29 April 2010

Crustacean nociception: The worry

Global warming. Evolution. Vaccines. Lobsters being cooked in pots.

The “lobster pain” question may not as headline-grabbing and contentious as the preceding issues on the list above, but it has something in common with all the rest.

Many people have strongly held opinions about the matter that don’t rely much on evidence. Animal rights people make “Being boiled hurts!” buttons. People associated with fisheries say things like, “No brain, no pain.

People don’t debate the issue, they trade position statements. And they often say quite witless things in the process. Sometimes, arguments achieve a sentence to error ratio of 1:1.

Some people will hate our new paper on crustacean nociception and some will love it, not because of the science, but based on how it fits with their pre-existing beliefs. I’m betting some readers will fly right past the most important sentence in the paper:

We are not claiming that crustaceans do not feel pain.

That’s important, because it tries to maintain nuance, in case people try to simplify our research findings to fit their pre-existing positions. And sadly, I think it’s a matter of when, not if, someone tries to take the results in this paper out of context and try to make it say something it doesn’t. I’m half-expecting someone to accuse me of being in the pocket of “big fisheries.”

To those on both sides of the issue, I ask you to do the experiments. I don’t mean this in the literal sense that people should go buy an electrophysiology rig. I mean it in the sense of saying evidence matters. I know that is hard. The same day this paper was published, I found not one, but two articles about how resistant people are to evidence, even if – or perhaps especially if – it’s coming from a scientist.

If crustaceans have nociceptors, I want to know it. If they don’t have nociceptors, I want to know it. I don’t care who shows it, and I don’t care which way the outcome is. Stop the vicious circle of arguing in a vacuum, so we can make some informed decisions.

Picture from here.


Puri S, Faulkes Z. 2010. Do decapod crustaceans have nociceptors for extreme pH? PLoS ONE 5(4): e10244. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010244

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