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.

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