We have all seen the heartbreaking images of animals in labs, on leads, in cages and other similar scenes in nature documentaries. These are the kinds of videos that make us more aware of our environment and conscious about the choices we make. They make us question the value of animal testing and the impact of our own behaviour. But often these videos serve a different purpose; to draw public attention towards a certain cause or issue as a way of influencing political decision-making.
As a consumer of news, you might be familiar with the trend of using animals in scientific experiments to study disease or test new products. These videos can be highly influential in changing attitudes towards animals, and many countries have passed legislation to ban the practice. But how influential is watching animal videos compared to reading the results of a poll?
In the United Kingdom, we are more likely to read the results of a poll than to watch an animal documentary. According to a 2017 poll by Survation, only 3% of respondents said they had changed their mind about an issue due to a nature documentary while a similar proportion (4%) said they had changed their mind due to reading the results of a scientific poll. The trend is similar across Europe with Germany, Italy and France also preferring to read the results of a poll rather than look at an animal documentary. In North America, however, people are more likely to change their minds based on what they see on television.
Attitudes Towards Animals and Scientific Experiments
According to the same Survation poll, when presented with the same choice, respondents in the UK were more likely to express concern for the consequences on animals if scientific experiments are not carried out (49%) than if those experiments are conducted (37%). Fewer than one in ten (8%) said they would be indifferent.
In comparison, when presented with the same choice, respondents in Germany expressed greater concern (55%) about the effects of scientific experiments on animals than about their indifference (29%). In Ireland and France, similar proportions of people were concerned about both issues. In the US, more people were worried about the effects of scientific experiments than were concerned about the impact on animals (37% versus 28% respectively).
Which is More Influential?
While the impact of animals in documentaries varies across countries, the results of the Survation poll put into perspective the difference in public opinion between the choice presented and what actually happened. When presented with the same two choices, people in France were most likely (26%) to say they had changed their mind about whether or not to conduct scientific experiments. In comparison, only 5% of people in Germany said they had changed their minds about whether or not to test products on animals, and 3% in the UK. In France, the issue of scientific experiments was more prominent in people’s minds than in the UK or Germany, where the impact of animals was more prominent. In Italy and Ireland, the two issues appeared to be of equal importance to the public.
The Impact of Animal Rights Activism
The issue of animal testing and scientific experiments was thrust into the mainstream when Netflix released the documentary The Dark Side of Meat in 2018. The film examines the impact of the meat industry on society, and in particular the link between meat consumption and animal cruelty. One of the main sources of revenue for the meat industry is through the use of animals in research, and the film explores the impact this has. Amongst other things, it shows how the meat industry causes extreme suffering to animals in order to research and develop drugs to treat humans. As you would expect, the documentary draws on the work of leading philosophers, scientists and economists who have debated the ethics of research and testing on animals for years. It also explores the impact that celebrities and social media can have in swaying public opinion; featuring interviews with high-profile individuals such as Richard Simmons, Pamela Anderson and Mia Farrow.
Many in the scientific community have criticised the meat industry for its treatment of animals, and the film does an excellent job of putting the debate into context. But while it is great to see the debate being had, the issue of whether or not to test products and conduct scientific experiments is a complex one that goes beyond the simple question of whether or not to eat meat. As the documentary points out, while there are undoubtedly important questions regarding the impact of meat consumption on the environment, it is not just about that. There are also ethical questions that go beyond the slaughter of animals for food. The impact of research and experimentation on animals is a pertinent one, but so is the issue of whether or not to treat animals in a humane manner and for the benefit of humanity.
Reading the Papers
Reading the results of a scientific poll is always a better indication of how the public feel about any given issue than viewing an edited version of public opinion spliced together for political effect. Even if you watch animal documentaries for the sole purpose of being moved and persuaded by the evidence of animal suffering, you will still come away knowing much more about the subject than if you were to rely solely on the results of a poll. This is because, as we have seen, respondents can be misled by the question put and the way it is phrased. Respondents are therefore frequently faced with a choice between two issues that are either of equal importance to them, or one issue versus an alternative that appears more important to them at the time. So, if you want to know what the public think, you have to read the papers. And this is exactly what we do; we get our science news from the British Medical Journal and other respected outlets and journals.
Reading the results of a scientific poll is always a better indication of public opinion than watching an edited version of public opinion spliced together for political effect. Even if you watch animal documentaries for the sole purpose of being moved and persuaded by the evidence of animal suffering, you will still come away knowing much more about the subject than if you were to rely solely on the results of a poll. This is because, as we have seen, respondents can be misled by the question put and the way it is phrased. Respondents are therefore frequently faced with a choice between two issues that are either of equal importance to them, or one issue versus an alternative that appears more important to them at the time. So, if you want to know what the public think, you have to read the papers. And this is exactly what we do; we get our science news from the British Medical Journal and other respected outlets and journals.
The issue of animal testing and scientific experiments is a thorny one that touches on many important questions. While there is no quick or simple solution to the problem, it is always a good idea to be armed with as much information as possible before making a decision. The public are just as ambivalent as scientists about whether or not to carry out research and testing on animals, and documentaries such as The Dark Side of Meat can play an important role in bringing the topic back into the public eye. But the best solution would be a societal change in the way we think about and use animals; more research and education into the importance of a vegan lifestyle and a greater recognition of the need to take into consideration the impact our behaviour has on both ourselves and other animals. For now, however, the answer appears to be: both.