The Big Animal Research Debate: A response to Dr Dan Lyons

A response to Dr Dan Lyons’ criticisms of The Big Animal Research Debate

On 25 September 2013, an organisation called the Centre for Animals and Social Justice (CASJ) published an article by a University of Sheffield academic, Dr Dan Lyons, which made very serious allegations about a major new IDEA UK project, The Big Animal Research Debate.  The article can be read by following this link -

The Big Animal Research Debate consists of a series of public debates, hosted by the debating societies of more than 30 universities across the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the United States, on the motion “This House would ban all forms of animal research”. Student debaters will deliver arguments for and against the motion. In some universities they will be joined by high-profile guest speakers involved in research and campaigning on both sides of the issue.

Dr Lyons has been invited to speak on the motion. He has also been asked to take part by a number of student debating societies, including the University of Sheffield’s own highly regarded debating society.

IDEA has been planning The Big Animal Research Debate since February 2013. IDEA UK has partnered with the non-profit organisation Understanding Animal Research (UAR) to carry out the project. Funded by leading universities, medical research charities, the bioscience industry and learned societies, Understanding Animal Research distributes information about the use of animals in medical research, and also works to promote acceptance of regulated animal research and greater openness and transparency by organisations that use animals in scientific and medical studies.

In his article, Dr Lyons highlights the relationship between IDEA and Understanding Animal Research and arrives at the conclusion that The Big Animal Research Debate is “bogus”. He implies that IDEA UK has been co-opted or misled by Understanding Animal Research and that the motion IDEA selected for use in the Big Animal Research Debate is biased. This is incorrect and it insults the young debaters taking part in the project – many of whom are students at Dr Lyons’ own university.

This article is a response to the views Dr Lyons has expressed. It will explain the goals of The Big Animal Research Debate and the reasoning behind the project’s motion. This article will also discuss basic information about the UK’s community of university debaters that Dr Lyons is either unaware of or has chosen to overlook.

Broad topics, nuanced arguments
Firstly, we will address Dr Lyons’ criticisms of The Big Animal Research Debate’s motion. Dr Lyons claims that the motion does not reflect the hard political realities that the anti-vivisection movement deals with when it campaigns to reduce the number of animals used in research and eliminate unnecessary and cruel procedures.

The essence of Dr Lyons’ argument is that the project’s motion, “This House would ban all forms of animal research”, would require speakers on the proposition side of the debate to advocate an immediate ban and to deny the practical and political consequences of creating such legislation. This is not true, and suggests a lack of knowledge of how student debaters think and argue. At best, this argument is a deliberate misreading of the motion, driven by Dr Lyons’ ideological position, rather than rationality and commitment to open academic discussion.

Dr Lyons states that,

“[…] as soon as I saw the motion wording my heart sank. To make a difference in the world, ideal ethical analysis must be supplemented by comprehension of the world as it is and […] ‘opportunity structures’ for change”.

This is a sensible and practical point of view. No matter how strong our ethical beliefs, we have to develop a pragmatic and objective outlook on the world. This perspective lets us identify the small victories, short-term objectives and medium-term goals that, eventually, enable us to achieve our overall aim – whether that aim is abolishing animal research, cutting carbon emissions, lowering healthcare costs or abolishing the death penalty.

Dr Lyons is correct when he observes that,

“Since animal experimentation became a public policy issue in 1876, the prospects of achieving its abolition in the short-term have diminished from slim to negligible”.

However, the debate’s motion does not oblige speakers to propose “abolition in the short-term”.  The motion does not impose a time-frame on speakers at all. Sensible proposition-side speakers will do exactly what Dr Lyons has done – in many cases, they are likely to argue that it will be more effective to move gradually towards a complete ban, rather than demanding the immediate abolition of animal research.

Defending young debaters
Why does Dr Lyons imply that some of the best young debaters in the country will be unable to grasp a core principle of public advocacy? Dr Lyons’ take on the debate may be explained in the context of his formidable body of knowledge on the subject of animal research. Dr Lyons sees the wider animal research debate as being dominated and distorted by “historically entrenched power advantages enjoyed by animal research interests”. In his campaigning work with both the CASJ and its predecessor organisations, Dr Lyons’ objective has been to reveal the institutional structures and power imbalances that obscure any objective and balanced assessment of the benefits and ethical costs of animal research. In his article, he portrays public discourse as being thoroughly caught up in animal researchers’ interpretation of the debate. He is worried that in this environment, the only arguments against animal research that appear in the public discussion and the mass media are “absolute and highly general positions […] likely to obscure the questions which are of most practical relevance”.

Put in plainer terms, Dr Lyons is concerned that students speaking on the proposing side in upcoming Big Animal Research Debates will only be aware of the general case in favour of banning animal research, and will overlook the details and nuance that would give the debate the most value. Put in the plainest terms, Dr Lyons is concerned that student speakers will not do their homework and will not bother to look beyond simplified summaries of the complex family of arguments linked to animal experimentation.

The easiest way for Dr Lyons and the other academics who work with the CASJ to safeguard against an unsophisticated debate would be for them to get involved with the project and speak on panels at the Big Animal Research Debates. As Dr Lyons points out, many of the debating societies who have partnered with IDEA UK have asked him to appear at their events, but he has declined to take part. The same is true of PETA UK and Animal Aid, both of whom IDEA UK approached directly and both of whom declined to participate.

Dr Lyons has carried out truly remarkable research and advocacy work, which has had a dramatic impact on the public’s ability to access key information about animal experimentation. His work has expanded our understanding of the interactions between state officials responsible for overseeing the law surrounding animal research and the businesses and institutions that must comply with it. For this reason, it is extremely disappointing that he has chosen to neglect his aims as a campaigner and his duty as an academic by refusing to share his insights with young people and the wider public.

The ideology of debating
How are young debaters trained to think about motions? And why does IDEA believe that they will defy Dr  Lyons’ expectations on 14 October? I would like to point out to Dr Lyons that almost all debate motions are phrased as “ideal-level” ethical arguments, but nonetheless produce debates that contain a great deal of nuance and practical reasoning. During this year’s European Debating Championships in Manchester, teams tackled motions such as “This House would require international aid budgets to be approved by popular referenda” and “This House, as the Muslim Brotherhood, would sincerely offer to cease resistance, participate in elections, and respect a liberal constitution”. Taken at face value, an attempt to turn the policies contained in these motions into law would face many of the same obstacles as the policy contained in the motion “This House would ban all forms of animal research”. However, I have yet to see a high-level competitive debate or a planned public debate involving trained debaters degenerate into the distracting discussion about “all-or-nothing” questions that Dr Lyons is worried about.

The ideological objective of debating is to build an appreciation for the complexity that underlies apparently general and absolute political and ethical positions among young people and the society at large. Debaters are trained to move beyond superficial arguments, to look at the actors, stakeholders and history surrounding a motion. They build proposition-side cases based on extensive background reading and preparation. Debaters are rewarded for taking a sceptical view of claims made from positions of privilege, and for attempting to overturn received wisdom. Most importantly, debaters are taught that it is their duty to make every aspect of these complicated discussions accessible to the widest possible audience. When they agree to take part in a debate, student debaters commit to do much more than simply argue about a motion – they research and explore the motion.

Learning more about animal research
As IDEA UK’s Debate Programmes Coordinator, I chose to work with UAR to set up The Big Animal Research Debate because the use of animals in scientific studies was an area of ethics, philosophy and politics that I had not previously explored. My own opinions were unformed and I wanted to see how they would change if I immersed myself in the subject. I wanted to hear more and understand more about both sides of the issue. As a debater myself, I believe that the best way to do this is to pick a side of the issue to argue, make the best case I can, and listen to the views of someone arguing from the other side. If we speak more, listen more and include more voices and sources of knowledge in the debate, the depth of our understanding will grow. These are the values that thousands of young people across Europe commit to when they join debating societies. These are values that I hope Dr Lyons shares.

A challenge to Dr Lyons
I passionately believe in the work of IDEA and the value of debate. I am committed to ensuring that IDEA’s non-partisan political stance is expressed in the way we run our projects. I trust that the arguments I have set out demonstrate how our non-partisan political stance ensures an informed, fair and open debate, and answer the charge that The Big Animal Research Debate is “bogus”. It is on this basis that I would like to ask Dr Lyons and his colleagues at the CASJ, PETA UK and Animal Aid to reconsider their refusal to get involved in the project and join the many academics debating on both sides of the motion.

IDEA’s dedication to debate is defined by a determination to acquire knowledge and a willingness to see beyond partisan judgments. If you agree to share your expertise with the Big Animal Research Debate’s audiences, you will prove that you are able to do the same.

Alexander Cavell
Debate Programmes Coordinator, 
The International Debate Education Association (UK)