Baloney isn't vegan: bringing skepticism to vegan events

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Baloney isn't vegan: bringing skepticism to vegan events

You’ve probably seen the Baloney Isn’t Vegan flyer produced by Vegan Chicago. Inspired by Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit**, developed over a period of months* and professionally designed, the intention of the project is to promote the fundamental skills of critical thinking to a vegan audience. In the words of its creator, Dave D of PythagoreanCrank:

I could just be yet another crank who thinks he’s thinking critically but really conforming it around a cherished bias. But how can one go wrong with advocating critical thinking? This, I think, is my new platform. I feel compelled to leverage my years of vegan advocacy experience to adopt this cause in the same manner. It’s a cause that is so fundamental that every other justice issue could benefit. It’s not just a solution, it’s a toolkit to empower the thinker to discover and invent their own solutions. As far as I know there hasn’t been a leaflet made up and passed out on the matter. That is my challenge.*

Since then, the flyers have been in evidence at all sorts of vegan gatherings, and even some skeptical events like The Amazing Meeting. Vegan Chicago have essentially put the design for the flyer in the public domain and produced a a listing on the print-on-demand site Zazzle for easy acquisiton*. As a result, the flyers have an impressive distribution: I’ve encountered them on the far side of the Atlantic – even though the word baloney is not common in British English.

This sort of grassroots activism is critical for a reasonable vegan movement to succeed. We’ve got our work cut out for us: vegan events are hotspots for pseudoscientific trinkets and petty fraud and it sometimes feels like veganism is being hijacked by anti-GMO lobbies and Big Woo. Unfair as it may be, the onus is you and me, Gentle Reader, to combat the tide of irrationality.

I am a veteran of several such engagements, and, in hopes of advancing our front lines, I would like to share with you the sometimes-dubious wisdom that I have gathered over the years. The war may be cold, but we must remain warm and empathetic. After all, we have no enemies – only friends who are confused.

Always be polite

At the keynote of The Amaz!ng Meeting 8, Phil Plait made a controversial statement: don’t be a dick*. When it comes to vegan advocacy in hostile territory, he sorta* has a point. Humans are innately accomplished ingroup/outgroup thinkers, and as soon as you so much hint that you might not be receptive to a claim which seems like nonsense, you’re drawing a line in the sand. The most important thing is to make sure that line doesn’t become a trench. Ask questions, listen to the answers and be complimentary when you can.

Know what you’re talking about

There’s no point in marching up to a proponent of something that looks like pseudoscience - but you don’t really know - and then having nothing meaningful to say to them. Take some time to do your research. There are plenty of skeptical resources online (for the alternative medical practises which seem to be common at vegan gatherings, Tim Farley’s What’s The Harm? is a good place to start) and numerous expert skeptics to help you out if you get stuck. If all else fails, tweet @rvgn_org, and we can connect you with someone.

The world is full of incredible things, and it’s always possible than something which seems be nonsense might have a scientific basis. But, statistically, it probably doesn’t.

Being proven wrong is better than thinking you’re right

The ancient enemy of critical thinking is the stalemate that arises when two or more champions of differing worldviews become ensconced in their beliefs and refuse to give an inch under any circumstances, no matter what new evidence comes to light. Very, very occasionally, this occurs because both sides have what they consider to be compelling evidence, but that is not the norm: such situations are usually the product of cognitive dissonance* – or what I call the Triumph Of The Ego.

We all want to be right, to ‘win’ debates, to prove that our opinions were correct after all. I’ve experienced this sort of stridency many times, and I’m sure you have too. For me, it starts as a dim, mental itch in the middle of a heated conversation, the realisation that what I’m saying is factually incorrect. There then follows the irresistible urge to quietly and numbly sweep away the inconvenient truth, because in this moment – this fraught competition with an opponent - victory is of paramount concern. Trivial matters like ‘the truth’ or ‘accomplishing a goal’ are pushed aside. And for what? Whoever ‘wins’, the outcome is hollow for everyone.

Given that no two humans beings agree on every topic, and assuming that there are some things which are objectively real, the chances that you, Gentle Reader, are incorrect in at least one assumption are non-zero. In other words, you are almost certainly wrong about something that’s important to you. Thinking critically, listening to other people and exercising humility are the best known tools to learn just how wrong you are.

Another controversial figure, Richard Dawkins, describes the joy of being proved wrong:

I do remember one formative influence in my undergraduate life. There was an elderly professor in my department who had been passionately keen on a particular theory for, oh, a number of years, and one day an American visiting researcher came and he completely and utterly disproved our old man’s hypothesis. The old man strode to the front, shook his hand and said, “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you, I have been wrong these fifteen years”. And we all clapped our hands raw. That was the scientific ideal, of somebody who had a lot invested, a lifetime almost invested in a theory, and he was rejoicing that he had been shown wrong and that scientific truth had been advanced.*

You’re not going to change someone’s mind with only one conversation

If you’re a vegan, you’re probably familiar with this one. Even if you’re not, you may have noticed the the brain is a complex organ to say the least, and it’s unlikely to start acting differently because of a single stimulus. Ultimately, you may help steer someone toward a decision (or indeed, be steered yourself) during the course of a conversation, and even a short dialogue may be something they reflect on later.

In a busy environment like a vegan meetup, there is a collateral element: other people who might overhear your conversation. Unknown to you, they may be moved by your arguments, or at the very least become aware of a new line of thinking.

Contact organisers after organised events

If there are, for example, rented stalls at the event, and some of them are occupied by unashamed pedlars of woo, it’s completely reasonable to ask the organisers why they allowed them to be there. It’s usually easy enough to draft other reasonable vegans in to your cause.

Measurements (and indeed metrics) of success vary wildly, but it’s worth making your position known. At the very least, you’ll be prepared for the next event, and you’ll have formed links with other likeminded folks.

If you’re a friendly vegan, anywhere is vegan friendly*. If you’re reasonably open, anyone can be openly reasonable. I think.

We’ve chosen a difficult path, Gentle Reader, but we’re in it together. By working as a community, adopting the premise that we’re all fallible yet still never giving up, we will go beyond the paltry concept of ‘winning’ or ‘being right’ – we will learn to find the truth, and then act as if it were true.

Paul M Fox is a computer scientist, golf poseur and amateur statistican. He is a vegan activist, Go programmer, electric unicycle enthusiast, and a court-certified expert on the Predator movies. One of these things is not true.

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