Feb 29, 2008

animal testing

I'm a bioengineer and a vegetarian.

This causes some interesting complications.

First and foremost, I oppose causing animals, or anybody else, to suffer unnecessarily. (This begs the question, is suffering sometimes necessary?)

But I also disagree with animal rights activists who jump to the conclusion that research on animals is always 100% wrong, mostly because their opinions seem to be build on shaky ground. Let's have a look at what PETA's website says about animal testing:

"Educating people and encouraging them to avoid fat and cholesterol, quit smoking, reduce alcohol and other drug consumption, exercise regularly, and clean up the environment will save more human lives and prevent more human suffering than all the animal tests in the world."

I think this is the kind of argument that loses PETA its credibility. It's true that promoting a healthy lifestyle probably would save more lives than animal research if we suddenly decided to spend all our animal research dollars on education. (In the USA right now, Lipitor, a statin, is making 14 billion dollars per year. Thats the size of the GDP of Tanzania or Senegal. And high cholesterol is greatly influences by weight, activity, and diet. So yes, it's a significant lifestyle problem.)

But that's not the point. Clearly, not all diseases are lifestyle related. People don't only get sick due to bad choices, they get sick because of all kinds of factors. I'm not going to flesh out an argument now for why we should save peoples' lives when they need medical attention, so I'll just leave that as a given.

PETA's argument is shallow. It implies that the only purpose of medical science is to save us from disease we should have avoided. The fact that this is so obviously untrue robs them of credibility.

Once we've decided to treat disease whenever possible, we are immediately faced with the question of animal testing. Complex, deadly diseases often require therapies which are themselves complex and dangerous. PETA says:

"If the pharmaceutical industry switched from animal experiments to quantum pharmacology and in vitro tests, we would be better protected from harmful drugs, not less protected."

Again, this is blatantly false. While in vitro testing is very useful sometimes, it just can't simulate the way a drug will act within the larger world of the body. There is no circulatory system in a petri dish, for example. No organs. While animal testing is far from perfect, it offers a much more realistic model of the human body. It's TRUE that animal testing sometimes results in a drug which appears safe for humans, but turns out not to be in the long run. PETA implies that this problem will be solved by using in vitro testing. That's just plain false.

There are currently some attractive alternatives to animal testing. I believe they should be used whenever possible. Some reputable sources, such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine think that animal testing is no longer necessary. Others say it's still irreplaceable, especially for animal models of certain diseases, and for testing "discovered" drugs, the mechanisms (and therefore risk factors) for which may be completely unknown.

Let's look at some reasons why animal testing is currently unacceptable. There are MANY.

1. Until 1989, veterinarians were taught to ignore animal pain. Many veterinarians practicing today were educated in this way. It is only very, very recently that any concern for animal welfare has been demonstrated, and standards are still incredibly low.

2. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) doesn't include mice, rats, or birds. In 2002, the AWA was specifically amended so as NOT to include those species. It also specifically excludes farm animals. Because of this, very few of the animals that are tested on are actually protected.

3. While pain management is now common in some veterinary hospitals, research animals are rarely given any pain medication. Sometimes procedures are designed to be less painful than they could possibly be, but painkillers are generally thought to be too expensive and difficult to control. It is legal to perform ANY experiment on a research animal as long as it can be scientifically justified.

4. Research animals are given absolutely minimal room or comfort. They live in tiny cages. While their cages are often clean, there have been many documented cases of research animals drowning in their own feces. They are not given toys, playtime, or attention. The difference in standards between standards of treatment for pets and standards of treatment for lab animals is enormous, even though the animals have the same needs.

5. Some animal research and testing is completely ridiculous. Skin products are often tested by injecting the product in to the eye of a live rabbit, and looking for swelling, oozing, and pain. This is ridiculous (there's even an approved substitute, EpiDerm, for use on human volunteers), but it's not the only example of such cruelty. And I think it goes without saying that we do NOT need to be testing eyeshadow on mice. There are plenty of substances that make safe cosmetics (minerals, mostly). And anyway, so many mainstream cosmetics are mutagens (one survey found that 884 chemicals in cosmetics are toxic) that we should rethink the whole process anyway.

Basically, I think that the pressure should be on and that alternatives to animal testing should be found within 10 years. I'm willing to believe that currently, some animal testing may still be essential. (I think this is largely because small animals like mice have such quick life cycles compared to human beings - you can get data about 80 times faster in mice. Once we get computer models of entire vertebrates, this will no longer be necessary.)

In the mean time, I think there is NO excuse for not raising standards of animal care significantly. Yes, it costs money, but what really infuriates me is the way Americans often pander to their pets - sometimes buying them diamonds and clothing, which I have yet to see any pet demonstrate affection for, by the way - and then completely forget that the animals being used for research (and, yes, FOOD) are so very, very similar. It's not just mice and zebrafish, people. Cats are frequently used in neurological investigations, half of which officially cause "pain and distress" (though that definition of pain doesn't include any suffering induced by boredom, poor living conditions, or neglect). Dogs, especially beagles, are used in all kinds of biomedical research.

Some people say that a measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable minorities.

**I have sources for almost all of the facts in this post; if anybody wants them, just ask.**

Feb 19, 2008

culture and innocence

When I was 10, I bought an ASL dictionary, signed up for ASL I at the Finger Lakes Independence Center in Ithaca, NY, and totally fell in love with signing. I hung out with a bunch of Deaf 45-year-olds at FLIC and I volunteered at a Deaf school, teaching 4 and 5 year olds simple math. I signed my thoughts by accident on the school bus; I signed "Happy Birthday" to my father instead of singing; basically, I drove my family crazy.

This is somewhat remarkable. First of all, most 10-year-olds don't hang out with 45-year-olds. 10-year-olds are generally considered irritating. They ask a lot of questions and they are a bit grubby behind the ears. Most Deaf schools are not inclined to let 10-year-olds become volunteer teachers, either. And perhaps most strangely, I expect that most adult education ASL programs are disinclined to admit little kids.

But somehow, for reasons that I've never been able to explain, I was a part of the Deaf community in Ithaca back then. I had no obvious reason for wanting to be there (I knew zero Deaf people beforehand), and I had no practical goal in mind (still wanted to be a physicist), but it didn't seem to matter. I was a child, and nobody suspected any impurity in my motivation. I just liked it, that was all.

When, 2 years later, I finished all the ASL classes that FLIC had, I found there was no place else in town (except Cornell, which cost a lot) that I could study. I tried to find some kids my age who signed, but failed to make any contacts. The woman who'd been working with me at the Deaf school moved away. There was nobody to talk to, so I stopped signing. For 10 years.

Now, finally, I'm signing again. My reasons this time around are very similar. I love ASL - and I've missed it - and my face practically falls off from grinning so much every time I go to Deaf events around here. My interests haven't changed much since I was 10, honestly. Signing just makes me happy.

But I'm not a kid any more. I'm not a cute little 10-year-old. I'm a biological engineer now - scary! I'm 22, and my overloaded academic life has nothing to do with interpreting. I still don't have any practical reason to learn ASL. Nobody in Boston knows that I was once an accepted member of the community in Ithaca, of course.

So it's different. I find myself a definite outsider to a group I used to be part of, and that's weird. When I was younger - and fluent in ASL - I really felt as though I was "one of the crowd". That degree of comfort with the community is almost impossible for me to imagine now, but I guess it's a testament to the adaptability of children. These days, I'm incredibly conscious of the insularity of the Deaf community and the fact that I will probably never be "one of the crowd" again. It's frustrating. As a child, and as many children do, I plowed right through the cultural boundaries that I didn't realize existed. Now, as an adult, I can't ignore them, but that doesn't mean I've lost any respect for the group I used to be part of.

Obviously, in the process of growing up, I've learned that such boundaries exist, and that's been invaluable. There's no way I could have ever grown up to be an aware individual without recognizing the boundaries of the Deaf community (and others) for the ideals and causes they represent. But it makes me a little bit sad that I missed my window of innocence during which I could have settled myself in to that world, for no particularly good reason, and stayed.

It's not as though I'll never fit in again. There are a lot of steps I can take to bring myself back to the signing world - just as soon as I stop being shy about it! It may never be quite the same, but waving from the outside - or from a seat in ASL III here in Boston - sure is better than nothing :)

Feb 11, 2008


I'm not going to celebrate Valentine's Day. I'm not in to it, and I'm cynical about all the pink and chocolate and uncreative standard roses, so don't go and worry that this post is going to be all "I LUV U". (I do love you. Yes, you there at the computer. But damned if you'd ever get me to say it on Valentine's Day.)

Instead, here's a warning: I am about to reveal a totally pathetic fact about my past. Dangerously pathetic. Get your hankies ready.

When I was in third grade, I had very few friends at school. My best friend was (everybody *gasp*) a boy - this automatically made me the class weirdo - and my other friend was a girl from a different class. I was mildly acquainted with a boy who played the cello and a girl who'd been in my kindergarten class, but that was it.

So Valentine's Day was a bit of a sad affair that year. We made Valentine's Day "mailboxes" in class, and come the big day, we passed out our valentines, and then hurried back to our desks to see who loved us. My mailbox contained a few stock valentines - the sort that are ripped from larger sheets and sport pictures of superheros - and one actual, factual valentine. I think that each student was SUPPOSED to bring a valentine for everybody in the class (if they brought any at all) but clearly, that rule was not enforced, as some of the more popular girls next to me had overflowing mailboxes and packets of red-hots and candy hearts. Anyway, my valentine was from the boy who played the cello. I still have the darn thing.

Now, 14 years later, even though nobody I know (except my Aunt) actually gives valentines any more, I feel like a kid with an overflowing mailbox. I know people who actually *want* to spend time with me. Just because I'm me. I can't explain it, but I love it!

Often I find myself operating under the assumption that I am very unimportant to everybody else. This is mostly true, of course. But I am incredibly, incredibly grateful that it's not completely true.

Life is good.