Skepticism’s Blind Spot

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Skepticism’s Blind Spot

The skeptic movement is broad and it would be wrong to imply that it has rigid doctrines that its followers think about and appeal to constantly, as in some religions. Skepticism is more about how we think than it is about what we think. This, in theory, puts skeptics (and people who identify with similar movements) in a unique position to be able to update their beliefs no matter the circumstance.

For decades the skeptic movement has been using ideas about how we think to challenge what people think. Refuting bad arguments and false claims and, in particular, exposing those who make such claims for personal gain is what we do. Often, we think of personal gain as being equivalent to material profit. Homeopaths, faith healers, psychics and various other promoters of pseudoscience almost always stand to gain money from advancing their agendas.

The movement has a track record of exposing dubious claims for personal gain, yet there are some skeptics who make exactly the same sort of claims to defend the pleasure they gain from animal products

But there are other forms of personal gain, including pleasure, so we should expect to find people making poorly reasoned arguments and outright false claims to ensure that they can continue gaining pleasure from something. And, sure enough, such people exist — us. Almost all of us have rationalised an action which gives us pleasure at some point. Usually, it’s relatively minor decisions that we end up rationalising, like doing something more fun than studying: actions, in other words, that only affect ourselves.

However, when many people across the developed world rationalize the consumption of animal products, millions of nonhuman animals are affected every single year. And, unfortunately, it seems that at least some in the skeptic movement have a blind spot when it comes to this issue. The movement has a track record of exposing dubious claims for personal gain, yet there are some skeptics who make exactly the same sort of claims to defend the pleasure they gain from animal products.

Consider the appeal to nature*: the speciality of any charlatan who equates what is ‘natural’ with what is ‘good’ in order to sell a product. The website Natural News, for example, offers to email you ‘breaking news on natural cures’. This fallacy has been called out time and time again by skeptics*. Yet in the comments of Dr. Harriet Hall’s recent review of a book called ‘Vegan Betrayal’, you’ll find people, who presumably identify as skeptics and rationalists, claiming that ‘it is our nature’ to eat meat*. This was on Science-Based Medicine, one of the skeptic movement’s major online outlets, where appeals to nature are frequently rebutted on other issues*.

Other variations of this argument have been promulgated by the likes of the The Amazing Atheist on YouTube, who claims in one of his videos that evolution and the “selfish gene theory” demonstrate that the meaning of life is to propagate our genes. Thus, by breeding domesticated chickens for meat, we are helping chickens to pursue the meaning of life and have turned chickens into an evolutionary success story. Wild fowl, by contrast, are essentially ‘failing at life’*. Whether he and others like him are being entirely serious is beside the point, because many of his followers seem to genuinely accept these arguments.

People who identify as skeptics and atheists aren’t the only ones committing fallacies like this when it comes to veganism. But a possible danger of skeptics resorting to these common bad arguments is that they can make their arguments seem more superficially plausible, because they’re more likely to have studied real science and are more likely, in turn, to misuse that information in a discussion about veganism. As the psychologist Michael Shermer has put it:

smart people… are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.*

In the rationalist community, there are similar worries. Eliezer Yudkowsky, for instance, has stated that “knowing about biases can hurt people”. Instead of using knowledge about cognitive biases to examine their own beliefs as well as others’, some people may simply use this knowledge to selectively attack beliefs with which they disagree*.

Another danger, which I’ve worried about since before I became a vegan, is that a skeptic’s ‘baloney detection kit’ — to use a phrase coined by the great astronomer and skeptic Carl Sagan — can generate false positives. The actual tools in Sagan’s baloney detection kit were eminently sensible, but Sagan himself warned that, “like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking”*. It’s plausible that something akin to this can happen when skeptics may use usually reliable heuristics, or shortcuts, to detect ‘woo’ that may prejudice their views on certain matters.

One of these matters, I submit, is the subject of veganism. It is an unfortunate fact that too many vegans subscribe to pseudoscientific beliefs and commit logical fallacies. It may be the case that some skeptics see this and, instead of only believing that some vegans are like this, they themselves commit the fallacy of assuming that vegans are homogenous or that veganism is, at its core, pseudoscientific. It doesn’t help that diet is a major feature of veganism. With so many fad diets out there, the thought-process of some skeptics when thinking about veganism may be ‘the word diet is usually associated with fad diets; veganism is basically a diet, therefore veganism is a fad diet’.

People have emotions. They react negatively to things like proselytizing, but ‘we’re only human’ has never been a good enough excuse for skeptics and rationalists when others have tried to justify illogical beliefs or attitudes

One such occurrence of what I would call the hasty denunciation of veganism comes from the aforementioned review by Dr. Harriet Hall, who writes about vegans:

While some of them respect the dietary choices of others, some of them proselytize with religious-like fervor and are working to get their diet adopted by all of humanity.

This is telling: the skeptic community has, almost universally, decided that religions are based on false claims about reality and, as a result, proselytizing about religion is viewed in a negative light. I would take this view. Crucially, though, this does not entail that attempting to persuade ‘all of humanity’ to adopt a belief or practice is necessarily a negative thing – indeed, the skeptic movement itself has the aim of encouraging as many people as possible to view the world critically – and my fear is that many skeptics associate vegans who attempt to persuade people to adopt a vegan lifestyle with religious people, and that this therefore prejudices their views about the concept of veganism.

Part of this prejudice is implicit in the framing of veganism as a “dietary choice”, or a “personal choice”. Yet, for many reasonable vegans, it is above all an ethical choice, relying on the view that unnecessary suffering is wrong, regardless of the species of the individual who experiences it: suffering is suffering. And, given the empirical evidence that suffering occurs regularly in the meat industry, and that it is possible to survive and indeed thrive on a vegan diet*, it can be concluded that the suffering inflicted on nonhuman animals in the meat industry is unnecessary. Many vegans also recognise the overwhelming scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is really happening and that this issue should be dealt with because of the effects it will have on sentient beings, including humans. Given the evidence that a vegan lifestyle is responsible for fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a non-vegan lifestyle*, it is once again reasonable to adopt a vegan lifestyle. If we advocate for national governments to take action on emissions because of the effects those emissions have, we should ourselves reduce our emissions for the same reason: emissions are emissions, no matter who is responsible for them.

Even if some skeptics have fair-mindedly looked at these issues, decided that veganism is not a reasonable position to take, and then come to the view that vegan “proselytizing” in particular was a negative thing, I would still fault many in the skeptic community and similar communities for focusing on the “religious-like fervor” of some vegans – or indeed some religious people – in the first place. Such a focus is essentially an ad hominem* attack on vegans, and distracts from the arguments for veganism. In the comments beneath Dr. Hall’s review, for instance, one commenter appeared to start from the default position that all vegans adopt a vegan diet for reasons to do with sanctimony. Many vegans spend a lot of time thinking about perceptions of veganism, as opposed to the arguments for veganism. There are discussions about whether vegans should take direct action in the form of public protests, for example, and in these discussions the question of whether these protests would alienate people or ‘turn people off’ often comes up. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have these worries, because people would simply be focused on the arguments.

This isn’t to say that vegans shouldn’t discuss tactics. It would be illogical not to take into account the fact that people often do base their decisions not on the arguments, but on their perceptions of the people making those arguments. One might expect rationally-minded people to be better at focusing solely on the arguments, but this problem extends to the effective altruism community too.

a possible danger of skeptics resorting to these common bad arguments is that they can make their arguments seem more superficially plausible

Effective altruism (often abbreviated to EA) is a social movement that focuses on using reason and evidence to determine the best ways to have the biggest positive effect on the world. Many of its adherents are concerned about the suffering of nonhuman animals and support the most effective animal charities*. The response to a debate about whether an effective altruist conference, EA Global 2015 in San Francisco, should serve exclusively vegan food illustrates this point*. Some non-vegans who attended the conference left with very positive perceptions about the cause of animal welfare, while others did not. Those who had negative perceptions were those who had heard about the vegan food controversy: they had came across the vegans who were ‘making a noise’ about the issue and this had influenced their view of the animal welfare cause negatively. By contrast, those who had positive perceptions had not heard about the controversy. This suggests that the politics of community debate (or the character of individual vegans) were taking centre stage – not the arguments or evidence.

People have emotions. They react negatively to things like proselytizing, but ‘we’re only human’ has never been a good enough excuse for skeptics and rationalists when others have tried to justify illogical beliefs or attitudes. The idea, for example, that religion is somehow innate to us is a claim that many skeptics and atheists have long thought irrelevant at best – as demonstrated by the continued arguments over the existence of gods – and dangerous at worst*. In addition, the recurring idea, even in parts of the rationally-minded communities of which I am part, that vegans should ‘respect the dietary choices’, as Dr. Hall put it, of non-vegans seems curious. Given that the skeptic community has long gone out and challenged the beliefs and actions of others, dismissing the cries from those who have had their beliefs debunked that we should “respect their beliefs”. Respecting their right to hold beliefs – of course! But respecting beliefs themselves is not something that skeptics are generally in the business of doing.

Why the double standard? One possibility is that some non-vegan skeptics view the vegan cause as being unworthy, because vegans are advocating on behalf of ‘lesser’ beings. We do live in a speciesist world, after all, whereby the interests of humans are still judged to be more important than the comparable interests of nonhumans, and there’s no reason to suspect that anti-speciesist ideas have taken hold in the skeptic community.

It goes without saying that there are many skeptics, atheists and rationalists who, even if they are not vegans, accept the arguments for veganism. Prominent examples include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris (who is currently vegetarian), Paul Bloom* and other fair-minded people like Hank Green*.

On the whole, though, I would say that many skeptics should examine the lens through which they view the idea of veganism and avoid some of the pitfalls I have outlined. They should be wary of how easy it is to adopt rationalizations for positions we already hold and especially for actions – such as consuming animal products – that we regularly take. Vegans, meanwhile, can do their bit by embracing reasonable veganism, adopting tactics that will best encourage people to take veganism seriously, and challenging preconceptions about veganism as a fad or pseudoscientific diet.

If skeptical vegans and non-vegans complement each other in this way, I am cautiously optimistic that many more non-vegans in the skeptic community will update their beliefs and adopt a vegan lifestyle, or take steps towards eventually doing so.

Vidur Kapur is a student hoping to study medicine or biomedicine at university. He describes himself as a utilitarian, aspiring rationalist and effective altruist, and has been a vegetarian since 2014 and a vegan since May 2016.

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