Just a Little Common Sense

For a life based on reason, ethics, literature and art.

Archive for February 2011

The Ethics of Animal Testing

with 2 comments

The one thing people bring up in defense of animal testing are the huge medical and scientific advances it provides us with. There’s immensely important treatments out there that could not have been developed without experimentation on animals, and nobody seriously denies that.

From a utilitarian point of view, ethics are a cost-benefit calculation: The end does justify the means: While killing people is generally a bad thing to do, assassinating Hitler for example would have been ethically permissible because in that case, the benefit of preventing or at least stopping a genocide outweighs the cost of killing a single human being by several orders of magnitude. By the same token, sentencing a few hundred mice to a death of agony may be morally permissive when it leads to the discovery of, say, a cure for cancer – the future prevention of great suffering outweighs the suffering inflicted upon a few mice in the here and now.

While that is a perfectly valid point to make, it is ridiculous to try to justify all animal testing by pointing out that there are a few experiments among the millions of tortured creatures that significantly advance medical science. The huge majority of animals are being tested on just to show that shampoo X is safe to use on your kids without producing a burning sensation in their precious little eyes, as if there weren’t enough safe ones available already. There is so little scientific or medical progress in these areas that it wouldn’t even justify harming a single fly.
Once that is pointed out, most proponents of animal testing retreat to defending “medical animal testing”. Unfortunately, for that field the same thing holds true: Only a tiny fragment of cruel experiments yield significant results, while the vast majority inflict incredible amounts of suffering for little or insignificant data in return.

The second line of defense for most proponents of animal testing boils down to “but they’re just animals” – They question that animals have any rights at all, or sometimes attack the idea of “rights” itself as being useless and without basis in reality. In essence what they’re saying is that “animals are less able than us, therefore it is okay for us to treat them however we wish.”

Now here is where the discussion gets interesting. Let me start by pointing out that most people would agree that it is wrong to experiment on a less able person. It’s wrong to experiment on the elderly, children, or mentally disabled adults – only very few people would disagree with that.
The problem here is that any argument that can be used to justify the suffering of animals can equally be used to justify inflicting suffering onto less able humans. Perhaps disabled ones, or all below a certain IQ? Or why not experiment on convicts, alcoholics or the homeless?

If you invoke a hierarchy of ability to grant humans a higher ethical status than animals, you have to accept that the “lower” class that includes animals would also include less able humans. The only other real option you have is to invoke an ideal of equality based on the ability to suffer.
Suffering is the only thing that all humans share, and coincidentally is also shared by all other conscious creatures on this planet. So by its own virtue the argument extends to include, without discrimination, all beings capable of suffering.
The question is not whether there is actually such a thing as a “right” to life or to anything – the point is that to whatever extent rights do exist, there is no justification for awarding them to humans without extending them to other animals too.

With regards to animal testing this doesn’t mean we should put a stop to all experiments run on animals. Not all of them inflict a great amount of suffering on the test subjects, and some of them return results important enough to justify the harm inflicted. What it means is that we need a shift of paradigm in the public perception of the issue. Rather than the current idea that animal testing is generally okay and only in especially cruel instances may be morally questionable, we need to accept and recognize the idea that inflicting suffering on any conscious being is generally wrong, and only in certain instances may be permissible.

Setting humans apart from and above all other species is purely arbitrary, much in the same way that racism arbitrarily declares one race to be superior to others.


I’d like to end with a few lines that beautifully sum up the single most important argument that can be made in this debate; it was written well over two centuries ago by Jeremy Bentham, in his work Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned […] What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month of age. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Written by Phil

February 24, 2011 at 11:57

Music For The Unbeliever: Episode 1

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Ever since I noticed the insane amount of christian music out there, I’ve been keeping my eyes open for songs that thematize science, atheism, Humanism, skepticism and other related topics – songs that promote critical thinking and, well, just a little common sense.
Over time, I’ve found a good few. Many are metal and punk songs, but I’ve found some less aggressive ones too, perhaps more suitable for a wider audience. Also, there’s a surprising amount of Hip-Hop in the mix. From now on I’ll be sharing one of these songs with you once a week.

I’ll start today with one of my personal favourites, ballad by Motörhead called ‘God Was Never On Your Side’. Enjoy!


Lyrics: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Phil

February 7, 2011 at 04:47

I Trust My Life To Science

with 10 comments

A few days ago I ordered two ten-gram-packs of Nux Vomica homeopathic remedy. Today I went to the pharmacy to pick it up. I paid a total of 16,60€, 8,30€ per pack. Nux Vomica, the listed active ingredient, is a poisonous tree native to india. Its seeds contain Strychnine, the bark contains the very similar brucine, aswell as other poisonous compounds.

Nux Vomica is potentially lethal to humans. 32 mg of strychnine are needed to kill and adult, so eating only a few Nux Vomica seeds would already do the trick. This is what such a death would look like:

Ten to twenty minutes after exposure, the body’s muscles begin to spasm, starting with the head and neck […]. The spasms then spread to every muscle in the body, with nearly continuous convulsions, and get worse at the slightest stimulus. The convulsions progress, increasing in intensity and frequency until the backbone arches continually. Convulsions lead to lactic acidosis, hyperthermia and rhabdomyolysis. These are followed by postictal depression. Death comes from asphyxiation caused by paralysis of the neural pathways that control breathing, or by exhaustion from the convulsions. The subject dies within 2–3 hours after exposure.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In a very small dose, Nux Vomica works as a laxative. In a higher dosis that is still below the lethal threshold, it leads to violent convulsions and muscle spasms.
As I said, I just legally purchased 20 grams of that stuff, at the pharmacy, without a prescription of any kind.

Tomorrow, I am going to swallow all of it.

Let me repeat: This is over the counter medicine, bought in a respected pharmacy. And not only does it clearly state a potentially lethal poison as the active ingredient on its label, but the package insert specifically warns not to take more than the recommended dose of five of the tiny sugar pills, and to immediately see a doctor in case of an overdose.

Despite all that I’m not the least bit worried about the consequences. I am not going to die. I am not even going to experience the slightest discomfort, beyond the taste of a mouthful of sugar. And that is because in homeopathic remedies, the active ingredient is diluted so much that there is absolutely nothing left of it.
Of course, homeopaths know that. They offer all kinds of excuses for why it might still work, mainly the claim that water has some sort of ability to retain a “memory” of the ingredient, and thus the desired effects, even in the absence of said ingredient. Of course, they might be right. Everybody has an anecdote of someone who is into homeopathy and was healed many times by it. So many people swear on its miraculous power, could they possibly all be wrong? Well, of course they could. And even though there are people who think that this is rather far-fetched and unlikely, I am willing to wager my life on it.The American Institute For The Destruction Of Tooth Fairy Science

My confidence will become more understandable the more you read about the supposed “science” behind homeopathy. Not only has it never conclusively been shown to work, there is not even a known mechanism or even hypotheses explaining how it might work.

The label on my recently bought bottles of homeopathic Nux Vomica – “remedy” also contains information on the concentration of active ingredient. Being an over the counter medicine, it has to. The concentration is given here is “D30” – a cryptic phrase, after all those who sell it are playing on the fact that hardly anybody knows about the principle behind it. What it means is that it has been diluted in a concentration of one in 10 raised to the power of 30. That’s a one followed by thirty zeroes:
1 in 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 – that means it’s a concentration of one molecule of active ingredient in 30 tons of water.
Which basically means that if you spill one drop of strychnine into the water of the New York Harbour, and I drink a glass of water from the Rotterdam Harbour, I have about as much chance to catch a molecule of active ingredient as by swallowing the sugar pills I just bought.

Standing in the Pharmacy with a bottle of homeopathic remedy in my hand that I had just bought and paid for, and generally being the guy I am, of course I couldn’t just leave without a comment. So I commented:

Excuse me, I’m wondering. I mean, why exactly do you sell these at all? As a Pharmacist you know that the only difference between all those bottles (I gestured at the rack behind her) is on the label, right?

She looked at me blankly, for a brief moment completely confused. Which is understandable. I mean, this wasn’t exactly fair. I came there prepared, while she was completely unsuspecting, thinking she was only dealing with a satisfied customer picking up his order when I jumped her with that question. Nevertheless, I felt I needed to make that point. Considering the situation, she kept her wits rather well.

Girl: “What do you mean?”
Me: “I mean that there’s no trace of any active ingredient in any of them. If you’d remove the labels, no homeopath in the world could tell the difference.”
Girl (confused): “But you just bought it!”
Me: “Yes, I’m with a group of skeptics who will collectively take an overdose tomorrow, to educate the public about the fact that there is nothing in it.”
Girl: “Oh, so you mean with the dilution and all”
Me: “Exactly.”
Girl: “Well, there are studies that show that it works, so…” (She left the sentence hanging)
Me: “Yeah, there’s about a handful of them. All of which have been discredited. On the other hand there are hundreds of credible ones that show no effect at all.”
Girl: “Well, there’s still thousands of people who will swear on it!”
Me: “Yes, but all they have to offer is anecdotes. There’s also thousands of people who swear on fortune-telling. Actually, there’s probably even thousands of people claiming to be the reincarnation of Napoleon. That doesn’t mean much.”
Girl: “Yes, but as long as it works for them, there’s no harm in selling it, no?”
Me: “Selling them sugar. At a price of eight euro per ten gram. No, that’s right I suppose. No harm. I just wonder about the ethics of it.”
Girl: “Well. You could talk to one of the pharmacists if you like.”
Me: “No, that’s alright. I’m not here to change anybody’s mind. I’m just making a point: Not all of your customers are happy about your support of pseudo-scientific woo. Have a nice day.”

Written by Phil

February 4, 2011 at 18:10

More Abuse in Mother Teresa’s Homes

with 3 comments

A few weeks ago I shared Sally Warner’s story with you. She had been a volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity (MoC) in India for thirteen years, and now finally found the courage to speak up about the countless cases of abuse and gross medical negligence she witnessed there. If you haven’t read it yet, you can find it here.
I also urge you to visit Sally Warner’s own blog, where you will find more detailed stories about the abuse she witnessed, harrowing pictures of the same, and accounts of her trying (and failing) to move the nuns in charge of the various homes to change their policy.
Two days ago, I received a new comment on that post, also from a former volunteer. Read for yourselves:
Note: I’ve taken the liberty to edit out the typos from both her comment and my response.

I too volunteered at Mother Theresa’s Orphanage in Pondicherry – St. Terese Street. What I found there was appalling. Babies who were brain damaged were force-fed by filling their mouths with some kind of food and holding of their noses so that they either had to choke or swallow. Some of these babies were blind and deaf and only a few weeks old. When I complained bitterly to the sister in charge, she said that she knew these things were going on. They were also fed very hot food and very hot milk. They were left in soiled clothing the entire day and feces and urine ran from the mattresses and mats on which they lie , all day long. I actually rescued one child from their grip. seven children died whilst I was there, for 6 weeks.

The sister in charge was a materialistic torturer and cared nothing for the children under her care. The other sisters did nothing to stop what was going on.

I am still in India ten years later. But NOT with the MOC.

I’ve just written her a mail, asking for an interview. The MoC remain one of the richest “charities” of the world, and Mother Teresa’s name continues to be a synonym for good even among secular people. I think it’s important that stories like these get told. Not only does this ongoing abuse need to stop, but people also need to be educated about what is really going on in this “charity”, and where they can direct their donations to make a better impact.

Here’s my mail to her:

From: Philipp Schaub
To: xxxxx@xx.com
Date: Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 5:05 PM

Subject: Your Comment Regarding Mother Teresa

Dear Roslind,

I am Phil, the author of Just A Little Common Sense. Two days ago you commented on my post about Hemley Gonzalez’ interview with Sally Warner, telling your own story of abuse you witnessed in one of the homes of th MoC.
First of all, I’d like to thank you, not only for taking the time to stop and comment on my blog, but also for speaking up about the things you’ve seen.
I think it is important that stories like yours get told. The MoC remain one of the largest “charitable” organizations around the world, and continue to receive millions of dollars in donations every year. Those donations come mainly people motivated by genuine goodwill and unaware of the practices of the MoC, not from conscious supporters of their ways. I think it is mandatory to educate the public about their horrible and inhumane practices, not only to stop the abuse going on in the MoC-homes, but also to redirect those millions of dollars to better causes and more responsible charities.

People tend to respond a lot more to personal stories than a dry set of facts. Rather than just writing another post saying “A commenter told me there’s a home in Pondicherry where she saw babies mistreated”, I’d like to tell your story in more detail.

Would you agree to answer a few questions about your time at the MoC?

I would be very happy to share your story. My blog doesn’t have many readers on its own, but I have a few contacts to larger blogs and a few news-outlets in the secular scene that would also have great interest in publishing a story like yours.
Whether we would include identifying information about you or do this anonymously is entirely up to you (If you agree to be interviewed at all, that is).
It may only have been six weeks, and ten years ago, but I still think it is a story that matters, and one that needs to be told. It needs to be told for people to realize that the events Hemley Gonzalez (www.stopthemissionariesofcharity.com) and Sally Warner (sallywarner.blogspot.com) described are NOT isolated cases, but ongoing and regular practice in the homes of the MoC.

I am looking forward to hear from you.
Kind regards,

Phlipp Schaub
Just A Little Common Sense

PS: I will write a post for my blog publishing your original comment and this mail to you as my reaction. Please rest assured that I will NOT publish any response you might write to this without your explicit permission to do so. I will regard any subsequent mail exchange as confidential. Nor will I publish your mail-address or any other identifying information.

I’m excitedly awaiting her reply.

Written by Phil

February 2, 2011 at 17:54

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