Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Definition of Insanity

Back in the 1990s, Vegetarian Times ran a bit that really startled me: a huge proportion of people who self-identify as “vegetarian” actually ate red meat on a regular basis. Not fish or chickens (which many self-proclaimed “vegetarians” always eat), but cows and pigs.

This shows the importance of not trusting self-reported labels. A poll that says “X% of population Y is vegetarian” is meaningless unless you know exactly what it is measuring.

One group that has been consistently rigorous in their definitions and measurements is the Vegetarian Resource Group. They ask detailed questions to be sure they are finding those who are actually not eating any animals.

Our friends at The Good Food Institute looked at the VRG polls from the past 15 years and found:

This might be a more accurate way of visualizing it, in the context of the entire population:

This isn’t to say nothing has changed in the past twenty years. (And if you had only looked at 2006-2012, it would have seemed to be a trend.)

But just try to imagine how much money and time has been spent working to get people to stop eating animals, all for these noisy, bouncy results.

The same is true for the number of animals killed in the country. According to Harish at Counting Animals, the number of animals killed finally declined from about 2006 to 2013. But more animals were killed in 2014, and more again in 2015 [personal communication]. 2017 update: Dr. Sethu believes that Faunalytics' survey is the most accurate one out there currently, and that shows only 2% of the population is vegetarian. But how many vegetarians there are doesn't matter. What matters is suffering. And by that measure, animals have never been worse off: per-capita consumption of animals is at an all-time high in the US.

Of course, it is possible that we just haven’t screamed at non-vegetarians loudly enough. Maybe our message hasn’t been extreme and pure enough. And we can continue to ignore 80% recidivism, and that our arguments can actually lead to more animals dying.

If our concern is for ideology and moral baselines, then obviously, data and facts are irrelevant. But if we care about impacting actual suffering in the real world, then maybe we shouldn’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome. Maybe we should review the data and reconsider our advocacy and our strategy.


Anonymous said...

It's not obvious to me why do we look at the past 15 years given that the Vegetarian Resource Group page that you link to gives numbers from 1994? I plotted these http://postimg.org/image/zcdchxh9x/ (btw plz no moar 3d bar charts, the cool looking 3d feature only serves to make the plot more difficult to read) Given that 1994 and 1996 both gave 1 %, these data suggest a slightly more optimistic interpretation overall, although it surely has not been going very well 2000 - 2015.

Anyway it is interesting that your argument is exactly the same as the one Francione makes, except that you arrive at the opposite conclusions. According to Francione, animal rights movement has not made any progress because it has not been enough about animal rights and too much about promoting baby steps towards liberation. According to you on the other hand, the animal rights movement has not made progress because it has not been enough about promoting baby steps and too much about animal rights.

Well I probably agree with you because intuitively it seems to me that back in the day people indeed were more about purity and such and that this promotion of meat reduction is a novelty.

However, is there some data to support that assertion? I mean if we are going to go throwing jabs like "If our concern is for ideology and moral baselines, then obviously, data and facts are irrelevant. But if we care about impacting actual suffering in the real world, then maybe we shouldn’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome." we should have something more than the exact same data Francione uses and bold (yet unproven) assertions on the correct interpretation?

Anyways panel regressions on the purity of AR message vs. results delivered would be nice, I wish someone would do that.

Matt Ball said...

Thanks for writing.
I'm sorry that my message wasn't clear. I'm not saying we are doing too much animal rights -- I'm saying we're not being pragmatic about pursuing an ask that is both doable and impactful. http://www.mattball.org/2015/08/understanding-numbers-for-better.html
There are several areas of research to back up this idea. One is the study of change in general; e.g. http://www.mattball.org/2014/08/switch-how-to-change-things-when-change.html
Two is that the vast majority of people who do go veg eventually quit. One of the main reasons they give is the inability to live up to the demands for purity.
Three is the fact that objective research shows that the general public (the ones we have to reach) view veganism as impossible, and vegans as jerks.
I think one thing you can look for is if people are focused on words, or if they are focused on results and real world research.