Let’s all march for (veterinary) science

On Saturday 22nd April, 2017, thousands of people rallied across Australia as part of a global movement calling on political leaders to focus more on science, to recognise the significance of science and to use scientific evidence as the basis of good public policy.

Veterinarians have always needed to consider not only the science but also the ethical issues in making decisions about animal welfare. Further, scientific assessments of animal welfare involve a number of considerations that are ethical in nature.

Veterinary ethics are concerned with how veterinarians make decisions and act as professionals for the provision of veterinary care. The law and codes of conduct relating to veterinarians provide an ethical framework to ensure that veterinarians work in an ethical environment. Research has shown that people are mostly innately cooperative and ethical and prefer to work in an ethical environment – they just need laws to enforce this.

"Veterinarians need to discard the perception that moral or ethical reasoning, philosophically grounded, is distant from everyday practice. Daily encounters with ethical ‘dilemmas’ – be they end of life decision-making, pain relief for husbandry procedures or requests to euthanase healthy animals – can serve to make the life of a practitioner more challenging and rewarding."

At the BVA Congress in London in November 2016, Franck Meijboom, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Ethics at Utrecht University, spoke about “incorporating ethics into everyday practice”. Professor Meijboom posed a number of questions, including whether veterinarians should ignore the interests of an animal when the interests of its owner conflicted with animal welfare and instead aim for a good vet–client relationship. Most of the audience rightly disagreed, with one listener commenting that pandering to a client’s wishes was not a good relationship.

Regardless of whether practitioners have time to sit down and ‘navel gaze’, clinical decision making is one aspect of practice that demands reflection. Have I made the right decision? Is this decision using the best evidence? Is this decision in line with codes of conduct and the law? Have I ensured that the animal is my first priority? Have I followed up to check if the animal responded to my treatment? It’s clear that, ethically, veterinarians need to make clinical decisions using best evidence for the best health and welfare outcomes for the animal, the owner and the veterinarian. Furthermore, codes of conduct and the law pertaining to veterinarians stipulate that veterinarians are obliged to make clinical decisions based on best evidence and current knowledge.

Access to the best available information when making a clinical decision is a critical part of evidence-based veterinary medicine (EBVM) and has at its heart the confidence in the scientific methodology that has developed over centuries to enable us to distinguish between what is likely to be true from what is likely to be false (or unproven).

As scientists we are trained to separate good from dubious information and are forever alert to cognitive biases and the need to challenge current knowledge. However, in today’s climate of post-modernist populism and ‘alternative facts’, we do need to be more stridently assertive in being scientific and evidence-based.

The postmodern mindset has had serious implications for the standing of science in general, and veterinary science has not been immune. At its extreme, postmodernism views science as simply one among a variety of subjective explanations for the way we perceive the physical world. Science is downgraded to mere opinion and scientists’ professional voices are diminished.

As Professor Emma Johnston, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (February 14, 2017: ‘The antidote to rising populism is being grown in labs’) states, “The rise of a wider ‘post truth’ political culture means that scientists increasingly need to ‘pick up the baton of public intellectualism’ and to counter fake news”. As we are all too aware “anyone can speak, write, tweet and post” and that “opinion and ideology are overriding facts”. Professor Johnston asks, “Can we counter fake news by promoting science and as scientists be the ambassadors of brand ‘knowledge” and brand ‘truth’?”. Further, “As public intellectuals our scientific qualifications and practices could, and should, be shorthand for reliability and credibility”.

We are fortunate that with the massive increase in scientific literature, the emergence of EBVM resources has given us data to become better veterinarians, such as at http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cevm/. Practitioners can make a difference by providing data, undertaking research in practice and generally engaging in EBVM. The use of EBVM is being driven by practitioners and this engagement has the potential to make practice even more rewarding. There are likely to be a range of non-clinical benefits of the use of EBVM, such as collegiality and interesting, relevant and satisfying engagement in practice. Importantly, EBVM provides reliable information to support decisions, reduce error and stress and improve practitioners’ wellbeing.

In this postmodernist world of fake news and the like, if we replace evidence-based medicine with opinion-based medicine we lose both credibility as veterinary scientists and a legitimate claim to be the primary source of information and views on animal health and welfare. Let’s all walk for science!

Tanya Stephens
Newsletter Editor,
Welfare and Ethics (Special Interest Group)

This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal

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