From Social Justice to Social Science? A Response to Nick Cooney

Nick Cooney, author of Change of Heart and Veganomics, recently published a blog post at that he described as possibly “the most important blog post [he’s] ever written.”  The post was titled “Changing Vegan Advocacy from An Art to a Science” and in it he argues that:

“not only can we use direct testing to improve our vegan advocacy efforts, but that we have an ethical imperative to do so.”

The idea is that that the animal liberation movement needs to invest far greater resources on controlled experiments to carefully craft a message and to design outreach materials so as to maximize their effectiveness.  For example, Vegan Outreach offers several different booklets detailing the horrors of animal agriculture and promoting vegan eating.  Cooney writes that:

“Whenever there are four videos – or leaflets, or vegetarian starter guides, or vegan eating websites, or humane education talks, or whatever – one of them is going to be most effective at changing diets and saving lives. That is simple fact”.

Cooney therefore suggests that the animal liberation movement begin to do the work of determing which is the most effective rather than relying on hunches, personal preferences, or anecdotal evidence.  Humane League Labs, the research wing of The Humane League (founded by Cooney), is dedicated to conducting such research and has, amongst other things, evaluated Vegan Outreach materials.  According to the Humane League Labs website they also plan to evaluate the efficacy of Facebooks advertisements that promote veganism, to determine what makes factory farming videos most compelling, and to assess whether “go vegan”, “go vegetarian”, or “eat less meat” is the most effective request.

I have not conducted a scientific poll, but my general impression is that Cooney’s post has been well received by animal advocates.

Activists as Alchemists?


“The Alchemist and His Gold” by Edmund Dulac

Cooney’s title indicates a desire to convert vegan advocacy from “an art to a science” but he begins his article by comparing the current state of vegan advocacy to alchemy which is neither an art nor a science but rather a pseudoscience.  After this sleight of hand, the widely agreed upon shortcomings of alchemy are then presumed to translate into shortcomings of the current state of vegan advocacy.  It is a weak analogy and consequently a weak argument.

This alchemy analogy allows Cooney’s prefered solution of pouring resources into focus groups and marketing studies to assume the heroic role of chemistry which puts the alchemists out of business, shutters their schools, and, in short order, has provided medicine, smartphones, and clean drinking water…in other words: better living!

But if vegan advocacy is better understood as an art rather than a science (or a pseudoscience) then grassroots activists are street artists who are not simply operating with a formula and closely following a script; what works for one will not necessarily yield similar results for another.  Holding the line, Cooney could simply insist that these are simply additional variables that well designed studies could theoretically control for; but at some point positing variables begins to look like adding epicycles to make a theory work.

Sell it Like Soap

Introducing a second fairly weak analogy, Cooney writes:

“In the business world, testing and research are used all the time to help corporations sell more products and make more money.”

and thus he concludes:

“If testing can be used to sell products, to win elections, and to save human lives, it can also be used to save the lives of animals. Not only can it be used, but it’s my strong belief that those of us who care about farm animals have an ethical obligation to use testing and research to guide our vegan advocacy work.”

The analogy between business success and the success of a social justice movement is tenuous at best tending to mislead more than inform.  Businesses must overwhelmingly focus on short term gains looking toward quarterly profits; social justice movements must think in long spans of time.  CEOs don’t suggest that “the arc of history is long but it bends toward profit” to boost the morale of impatient shareholders.  Businesses are strictly hierarchical; social justice movements may have influential leaders but often lack the same type of control mechanisms.  Businesses are staffed by formally trained professionals and experts; social justice movements do not have such employees.

Of course, the analogy would not be quite so weak if the animal movement was not a movement of people but rather was a movement of nonprofit corporations.  But which of these is a more accurate description of the movement may simply be a glass half full-half empty question that lacks a definitive answer and there is little indication from his article which description Cooney favors.

As a sidenote, this is not a novel approach.  It is the same idea behind the spurious notion of voting with our dollars.  And was also voiced by John Lennon and Yoko Ono who in promoting peace said they would “sell it like soap”.

Who Needs Activists?

The word “activist” is used only once in Cooney’s almost 3000 word article.  It is used to refer to “vegan activists” who would be “in a quandry” if test results did not align with their philosophy such as if the phrase “Go Vegetarian” proved more effective in changing dietary habits than the phrase “Go Vegan”.  That is to say, the word “activist” is only used once and in that one instance it refers to people who are presumed to be quite ideologically rigid.

Far from simply quibbling about Cooney’s word choice, the point is that converting a social justice movement into a research project leaves little room for the participation of grassroots activists other than scripted legwork.  The real work would be done by social scientists leading focus groups with national nonprofits commissioning the studies and distributing the results.  The only role for activists would then possibly be to receive the results of such testing and to act and communicate with the approved vocabulary, font choice, and brochure color.  Activists would not be autonomous actors making meaningful decisions about their own campaigns but would be expected to defer to experts.  Indeed, Cooney writes that:

“to the extent we disregard empirical data in favor of philosophy or sociological theory, we are valuing the ideas in our head over the tangible misery of animals just out of sight.”

This would likely be the charge hurled at activists who go off script.

And Finally, a False Dilemma

“We as a movement have two choices,” writes Cooney.  Only two choices?

Cooney insists that we must choose between his approach and the status quo that he describes as analogous to knowingly embracing the pseudoscience of alchemy.  It is a false dilemma.  We are not restricted to either mimicking the politicians who take positions and choose their words based on the latest poll results (Cooney cites Barack Obama’s reelection campaign) or else adopting the methodology of those who sought to alchemically turn lead into gold.  We are not restricted to a choice between science and pseudoscience but rather can allow vegan advocacy to function as an art or better yet as a component of a social justice movement.   There need not be a party line that activists must adhere to once “the science is in”; rather strength (and efficacy) may be better found in a diversity of people adopting a diversity of approaches.  This does not mean that people are simply left to rely on their own hunches; at least not anymore than a skilled painter relies on exclusively on hunches as to what will resonate with a viewer.  It does not mean that all choices are equally good simply because there is no definitive answer that is always and everywhere preferable.


The principal mistake being made by Cooney is that he is providing a technical answer to what is essentially not a technical problem.  He doesn’t want to replace alchemy with chemistry rather he wants to replace painting with chemistry or social justice with chemistry.  It is not his mistake alone, it is a cultural inclination.  The tangible successes of science have prompted us to apply its methods beyond reasonable limits.

To this end Cooney quotes Bill Gates, “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.”  Cooney says that “[t]hose words are so powerful, and from such an authoritative source” that he is compelled to repeat the quote a second time and does so.

It is not clear to me why Bill Gates is deemed an “authoritative source” on questions pertaining to animal advocacy or to advancing a social justice movement but the ability to measure something is not the same as the ability to control or change that thing.

There is far more than an algorithm between us and animal liberation.

8 thoughts on “From Social Justice to Social Science? A Response to Nick Cooney

  1. Hey Ian,

    Thanks for your thoughts, I do think some of your criticisms are a bit of an illogical attack (ex, implying taking a scientific approach is bad because politicians and business persons – two groups possibly disliked by your readers – use it), but of course you’re entitled to your view. I do know that if I personally was a grassroots activist, I’d prefer to use the message (/brochure/font/color/etc) that created 10 new vegans instead of 8. And I could use my creativity to try new approaches to see if I could create 11 (of course I’d have to measure to see if my approach was in fact better), and I think that’s one of the great values of having lots of grassroots work.

    I wonder what you think of this piece on the marriage equality movement’s victory in 2012?
    Personally I think that what the equality movement did was great, and is a good model for other social justice movements, but you may disagree with them.

    I don’t think I’ll get notified of a response here, but if you’re interested in reading it i’d love to hear your thoughts via a facebook message or email (nick dot cooney , gmail). take care man-

    • Nick,

      Your comment assumes that following the same formula will always or almost always yield the same results but that is largely what is being called into question. No one is arguing in favor of being less effective…so saying that you would prefer to be more effective and reach more people does not really address the matter at hand. The same brochure/font/color may create 8 new vegans when used by you and more/less when used by someone else. There is too much to control for to make such predictions with any degree of confidence; furthermore, the urge to even try to control everything has its own negative consequences.

      Regarding the reference to politicians and business persons, I am not suggesting that the marketing based approach you endorse is bad simply because it may be used by politicians and business people. It is not a guilt by association argument which, as you say, would be illogical. Rather, I am calling into question the strength of your analogy between success in business and electoral politics and success in the context of a social justice movement. I am suggesting that that is a weak analogy and consequently a weak argument.

      Regarding the Atlantic article, it seems quite specific to ballot measures and not necessarily applicable to the full breadth of activities that fall under the banner of a social justice movement. If anything, I would suggest that ballot measures have become too big of a piece of the animal liberation movement which is probably what accounts for the mistake of taking lessons they may possibly be applicable to a part and extending them to the whole.

      I appreciate your thoughts and your taking the time to share them.

  2. I agree with Nick Cooney on this issue. As a vegan activist myself, I have personally seen fellow activists do a disservice to the vegan movement by their actions. Such as using guilt tactics, screaming at their fellow citizens, and basically acting like children. Its no wonder many people envision vegans as militant, radicals, and unhappy. As Emerson said “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” Whether you believe it our not, some activists create a social backlash that is hard to overcome, and I think that refining our methods of outreach toward more effective procedures is only going to help the animals.

  3. It seems to me that there is a plethora of product offerings as I walk down a grocery store aisle. I don’t know with certainty, but I suspect that all the major shampoo and toothpaste companies are constantly testing new tastes, colors, claims, and names on focus groups, not to mention the print and broadcast ads they are testing to market the products. I suspect that if they weren’t doing this, that they would each have less market share. In spite of this, there are many choices to choose from. No one has come up with the one shampoo that everyone simply must have. This suggests that even giant marketing companies are able to attract only a slice of the public’s opinion.

    According to Gallup, in 2012, only 5% of us in the US consider ourselves vegetarians, and only
    2% say we are vegans. In the context of many individuals and groups producing thousands of leaflets, books, articles, movies, ads, stickers, posters, etc. over the past decades, the idea that some of them were more effective than others is undoubtedly true, but its also true that none of them were very effective.

    I used to work for a fairly large national AR org. Our direct marketing was looked at closely to determine the most effective (as in total dollar donations) pictures on the envelops, the best pitch, the most effective subject, etc. I assume that the large nationals do this now. But even the most effective message still isn’t very effective. After years of marketing, only 2% of us say we are vegans.

    It looks to me like something entirely new is in order. The most effective Why Vegan has not been very effective (I’ve handed out lots of them; I’m a fan.) I’m not interested in knowing though which Why Vegan will get one more person to give veganism try. I wish good marketing and data would help, but the return to date has been so marginal, so insignificant that it is clear to me that something altogether different is called for.

    Spending time trying to find out which unsuccessful method was the least unsuccessful seems an awful lot like splitting hairs to me.

    • I find the blog post and comments to be very interesting and worthwhile reading.

      Glad as I am to see a comment by Rick Bogle, I think the survey information about the number of vegans/vegetarians should not be considered absolute. As noted about the Harris survey, for example, on VRG’s own site:

      Because we use the word “never” and give the definition rather than having respondents self define, our numbers may be lower than other polls.

      In theory, with probability samples of this size, one could say with 95 percent certainty that the results for the overall sample have a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. There are several other possible sources of error in all polls or surveys that are probably more serious than theoretical calculations of sampling error. They include refusals to be interviewed (e.g., non-response), question wording and question order, and weighting. It is impossible to quantify the errors that may result from these factors.

      from How Many Adults Are Vegan in the U.S.?
      Posted on December 05, 2011 by The VRG Blog Editor

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