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 HumaneSpot.org 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?

Edmund_Dulac_-_Wind's_Tale_-_3

“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.

Conclusion

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.