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March 21, 2006

Animal Testing, the Media and Me - Laurie Pycroft, the sixteen year-old founder of Pro-Test, describes his response to the media's sudden interest in him

Posted by Laurie a.k.a. Sqrrl101

Laurie Pycroft (a.k.a Sqrrl101) is a sixteen year-old from Swindon. He gained national media attention for - almost accidentally - forming Pro-Test, a campaign to support the building of the new Oxford animal lab. (Laurie Pycroft tells the story of its founding here). When Pro-Test organised a march in Oxford in support of the lab on 25th February 2006, the campaign - and its sixteen year-old founder - captured the media's imagination. Here Laurie Pycroft describes his response to the media's sudden interest in him.

If you haven't already seen the coverage from the media who swarmed all over the Pro-Test demonstration on the 25th February, then it's my pleasure to inform you that it was a resounding success by almost all accounts; certainly by mine. People from all over the land flocked to Oxford in order to stand up for science, and members of the press came from all corners of the earth to cover it. Before the march started, I was standing in Broad Street surrounded by a pack of media, all jostling to get quotes from me. A Sky News cameraman was standing, facing me, with camera rolling, and a small bead was lodged in my ear emitting some anonymous voice asking me questions. Until this moment, I had been very busy with media and not paying my full attention to the gathering crowd. The voice told me to take a look at the people amassing, and as I turned around, my jaw fell as I looked over a sea of people.

What I was expecting to be two or maybe three hundred people wandering around the streets turned into at least 700, and probably over 1,000 in total. People with banners held high were shouting catchy slogans like:

Pro-Science! Pro-Gress! Pro-Test
No more threats! No more fear!
Animal testing wanted here!
Marching at the front of the crowd, I acted as a figurehead for the demonstration, and it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Apart from a couple of attempts by anti-vivisection protestors to attack our demo, the event went peacefully and on time with rousing speeches from Professor John Stein, Professor Tipu Aziz, Dr Simon Festing, myself and others.

The following Monday, with media attention still blazing, I departed for Cambridge to attend a health psychology course, and there tasted a little celebrity with the other students there. It amused and interested me how people were reacting to this whole series of events, and I found the attention rather flattering. The week at the course flew by, with every night spent in the residential centre's computer room in an attempt to keep up with the e-mails barraging me from all over. Interviews kept on popping up, with an interview for an Australian radio station on the Tuesday, and with the Times Education Supplement regarding my views on the education system taking place on the Wednesday - and so forth. This new ability to have people take an interest in my views, not just on animal testing but also in unrelated areas such as education, had and still has a great degree of novelty to me; I've always been extremely opinionated, and having people actually listen makes for a pleasant change.

I left on the Friday and managed to catch some rest over the course of the weekend before diving headlong back into Pro-Test affairs the following week. On 6th March, The Times published an article which greatly interested me as it included a quote from Professor Stephen Hawking:

It is ridiculous for a nation that is happy to eat animals to object to life-saving work on animals. I applaud those who have the courage to stand up to the extremists.
Of all of the people in the world I could meet, Hawking is possibly the only one I would be truly star-struck over, and as such the quote came as a sorely needed morale boost for me.

Throughout the almost two months I've been involved in Pro-Test, my endurance has been tested regularly, thanks to some very long hours and exceedingly tiring days. It's all been worthwhile, though. It gives me a great feeling to be doing what I see, and what many others see as the right thing. The real problem with it, however, is that some people see it as the wrong thing. Amongst the plethora of pleasant e-mails received every night, I usually have a few not so pleasant ones, which always seem to exhibit stupidity in abundance.

They can generally be categorised on a spectrum ranging from reasoned arguments to insults and threats. The reasoned arguments amuse me, because it's almost sad to reflect on the futility of these people's efforts, with my not even having the time to read their rants, let alone respond. The examples I am more inclined to reply to are the insulting ones, as being perfectly civil in my response to these people and then watching them come back with rage is always pure hilarity.

A common theme in the negative e-mails is the suggestion that I am some way in league with or being paid off by the "big evil pharmaceutical companies". It appears that it is assumed that a desire to make money is evidence for moral corruption and misanthropy. What they appear to fail to realise is that whilst, yes, pharmaceutical companies want to make money, they don't want to make poor drugs. They don't recognise that, in order to make money, the companies need to make the best drugs possible, so as to beat their competitors. I'm just as disaffected as the next person, but let's have some logic here! As far as being bribed goes, if GSK or Merck are bribing me, they're not doing a very good job, as I'm yet to see a single penny of it.

After some more work, followed by another weekend spent having a good time with friends, I had my first major live TV appearance on the UK's Richard and Judy show, with an audience of a million or so people. At 5:50 pm on 14th March, Iain Simpson (the Pro-Test communications director) and myself went out live to Britain. It was also my first real taste of proper media hospitality, with chauffeured cars, personalised dressing rooms, first class travel and all the similar niceties of life. The following day, I was straight back up to London for my first real taste of party politics, as I attended the all-party select committee on animal welfare.

Perhaps the strangest day so far occurred very recently, as I returned to my old school. I walked lazily in the front entrance a little before lunchtime, picked up a visitor pass, and made my way to the wargaming group, a lunchtime club I founded some years previously. It was whilst walking through the unpleasant, '70s-prefab walls being recognised by everyone as having been on Richard and Judy that I realised Pro-Test has changed my life forever. I'm no longer exactly the same person I was two months ago, and it all feels good. Instead of people dismissing my ravings about nanotechnology as boring, I have the New Statesman asking my views on religion. Instead of copying down notes from a textbook, I'm giving interviews to all kinds of media. I don't think I'll ever fully get used to it, no matter how long I'm still of interest, and it almost doesn't feel like the real me, but it's all worthwhile for the cause I believe in.

Laurie Pycroft (a.k.a Sqrrl101) lives in Swindon, is aged sixteen and is taking a gap year between GCSEs and A levels. He founded Pro-Test to support the building of the new Oxford University animal lab. To read the story of the founding of Pro-Test see: "Build the Oxford animal lab!": What happened when an ordinary student decided to stand up to animal rights extremists - and founded Pro-Test.

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Laurie Pycroft writes "They can generally be categorised on a spectrum ranging from reasoned arguments to insults and threats. The reasoned arguments amuse me, because it's almost sad to reflect on the futility of these people's efforts, with my not even having the time to read their rants, let alone respond. The examples I am more inclined to reply to are the insulting ones, as being perfectly civil in my response to these people and then watching them come back with rage is always pure hilarity."

Ensconcing is the treatment usually meted out to straw men. Not for Mr Pycroft. He here openly admits to engaging, with acknowledged intent, only with the buffoons - which we are told offer him much 'hilarity'. Reasoned arguments (which he, instructively, smears as 'rants'*) he claims a lack of time for responding to. It all sounds terribly convenient to me. Anyone can claim to be purveyor of this or that paradigm if the only critics they will hear are either those favourable to their position or those so stupid that they cannot offer an objection of any worth. It is intellectually savage to hold a position and then to refuse to engage with serious - vis a vis moronic - critics of that position. Imagine those standards in any academic arena:

Person A: "Sir, I object to your proposition, because of X, Y, Z..."
Person B: "That's as maybe. But I've no time to engage with those counterarguments. But those who mock my choice of attire, who call me names, those I will respond to".

We'd see straight through this brazen straw man tactic. For this reason: Person B makes a *choice* of how to spend his, admittedly limited, time and that choice is to take on arguments that he acknowledges are non-arguments. This says much. It seems to me, then, that Pycroft has shot himself in the foot. He is clearly not so deprived of time that he will not engage with buffoons and he confesses that he to bait a litany of fools than even a spoonful of seriousness. Of course, it is easy for any person to take on non-arguments than those of any substance. And, of course, everyone has limited time. But it is not a case that LP does not respond to every last argument put to him - which would be acceptable - but that he responds to so very few of any substance. For example, if we log into his weblog, we see that he was upbraided for claiming vaccination saved 'millions' who would otherwise have died through smallpox. When it was pointed out to him that this is not the position that even historians of western medicine take (who, we are informed, established that infectious diseases were ameliorated due to changing health care and due to social transformation) the response of this purveyor of the scientific method? Silence.

Pycroft's effort to present what is, in effect, intellectual cowardice within the context of pragmatism, fail through the fact that he admits to engaging with opponents who he perceives as 'idiots'. This is an intellectual barbarity that the venerable Social Affairs Unit should distance itself from. It's unfit for these esteemed pages. Let us have a proper debate about animal experiments, hearing from all sides, not this adolescent mockery, easyspeak and sentimentality, that Mr Pycroft represents.

* Claiming the same 'category' of arguers are, at once, reasoning and ranting warrants some sort of explication absent Mr Pycroft's piece.

Posted by: anonymous at March 27, 2006 12:45 PM

I'm 38, but when I was this kid's age, I do not think that I ever in a million years would have been as able as he seems to be to write as well as that.

What a smart kid! It's truly amazing, I think.

Of course, in the big argument, he has the advantage of being right.

But holy crap. It freaks me out to think that I was 22 and nowhere near as developed intellectuallly when this young punk was born.

What kind of crazy powerful brain steroids did this kid's parents put him on as a toddler?

Super, super-impressive stuff. I wish him the best.

- Lawrence Buckingham

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Posted by: Lawrence Buckingham at April 9, 2006 10:46 AM

Just because animals are beneath humans does NOT mean it's okay to cause them harm. There are PLENTY of alternatives to animal experimentation that give equally accurate results. However, I do not agree with those who think the best solution is to send death threats to Laurie Pycroft. If you want to change someone's mind about a certian subject, being cruel to them and sending death threats is not the way to get through to them. I would love to speak to Pycroft personally and explain exactly why I am against Pro-Test, and listen to his side, becuase that's how you get through to people.
As for Pycroft's age, I salute him for making such a big name for himself at such a young age. I am 16 as well and I so desperately wish I had the courage to take a stand for what I believe in (though my beliefs coincide tremendously with his).
So PLEASE, anyone who is angered by Pycroft's ideology, PLEASE keep in mind how to handle it- there are better ways to get through to him besides writing hate letters- that accomplishes nothing except perhaps giving a bad name to those of us who are trying our best to stand up for the weak.

Posted by: Britney at February 14, 2008 06:37 PM

I am not one for writing "hate letters" or such, but I cannot understand the frame of mind that supports animal cruelty. I am also surprised at the inconsistancy of the government for funding the RSPCA and then allowing for the extreme cruelty of animal testing to be continued practise in this country. I understand that scientific research is invaluable but there is just no need for the use of animal cruelty. Yes, the outcomes that have a positive effect on scientific development are apparant, but as human beings, surely, instinctively, we should be able to see that the use of animal cruelty is just completely uneccesary. I have watched coverage of Pro-test's activity on channel 4. I just can't help but laugh at the nievity of these people who attend argueably one of the best academic universities in the country. It seems they live in this nieve upper middle class bubble, completely ignorant to what goes on outside this world of pompous debating, academic snobbery and plum-mouthed speeches. I myself come from an upper middle class background, not that it should be at all relevant. There is no need for this nievity and pure ignorance of these people. Yes, everyone has there own opinions and beliefs but people need to open there eyes a bit more.

Just to finish, may i draw your attention to the quote of Laurie in this program after his speech at the debate, "shall we shake hands for the camera?"

Posted by: Charlotte at March 5, 2008 11:54 AM
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