Animal Welfare Needs Unbiased Science

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In recent decades, concerns surrounding animal welfare around the world havesteadily increased. The quality of life of animals – both in the wild and in zoological settings -matters to the public. What’s more, legislators and regulators are charged with enacting policiesthat can affect the well-being of these animals. It is vital that these decisions are informed byunbiased, accurate reviews of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, not every review measures upto the commonly accepted standards of analysis and objectivity. In a paper titled ​Bias andmisrepresentation of science undermines productive discourse on animal welfare policy: A casestudy​, an international team of scientists led by Dr. Kelly Jaakkola, Director of Research forDolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, FL, examined a severely flawed review about the welfareof orcas (killer whales) in captivity. The review paper they analyzed, titled ​The harmful effects ofcaptivity and chronic stress on the well-being of orcas (Orcinus orca)​, was authored by Drs. LoriMarino, Naomi A. Rose, Ingrid N. Visser, Heather Rally, Hope Ferdowsian, and VeronicaSlootsky. All of the authors of Marino et al. are known vocal opponents of orcas and othermarine mammals living in zoological institutions.

Although the topics raised are important for animal welfare – including life expectancy, stress,space, and whether orcas in human care receive enough physical, cognitive, and socialstimulation – the Marino et al. paper falls far short of accurate and unbiased review of existingresearch. In their critique, Jaakkola et al. examine and explain a number of methodological flawsand misrepresentations of the scientific literature in Marino et al.’s review, including problematicreferencing, overinterpretation of the data, misleading word choice, and biased argumentation.

“Discussions about the well-being of animals in zoos and aquariums are important,” Dr. Jaakkolasaid. “But by definition, informed decision-making requires good science, and the Marino et al.paper was not good science. The referencing was incomplete and inaccurate, the arguments werebiased, and their review of the data was misleading. Those kinds of pervasive problems not onlyundermine scientific credibility, but can lead to misinformed, and even harmful, decisions aboutanimals and their care.”

Jaakkola et al. approached their critique from the big picture discussion of maintaining thecredibility of scientific reviews. They purposely did not take a position on whether orcas shouldbe maintained in zoos and aquariums. “It is absolutely necessary that we, as scientists, do not letour personal feelings skew the interpretation of data, nor, as was done by Marino et al., letagendas influence how scientific data is analyzed and communicated.,” said co-author Dr.Stephanie L. King, Senior lecturer, University of Bristol, Bristol, U.K. “Ultimately, poorscientific practice will not achieve anything positive – not for the animals themselves, nor for thepublic or the legislative and regulatory bodies.”

ARTICLE: Jaakola, K., Bruck, J.N., Connor, R.C., Montgomery, S.H., King, S.L., (2020) ​Bias andmisrepresentation of science undermines productive discourse on animal welfare policy: A casestudy ​Animals​, 10, 1118. Available with open access at https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/10/7/1118

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