Can Science Tell Us What We Ought to Do to Protect Animals?

Despite what an animal welfare scientist says, the answer is "yes" and it must.

Posted Aug 10, 2018

An essay in the New York Times by JoAnna Klein called "Give a Cow a Brush, and Watch It Scratch That Itch" covers a lot of ground about what these smart and emotional bovines think and feel, but it's a tad too fast for me. The piece is available for free online and is an easy read. However, it glosses some important issues that easily could have been covered in a bit more detail. A few people wrote to me asking me to write a bit more, so that's why I'm posting this response. Basically, as Ms. Klein writes, some facilities where cows are used and clearly abused for dairy products are trying to make their lives "better" by giving them access to a swiveling and motorized brush that spins when a cow touches it and helps them scratch some itches. Some cows like it and it's good for their well-being.

The research paper Ms. Klein summarizes is by Emilie McConnachie and five colleagues and is titled "Cows are highly motivated to access a grooming substrate" and is available for free online. The title of this essay indicates that most of the 10 dairy cows who were studied liked to use a "grooming substrate" -- the brush -- because it felt good, and there's a video accompanying the Times essay that clearly shows that this cow feels good using the mechanical brush. And, the researchers, using a weighted gate, showed that cows would work just as hard to gain access both to fresh feed and a brush, more than they would to gain access to an empty room.

All well and good. Most of the cows like the brush so they should be required wherever cows are used and abused for to make dairy products. Denmark requires cows to have access to a mechanical boom, however, they're not required in Canada or the United States. The brushes require maintenance and are expensive, so numerous places that house and use dairy cows don't have to use them. 

Clearly things have to change and we can only hope that legislation will be passed that makes brushes a requirement. While they may be high maintenance and expensive, think of what the cows are sacrificing as they endure horrific lives making dairy. Even iconic animal welfarist Dr. Temple Grandin, who tries to make the lives of "food animals" better, agrees that the cows like the brush. In Ms. Klein's essay she's quoted as saying, "I’m going to say the dairy cow enjoys it. It’s like going to the spa.” I agree the cows enjoy it, but anyone who's seen the inside of a dairy farm knows that it's not at all spa-like, and surely no one I know would voluntarily enter the grounds of a dairy farm if they were to be treated as a dairy cow, brush or brushless.1

Ms. Klein's essay also covers some ground that needs to be discussed in more detail. For example, she writes, "Animals have emotions, perhaps not as complex, but similar to humans, she [Dr. Grandin] said (although the nature of these emotions is a hot topic among animal behaviorists). They have the same basic nervous system and the same neurotransmitters in emotional parts of the brain." The essay to which she refers about emotions being a "hot topic" is called "Do Animals Have Emotions? A Debate" by Psychology Today writer Dr. Paul Thagard, a well-known Canadian philosopher and cognitive scientist. My reading of Dr. Thagard's interesting piece is that he agrees that nonhuman animals are emotional beings (he's the advocate), and the arguments that he puts forth from an anonymous skeptic are time-worn and some could well pre-date Descartes' thoroughly misguided and unsupported view of animals as machines.

Dr. Thagard's essay is available online and it, and some of the comments, are an interesting read. One comment wrongly claims, "Fact is, there's no real evidence to support the notion animals feel emotion. Those advocates argue from a skewed personal testimony." This is a view from the Dark Ages, as there are ample and detailed comparative data that clearly show that numerous nonhumans experience a wide variety of emotions (please also see). Neither Ms. Klein nor Dr. Grandin question whether other animals are emotional beings. And, it is unethical to ignore that they are and go on to claim, as a few remaining skeptics do, that other animals are merely acting "as if" they have feelings. The "as if" disclaimer harkens back to times when we didn't know that much about the emotional lives of other animals, and now we know so much it's really unscientific to offer it up to cast doubt on what other animals are truly feeling (for more discussion please see "Make No Mistake, Orca Mom J-35 and Pod Mates Are Grieving" and references therein). 

Can value-laden science tell us what we ought to do to protect animals?

"Scientists are human beings, after all, and like any other human being, it seems that scientists can be swayed by their value judgments." (Joshua Knobe

"If researchers fail to attend to the question of our right to use animals in invasive ways and ignore the clear-cut moral demand that the benefits from the research outweigh the costs to the animals, at the very least common sense and common decency dictate that animals used in research should be treated as well as possible." (Bernard Rollin)

At the end of Ms. Klein's essay we read, "In the end, she said, science can only tell us what the options are. It can’t tell us what we ought to do.” This quote is from Dr. Marina von Keyserlingk, an animal welfare scientist at the University of British Columbia and author on the research essay.2 I disagree. Science cannot be detached from values. Science is value-laden and often telling us what to do, one way or another. Like other humans, scientists have agendas — personal, social, economic, and political. No longer are people who question science considered to be anti-intellectual, perhaps even Luddites, and summarily dismissed. Along these lines, Yale University cognitive scientist, philosopher, and Psychology Today writer Dr. Joshua Knobe notes, "Scientists are human beings, after all, and like any other human being, it seems that scientists can be swayed by their value judgments." In an essay called "Is Science Value-Free? An Experimental Study," Dr. Knobe summarizes a formal study he conducted with Ohio State University philosopher Richard Samuels involving more than 1000 scientists titled "Thinking like a scientist: Innateness as a case study."

Science does indeed provide the options available for giving other animals the best lives possible wherever they're being used or wherever they live. However, if we don't use the best that science offers, we're not working on their behalf. Of course, some common sense also enters the picture and often combines nicely with what I call "science sense." My impression is that a growing number of scientists are encouraging people to err on the side of other animals using a combination of scientific data and common sense. Are they being objective as scientists supposedly should be? No. Rather, they're advocating a position they choose to support based on their assessment of available data and personal beliefs and values, whereas others do not make the same choice, also using data and personal views. Different blends of common sense and science sense inform different sorts of decisions and there is a good deal written on this subject. For example, and for more discussion focusing on animal protection and on what Colorado State University philosopher Dr. Bernard Rollin (quoted above) calls "the common sense of science," please see his essay titled "The Moral Status of Invasive Animal Research." Please also see "Common Sense, Cognitive Ethology and Evolution" and "Empathy: Common sense, science sense, wolves, and well-being." Our hearts can also show us the way

Bridging the knowledge translation gap

Sadly, many people, including scientists and legislators, are pretty lax about using what we know about the emotional lives of animals to help them along. In The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, Jessica Pierce and I write about the knowledge translation gap. The knowledge translation gap refers to the practice of ignoring tons of science showing that other animals are sentient beings and going ahead and causing intentional harm in human-oriented arenas. On the broad scale, it means that what we now know about animal cognition and emotion has not yet been translated into an evolution in human attitudes and practices. An egregious example of the knowledge translation gap is found in the wording of the U. S. Federal Animal Welfare Act, which explicitly excludes rats and mice from the kingdom Animalia, although a first grader knows that rats and mice are animals as do practicing researchers. (For more information on the idiocy of the AWA's misclassification of rats, mice, and other animals and a call for researchers to speak out on how inane it is to exclude these sentient beings from protection against invasive research, please see "The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals."3)

If scientific studies of animal cognition and animal emotions stopped today, other animals should be just fine and also benefit from what we already know if we truly use the information we already have at hand. When scientists say something like, "Show me the data," and the data already exist, we are obliged to use what we know on behalf of other animals. It's our duty to do all we can especially when other animals are being used and abused "in the name of humans." So, not only ought we allow science to inform us as to how to work for other animals, but so too we must do so and it's unethical not to do so and we must focus on each and every individual. The science of animal well-being stresses that the life of every individual matters and as such, provides more protection than does animal welfare science. Furthermore, more science surely will not show us that it's okay to harm other animals.

Nonhuman animals need all the help they can get, and the information for giving them the very best lives possible is already available and just waiting to be used. Saying that science can help other animals isn't science worship. Science is but one way of knowing, and common sense and heart also can greatly help other animals along. Clearly, a good deal of what we presently know and have known for a long time from detailed comparative research isn't used on their behalf. This needs to be changed right now. 

When all things are considered, we are compelled to use what we know because each and every life matters because each and every life is intrinsically valuable. We must do all we can to alleviate other individuals' suffering. This really isn't asking too much. 


1It's essential to stress that a "better life" is not necessarily anything that resembles a "good life." I've argued that the "Temple Grandin Effect" is not very effective at all and only a very tiny percentage of millions of "food cows" gain any benefit at all. She also refuses to call for an end to this practice, while maintaining that she’s giving these animals a “better life” than they would have without having the stairway on which to trod as they hear, see, and smell other cows being killed. Some people claim that Temple Grandin's so-called "stairway to heaven" has solved the problem of pain and suffering experienced by cows on their way to killing floors of slaughterhouses. It hasn't. It's incredibly difficult to figure out why Dr. Grandin calls the path to horrific and bloody killing floors a "stairway to heaven" other than it sanitizes or softens and deflects attention from what truly has happened and is happening to these sentient beings. And, as one youngster once said to me, "These animals are going to peoples' mouths, not to heaven." And, even if they were, and even if a tiny fraction of individuals have a "better life," it's still a life filled with enduring pain and trauma before they arrive at a slaughterhouse and when they're waiting to be killed and when their lives are taken, and it doesn't come close to bordering on what anyone would reasonably call a "good life." All in all, the "Temple Grandin Effect" is not very effective at all (for additional references on this topic please click here). 

2Dr. von Keyselingk also claims, “We have no idea how these cows think," but ample data on the cognitive and emotional lives of cows provide excellent views on what's happening in the heads and hearts of cows (please also see "Cows: Science Shows They're Bright and Emotional Individuals," a review of a comprehensive essay called "The Psychology of Cows" by Dr. Lori Marino and Kristin Allen). 

3in the 2002 iteration of the AWA we read, "Enacted January 23, 2002, Title X, Subtitle D of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, changed the definition of 'animal' in the Animal Welfare Act, specifically excluding birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research." The first time I saw this I had to read it a few times to be sure my eyes were still working. They were and still are. Birds, fishes, and many other animals also get incorrectly and misleadingly dissed. Where have all the scientists gone who can change this ridiculous misclassification?