After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the things we need most in the world. — Philip Pullman*
I was listening to the journalist and author David Aaronovitch talk on the subject of conspiracy theories and I detected an interesting note in a conversation he recounted that took place between himself and a Labour MEP, that ended when his interlocutor insisted:
MEP: You’re not going to tell me that JFK was not the victim of a conspiracy.
Aaronovitch: I probably am…
MEP: Nothing you or anybody else could ever say would ever persuade me that it wasn’t a conspiracy.*
This disregard for evidence is accounted for by Aaronovitch as the reaching for a better story*. The world often disappoints us with what is true and it can be comforting to invent a more pleasing version of events. While it might be disquieting to think that we live in a world in which the most powerful man in the world can be killed by a lone, lawless gunman, it is far better to weave a story in which he is murdered by a nefarious but organised underworld that can assassinate presidents and then disappear into the shadows. In the context of mid-twentieth century American politics, the better story gained prominence and the majority of US citizens have consistently believed in some kind of JFK conspiracy ever since* – despite a weight of evidence dismissing a need for one.
To take another example, when it comes to UFOs we do not know whether alien life exists and, considering the size of our universe and the short span of our lives, we may well never know. This is not a pleasing story. Far better to say that alien life is definitely out there and, further, that it has visited us. Out of this wish there then grows a convoluted web of stories that the government, the CIA, the illuminati or whoever has had to cover up the visits to shield us from the truth. The wish is primary to the facts.
I often wonder if people in the vegan movement might be prone to this kind of thinking. Could there be an element of storytelling that runs through the received beliefs to arrange the facts more pleasingly? I recall a conversation I have had several times, and on one occasion with an acquaintance who had just returned from giving a talk against animal testing. He was full of the enthusiasm of the day and he explained his case that animal testing was ‘bad science’*. I stopped to consider this statement. Something seemed topsy-turvy. To argue against animal testing without reference to the moral case seemed to leave the most sincere artillery unspent. My acquaintance’s real quarrel was not, I imagine, with the accuracy of the method but with the ethics of it. No amount of goodwill for scientific rigour could, I figured, be responsible for this kind of disagreement.
It is true that human and animal differences can undermine the usefulness of some animal research. Cats are fatally sensitive to aspirin*, which is not only a story passed down the vegan word-of-mouth tradition, but also a supportable fact. On the other hand, behavioural psychology from Pavlov and Skinner onwards* has doubtlessly benefited from use of animals, however unethically. You may well abhor the use of mammals in experimentation, but Dolly the Sheep* (the first laboratory-cloned mammal) represents a major advance in the science of genetics. The science of organ transplants, vaccines and cancer treatments has been made possible by the use of animals, horrific though that may be. It is disingenuous, therefore, to argue that all animal research is bad science, although it might make for a more orderly world if that were true.
There are plenty of reasonable objections to animal testing on ethical and social grounds. By all means, take its supporters to task on the moral implications for a society that sponsors suffering in sentient beings. Shower them with the evidence that the ability to feel pain is widely shared among our animal cousins*. If you wish, insist that the ethical balance doesn’t justify the practice and that animal testing should be banned or reserved only for particularly worthwhile causes. But it contributes only to ideological friction to sit behind a more convenient story simply because it fits the way we would like the world to be.
Maybe the ethical argument is considered a more difficult position to convey to outsiders. Maybe it is tactically preferable to make the ‘bad science’ claim rather than to be dismissed as emotional radicals. I don’t know. But I do think that we would be living in some kind of ideal universe if the best science happened to coincide with the most ethical science. Other choices do not seem to behave in this felicitous way. Ethical problems usually involve a sacrifice of self-interest for other-interest, otherwise they would pose no quandary. There is a trade-off, and to make the case to abolish animal testing as a win-win for both science and ethics looks to me like it might be a case of storytelling. Not least because the conspiracy of scientific minds and institutions to effect the implied cover-up (or, more charitably, myopia) would be astonishing.
The use of storytelling to explain the world reaches across all human cultures and eras. From the insistence on bedtime stories by children, to the oral tradition of storytelling that has passed down myths and legends across centuries, to novels, plays and Hollywood movies*, human indulgence in storytelling appears to be ubiquitous. A good narrative awards prestige to its teller, which helps explain why people like to spread stories. The story itself makes sense of reality by smoothing its edges and recasting its themes, often in a more pleasing light. The question is whether we have woven a narrative that fits the way the vegan movement wants the world to be – a better story than the one available through evidence alone. A movement with such high ideals as an end to cruelty might be particularly susceptible to that.
To take another example, I am often told that animal products are universally ‘toxic’, ‘carcinogenic’, or even (quite improbably) a ‘deadly poison’* and that being vegan is both optimally healthy and optimally ethical. You mean that I don’t have to make any trade-off? None at all? Now, I take full heed of the scientific evidence that a vegan diet is healthy and sustainable for all stages of life*. Indeed, I rejoice in that. I have been a healthy vegan for 18 years and can recommend it safe in the knowledge that this claim is good science. Diets that include meat, however, can also be healthy. If the will to absolutism takes over, it obfuscates real information, and that is a detriment to the vegan case. The same applies to the appeal to nature* in which encouragement is made for people to adopt a diet on the basis of it being ‘natural’ or ‘what our ancestors did’. This is storytelling par excellence. The argument over our dietary history is irrelevant for the moral case and uninteresting to the health claim: it represents only the battle for the better story.
Whoever can tell or adumbrate the better story gains status in their movement as an organiser of truth. This is an attractive position to be in. It can also be a curse. B12 deficiency is relevant to everyone, but lays much more of a trap for vegans*, both nutritionally and, one might suspect, because of the stories told that lure attention away from the trouble. It is easy to find examples around the web (by storytelling hubs such as Natural News*) that fly in the face of facts about B12 and, in doing so, pose a danger. There have been more than a few recorded cases** of devastating health problems caused by complications from B12 deficiency in vegetarians/vegans and this fact alone should prop up a call to dismantling the story around it.
Only honesty can flush out fanciful thinking. To return to the reported conversation that opened this piece, it is bad epistemology to keep a position that cannot be altered by any evidence whatsoever. An unwillingness to state the conditions under which one’s mind might be changed is a feature of pseudoscience and cult beliefs, which twist and turn in an attempt to evade the evidence against them. They simply spin the contrary evidence in a favourable light and, by explaining everything with their new story, explain nothing.
Not wishing to be cast in this mold myself, I set up a thought experiment to test my honesty and how entangled I might be in vegan storytelling. I imagined reading a comprehensive set of studies published in reputable journals that destroyed all the evidence that vegans use for their support. I imagined that these studies demonstrated, reliably, that land use for arable farming was higher than for beef farming, that more water was used to produce a kilogramme of grain than a kilogramme of chicken and that animal suffering in arable farming is invariably higher - by lost habitat and incidental death, say - than in livestock farming. What would my reaction be?
First, it would be reasonable for me not to discard a position on the basis of a single contrary study. Knowledge progresses by nudges and small results. Rarely - to the chagrin of homoeopaths and pseudoscientists everywhere - do scientific revolutions flatly contradict previous established results. So, to push myself into more uncomfortable territory, I cranked up the thought experiment a little and imagined a series of well designed studies over a length of time that constituted hard evidence for the above points.
My response then, I like to think, would be to stop backing the claims that this new evidence discredited. Part of being reasonable in intellectual life is to be able to state the conditions under which one would change one’s mind. And I have just specified the conditions under which I would change mine.
Third, I would remain vegan. I think. This requires some unpacking.
Even if all the evidence seemed to point towards a meat diet as the most sustainable, I think I would find it too unpleasant to consume animal products. By this admission I realise that, in my own case, the underlying motivation for being vegan is probably a reaction to the act of consuming animal parts, rather than a contemplation the environmental evidence. I have given a psychological account of why such a reaction may be made. It is good to be honest about this.
In a final turn of the screw in my thought experiment, I imagined a series of well designed, reproducible studies showing that being vegan was a serious detriment to my health. At this point, with no environmental reasons to support me and a serious challenge to my health thrown in, I might put aside my psychological objections. They wouldn’t seem important enough. This is my breaking point. My balancing scales drop to the other side at this moment.
What have surfaced here - I think importantly - are the conditions under which I would change my mind. Even if the MEP who gave the revealing response regarding JFK would never change his mind, I can tell you how and for what reason I would change mine. This is both the declaration every sincere rationalist must make, either to themselves or to others, and a demonstration of the balancing act involved in making ethical decisions. We don’t deal in certainties, we deal in trade-offs. By laying bare the conditions for conversion, I think I minimise the chance of storytelling in my choices. I invite you to do the same. The exercise sets a challenge to the myriad stories told for the sake of coherence and the avoidance of difficult choices; it also is a challenge to those who perceive veganism to be irrational and baseless.
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