – Gregory Berns – found that a portion of the dog brain – the caudate nucleus – was “turned on” in response to signals that predict food (actually, what they show is that the oxygen content in blood in this part of the brain changed as the hand signal was presented as MRI cannot measure neural activity directly). As Dr. Berns says in his Opinion Piece:

In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

He is correct that the caudate nucleus is an important part of the brain whose job it is to help us to determine the value of positive and negative stimuli (events in our environment) and to act accordingly. He correctly notes that this part of the brain, or nearby ones, often shows activation when humans are exposed to positive events. He infers, therefore, that dogs must be showing the same emotional reactions that humans are capable of and quickly pivots to the thrust of his piece:

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

There are so many flaws with Dr. Berns’ argument that one hardly knows where to begin.

First, I think most of us can appreciate that anticipating food is hardly a sign of a “human-like” emotion. I have a pond with goldfish in my backyard. I always feed them first thing in the morning, usually right at sunrise. So, when the back yard lights come on in the early morning, my fish swirl to the surface and begin checking for food. They do this because their brains have learned the associations between the light coming on and food coming, and parts of their nervous system no doubt “turn on” in response to the light to trigger their feeding, just like Dr. Berns’ dog’s brain “lit up” when the hand signal for food was presented. Even insects show these kinds of learned behaviors to food cues. Showing a behavioral or brain response to a food cue (or even to the smell of a human owner) is a far cry from exhibiting a “human emotion” and does not in any way afford them the same relevancy that a human child has.

It’s not surprising that these behaviors are present in evolutionarily old animals because learning to predict food is a crucial behavior for survival in all species. It’s therefore also not surprising that evolutionarily old parts of the brain are used for these abilities.  There are in fact many parts of the brain specialized to a great degree in human beings, giving us our unique abilities. The caudate nucleus is explicitly not one of them. Brain regions akin to the caudate are found in birds, lizards and fish. Because it is such an evolutionarily old part of the brain, it’s not surprising that its function is also quite old.

Second, Dr. Berns claims knowledge of scientific literature to support his point of view. He says that he can infer emotion in the dog because it’s caudate nucleus is turned on. In his post, he notes that:

In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money. But can we flip this association around and infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity? Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region.

But the caudate may be an exception. Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.

What he fails to tell you, of course, is that the same parts of the human brain are engaged by anticipating or experience very unpleasant events, like an electrical shock. In that sense, how could you possible infer the presence of a positive emotion from activation of this part of the brain? You can’t, which is why neuroscientists have called out this flawed logic, referred to as reverse inference.

Third, even if he was right and dogs did experience joy when food was given, it hardly implies they have human-like emotions – or more importantly – human-like reason and cognition, abilities that lead to our moral relevancy and moral decision-making.

I am a long-time dog owner and lover. Like most dog owners who have lost a dog at some point, I understand acutely the value of a dog’s life, as well as their unique and joyous being. But what is so wonderful about dogs is that they are dogs, and not people. Their whimsy, playfulness and unconditional affection is what brings us joy, and they are capable of these things because they are dogs.

My two dogs - Oliver (left) and Billy (right). Oliver believes Billy is a dual function, brother, serving as a resting pillow when needed.

My two dogs – Oliver (left) and Billy (right). Oliver believes Billy is a dual-function brother, serving as a mobile resting pillow when needed.

In his OpEd, Dr. Berns trivializes science, the powerful technologies we use to understand the brain and dogs themselves. When science is twisted and misused in this way, we all lose.

Blurring the lines between legal demonstrations and underground actions

Late at night on the 14th of August 2013, a car driven by two animal rights activists was pulled over on a rural highway in Illinois. While the traffic stop was considered “routine”, what was found inside the car was anything but . Police reports indicate that the two young men in the car were traveling with:

bolt cutters, wire cutters, muriatic acid, ski masks, and cammo (sic) clothing

The driver and passenger of the car were none other than Kevin (Johnson) Oliff and Tyler Lang.

Kevin Olliff is a troubled young man who has long been involved in criminal stalking and harassment of researchers and others in the Los Angeles area. After a prolonged period of intense, violent and threatening home demonstrations (shouting “burn, baby, burn”) at the homes of UCLA researchers, Mr. Olliff was arrested and eventually sentenced for these crimes. He was released from prison in 2010.

Tyler Lang is a member of the Los Angeles animal activist group and has played a key role in the despicable targeted pickets that occur with some regularity at our homes. He was arrested outside a UCLA researcher’s home in 2010 for violations of focused picket laws; in turn, he and his colleagues filed suit against UCLA and its police force for their arrests. After more than a year of legal wrangling, the Lang et al. entered into an agreement with the district attorney to avoid further prosecution and their lawsuit against UCLA was dismissed with prejudice by a federal judge in Southern California.

Mr. Lang describes his views on the value of home demonstrations that target researchers in a Vimeo clip posted here. After extolling the effectiveness of home demos (he notes that Olliff et al.’s criminal protests led one UCLA investigator to “quit his job” [at 11:30]), he repeatedly drives home his view that protests are “legal” and “should be used” [at 12:45]. Their value, in his eyes, are that they bring an uncomfortable, but legal, message and presence to the target. What he doesn’t say is that his arrest in 2010 – and his subsequent reluctance to plead not guilty and face trial – prove otherwise.

*** NOTE: There used to be an active link to the video here, but the courageous activists who initially put it up have taken it down again, apparently congnizant of the legal trouble that Tyler now finds himself in. I guess they aren’t quite as brave as they were trying to convince eachother they were.***

What he also doesn’t say in his video is that criminal activities during home protests may not be the limit to how far he was willing to go. We don’t know where Olliff and Lang were headed on the night of Aug 14, and we don’t really know what they planned to do with bolt cutters, ski masks, camoflauge clothing and an acid historically used by animal rights activists when vandalizing cars and homes. But I think it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that these two young criminals were on their way to engage in illegal behavior, and it’s very possible that someone involved in biomedical research was the target.

This reveals the very weak defense of “above ground” activists who conduct demontrations at homes, universities and companies and who claim that they have no knowledge of nor play any role in the illegal activities of their movement (for example, here). In fact, associations and activities like those Olliff and Lang were engaged in Illinois should be a wake up call to everyone that these activists are more than willing to blur the lines between the above ground and underground movement when it suits their purpose.

As a society, we must do everything possible to stop the criminal actions of extremists like Olliff and Lang whenever we can. When we turn a blind eye to their above ground activities, even when those behaviors violate the rule of law, we tacitly encourage them to escalate their psychopathic tendencies.

For now, Olliff and Lang are being held on substantial bail amounts ($100-200K) and are facing upcoming hearings.  Only time will reveal whether this is the end of their slow slide towards violence.

Is a study ethical, just because it’s legal?

There was a furious debate (here and here) that occurred in social media spheres today when a company, called uBiome, defended its decision to not seek ethical review, by an Institutional Review Board (IRB), prior to designing a study to characterize the human microbiome and prior to seeking money to support the work from people via a crowdfunding website. Because the job of IRBs is to consider the known and potentially unknown ethical implications of a planned study – as well as to suggest meaningful remedies for any undue burdens on the participants or on society at large, this review generally helps to ensure that the conduct of a study is ethical.

uBiome did not seek this review prior to the inception of their funding-raising, however. In a a guest blog on the Scientific American website, the company’s representatives noted that:

We were informed (correctly) that IRBs are only required for federally funded projects, clinical trials, and those who seek publication in peer-reviewed journals. That’s right — projects that don’t want federal money, FDA approval, or to publish in traditional journals require no ethical review at all as far as we know.

In other words, because they were not seeking money from the federal government and because they were not planning to ultimately publish their discoveries in a scientific journal, they were not legally required to conduct an IRB review at that stage. What they fail to mention, of course, is that those very facts are why it is so important that groups like them need IRB oversight. Their study was privately funded and was not intended for publication. This means, more or less, that it was intended solely to lead to discoveries that could make them money. The motivation to conduct research for personal profit is a factor that should inspire the greatest social demand for review and oversight, but uBiome slipped through a big gaping loop hole and proceeded without this review.

Once the furor started to build about their activities (here and here), uBiome hired a company that provides IRB services to conduct said review. In their post today, they told us nothing about the content of that review, how it was conducted or what measures were to be taken to safeguard the interest of the subjects in the study or the interests of the broader society. It’s their view, apparently, that we should trust them.

uBiome is being rightfully called out for their failure to understand that it was their obligation to act ethically, rather than simply legally, but this is not the only example of problematic behavior of this type.

A recent paper published on the open access journal PLOS One demonstrates this point, as well. In this study, young macaque monkeys were moved from their social groups into cages where they lived alone for some undetermined amount of time. After behavioral observations were made, the monkeys were physically restrained (i.e., grabbed and forcefully held still), with no prior sedation, anesthesia or pain killer, while a blood sample was collected and a needle was inserted into the lower parts of their vertebral column (spine) so that a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (the solution that bathes the brain and spinal cord) could be withdrawn. This medical procedure is sometimes conducted in human patients when their condition calls for it (and much less commonly in human research participants), but it is generally viewed as a procedure that is very painful – both while it is being conducted and long afterwards. People that experience pain as a result of the procedure receive pain relief, as needed. As I mentioned in a comment on this article:

Both are painful procedures, with lumbar puncture representing a particular risk to both the researcher collecting the sample and, importantly, to the animal. Lumbar puncture in human subjects – which many individuals report as very painful – is sometimes conducted in ambulatory settings with no sedation or anesthesia, but local pain block is typically used. Moreover, headaches, often intense in severity, are a common post-tap symptom. For these reasons, as well as to avoid the distress of physical restraint and the risk to the subject associated with a sudden movement while the needle is in place, chemical sedation or anesthesia are the standard of care in virtually every veterinary setting in the US, Canada and Europe (as well as many others).

The authors did not address the fact that their procedure violated the standards of care used by competent veterinarians. Instead, they said simply that:

The blood and CSF collections were of course performed by a trained and skilled veterinarian, used to work with macaques, both procedures classically performed in humans as well. They were approved by an IACUC…

In other words, they believe that the approval of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) that supervises their Chinese facility should allay any concerns about the ethical nature of their work.

What they really mean, of course, is that the IACUC approval makes their work legal and publishable (!), not that it makes it ethical. Determining the latter would require a detailed analysis of their reasoning behind depriving the monkeys of normal social interaction and subjecting them to an intensely painful procedure without pain relief. It requires an understanding of the discussion of the IACUC and whether it fully considered all the relevant facts and factors in play. Since this is a private facility that operates with almost no oversight, because the authors of the paper themselves have a financial interest in the company that conducted the research and because the work was conducted in a country with extremely lax regulations relating to animal welfare, there is ample reason to be worried about the ethics of a study like this.

Both uBiome and the authors of the PLOS One paper have some serious thinking to do about what it means to be an ethical scientist. As Janet Stemwedel pointed out in a tweet:

… laws should be the floor, not the ceiling, for ethical conduct…

I couldn’t agree more, and it’s essential that researchers stop hiding behind the minimum standards that the law requires and start operating like the ethical agents that society expects us to be.

On just and fair juries

Yesterday, a well-respected legal scholar from a top law school appeared on the PBS News Hour and declared that George Zimmerman had received a “fair trial”. The subsequent interviews and statements from some members of the jury – particularly juror B37 – have, on the other hand, led many people to question whether the trial was in any way fair, much less just. Some have concluded that Juror B37’s comments suggest that she carried strong preconceptions about the facts of the case and was unwilling to weigh all the evidence equally and impartially. I am hardly surprised.

In the winter of 2013, I was called in for jury duty in Los Angeles County. I arranged to fulfill that jury duty during my spring break week so that I could participate without affecting my teaching or research schedule. I did this because I fully expected to serve on a trial, if I was selected.

The first day of my service, I showed up early at the court house. After hours of sitting in a jury waiting room, I was finally asked to go to a court room to be interviewed by the judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney. When I arrived at that room (and after yet more waiting), I learned that it was a murder trial. Sitting in the room was a man who was on trial for allegedly killing a young woman outside a restaurant in a poor part of town.

Over the next two days, I sat through the interviews of about 40 of the other potential jurors. I was to experience a series of events that would convince me that the concept of a “fair trial” is one probably only really ever played out on television.

The panel to be interviewed first contained twelve vastly different people. I listened intently to each. I thought carefully about which of the individuals I would choose and which I would excuse.

Leading the pack of individuals I would have excused was a middle-aged, apparently middle-class white woman; she reported that she was elementary school teacher and that she was married with children. Within moments of the inception of her interview, she stated categorically that she could not serve adequately. She said that her job would not permit her to be off for the expected duration of the trial (1 week). Additionally, she disclosed that she suffers from a serious mental illness that would make her ability to follow the facts of the trial and to render an impartial decision essentially impossible. She grew animated and emotional during her discussion of her suitability. As her interview progressed, she approached the point of being hysterical, suggesting that at least some part of her self-reported instability was true.

On the other end of the spectrum was a young man – a Hispanic, recent college graduate who was in the process of looking for a job that would start his career. He spoke clearly, intelligently and decisively. He indicated that he would be able to be completely impartial and would have the time to serve.

Neither of them reported any factors that would suggest they were biased (prior arrests, associations with the victim or defendant, strong preconceptions about the defendant and/or witnesses against him).

The young man was the first to be dismissed. The woman was retained.

Over the rest of that afternoon and the following morning, I heard even more shocking disclosures.

I saw a woman that wept during her interview because her sister had been raped and murdered. She was dismissed because she was viewed as biased by her life experiences. Apparently, only those few who have never been a victim of a crime are able to judge others impartially.

I saw a woman profess that the criminal justice system was unfair because her son had been arrested and convicted for a DUI (he was, admittedly, drunk and in a car with the keys in the ignition, but it was stopped at the time – leading to her conclusion that it was a miscarriage of justice). She was retained in the jury pool.

I saw an older man, a naturalized immigrant, indicate – pretty convincingly – that he really only understood about 30% of what was said in court. He was excused.

I saw a woman who openly stated that she found it almost impossible to believe that a police officer would tell a lie or could be wrong about the facts (her father-in-law was a police officer). She was retained in the jury pool.

I sat while a woman asked, during the pre-trial interviews, whether it would become clear during the trial whether the defendant was an illegal immigrant (he was Hispanic). She asked this because of her belief that the fact of whether he had committed a crime to get into this country would bear on whether he was guilty of this murder. She was excused.

I listened while a Beverly Hills septuagenerian who proclaimed that she was the confidant to three governors and one president chastised the defense attorney for “insulting her intelligence” when he asked if she would be able to vote not guilty if the prosecution failed to prove its case. She was retained in the pool.

Of course, I also listened while some reasonable, intelligent people – of variable ethnicities and socioeconomic strata – answered the questions posed to them. Most – yes, most – were excused.

And finally, I listened while I was interviewed myself. I was finally called to be questioned late on the second day. After I indicated, in response to a question, that I was a Professor of Psychology, the prosecutor approached me and asked if I was capable of putting aside my formal training in order to render a decision on the facts of the case at hand.

Though I was unsure why someone would want a juror to put aside their knowledge and training during decision-making, I replied that I would be able to make a fair and even-handed conclusion on the facts of the case in the way that any other reasonable person was.

She dismissed me.

I left that room wondering who the defendant was, what his life was like before and how he could ever get a fair trial from people like this. I had no sense of whether he was a murderer or whether he was innocent, but it seems to me that it does not matter either way since he, in my opinion, cannot get a fair trial on the facts. I left wondering how the highly paid judge and attorneys could sleep at night knowing that they were creating such potential for inequity and unfairness.

When Juror B37 stood up yesterday and shared her views and beliefs with the world, I wasn’t surprised a bit. Her ignorance, bigotry and self-assuredness reminded me totally of the people that the court seemed ripe to choose in the trial I experienced. It seems to me that, even if the jury selection process was completely random, it could do better of choosing jurors than it does by intention. With this in mind, all the claims that Zimmerman got a “fair trial” seem to fall short of anything approximating the truth.