The Factors Governing Progress

Progress toward implementation of the Three Rs is affected by a
complexity of personality and sociological factors, recognised in
The Principles in 1959, but no less effective in the 21st century

Michael Balls

One of the most challenging, but not totally discouraging, chapters in The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique is Russell and Burch’s Chapter 8: The Factors Governing Progress.1

Their main distinction is between individual personality factors and sociological factors, the first of which are dealt with somewhat summarily, with reference to “two pathological [sic] personality variables known to be important in determining attitudes to, and therefore treatment of, animals”. The first of these is the authoritarian factor, “now known to correlate significantly with hostile attitudes to animals, as well as stereotyped preferential treatment of particular species”. The second, “tentatively called the revolutionary factor”, finds its main expression in “a rigidly and fanatically anti-vivisectionist attitude”.

The positions of anti-vivisectionists and the organisation they manage or support are relatively transparent, but a discussion on the degree to which pro-vivisectionists and the organisations they manage or support are authoritarian in a pathological sense is a path down which I will not tread.

One of the great advantages of the Three Rs is the opportunity they provide for cooperation in the middle ground between the extremes and biases of the most trenchant anti- or pro-vivisection positions. This middle ground is very crowded these days, but only when we see what people and organisations actually do can we know whether their commitment to the Three Rs is genuine, or merely a convenient ploy to disguise their true authoritarian or revolutionary ambitions. One intriguing point made by Russell and Burch is that neither type of extremist would be likely to remain or become experimental biologists. Discussion of that point would make a good question in a university finals general examination.

The part of the chapter on the sociological factors begins with a discussion of the relationship between humanity and efficiency, which is where the undoubted power of the Three Rs becomes most effective. Efficiency is seen as “a balance between time, cost and efficacy”, where “refinement will inevitably increase efficacy, and may incidentally entail reduction as well”; reduction “must reduce costs”; and, while replacement may initially involve higher costs in terms of training and equipment, it may “represent a considerable gain in the speed of obtaining results”.

Russell and Burch emphasise that, “in terms of efficacy or yield of information, the advantages of humane experimental technique apply almost universally”, and warn against rationalisation, the mechanism of defence by which unacceptable actions are given acceptable reasons to justify them, while, at the same time, unwittingly hiding the true, but unconscious, motives for them. That reasoning represents a very serious challenge to the pro-vivisection apologists and organisations which operate to defend the use of animal experimentation in biomedical research, in the interests of overcoming the diseases which reduce the length and/or quality of human life.

At this point, Russell and Burch spell out what for me is the absolute highlight of The Principles, saying that it follows logically, that, “If we are to use a criterion for choosing experiments to perform, the criterion of humanity is the best we could possibly invent… The greatest scientific experiments have always been the most humane and the most aesthetically attractive, conveying that sense of beauty and elegance which is the essence of science at its most successful.”

The authors of The Principles then turn to flexibility and communication, beginning by lamenting “the long delay in the application of existing knowledge to the improvement of experimentation”, which they saw as “a sort of rigidity, or inertia — the maintenance of a habit long after information is available for its correction”. They considered this to be due to a lack of communication between research and applied science, and a failure of scientists to pay attention to work published in languages other than their own, but, above all, to “the great curse of modern science — division into specialisations”. The effects of this trend can be harmless, but only if “neutralised by skilled communication of their results by specialists and the provision of a class of avowed synthesisers”.

Russell and Burch say that, to some extent, “failure to make the necessary connections arises at the level of the individual”, but it is “intimately related to the sociological situation”, such as the “gradual growth of awe before experts”. However, “respect for expert specialist knowledge should never become uncritical”. They go on to say that “the problem of interspecialist communication merges into the general one of information retrieval”, and that “we now have far too much information as a species to digest as individuals”.

What strikes me about this first half of Chapter 8, is that, more than 50 years on, the difficulties identified by Russell and Burch in The Principles are still with us today — we are overwhelmed with information, much of which is not critically evaluated before it is dumped on the world, and we are surrounded by experts and specialists. What we need are more avowed synthesisers, capable of broad and lateral thinking.

Professor Michael Balls
Russell & Burch House
96–98 North Sherwood Street
Nottingham NG1 4EE UK

Reference and Note
1 Russell, W.M.S. & Burch, R.L. (1959). The Principles of
Humane Experimental Technique
, xiv + 238pp. London,
UK: Methuen.
The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique is now out of print, but the full text can be found at An abridged version, The Three Rs and the Humanity Criterion, by Michael Balls (2009), can be
obtained from FRAME.

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