Friday 25 February 2022 | 1

Would you dare torture and kill a fish for science ?


Mis à jour le 08 June 2022

In his new book, Laurent Bègue-Shankland explores our relationships with other animals and the way in which our empathy is sometimes put to one side. Thanks to a robot fish and an experiment inspired by the work of Milgram on obedience to authority figures, he shows that the experiment is not as passive as he imagined: many people genuinely chose to put their empathy to one side towards the fish, going so far as to inflict suffering and death on it for the benefit of a scientific objective that they found to be legitimate.

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Laurent Bègue-Shankland, Professor of Social Psychology at Grenoble-Alpes University, has recently published a book on our relationships with other animals (Face aux animaux, Odile Jacob, 2022). The first part of the book talks about the way in which we consider ourselves to be outside of and above the animal kingdom, which gives us the impression that our desires and our comfort should come before the most basic needs of other animals, even at the risk of supporting acts of cruelty towards them. The second part of the book discusses an experiment carried out to study the way in which supporting science and profit prospects for humans can be the reason why most people put their empathy to one side to inflict suffering upon an animal.

Obedience to authority figures

The experiment in question is inspired by well-known work by Stanley Milgram, who, in the 1960s, asked numerous people to inflict stronger and stronger electric shocks on other people when they made a mistake in a learning task. The electric shocks were fake and the victims, who pretended to be in pain, were in on it with the researcher. Apparently unsuspecting of the ruse, and despite the cries and pleas of their victims, the majority of the subjects went so far as to inflict a 450 volt shock under the supervision of the white-coat researcher.

Some people believed that the subjects actually knew that the electric shocks were fake, and that the results of the experiment were therefore biased. To assess this possibility, two researchers developed a particularly cruel version of this experiment, which we know less about, by asking students to administer real electric shocks to a puppy. Three quarters of the subjects went so far as to inflict the maximum shock of 450 volts to the poor puppies despite their very real pleas.

For Milgram, these experiments proved the complete submission of subjects to authority, who were no longer responsible for their acts since they were in an “agentic state”. However, after the experiment, and before knowing about the ruse, the majority of the subjects said they were satisfied to have been able to help with scientific research. In fact, apparently they were not in a state of blind obedience and their apparent cruelty was perhaps due to the fact that they had put aside their own reluctance to inflict suffering on another person, as long as they deemed the stated scientific objective and the researcher who embodied it to be credible and legitimate.

Torturing a fish for science

Laurent Bègue-Shankland set up his own experiment to test this hypothesis, featuring a (fake) fish and the progressive administration of a toxic substance into its aquarium, with 750 people from a range of profiles recruited from the general public. The subjects believed that it was to test the acceptable dose of a product that helped people who were suffering from a memory impairment. In contrast, the software that was used to carry out the experiment was made so that the subjects had the maximum amount of empathy towards the fish which they could see in its aquarium a few metres away and whose heartbeats were reproduced on a screen and with high-pitched beeps.

Would you administer this product to the fish thinking that it could kill it? If you were to respond, you would probably say no – or that you wouldn't use the maximum dose in any event. However, while only 12% of those questioned thought that they would go to the maximum dose, 53% of subjects who were actually put into the experiment went all the way, administering a dose that the software indicated had a 100% chance of killing the fish. This percentage was variable according to the subjects’ level of “social dominance” and their level of speciesism (measured on a six-point scale devised by Oxford University), but also according to their attitude towards science: the subjects from the pro-science group would generally go further than those from the group who were critical towards science.

A filmed interview was done with each subject at the end of the experiment. The Maison des Sciences de l’Homme [Human Sciences Centre] in Grenoble/the Alpes released extracts of these interviews on their Youtube channel, which showed that most people, even among those who went all the way to ‘kill’ the robot fish, felt guilty about what they had done, and they justified it by saying that the objective of the experiment was important, or that the fish didn’t feel pain like other animals that are more similar to us (which is not true).

Rather than blind obedience, it was therefore a matter of them voluntarily distancing their own empathy to respond to what they thought were commendable scientific objectives, even if it meant inflicting huge suffering on this fish.

Animal experimentation and empathy

Perhaps this same process is the endeavour of those who are learning to carry out animal experimentation and are making it their occupation: rather than sadists in white coats, these people are surely convinced that what they are doing is useful and good, and this justifies them putting their own empathy towards the animals aside. Nowadays, animals are incidentally so standardised that it would be very difficult in most cases to recognise them as individuals.

Is animal experimentation ‘necessary’ for human health? In some cases, clearly not – from cosmetic ingredient testing, which still happens despite European regulations, to pharmaceutical enterprises, which are difficult to trust given the number of times they have been condemned in the past , it is difficult to see how those who champion animal experimentation still manage to defend it.

Science isn't the problem – self-criticism is part of its DNA and one day it will overcome the problems that have corrupted the system for a long time. The real problem is elsewhere: among those who try to convince the public that, without animal experimentation, research will come to a halt – among those who, in addition to refusing to acknowledge the merits of certain non-animal methods that are already available, cannot imagine the paths that science could take if money was redistributed in a way in which it doesn't oblige us to condone acts of cruelty at the expense of our own moral values.

Translated from the French by Joely Justice

Nicolas Marty
Hr blog

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Comments 1

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Isabelle | Sunday 27 February 2022

Merci pour cet article très instructif.
A quand l'arrêt de l'expérimentation sur tous les êtres vivants ?