In my third year as an undergraduate (at Nottingham) I wanted to do an “animal” experiment. I had to figure-up a couple of 10 creds each experiments. The first was to do with oscillations and bra design and “jiggling” (I was very serious and dear me bloody Loughbrough University did do research a couple of years later – and produced product in terms of a better sports bra – and made money from it). Bugger. My lab partner (female – obviously – wanted nothing to do with it). It was a shame in a way so instead we winded-up looking into radio auroras. I wanted to do something with spin. So I got interested in magnetotactic bacteria. These are bacteria that live in swamps in (as far as I know) New England. Hell’s teeth I was a physics student and I just thought they’d be a cute analogue for magnetism in certain solids.
Now there were two problems here. The first is implied by “New England”. We had a budget of – I kid ye not – 35 quid per project! I suppose we could have built a very, very small hadron collider (aka an automated toffee hammer). Also (and fair enough) it was a physics department so they had no idea about biological containment protocols. So it was back to computer simulation using Maple of Josephson Junctions. They are a sort of superconducting transistors. They are interesting because they display quantum effects at a macroscopic scale. No bloody use unless you want to lug a bottle of liquid nitrogen along with your iPad but interesting anyway.
The point I’m trying to make is I did science. Now I’m not trying to pull rank (although obviously physics is the king of the sciences* and biology is like whatever and chemistry is very, very dull). Yet another milky-white precipitate -yeah!!!
But there are some alleged “sciences” which transcend even biology and chemistry (both, for all their other sins majoring in dullness) by being simultaneously cruel, artless and utterly pointless. And yes, there was a reason I used the word “analogue” here.
At the University of California at Los Angeles, Ronald Siegel chained two elephants to a barn. The female elephant was used in range-finding tests “to determine procedures and dosages for LSD administration.” She was given the drug orally and by dart-gun. After this the experimenters dosed both elephants every day for two months and observed their behavior. High doses of the hallucinogen caused the female to fall down on her side, trembling and barely breathing, for one hour. The high doses caused the bull elephant to become aggressive and charge Siegel, who described such repeated aggressive behavior as “inappropriate”.
- Peter Singer, “Animal Liberation”.
And that they called science and got government grants for it. My scientific career not only caused no creature harm but moreover involved doing stuff to a point whether practical or just interesting. Shooting an elephant full of LSD is neither. I studied stars and like stuff and never, ever did anything so utterly meaningless.
Singer’s book is a difficult read. He uses reiteration like a politician’s speech but he does catalogue a litany of dismal science. He also notes the number of papers produced which end with the archetype, “These results are inconclusive so more research is needed”. In one case this involved hitting dogs with iron bars to see if it made them upset. Of course this was reported in strict behaviourable “science” terms (cf the “inappropriate” behaviour of the elephant above). This is something a small child knows and something a PhD ought to be ashamed of calling “science”. A Doctor of Philosophy ought to mean something beyond torturing critters to no sensible end. Hell’s teeth I was once offered a PhD in nuclear fusion (St Andrews) and one in muon spin resonance (Oxford)** and one at Sussex on auroras (which involved travel to Norway). The world was very much my bivalve. And so it ought to have been because torturing dumb critters to no practical or indeed interesting end was and is not science. Torturing monkeys with electric shocks to induce psychosis is not. Moreover I handled experiments at hellish high electro-tension and nothing, not even me, got shocked. Didn’t even wear a lab-coat. Jeans and a T-shirt and a combination of knowledge and common sense did it.
And that is what gets me about the book. Oh, it has flaws. It has flaws you could drive an HGV through. It has a bizarre take on utilitarianism for starters and a very annoying take on re-testing of stuff. I say annoying because Singer has a very valid point but he makes a three course dogs’ dinner of it.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not contra animal experiments per-se. For a kick-off it is very difficult to see how veterinary science could prosper without it. For a kick-off. What got me is not so much the casual cruelty (though that was an issue) but the fundamental ascience of so much of it. At one point Singer writes on over-heating dogs. Well, they all peg it at a rectal temperature of 113F. Of course they do! That is the point at which enzymes and stuff get fatally bent out of shape. I could have told you that when I was 17 on the basis of my incomplete A-levels! Jesus Christ had these people never fried an egg? You can’t unfry one you know.
So that is my catch. I spent my youth studying real science. The undergrad labs at Nottingham physics department were dominated by presevered blackboards written on by Albert Einstein. He was good mates with a professor of physics at the then University College of Nottingham and made a trip in the ’20s. He was already famous and so delivered a talk on general relativity to a throng including the Lord Mayor of Nottingham – in German. God alone know what the mayor made of that. But Einstein’s blackboards spoke to me. They said it mattered (and you might get to shag Marilyn Monroe – or the equivalent starlet of your era – I guess that would be Keira Knightley for me). It mattered even when I toiled through the fucking Gouy method for determining magnetic susceptibility. And that was almost as amusing as it sounds. I got a Beta+ for that although that was primarily because I swetted blood. I was always more theory than experiment.
But it was always science. Always. We cheered (we did) when a junior lecturer ran in because he’d heard the rumour-mill from Femilab that they’d nailed the Truth (I shall not call it “top”) quark. Up, down, strange, charmed, truth and beauty. Other than the leptons (and mesons play a part too) is what we all are. That is science. Giving monkeys electric shocks to show they don’t like ‘em is not. And quite frankly I’ve known enough kids who could be pointlessly cruel to animals without a white coat or indeed even a GCSE (let alone a PhD).
It remindered me of those dreadful TV adverts by L’Oreal et al. You know the sort. “65% of 94 women agree”.
And that “proves” what!
*And mathematics is queen. Yes, I am basically a Platonist on that score.
**This was less certain but I would bet dollars to donuts my boss, Martin Chamberlain would have swung it for me. He was an Oxford chap and once slept in Bill Clinton’s bed. Without Bill Clinton who was, obviously sleeping in someone else’s bed. He thought Clinton was a twat. I rated Martin Chamberlain a capital fellow. Anyway I had one of the six funded places in the UK to do an MSc in astrophysics and that was in London (Queen Mary) so…