Friday, December 07, 2012

“Men of Hard Science” and the Denial of Animal Emotions

In a previous post about psychiatry I put the phrase “men of hard science” in scare quotes to contrast these alleged experts with the more sensible and scientific kindness movement of nineteenth century mental health. In all fields, the “hard science” culture, which today of course includes some women, gospelizes philosophical materialism and the “if it’s not quantitative, it’s not scientific” approach to intellectual rigor.

It also preaches that ascribing human traits, such as consciousness, thoughts, or emotions, to the likes of dogs and cats is unscientific anthropomorphism, because materialism precludes the use of such terms when describing animal (or human) behavior. And “anthropomorphism” is used as a club to disparage anyone who uses such language.

Jeffrey Masson, Sanskrit scholar turned psychoanalyst* turned bestselling author of books on the emotional life of animals, challenges the “hard science” approach to biology. Indeed, he points out in When Elephants Weep (p. 33) that women for many years were considered by their male colleagues to be too emotional, and therefore more likely to be anthropomorphic, to work directly with animals.

Yet none other than Charles Darwin and, more recently, Donald Griffin and Jane Goodall have championed the scientific study of animal consciousness and Goodall (Elephants, p. 3) has defended anecdotal evidence, that scorned lay technique “hard scientists” would never touch.**

The anthropomorphism charge stems from our alleged inability to know “with certainty” what goes on inside an animal mind. We don’t even know, the hard scientists say, if animals feel pain when they are being shocked or locked in isolation from all other animals and humans.

But it is an unjustified leap to conclude that we can know nothing about the contents of an animal’s consciousness and therefore require all descriptions of behavior to be mere responses to external stimuli. For example, if a lay person were to say that a dog is feeling left out and wants attention, the “proper” scientific jargon of hard science would be: the dog “is performing the submissive display of a low-ranking canid” (Elephants, p. 31).

Behavioristic reasoning such as this can be pushed to a solipsistic extreme by saying that all we can really know with certainty is the contents of our own mind, not that of other human beings or animals.  And torture of humans, which fortunately no hard scientist today would agree to, can be justified on grounds that no one can know with certainty whether the victim is really feeling pain when whipped and stretched on the rack (Elephants, p. 39).

The term “with certainty” above is in scare quotes because it is both a redundancy and an equivocation; probable knowledge, which we can obtain by observing and interacting with animals, is a percentage of certainty, so any knowledge we have is certain knowledge, just not one hundred percent certain. To know anything, even as a probability, is to know it with certainty.

And one of those interesting ironies of probable knowledge, Masson points out, is that animals may sometimes be zoomorphic in relation to their human companions, such as the cat that deposits a tasty morsel of gopher innard under the lady of the house’s desk (Elephants, p. 44).

The bottom line of the anthropomorphism argument is not that some people improperly ascribe human qualities to animals. It is the contradiction and hypocrisy of the “hard scientists” who use animals to test hypotheses about human pain and depression (Dogs Never Lie about Love, p. 20). And more significantly, but not surprising to those who work in the academic world, it is the cowardice of those scientists who secretly believe that animals have emotions, but will never say so in their published work and may even criticize those who do (Never Lie, p. 17). Courage and “hard science” do not necessarily go together.

The further contradiction of the hard scientists—and tragedy and disgrace—is their failure to examine and acknowledge the similarities the human animal shares with its lower brethren. It is this failure that allowed mad doctors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to describe the insane as wild beasts and, as a result, chain and beat them because animals were assumed not to feel pain.

Little progress, unfortunately, has been made today among the “men of hard science.”



* Masson became director of the Freud Archives in 1980. While in that position he discovered unpublished letters that shed light on Freud’s repudiation of his 1890’s seduction theory. Masson subsequently wrote The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, arguing  that Freud lacked moral courage to stand up to professional indifference and cultural hostility to his claims of sexual abuse as the cause of patient hysteria. Children at the time were viewed as considerable distorters of the truth and respectable males, especially fathers, were beyond reproach. Masson’s payment for his courage and independence to publish these letters and his book was to be fired from his job and dismissed from all psychoanalytic societies.

** The validity of anecdotal evidence in science rests on the assumption that universals exist. A good scientist using sound epistemology needs only two or three observations, not a probabilistic sample of 500, to make a generalization. See In Defense of Advertising, pp. 153-58.


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