Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Alliance for Animals

I am writing here in response to a couple comments on the Alliance for Animals Facebook page. This seems a little long for a Facebook comment, but I will put a link to this essay on the group's page. I don't know how much longer the Alliance will have a FB page since there is effort by some of the Board members to dissolve the organization and give all of its cash and other assets to The Humane League (THL). I hope that rational thought and a concern for animals will prevail and that the Alliance will remain intact and active; but I am deeply worried that foolishness will prevail.

I posted a comment on my FB page and reported that the Alliance Board President, Gina Stuessy had removed one of my comments because, she said, I had insulted someone who had announced that he committed to making regular donations to "effective farm animal charities." Charlie Talbert, a past AFA Board president responded that my comment had been removed because, "It’s common practice and appropriate for FB groups to remove ad hominem attacks on individuals." The announcement I was responding to had been shared on the Alliance page. Unfortunately, my comment is not in my FB activity log, so I can't quote it here. It was removed within moments of me posting it, so I don't know that Talbert even saw it. It is my recollection that I said something like: "It's too bad Josh was taken in by the hype." I don't think I said anything that should have been construed as an attack on or criticism of Josh's character, if I did, I'm sorry. I don't know him. I suspect he's a caring and thoughtful person.

It isn't a coincidence though that Josh's announcement was shared on the Alliance FB page. It was a not so subtle promotion of the group and groupthink that is at the root of the effort to kill the Alliance and give all of its assets to THL.

Before going further, I want to respond to a comment by Melissa Smith (an important voice for wolves and other wild animals in Wisconsin) who mistakenly interpreted the situation with the Alliance and my criticism as just more of the in-fighting that plagues the animal rights movement. It is one thing to get into a dust-up over whether we should work on one issue or another or who's the purest vegan, but in this case, we are talking about eliminating the main vehicle for animal activism in Wisconsin.

A Two-Headed Coin

One of the observations I made that clearly rankled Talbert concerns the relationship between THL and Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE). I characterized the groups as two sides of the same coin. Talbert wrote to ACE and posted their response in the Alliance FB thread. ACE stringently denied this association, saying in part, "Any insinuation that ACE and THL are ‘two-sides of the same coin’ or that ACE ‘rates ourselves at the top of the list’ are unfounded." But really, what else could he say?

The plain fact that ACE rates THL as the most effective animal charity, most worthy of receiving donations from people who care about animals, is in and of itself evidence that something is amiss.

The "effective animal activism" community is tiny; it is a small subset of the animal rights community, itself very tiny. ACE is a spin-off of 80000 Hours, an effective altruism (EA) organization. ACE was at one time named Effective Animal Activism. 80000 Hours and ACE help promote the work of Nick Cooney, the founder of THL. It strains credibility that the main players in this very small community don't know each other, aren't friends, or don't communicate with each other.

This is what ACE says about THL, it's top-rated charity:

"The Humane League (THL) works to reduce suffering of farm animals through conducting online advertising, organizing grassroots outreach, instigating cage-free and Meatless Monday campaigns, giving presentations, and engaging in corporate outreach. THL shows exceptional strength in their desire to test for effectiveness, as evidenced by their efforts with Humane League Labs, a program designed to evaluate advocacy presentation and methods. They also use the evidence they find to guide their efforts."

They go on to say that they recommend giving to THL because: "THL has an exceptionally strong commitment to using studies and systematic data collection to guide their approach to advocacy."

This means one of two things: Either ACE did not look and think about the studies and systematic data collection that THL points to as evidence that they do this, or else, the evaluators at ACE didn't understand them. Since THL's "studies" are so weak and contradictory how else can we explain ACE's claims? There is one other possibility, the Kool-Aid may have been spiked.

Lest you think the confusion is mine, think about this: in some of THL's "studies" of the effectiveness of leafleting using various images and covers, the control groups showed equal or even greater effect than the experimental groups. That is, they found that the people who did not get a pamphlet changed their behavior more than the people who got one. Such results completely demolish any pretense of meaning from the "studies." In fact, the phenomena they claim to be looking at -- people choosing to be more compassionate toward animals -- is complex. The number of variables is large and poorly defined; THL's confused results are predictable.

Here's where the Kool-Aid comes in.

ACE: "From an average $1,000 donation, THL would spend about $320 on online ads, leading to 3,000 online video views. They would spend about $450 on grassroots outreach, resulting in the distribution of about 1,319 leaflets and reaching about 7 students through humane education lectures. THL would also spend about $220 campaigning for cage-free egg and Meatless Mondays policies and about $10 on research. Our rough estimate is that these activities combined would spare about 13,400 animals from life in industrial agriculture."

THL says things like this about their studies' results: "3.27 animals spared per cruelty-focused booklet vs. 2.94 animals spared per health-focused booklet."

That "rough estimate" is the sort of calculus that drives the effective animal activism community. A simple thought experiment might help explain why ACE and THL's claims are more illusion than fact.

A Thought Experiment

One of the techniques taught in formal problem-solving is to consider a simpler problem. A simplified version of a problem can sometimes help one see into the core issue and not be as distracted and confused by the variables. So here's a simplified thought experiment:

Imagine that there are no vegans or vegetarians in the U.S. We all eat the standard American diet; each of us consumes exactly the average amount of each type of meat, dairy, and eggs. That is, we all contribute equally to the consumption of the 3 billion animals killed. (Most of these were chickens of course, which actually hides the fact that the real number is actually about twice that because of the male chicks who were ground-up, suffocated, or just thrown away and were not counted.)

Anyway, 3 billion animals killed for food, all 326 million of us eat the same amount of meat, etc.

Now, one of us adopts a vegan diet.

It is obvious that a 1/326 millionth reduction in demand will have no effect whatsoever on the number of animals raised and killed.

There are not animals standing by waiting to be slaughtered who might not be killed if someone decides to reduce their meat consumption.

There must be some number of people which could affect demand to such an extent that it affected supply, but it is probably bigger than 1. And yet, ACE and THL claim that when someone adopts a diet that reduces their meat, egg, and/or dairy consumption that they are directly responsible for reducing the number of animals being raised and killed. That's obviously not correct.

Let me get back to my observation that ACE and THL are the same side of the same EA coin. The fact that ACE says that the group who thinks the most like them is the most effective makes this coin shine.

Consider what PETA can point to as evidence of their effectiveness: http://www.peta.org/about-peta/milestones/ It seems readily obvious to me that by comparison, THL hasn't done very much and doesn't plan to do very much. And yet, ACE rates THL as the most effective animal charity. It looks like a back-patting club to me.

Stuessy's Ethical Duty

Let's move on to the question of whether Gina Stuessy has an ethical obligation to resign from the Alliance's Board of Directors. Talbert claims that because Stuessy has contributed a significant amount of money to the Alliance and has been a hardworking volunteer that she should be trusted to make a fair decision about the organization's fate.

Stuessy has taken an intern position with Animal Charity Evaluators. Coincidentally, I just received a LinkedIn notice about this. She may have an interest in a larger role with ACE, perhaps she could get a paid position. Perhaps the other interns are also hoping for paid jobs with ACE, I think that is a reasonable possibility.

How might the ACE leaders be swayed by the fact that one of the interns was able to finagle a very large donation to ACE's favorite charity?

Stuessy has admitted that she hopes THL might hire her if she is able to turn the Alliance's assets over to THC.

I think any neutral observer could easily conclude that Stuessy should not be involved in any decision-making with regard to the future of the Alliance. She simply has too many conflicts of interest.

The plain fact is that she now has a new favorite animal charity and wants to give the assets of her old favorite charity to them. In any case, even the appearance of a conflict of interest regarding a decision of this magnitude should disqualify her.

THL vs the Movement

That said, let's compare the effectiveness of the rest of the animal rights movement with the effectiveness of THL. Trying to turn the world vegan, one person at a time, or for one day a week, seems to me to have a low probability of changing the world into a place where animals are treated fairly and compassionately. So far, it hasn't been more effective than anything else.

It is a matter of fact that everyone involved with ACE and THL and you and me and every other animal activist and most of the vegans, are who we are, believe what we believe, because of the effectiveness of the past decades of work by thousands of activists.

I remember when there wasn't an animal rights movement. Essentially everything that has happened in the U.S., has happened in my lifetime. When I was working (unsuccessfully) to establish the Primate Research Exhibition Hall, I was collecting items for display. I have a large tub filled with animal rights leaflets and pamphlets, they are all different. No one design or message can be pointed to as the best, most effective one because the settings and situations that led to them are so varied.


Let's compare the effectiveness of THL with the effectiveness of the Alliance. The Alliance has been able to get media coverage of many local animal issues. The Alliance has had its issues talked about on the front pages of all the main local print media and on local television and radio. To the degree that anyone in Madison or Dane County knows what is happening to animals in their community, its largely because of the Alliance. The Alliance has repeatedly gotten its issues discussed by and sometimes acted on by local elected officials. Because of the Alliance, others learned about Ned Kalin's revival of some of Harry Harlow's methods; the Alliance's work led directly to Dr. Ruth Decker's change.org petition and the one million signatures on it. The Alliance has the ability to motivate the sort of letter writing that has some chance of affecting legislators and government officials' decisions. Additionally, the Alliance has actively promoted veganism in many ways and has exposed hundreds maybe thousands of local people to good vegan food and the philosophy behind veganism.

Madison and Dane County host one of only seven federal primate vivisection labs; Madison and Dane County host the contract animal labs of Covance, which may kill more monkeys and dogs in their labs here than are killed anyplace else in the U.S. Dane County hosts one of the largest breeders of dogs for research in the country. THL is handing out leaflets hoping to get people to reduce their animal consumption and arguing their methods are the most effective. They argue indirectly that activists ought not waste their time speaking up for the animals in Madison's labs, for the geese who are rounded up in the parks when they are molting and then gassed, for the animals caught and killed in traps in Dane County parks, that no one should be wasting their time trying to help feral cats, or trying to stop pig wrestling throughout the state. They argue that because more chickens, pigs, and cows are killed than other animals, that we should ignore the others.

THL and ACE seem not to agree that we need changes in the law or that such change is the key to making the world a less terrible place for animals. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But the Alliance is a coalition of people who have contributed their time and money to address local issues, to try and affect local change. Supporters expected that their donations would go to those efforts. The Alliance Board of Directors has a clear obligation to do its best to meet that expectation. Killing the Alliance would violate the trust placed in them; it would all but give all the local animal abusers a free pass to continue without much concern that someone might be paying attention.


Xodarap said...

Thanks for posting this Rick! It helped me understand your perspective much better.

First, some minor points: I don't think your thought experiment is correct, and if you read ACE's analysis of that study you find that they make essentially the same point you do, e.g. "We did not find support for claims that distributing leaflets from Vegan Outreach (or similar leaflets published by other groups) causes the overall population who receives the leaflets to reduce their meat consumption" I agree with you though that when they make point estimates like the ones you cite above it can mislead people into thinking that those numbers have very small margins of error.

Corporate outreach is a recommended intervention of ACE's which is an example of an intervention that is pretty easy to measure: you can track how much effort you put into the boycott or whatever and then if the company changes you can divide how many animals were saved by how much work you put in to get cost-effectiveness. (THL has at least one full-time person working on corporate outreach.) Groups like MFA and THL have had successes which are pretty astonishing, often on the order of $.20 per animal.

Those seem like minor things though; I think your big point is that we should focus more on systemic change instead of smaller changes. I couldn't agree more and, while I don't claim to speak for the EA community I can tell you that most people I know who call themselves "effective altruists" would also agree.

The major EA organization that's entirely focused on systemic change is direct action everywhere (DXE) and, ironically enough given your post, the reason ACE hasn't reviewed them yet because of conflict of interest concerns (DXE staff have donated to ACE).

One thing that ACE has done which I think you will appreciate though is review past social movements to try to figure out what works; I highly recommend their reviews.

Overall, the point of Effective Altruism is just to use evidence and reason to improve the world. Of course nonprofits overstate their own impact, and you can and should call out groups like THL for doing that. But I don't think it's fair to say that Effective Altruism as movement, or individuals who describe themselves as part of that movement, are "drinking Kool-Aid".

Rick Bogle said...