Elena Montrasio

translator, Museo della Scienza Napoli


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Showing experiments on live animals to young kids, regardless of what kind of animal, can be considered part of an educational program?

Several comments on this talk, http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/the_cockroach_beatbox.html, were removed from the panel because the administration received a lot of complaints about their not being pertinent to the topic of this talk. The talk is part of the TED Educational, and the comments were basically stating that showing a vivisection experiment, live, to a group of kids, was not what they considered "educational". I would like to know what you think.

  • Don Walsh

    • +20
    Mar 13 2012: The talk simply performed vivisection at its worst. In the past, similar 'experiments' had cats and dogs on the table with an audience amazed at the skill and insight of the investigator.

    As a science teacher, and a lover of the Earth, I am offended that such insensitivity to another life form would be allowed, and glorified, by so many. The youth in the audience will definitely go home with a message of the objectification of non-human life.
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      Mar 13 2012: I couldn't agree more. I am extremely passionate about inspiring children to learn more about scientific discovery. However, I believe it can be just as effective without also teaching them to disregard the well being of other life forms. The uncomfortable reactions that many of these kids displayed were completely normal. They should be uncomfortable with this type of demonstration. However, trivializing the fate of non-human animals in this way, takes that natural reaction and teaches them to ignore it. Sure they're inspired, but I'm not sure it's worth it at that cost.
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        Mar 13 2012: Couldn't agree more with yours and Don Walsh comments. Are kids supposed to enjoy the demonstration because it was "just" a cockroach? I guess they showed a much deeper sensibility than the organizers and the performer of this "lesson", and I hope they will not lose it growing up. I don't consider this kind of approach educational by any means. Respect for any living creature on our planet is the first lesson children should be taught, and I'm thinking TED should know better.
      • Mar 14 2012: I'd be surprised if their discomfort was to do with harming the cockroach per se. Partly it's just the "eww" factor, but I suspect it was more to do with how close-up and personal it was. The experiment both personalised *and* objectified the cockroach in question. "He's chillaxing, he's anaesthetised." Then the snip and, "don't worry, it'll grow back."

        That makes the entire process morally confusing. Their reaction was, in part, a way of processing the moral dichotomy - go on, sympathise, but we're pulling off his leg anyway. I'd argue against that approach with young kids.

        However, those same kids would hardly think twice about spraying a cockroach with insecticide or swatting a fly. Most people wouldn't. So I wouldn't be surprised if, after seeing this presentation live, some of those kids went home thinking, "woah, that's messed up" and think twice about spraying them next time. Some will, some won't.

        What mostly made it uncomfortable was confronting the mix of of personalisation and objectification. Stick to one or the other, no problem. Do both, and what you're saying is cruelty is sometimes ok - in the name of science. Completely the wrong message in my view.
        • Apr 28 2012: Reading your comment - I find that he had an more honest approach. He admits empathy for the roach, but does the experiment, because its amazing. It would be much more unsettling to completely shut down his feelings for the sake of science... or just pretend so.

          I agree though with the part that people (children and grown ups) rarely think twice about using insecticides and the like - so they should learn to be honest too, and not pretend to care.
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      Mar 13 2012: It's a cockroach, for God's sake! Have you ever dissected a frog in biology class?
      • Apr 28 2012: Come on, it's completely NOT the same thing.

        You're not dissecting a LIVE frog in biology class. The frog won't get up and hobble around afterwards minus a leg. And I know a lot of people object to even dissecting a dead one in class - because the frogs are killed simply to do an experiment and are then thrown away.

        At least compare apples with apples.
    • Mar 13 2012: I agree, as well. It preposterous that this type of presentation is condoned. This is the type of propaganda that objectifies non-human animals and allows the indoctrination of little kids to become insensitive to factory farms and vivisections laboratories when they get older and make their own consumer choices.
      • Mar 16 2012: If you are going to take this moral high ground than I suggest you definitely refuse ALL forms of modern medicine when you next get sick or injured. At some point along the lines a non-human animal was most definitely harmed trialing it. This "dark side" of science, occasionally a cockroach will be sacrificed for the greater good.
        • Jun 6 2012: So "the greater good" is wowing an audience about freaky things cockroach legs can do? The greater good is teaching children apathy towards other living beings? We are a creative species, I THINK we can figure out how to excite people about science without pulling an animal's limbs off in the process.

          By the way, I am 14 years old, totally into neuroscience, and have never dissected or even killed anything in my life. The lesson to that is: kids truly into neuroscience will not need to see a bug get tortured to find their passion. If that is what attracts them to neurobiology, maybe it's not a good things they're into it...
    • Mar 13 2012: I believe the suffering of the cockroach was balanced by the benefit of the lecture. If you think no benefits can outweigh suffering, than you should never remove any parasites from your body.
      • Mar 14 2012: Its not simply the suffering of the cockroach, it is the example it sets which says animals are okay to be manipulated how humans please. In other words, it sets a precedent for speciesism in the eyes of these children. The state of animal exploitation today in vivisection laboratories and factory farms is simply staggering and appalling, and it is because of exactly the attitude exemplified in this talk. Whether or not this specific cockroach could feel his leg being pulled off is not the most important thing. What is important is that its interests were not at all taken into account, just as with all food and vivisection animals. It is the same mentality that condemns animals to torturous exploitative acts around the globe, and its seed starts in childhood. Don't give me this "it's just a cockroach." We're just human, and we have no right to do this, just because we can. Further, what 'benefit' was there to these children. Half of them probably went home and starting vivisecting the nearest ant and tried to hook it up to the electrical socket.

        To put it more clearly, my concern is not only with this specific cockroach, but the message this sends that animals are less than humans, and the idea of their suffering is non-important in the face of human interests, even if they are benevolent interests, such as to learn. My concern is also about how this attitude affects more sentient non-human animals, such as pigs, cows, ducks, chickens, dogs, cats, and monkeys, which most definitely do feel pain as we do and are subjected to worse than this daily and by the billions each year in legally sanctioned universities, factory farms, corporate slaughterhouses, vivisection laboratories, circuses, puppy mills, fur farms, etc... sentenced their by consumer ignorance and indifference who continually create demand for products who's production involves such places.
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          Apr 24 2012: I love your comment. it could not have been said any better!
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          Apr 25 2012: Are you going to repeat your defense if instead the video is about pruning a bonsai? Will you say it's still cruelty?

          The key question is: where's the boundary? Plants, or Sea Sponges, or Anemones, or Jellyfish, or worms, or insects, etc? Or none whatsoever?
      • Apr 28 2012: > I believe the suffering of the cockroach was balanced by the benefit of the lecture.

        Not so, if you consider the following:
        a) The cockroach could have been freshly dead, not still alive.
        b) The presentation could have been done in some other way.
        c) You'd change your view if it was a different animal, like a dog or cat.

        Simply, it was not *necessary* it be a live, anaesthetised insect for the lecture to be of benefit. Therefore I feel one should default to the most humane approach. Why not?
        • Apr 28 2012: I feel compelled to briefly reply to your points since you structured your reply so neatly.

          a) You think killing animals for scientific purposes is better than maiming them. I don't.
          b) This says nothing.
          c) I would. The animal being a cockroach is fundamental to my evaluation of levels of suffering. If it were a human, I would find it imbalanced, if it were a fish I would be doubtful, if it is an insect - very low suffering level. (why? e.g. insects do not have memory)
      • Apr 28 2012: I can't reply directly to yours above.. but to clarify.. :)

        a) Don't generalise. In this case it is preferable as the "suffering" aspect is eliminated (ie. it doesn't wake up with a leg missing).
        b) I meant it could be a normal talk with diagrams, or a person being lightly prodded with an electrode, not pulling a leg off an insect. It's easy to explain muscles and electricity without doing damage.
        c) So picking the wings off flies is fine with you? You missing the point - I'm talking about what we are telling children about behaviour to other creatures in general! Kids are impressionable and imaginative.
    • Craig S

      • +13
      Mar 14 2012: All this 'save the cockroach' rhetoric is a joke right? These things are everywhere and as far as we know, are not conscious of pain. I can understand why dissecting a live monkey brain would raise eyebrows but complaining about this video is ridiculous.
      • Apr 28 2012: You miss the point. It's not about the cockroach, it's a discussion about what is ethically correct. Ethics is a *major* consideration in scientific research, so why is a discussion of it suddenly not relevant here?
        • Craig S

          • +1
          Apr 29 2012: I get the point, ethics is important. You would have to argue that the lack of regard for the cockroaches life will, in the children's mind, extend to other more intelligent creatures capable of suffering. I don't think you can prove that to be true. And if you want to talk ethics then you have to also consider the positive effect of stimulating the minds of potential future scientists and the benefits they may bring. But if you ask me this is overcomplicating a relatively simple issue - it is a damned cockroach. You think kids don't use fly spray around the house?
      • Apr 30 2012: I can't reply directly to your reply below...
        "You would have to argue that the lack of regard for the cockroaches life will, in the children's mind, extend to other more intelligent creatures capable of suffering. I don't think you can prove that to be true."

        Surprising you'd say that. It's well known that children who exhibit cruelty to animals will very often extend that to human beings. I argue that showing an experiment like this on a live creature *discourages the concern for suffering*. However you spin it - saying "oh it's just a cockroach" - that is not the right message to send to kids.

        Arguing that it "stimulates minds of future scientists" is a straw man.

        As for using fly spray, what other option is there? Nothing's perfect. Personally I try to throw them outside if I can. But don't tell me you don't feel slightly bad if you happen to see a cockroach dying slowly from fly spray. It's human. My point is we should not be discouraging that reaction.
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          May 1 2012: I am trying to understand your argument. You claim that it is OK to kill bugs if they bother you, so long as you feel bad about doing it... but it is not OK to use bugs to demonstrate science, even if they are used humanely and aren't killed.

          You also state we are exhibiting cruelty to animals, which I don't believe to be the case. We make sure to anesthetize all our animals when we do experiments, and we explain this to students. We actually don’t know if insects feel pain, but we do make the assumption that they do, which is why we anesthetize them in the first place. Whether the cockroach feels pain when it wakes up from the surgery and detects a missing leg, we do not know. All we is know is that the wound heals, the cockroaches are walking around within hours, eating lettuce, making more cockroaches, and if they are juvenile, the leg grows back.

          It’s very important to avoid anthropomorphizing the cockroach with thoughts like “If I do not want my own leg cut off, then the cockroach does not want its leg cut off.” We recommend the following RadioLab show that extensively interviews an entomologist describing his own problems anthropomorphizing insects:


          Finally, stimulating minds through hands-on experiments and activities is not a straw man. There are are a number of studies that have been published over the past several decades noting the "hands-on" teaching is an improvement on lecture based teaching. See:

          Stohr-Hunt P. (1996) An Analysis of Frequency of Hands-on Experience and Science Achievement. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 33: 101-109

          Geier R, Blumenfeld PC, Marx RW, Krajcik JS, Fishman B, et al. (2008) Standardized Test Outcomes for Students Engaged in Inquiry-Based Science Curricula in the Context of Urban Reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 45: 922–939.
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    • Mar 24 2012: You make the mistake of thinking all life is equal.

      He did enough to make sure he wasn't being cruel, plus he explained why he wasn't being cruel, so the kids got an idea that science doesn't just experiment without rules on the living.
      • Apr 28 2012: In that case, he was lying to the kids on top of it. Science does terrible experiments on live animals *all the time*. From monkeys in space to intentionally infecting mice with horrible diseases, to cosmetics testing.

        All for the sake of humanity, of course. Do you think none if it should ever be questioned? And why would we draw the line, questioning one practice but not another?

        It's very possible that the protests here are a kind of reaction to all the other things we know goes on with animal experimentation.
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    Apr 24 2012: I do think live animal experiments have a place in kid's education. The experiments that were presented in the cockroach beatbox video are not philosophically perfect and not without controversy. However, our team (Backyard Brains) believe the benefits far outweigh the cost due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current age.

    We have received many messages of encouragement from adults and parents of children with neurological afflictions, thanking us for making neuroscience easier to understand. One out of five people will be diagnosed with a neurological disorder which has no known cure. The goal of our efforts is to inspire students to study the brain, through compelling demonstrations and experiments.

    We are constantly surveying the animal kingdom for easier and less invasive ways of unequivocally demonstrating neural activity. The cockroach leg preparation is the best we have found so far. We respect those who have a differing and important opinion. For a detailed discussion on specific ethical concerns, please feel free to read our statement regarding the use of invertebrates in science education at:

    • Apr 28 2012: I really like your reply - I think its the most spot on I've read.

      Yet I would be curious where the boundary lies. I was remembered by the lecture of a girl I've met - and she told me for her genetics study she grew legs on fruitfly's eyes. That seemed exceptionally cruel to me. While I don't think fruitflies have to be especially protected, I really wonder if one couldn't at least grow a leg in another spot.
      Also in the newscientist they often write without any empathy about rat experiments that send a shiver down my spine (especially the neuroscience ones)... so I wonder where the line is. Where is it too cruel to do - and which animal is to high on the ladder to be "grown legs out of their eyes"?

      I really wonder what experiments are done daily without mentioning it publicly - and if even people with neurological disorders would agree to them for their own sake. Are they actually asked usually?
  • Jun 2 2012: ROBOROACH!!!

    I already posted a very long, scathing review. I will keep this short. Go to this guy's commercial site where he sells his products. Notice that they are developing a kit that turns a roach into a remote-controlled toy.
    Watching the how-to video at the bottom of the page is deeply disturbing. The presenter's language is full of euphemism which strives to transform our perception of the creature from something that is living and has its own agency, to something that is an object in our environment; Indeed the illusion is powerful as the animal is rendered immobile bythe ice water.

    Many students that I teach are fixated on the virtual enough as it is. This is true of many "screenagers". Many struggle with empathy. They do not need more reasons and even encouragement to further objectify the animate members of their world.

    I wonder how many people giving positive reviews of this talk would feel the same about the TED talk on DARPA's experiments with cyborg bugs.
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      Jun 8 2012: Brradley- May I quote you whenever I am frustrated? ROBOROACH!
      That is profoundly perfect!
  • Jun 2 2012: BEWARE: There is a difference between teaching science and making a spectacle!
    I have been teaching a combination of high school physics, math and other forms of science for the past 6 years. The following observations are informed by my experiences as an educator and my continuous struggle for improvement.
    This presentation depends entirely upon shock value and the common fetishism of smart-phone apps. The combined smoke and mirrors effect leaves many thinking that they are "learning science" and having fun at the same time (Which is possible, just not from this video)! But did anyone in the audience actually learn anything new? They saw graphs and can't name what is being plotted on the axes because the speaker never mentioned it. This teaches the kids that when graphs appear, no rigor is needed to interpret them; Graphs are mostly for fun and give us an excuse to pull out our Iphones! He then inaccurately describes the graphs as "the sound of the brain". Did this make anyone else feel physically ill?
    Another glaring mistake: Action potential means something specific. Good educators do not use important, technical terms without defining them. Lesson implied to kids: Everyone knows what that word means which is why I didn't define it (some kids will feel some shame or at least self-consciousness).
    The MOST IMPORTANT LESSON: If ripping the leg off of a living creature makes you feel uncomfortable and you aren't comforted by a dismissive "don't worry it will grow back" from a hip dude, then there is no place for you in science. At the very least brace yourself for a high school experience full of discomfort and invalidation. I repeat, there is no room for compassion in the field of science.

    Science should be about asking questions, such as: "When the roach warms up again, won't it feel pain?" not to mention ethics: "do I have a right to rip the leg off of a roach for fun?"

    This is one of the most gimmicky, reckless and myopic TED talks that I have ever seen
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      Jun 2 2012: Thank you for commenting. It is good to hear other's perspectives. Tools for investigating neuroscience have been severely lacking in high schools and undergraduate university education. The SpikerBox and related experiments was our initial attempt to help solve this. It is not, however, without controversy. Some of which you pointed out. I will try to address your concerns below.

      1) Does the audience actually learn anything new?
      We have recently published a peer-reviewed paper in PLoS ONE showing that our tools increase understanding of neuroscience concepts.

      Marzullo TC, Gage GJ (2012) The SpikerBox: A Low Cost, Open-Source BioAmplifier for Increasing Public Participation in Neuroscience Inquiry. PLoS ONE 7(3) e30837. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030837. PMID: 22470415 PMCID: PMC3310049.

      2) The graphs are mostly for fun and give us an excuse to pull out our iPhones.
      This is not the case in our experiments. If you read through the student exercises (http://wiki.backyardbrains.com), you will find that data are analyzed by graphs and are used to test hypotheses. Also, iPhones are used as a scientific tool to collect data and deliver stimuli.

      3) Where is the mention of ethics?
      We sometimes receive ethical criticism for our work. Which is understandable. Regarding your specific criticism, I refer you to “You are causing pain in the animals and that is inhumane" on our statement of ethics: http://ethics.backyardbrains.com
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    Apr 24 2012: One of the issues for me is how young are young kids, in relation to this conversation? I dissected frogs in biology class when I was about 16years old and by then I was emoitionally developed enough to appreciate what was going on and why I was doing it, so it was of course very educational. However a 5year old is unlikely to have the emoitional tools available to gain a true understanding of what is going on in an experiment of this kind. Therefore this is the 'grey' area in this topic, in my opinion.
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    Apr 24 2012: Elena,

    That was a very interesting TedEd. I think that the experiment with the disection of the cockroach leg is absolutely fine and he even backs up the disection with an introduction that the leg would grow back. I found that this was very relevant and is legitimate and moral as far I know. I think that insects are a very powerful species of creature and can be extraordinary and studying them is fine. I compare that to experiments on lab mice, but lab mice are still sad. I think bugs reproduce at such an exponential rate that experimenting with insects won't necessarily impact their ability for natural selection. They will continue to live on Earth and possibly continue life after all species are gone from Earth, as in we traveled to another planet or all other species dies off.

    I'm no bug expert or expert on the brain, but I learned something new about my brain from that video.

    I think that the insects are okay, but other species are not okay with a few exceptions, but who knows mabe more knowledge will be discovered about insects in the future. =)
  • Apr 19 2012: I must say that it's not something I am very happy with at all. Animals are able to react to pain/stimulus and move away from things that are harmful to them. Therefore you can bet that even just a cockroach wouldn't enjoy the experience. To say it's not concious of it's pain is almost certainly right but if I'm pricked with a pin then I'm moving away from it 'long' before my conscious mind takes any sort of descion.

    I understand that given our current technology animal experiments are required for medical advance. In the UK there are very strict guidlines on what experiments can be carried out on animals, every effort is made to reduce them to a minimum and provide for the welfare of laboratory animals. Hopefully given our ingenuity we will one day be able to make all such experiments redundant.

    Also aren't a lot of experiments duplicating ones previously done? I haven't watched this TED talk but I did happen to catch one of the Royal Institutes Christmas lectures where they did the exact same experiment. Hopefully, seeing as the experiment has been done, everyone who needs to can watch it on TED and it therefore never needs to be done again. Just my thoughts on the matter.
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    Apr 13 2012: I personally don't see anything wrong with using insects in experiments for educational purposes. I do look at insects as living creatures but slightly different than other members of the animal kingdom..If we didn't, wouldn't we be racked with gilt and break down crying as we drove to work and slaughtered innocent bugs on our windshield. Wouldn't I stay up sleepless nights because I have mosquito blood on my hands? Wouldn't we worry about how we are going to relocate the ants that decided to take up residence in our house without paying rent? No we don't do any of these things. Why because we look at insects in a different way.
    Not an uncaring way, but different. Not as we do nonliving things we shouldn't look after, just different. I look at an ant as part of a body or group something much larger than itself. Like a cell in our body.

    When I step on an ant or hit a bug with my car I don't think of it as I've committed murder, I reserve this thought on insects to larger scale effects on their population such as pesticides wiping out entire species...the larger body.
    When you see an ant in your house and you set out poison...you see another ant and look at it as if its the same ant and say " that poison is not working, we still have ants" you dont say..ahh I've killed a hundred of them that should deter them from coming back!"

    I watched the video and I can see why some people where upset. The beat box part had the kids cheering at the dismembered leg twitching. That may have struck up feelings of young psychopaths pulling the wings off flies... For the same reason we see a spider in our house and sometimes we squash it and sometimes we get a cup and take it outside and set it free. It depends on weather we are looking at the cockroach as a small part of something larger or an individual creature with "human" characteristics..and this may change in each of us depending on the day.

    On a side note the speaker informed me that the cockroach lived! I liked that..
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    Jun 7 2012: I can't support this idea. Kids are little and they deserve our protection.
    I never smoked a minute in my life and that is because my parents encouraged me to inhale tobacco smoke once when i was very young. Maybe they believe that tactic worked. However, I did not use it with my own kids -why? Because I really love them and I want to protect them. Same with this. Small children are hugley empathetic and you would probably get them to do exactly as you wish and never do such experiments. However, I do not want a world where the next generation can only perform as we programmed them to do. I want their unique insights and ideas and values to shape the world their way. That means that they should have childhoods and 'ripen' at their own speed.
  • May 28 2012: The cockroach experiment exciting to watch, roach was sacrificed. Many said when we take medicines many animals and some humans may have died and we benefited. My question, in these days, when we can have complex biological modeling to demonstrate the same effect why use live creatures? It is because even the tiniest creatures feels pain though we are not aware or indifferent. When public and kids view this, it will evoke a sad response combined with some painful lesson. Should not we learn to care /
  • Apr 16 2012: I feel that one should be able to object to such a process but I do believe in experimentation, and I believe some of this experimentation has to take place on living creatures. I do not want to go back to days where artist have to hide their work for understanding, like Leonardo da Vinci.

    While I would prefer a lot of this taking place in the virtual world for the classroom, we currently don't have that to the realism and accuracy of the real world. There was a medical Ted talk talking about coloring the organs so they looked a little closer to the text books.

    Some of this advancement does not occur til you deal with real subjects, often it is much better we test the early stages of these ideas on animals than human. Though I admire the human rocket scientist that measured G-Forces in a rocket strapped chair after the monkeys would run away after one test run. I do believe we should try to treat animals with respect, but if we don't have a problem eating meat, I have trouble believing we should stop using them to for furthering our understanding.

    Somethings simply can not be challenged in a virtual world. If you want people to remember triggering emotions helps a lot.

    I believe strongly in slightly "unsafe" science for kids helps grow understanding and respect of the world around them. It also gives some ways to find kids that do not have normal reactions to things their peers see as horrifying and perhaps could be used for early recognition of some societally dysfunctional disorders.

    I would not trust a doctor to cut into me that has not cut into another living thing. Some of these kids I might want to have as my doctor, and I think giving a healthy honest approach to what that can entail at an early age is also good. Especially if they are bright.