Interview with Professor Marco Mamone Capria

mmcCV: Marco Mamone Capria holds a Ph. D. in Mathematics and since 1990, has taught geometry, mathematical physics, history of science and epistemology to undergraduates, graduates and post-graduates at the University of Perugia, Italy. At present he teaches a graduate course on “Geometrical Methods in the Theory of Relativity”.

For six years (1997-2003) Professor Mamone Capria was a member of the Ethical Committee of his university, and has organized several international conferences, five of which (2001-2011) were part of the project “Science and Democracy”, which he co-ordinates (www.dmi.unipg.it/mamone/sci-dem).

Since 2007 he has been president of the “Hans Ruesch Foundation for a Medicine Without Vivisection” (www.hansruesch.net). A collection of most of his research on medicine and the methodology of medical research appears on the Foundation’s website, together with videos of some of his lectures on animal experimentation and related matters.

He has edited several books, among them the last two books by Hans Ruesch (La medicina smascherata [“Unmasked Medicine”], of 2005, and La Figlia dell’Imperatrice [“The Empress’ Daughter”], of 2007). His last edited book, Science and the Citizen – Contemporary Issues and Controversies, of 2013, which is freely downloadable
(http://www.dmi.unipg.it/mamone/sci-dem/atti.html), includes several critical contributions on medicine by different authors, and two chapters by himself on the scientistic ideology and the corruption of biomedical research.

Antidote Europe (AE) : Could you describe how and why you became involved in the issue of animal experiments ?

Marco Mamone Capria (MMC) : I first realized that invasive experiments on live animals (what is commonly called vivisection, whether or not ‘section’ is involved) were still being performed when I was elected a member of the Ethical Committee of my university. Actually, half a dozen years earlier I had come across in a local bookshop a copy of Hans Ruesch’s powerful essay against vivisection, Imperatrice nuda (which has been expanded in the English version and called Slaughter of the Innocent), and I had bought it out of my interest in the history of science. I read it and found it both disturbing and, as to its basic claims, entirely convincing. I found very enlightening the collection of critical quotations from researchers and other authorities which spoke from a strictly methodological point of view.  However, at the time I naively imagined that vivisection was by now something like astrology: a residual and doomed pseudoscientific practice, and surely not anything that I should worry about as a member of my university. To my dismay, I discovered that the secrecy surrounding vivisection is very effective in making people ignore how pervasive a practice it is, and how all of us should be concerned that so many academic careers in medicine are still being built on an experimental methodology that is deeply flawed on all counts: it is cruel, wasteful of resources, and dangerously deceptive.

AE : You gave a presentation to the EU parliament in Brussels in October 2014, entitled « Protecting our health from the business of disease» (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMRXiPVVXC4). Could you briefly summarise the main points of your presentation for our readers ?

MMC : My 3-hour presentation at the EU parliament in Brussels was designed to give all the main elements of the case against vivisection, but I dwelt especially on two aspects: that vivisection is methodologically inconsistent and that the people’s health has suffered enormously from the pretence that animal experiments give us important insights into human medical problems. At the same time I focused on the paradoxical co-existence of medical counter-productivity and  industrial profits. In fact, many people think it unlikely that if vivisection were so badly flawed as we claim it to be, the pharmaceutical, medical, and chemical industry, which are largely based on it, could be so lucrative.

To show that this notion, prima facie reasonable, is in fact misconceived, the best way is to describe in some detail one example of a pharmaceutical disaster which has increased, instead of destroying, the economic prosperity of a company. So I discussed the Vioxx disaster, presenting the figures involved, and showing that even a catastrophically bad drug such as Vioxx may have been at the end of the day a commercial success. This proves that the laws of the free-market (and, for that matter, of academic careers)  are not enough to bring about a change in the way drugs are developed and manufactured, and the toxicity of chemicals evaluated. We have to face the fact that after all is said at the methodological, epistemological, and historical levels, a political issue is left which must be resolved at its own level. So I was particularly happy to expound these facts and ideas in a place where new international laws and regulations can be proposed, debated, and voted.

AE : You served on a research ethics committee at your university for a period of six years. Could you describe your experience ?

MMC : The committee consisted of 20 members, including Chairman and Secretary. The committee had one elected representative from each research area (broadly defined), plus four other people (representing the local professional associations of doctors, veterinarians, nurses, and the court for patients’ rights). I was a full member, representing a rather wide research area (Mathematics, Computer Science, Physics, and some branches of Engineering). Together with the other members, I was sent the applications for our ethical approval and was supposed to express my opinion and to vote for or against each of them at the next meeting.

AE : Besides yourself, were there any other committee members opposed to animal experiments?

MMC : No, or at least not consistently – and particularly not when the moment came to cast one’s vote! The strange thing, at least from the naïve viewpoint I had at the time, was that even those who might be imagined to be my natural allies (philosophers, lawyers, in general scholars in the
humanities) were generally afraid to antagonize the animal researchers – the reason being, as I came to realize, that most of the latter where either Professors of Medicine or people variously connected to them. And, to put it bluntly, you (and your family) must enjoy very good health to be ready, if necessary, to compromise your relationship with people endowed with such crucial professional skills… Add to this that, in general, a misplaced sense of “collegiality” makes it very hard for a member of a university to dispute the right of other members to do research as they please.

AE : Did you ever succeed in completely stopping an animal experiment on methodological or epistemological grounds ?

MMC : Actually it is difficult to know whether my methodological, epistemological, and legal opposition may have prevented some projects from being presented at all, but I would not rule out this possibility. What is sure is that I forced several people to think twice on an issue that they were
not particularly keen to examine even once. However, on virtually all animal projects which were presented the rest of the committee stonewalled, to such an extent that it became practically
impossible for me to attend the meetings in the last two years without risking to be shouted at or otherwise harassed. I used all legal means provided by university regulations to fight back, but there is very little you can do if you do not enjoy the support of at least a sizeable minority. So when I say (and I have said it quite often) that academic ethical committees, whatever their composition, are not a bulwark against infringement of rationality, ethical principles, or even laws concerning animal experimentation, I speak from direct experience, which, it is worth stressing, there is no reason to regard as being unique to my university.

AE : Thank you very much for taking the time to take part in this interview. Are there any other comments that you wish to add in closing ?

MMC : I would like to advise your readers not to leave animal experimentation to self-styled experts in either laboratory sciences or bioethics, and to get personally involved, particularly by learning and spreading information, and by writing to one’s political representatives to ensure that they are aware of what is really at stake. Many people are afraid that their scientific education may be inadequate to debate methodological issues with researchers, and feel they are on much safer ground when they voice purely ethical concerns. It is important to understand why this is wrong, and that the individuals and associations that support this narrow-minded approach are misleading many well-meaning activists.

First of all, there is no such a thing as a “purely ethical” side to a tangled issue involving the conflicting interests and claims of several groups of professionals, industrialists, and ordinary citizens. Secondly,  spontaneous moral feelings – like the natural indignation at the ill-treatment of laboratory animals – are very easily manipulated in a public setting – for instance, by showing a picture of a seriously ill child and stating the (trite, empty, and so many times falsified) promise that animal experiments will save his or her life. It is important to realize that in these cases a confidence trick is being played, and factual information and arguments are vital to counteract it. Many medical and/or scientific authorities can be quoted to undermine vivisectionist propaganda and, more often than not, you need not be a scientist (let alone a vivisector) to understand and fully exploit what they have said.