Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dear Xodarap

I'm writing here in response to a comment on my essay: The Alliance for Animals.

I appreciate your comments Xodarap. My thought experiment contained a large error. The size of the 1/300-millionth is at least four or five times larger than I cited above. But the experiment still seems to suggest a probable truth. Using the larger number, perhaps using any larger number, it still seems to me that a reduction of 1/300-millionth of the demand will have no effect on supply. 1/300-millionth of the demand has no effect on supply. Individual vegans have no effect on the meat supply. I am doubtful even about the cumulative effect of all the vegans in the US combined, which is apparently about 1/2 of 1 percent of the U.S. population.

Corporate outreach may be worth trying sometimes. On the farm animal welfare front, as THL notes, it isn't new, and the outreach efforts have been welfarist in nature. You write: "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... Groups like MFA and THL have had successes which are pretty astonishing, often on the order of $.20 per animal."

I dearly wish that astonished me. I wish I weren't so uncertain about the best method(s). It's not clear to me that cage-free is particularly significant; I'm inferring from your comment above that $.20 per animal refers to chickens. I suspect that cage-free chickens lead miserable lives. I don't think that suffering is an easily quantifiable phenomena. I worry that announcements heralding news that this or that restaurant or supplier has switched to cage-free eggs or meat encourages consumers believe that farming animals is OK when done humanely.

Based on what appears to me to be a parallel case, it may be reasonable to assume that the farm animal welfare movement is unlikely to achieve what it may hope to achieve through the promotion of more humane methods.

Antivivisectionists worked for passage of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966, P.L. 89-544, the earlier version of today's Animal Welfare Act. Prior to passage, conditions in many of the labs across the country were worse than you might be able to imagine. Minimum standards of care and use were stipulated, institutions receiving federal funds were required to meet the standards or risk losing their funding. Improvements were made.

But conditions in the labs are terrible. It is true that scientists are more constrained than they were, animals have to have a certain tiny amount of space and they usually have to be be given adequate food and water. Maybe, if you could take a monkey from 50 years ago and whisk him to this time, he might say he now had it better, but to the monkeys and other animals here now, like I suspect it is for the chickens in the better prisons, its terrible. Really terrible. I can't discern much progress on the animal rights front or even any less suffering in the labs as a result of passage of this legislation. And, the Act is always pointed to by the industry as evidence that they are humane.

Calculations regarding the number of animals "saved" as a result of the more humane methods being used in the labs might be possible, a number might be generated, but it would have little real meaning. Trying to determine the dollar amount spent to bring about the improvements experienced per animal seems pointless, even absurd to me.

I appreciate you pointing to The Humane Leagues' three reviews of social movements. (There are BTW, some really good scholarly efforts to trace the development of animal advocacy. Norm Phelps's The Longest Struggle is an excellent starting point. Anyone interested in suggesting a new direction for an existing animal rights organization has an obligation, I think, to familiarize themselves with this body or work.) Like THL's Reports on the efficacy of various images and messaging, I found the articles interesting but not supportive of THL's fundamental claim. I also found them somewhat misleading and self-promoting at times, ignoring the lack of conclusive data in the THL Reports. I found their conflation of "animal groups" and "animal activism" annoying and misleading.

The last "case study" was interesting. The take-home message was that the fight to make the world a safer, more humane place for children has been a long one that continues to involve efforts on multiple fronts. I was a special education teacher in a rural community; I appreciate people's efforts for children.

As far as the Kool-Aid is concerned, because of the continuing reference by THL to its Reports as substantiation of their claims about the number of animals they save, it is fair to characterize their beliefs as overly zealous or wild. I don't think there is evidence that their ideas about helping animals are better than average; the animal question is a very hard problem. When I see others swoon, otherwise smart people, it looks to me like they have had some sort of shared experience, a conversion so to speak. Perhaps something was slipped into their food.

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: 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 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.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

I'm not a Jehovah's Witness.

I'm also not a Mormon and don't personally know anyone who is. And yet, according to some fairly recent claims by some within the animal rights-ish movement, the world should be teeming with both because of Mormons' and Witnesses' diligent leafleting and door-to-door proselytizing.

According to some, the most effective way to help animals is to hand out leaflets about the use of animals in agriculture. Those making this claim argue that because more animals are raised and killed for food, that this is the area of animal use and harm that should be focused on to the exclusion of all other use and abuse because it will have the greatest effect.

Those making this argument also claim to have evidence to back up their claim, but they actually don't. It is the evidence they claim that proves their activism is more effective than others' activism. They even call themselves Effective Altruists, a demeaning backhand to all the rest us ineffective activists. It is true that meat production results in an inconceivable number of animals being hurt and killed every year. But it isn't true that there is any real evidence that telling people this will change their behavior. It will change the behavior of a few, just as a few people probably become Jehovah's Witnesses after reading a copy of The Watchtower.

It isn't that words can't change people's minds. Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Jungle, Silent Spring, and Animal Liberation are examples of words doing just that. Those books led to people doing much more than leafleting or simply giving their money to those who were spending their time trying to get people to leaflet.

The main claim of Effective Animal Activists, the claim that they say justifies their use of the term effective, is that they have evidence to back it up.

Those who know me, know that I've spent nearly two decades looking at "evidence" that experiments on animals have been a significant factor in the improvement of human health over time. That "evidence" turns out to be largely hyperbole. My hyperbole-detecting radar was activated by the claim that a purported animal rights group had discovered the Holy Grail of helping animals.

Let's look at the evidence pointed to by Effective Animal Activists aka The Humane League. These reports are at:

They introduce it with this bit of hyperbole: "Our work is guided by a clear bottom line: How many animals are we helping? How much suffering are we reducing? Our programs are data-driven and informed by the latest research in social psychology, as well as the work of our research wing, Humane League Labs."

They list ten "Reports" produced by them that apparently are intended to prove that their work is more effective than the work of other groups, and thus, it would be more effective to give your money to them.

The earliest Report is from July 19, 2013: "Which Leaflet Is More Effective?" They explain: "The goal of the study was to see how much diet change is brought about – and how many animals are spared – through college leafleting. Approximately 450 students at two major east coast state universities filled out a survey two to three months after receiving a leaflet."

While the results of such a small study could be interesting or suggestive, the effect would need to be pretty robust before any conclusion could be drawn. The Report claimed that "About one out of every 50 students who received a leaflet indicated they became vegetarian or pescatarian as a result." That is not a robust effect.

One of the apparent authors (probably all with a personal interest in seeing a positive effect), seems to have been Nick Cooney, who reported in bold letters: "In summary, for every 100 leaflets distributed, we can conservatively estimate that approximately 50 farm animals are spared each year from a lifetime of misery."

That is matter-of-factly nonsense. I estimate that my 40 years of veganism has resulted in 5 fewer cows, 7 fewer pigs, and 755 fewer chickens being eaten (by me). [See "40 Years of Veganism" July 26, 2012.] According to the Effective Animal Activists, my 40 years of veganism, had I have been the one out of the 50 who reported becoming vegetarian or pescatarian, that I would have saved 1000 animals. It remains to be seen whether any of the 9 students who reported being moved by the pamphlets will maintain their conviction or whether it will just have been a college fad that they embraced for a moment.

Since the study group was so small, The Humane League's claims based on the results of this very unscientifically conducted study are anecdotal at best and provide no evidence that leafleting is particularly effective. Additionally, no other method of changing the world was compared.

"Which Factory Farming Video Is More Effective?" is dated July 19, 2013. The results are pretty much meaningless, which the unnamed authors acknowledge: "The best measure of video impact immediately available is what percentage of visitors where inspired enough by the video to order a Vegeterian [sic] Starter Pack/ Guide To Meat-Free Meals. Using Google Analytics, we measured what percentage of ad-originating visitors (those who came to the site because they clicked on an ad) were inspired enough to click to order a Guide. This does not necessarily reflect the actual amount of dietary change each video inspired." Fewer than 3% of viewers of either video ordered a Pack or Guide. And of course, as the "Which Leaflet Is More Effective?" report above suggests, very few of those receiving printed information are likely to change their behavior anyway.

"Large-Scale Survey of Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Reducers" is dated April 7, 2014. It seems to be the best of the reports, but is essentially little more than an unscientific poll with questions about respondents' beliefs about their diets. It does provide interesting data. The survey does not attempt to delineate or identify reasons that people adopted a vegan or vegetarian diet. All questions are about respondents' opinions about animals are couched in questions about animals on farms. Oddly, one reported result is that people were most affected by documentary films and books, but the Effective Animal Activists rely primarily on on-line ads and leafleting.

"What Elements Make A Vegetarian Leaflet More Effective?" May 20, 2014. This Report is another insignificant bit of data with little if any value for the animal right movement. The unnamed authors admit as much. The Report starts out with hyperbole: "Between July 2013 and February 2014, Humane League Labs carried out a large-scale study to determine what elements would make a pro-vegetarian booklet more effective at inspiring young people to reduce their consumption of animal products." But concedes that "The data for the individual booklets is not reliable due to small sample sizes (45-95 participants per booklet completed the three month follow-up survey)." They also reported that "in the three month follow-up study, those in the control group (those who never received a booklet ) reported more of a reduction in animal product consumption than those who received any of the other booklets." The authors dismissed the problem by saying that the group size was too small to be meaningful.

"What Cover Photos Make People Most Interested In Reading Pro-Veg Literature?" August 29, 2014. The authors report that people are more likely to choose a pamphlet with a human or a burger on the cover than they are to choose a pamphlet with a picture of an animal. But who didn't know this? Additionally, the methodology is murky. They explain, "Respondents were presented with a random selection of 3 of 12 photos of booklet covers, each presented one at a time. Respondents were then asked to choose, based on their initial impression of the three covers, one booklet they would like to read." This might be helpful to people designing covers for magazines on newsstands, but it is hard to see how it applies directly to leafleting or particularly to tabling.

"Is One Message or Multiple Messages More Effective For Inspiring People To Reduce Meat Consumption?" September 22, 2014. The authors were unsure of the meaning of the results. They concluded that it is probably best to mention a number of issues in a leaflet about eating animals, contrary they say to (un-cited) sociological evidence suggesting the opposite when it comes to asking people to be more altruistic.

"Which Vegan Meals Do Omnivores Find Most Appetizing And Accessible?" January 24, 2015. Here, The Humane League explained that they, "presented omnivores aged 18 and older with a random selection of 7 vegan food photos out of a set of 21 photos. Each photo was shown one at a time, and the viewer was asked to rate how appetizing they felt the dish was, how likely they would be to order it at a restaurant, and how likely they would be to make the dish at home. All food photos were stock or stock quality images." And concluded that: "Familiar dishes that happened to be vegan were consistently ranked as most appetizing, most likely to be ordered at a restaurant, and most likely to be cooked at home." Well, duh.

"Which Farm Animal Photos Are Most Likely To Inspire People To Eat Vegan?" January 25, 2015. The conclusion in this Report was that graphic images of dead or suffering animals rated the highest when omnivores were asked how much the photo made him or her want to stop eating animal products. There was no follow up on whether any of the images actually did make any of the participants stop eating animals, so the actual degree of inspiration any image really had remains unknown.

"Is Animal Cruelty or Purity (“Abolitionist”) Messaging More Effective?" September 20, 2015. This is an altogether odd inclusion in what is purported to be the meaningful body of evidence for the rationale guiding the work of Effective Animal Activists. They write, "[A] small segment of activists believes that focusing on the suffering of farmed animals is counter-productive. These activists, who often refer to their approach as “abolitionist,” believe that advocacy materials should focus on the inherent rights of animals and the need to live a vegan lifestyle in order to morally consistent." The Effective Animal Activists claim that it is wholly the immediate numbers that should be used to evaluate effectiveness, it doesn't make sense that they would take a moment of their time to address the criticisms of a small segment of activists whom they believe are ineffective anyway. Go figure. They concluded that their way was better than the abolitionists' way.

The Effective Animal Activists always try to ground their claims in some measurable reduction in suffering. I don't believe this is actually possible, but to the degree that it might be, the Effective Animal Activists seem to have a confused way of calculating it, which this Report helps illustrate. (An aside, how do you compare the suffering experienced by a broiler hen, who will be killed when she is about 45 days old and the suffering of a monkey held in isolation for years and experimented on repeatedly? How do you compare the suffering of 100 animals for a year and the suffering of one animal for 10 years? Weighing suffering is fraught with difficulty.)

In this Report they explain their metric:
Given background knowledge about how much meat, eggs, and dairy the average American eats per year, we can make educated guesses about the number of days of suffering prevented by a given % reduction in consumption. For example, the average American eats enough chicken to cause approximately 1220 days of suffering (i.e., days of life that a chicken must lead in misery being raised for meat). If an individual expresses an intention to reduce their chicken consumption by 10%, then we can extrapolate that this will spare about 122 days of suffering on the part of chickens.

Days of suffering experienced by animals per year were estimated as follows:
Fish: 1500
Chicken: 1220
Eggs: 365
Red Meat: 113
Dairy: 12
I can't imagine what 1500 days of suffering per year for fish might mean. It is undoubtedly true that a fish caught in a commercial trawler's net will suffer, but how do you calculate "days of suffering" from that? Maybe you can figure it out from these federal statistics, I can't.

The most recent Report is from September 20, 2015: "Which request creates the most diet change, 'vegan,' 'vegetarian,' 'eat less meat,' or 'cut out or cut back on' animal products?" The Report explains its purpose:
In this study, college students were approached at random on campus and asked to complete a short survey on how often they consume various animal products. They were then given a booklet that promoted veg eating. Booklets were identical to each other except for the type of diet change that was encouraged. Some booklets encouraged “vegan” eating, some encouraged “vegetarian” eating, some encouraged readers to “eat less meat,” and some encouraged readers to “cut out or cut back on” meat and other animal products. A control group was given no booklet.

But it determined nothing, because, as the Report explains, "... the study’s small control group, which was not given any booklet, reported changing its meat consumption the most, which is unexpected and counter-intuitive."


Taken either individually or in toto, the Reports relied on by The Humane League do not rise to the level of being actionable evidence. If, in fact, and as they seem to say, that this is the body of evidence that drives and guides the group's activities, then quite clearly, they are simply guessing what they ought to be doing to help animals, and in this sense, they are little different than any other animal advocacy organization or group. But they are different in a way, they say only their way is effective, and that, based on what the claim is their evidence, is absolute bunk.

The Effective Animal Activists' calculations and assertions are suspect. Human slavery was ended because of legal challenges and protest in the U.S. and England, not because a few people were deciding to use fewer slave-produced products. I wish it was all as easy as handing out a few more pamphlets.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Whipless Wednesdays

Effective Altruism (EA) is a relatively recent arrival on the social activism front. It is an idea that many people find appealing, and it makes sense on its face. The essential claim is that we ought to donate to charities that will use the money to do the most good. The underlying philosophy is that we ought to be helping the most (humans, usually) we can with our limited resources. As laudable and logical as that sounds, the conclusions it leads to sometimes seem questionable to me even when EA is applied to the animal issue; determining what "the most good" actually is turns out to be much harder than the simplistic formulas appealed to by some effective altruists.

One example is the embrace and promotion of Meatless Mondays by effective altruists trying to help animals. The EA organization, Animal Charity Evaluators estimates that in the United Kingdom, about 1,203,484,253 chickens and mammals are killed for food every year. If everyone in the UK participated in Meatless Mondays it would result in about 23 million fewer animals being killed every year. Effective altruists look at that large number of animals and conclude that it might be more effective to support charities promoting Meatless Mondays rather than charities trying to stop animal experimentation or fox hunting or banning horse-drawn carriages.

As compelling as the numbers are, they don't seem to me to add up to real progress; they don't seem likely to solve the problem, and until the problem is solved the carnage will continue. The title of this essay is an attempt to cast the issue in some historical light. I don't see how Whipless Wednesdays would have hastened the end of slavery in the U.S., no matter how many fewer lashes might have resulted every week. And imagine those British and later American abolitionists being content with asking people to forego sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Doing that alone would not have ended slavery even if it could have reduced the number of slaves; that might explain why the early abolitionists were doing other things as well.

The embrace of effective altruism has naturally led some to conclude that the most good they can do with their donations is to support charities working in the poorest areas of Africa. Dollars have more buying power in poor countries. The goal is to reduce those people's suffering by improving their standard of living. The EA organization, Give Well, promoted by Peter Singer, recommends supporting organizations that are giving mosquito nets to people in areas with a high incidence of malaria or to organizations treating children with parasitic diseases.

It will never be popular to say that maybe we shouldn't try to save the poorest sickest children on the planet, but maybe we shouldn't. Every one of the children who lives to adulthood will contribute to an increase in the local population and an increase in the consumption of consumer goods. The evidence is clear that an increase in living standard is associated with increased meat consumption which means increased environmental harm and suffering. See for instance: China in the Next Decade.

The main problem with effective altruism is the sad fact that we are unable to reliably predict the outcome of specific efforts promoting social change. Who could have predicted the result of one woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus? Using the EA model, since only she would perhaps get to keep her seat, it would have been seen ahead of time as unlikely to be effective. She would have been counseled to handout leaflets instead.

Unfortunately, numbers alone cannot and never have predicted which animal-related issue will attract public attention and lead to a change in the laws that regulate our interactions with animals. The Silver Spring monkey case is but one example. The Animal Welfare Act is largely the result of a single Life magazine article about a few dogs being stolen by bunchers and sold to university labs. It is impossible to accurately predict what campaign will do the most to hasten change; to the extent possible, and as some animal rights organizations have always done, it seems best to address the problem simultaneously on a number of fronts.