Monday, December 15, 2008

By Any Means Necessary?

The noise damned-near deafened me as I entered the facility — a government-funded center for research on primates, placed in the boonies to avoid attention from animal-rights activists. In front of me stood a huge, Plexiglas enclosure holding dozens of rhesus monkeys, who played, ate, groomed, fought, and above all, screamed.

It measures my own ignorance, I know today, that the sight terrified and dismayed me. I didn’t realize that this is how monkeys act normally, and that the communal enclosure, which allowed them to socialize and interact as they would have in nature, actually represented the pinnacle of humane digs for these cantankerous but brilliant near-relatives of ours [1].

Monkeys are just loud, is all.

I can’t, however, repudiate my feelings as I walked back out, mulling my interview with the addiction researcher I’d come to cover. I remember being struck by the immediate relevance of this person’s work to human addiction, and thinking that this research could very well provide a breakthrough to alleviate the vast human suffering that drug addiction causes.

I also remember thinking that I wouldn’t want a daughter or son of mine to marry someone who could do what that person had done to those monkeys.

Let me give a quote that encapsulates where I’m coming from:

The value of animal experimentation to human health and knowledge is not seriously in doubt. But past “scientific” beliefs — such as that animals cannot feel pain; that an animal rendered motionless by anesthesia cannot feel pain; and that higher animals such as dogs and primates cannot feel anxiety and fear — have been overturned by increased scientific understanding.

That’s from “Vivisection,” Gale Encyclopedia of Science, Third Edition, and I’m the guy who wrote it. I’d remembered adding something to the effect that, in view of the stunning misapprehensions of the past, we should regard our views today on what constitutes humane treatment of animals with humility; but it’s not in the final version. I may well have cut it myself, in editing the piece down to the specified length. But I wish I’d included it now, because it’s an important corollary.

Both my visit to the primate research center and that encyclopedia article came back to me when I encountered a real gob-stopper of a report from 1967. Unfortunately the PubMed entry doesn’t include an abstract, so here’s my summary of what they did: They took a group of people who had been hospitalized for alcoholism and, to help them kick the habit, exposed them to alcohol in coordination with an intravenous dose of succinylcholine chloride. The effect of that injection, from the original:

It was possible to obtain apnea within seconds of the patient having tasted the beverage. When apnea occurred, the patient was ventilated with a breathing bag. After breathing was restored the patient was asked to get up and dress.

A couple of important details: These guys didn’t invent the method, and were neither the first nor the last to report on it. And clearly, alcoholism had profoundly harmed the experimental subjects before the study:

The criteria used in making a diagnosis of alcoholism included a drinking pattern which consistently interfered with some important aspect of the patient’s life; that is, personal health, family life, occupation or social adjustment.

Keeping in mind these guys had entered a psychiatric hospital for alcoholism (in the 1960s — the cocktail party era), I think we can assume their alcoholism was severe. And amazingly, after undergoing what was in effect a near-death experience, these guys actually referred friends with alcoholism to the study. So we can’t argue any profound lack of informed consent, at least after the fact.

But if you’re thinking of A Clockwork Orange and the (barely) fictional Ludovico technique, you’ve got me for company: Alex, too, volunteered for the surreally brutal conditioning to wean him from the joys of committing murder, rape, and general mayhem. Waterboarding also comes to mind, and all the hairy political context that comes with it [2].

Nor was this the only eyebrow-raising item in the paper: The researchers measured the patients’ abstinence and general progress using a post-study questionnaire. Normally I’d be leery of trusting folks’ self-reporting on abstinence, but in this case the researchers confirmed its accuracy by sending the questionnaire to people who knew the subjects well and could confirm whether they were telling the truth.

This would be profoundly out of bounds today, by my understanding of modern psychiatric practice. I suppose it’s possible that you could write a release form that allowed patients to sign away their confidentiality rights in this way; but I can’t help but think you couldn’t get an institutional review board to approve it, on that basis alone.

The effectiveness the method displayed in this single paper, by the way, was quite murky — amazingly enough, control subjects who didn’t receive the drug did statistically no differently than those who did. The folks who got the drug did do better than two other control groups: patients at one of the hospitals involved who did or did not comply with then-standard psychoanalytic alcoholism treatment [3]. I haven’t tracked down the later reports on this method, which may or may not have confirmed whether it works in keeping people away from alcohol; I’ve certainly never heard of anything like this being used nowadays. But is efficacy beside the point, when the means are so extreme?

I just don’t know. And I’m painfully aware that, in the context of the suffering caused by addiction, I may not have the moral standing to make the call. I’m more comfortable with my position on waterboarding, since intelligence professionals have recently begun questioning whether it’s really been all that useful, even in the very few contexts that its supporters like to raise, which pretty much was my suspicion all along [4]. In the case of today’s paper, though, the guys undergoing the nastiness were also its beneficiaries: And it bears repeating, many of them recommended the study to their friends afterward.

But I wouldn’t want my son or daughter to marry anybody who could do this to a human being.

[1] As an admittedly unscientific observation, a friend who served as a Special Forces sniper in Central America in the 1980s reports that similar monkeys were singularly smart at stealing packs, which they rummaged for food. And as they recognized and remembered individual humans, “God help you if you killed one of them,” he added. I didn’t ask him to elaborate; “nature bats last,” as they say.
[2] Though, my God: When did the appropriate context of torture become grist for political debate?
[3] Actually the researchers pointed out that their
experimental patients were statistically better off than these “standard treatment” patients, but their control patients were not. I’m not sure whether they meant to imply a kind of statistical property of transitivity there, but it’s a dubious argument. Since they admit having used parametric statistics on non-normal data, I’m even less certain that they demonstrated anything at all.
[4] Again, a friend whose past includes a stint as a military intelligence officer in the 1980s confirmed his contempt for the post-9/11 changes in interrogation technique. I’ve absolutely no respect for the feckless argument that waterboarding isn’t torture; I have more regard for those who say, “Yes, but ...” To my mind, it was never about what we (and our allies) did to a very small number of pretty-much-100-percent-known terrorists — the roughly half-dozen “high value detainees” — as much as the hundreds of guys that the method’s defenders don’t bring up, because both their guilt and the value of what they could possibly tell us, tortured or not,
seems to be less-than-well established, to be generous. I’m not proud of saying this, but if the issue were what we were doing with a few top al Qaeda leaders, we wouldn’t have had to build a prison and it probably never would have reached public knowledge.

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