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Choosing Info for Advocacy

Also available in PDF formatPDF in
traditional and simplified Chinese, as well as Portuguese.

See also: Animals as the Bottom Line.

In today’s society, it seems that if you don’t scream the loudest, you are not heard. Because moderate voices are often drowned out, it can feel necessary to make fantastic claims in order to advance your cause.

There is a natural tendency for uncritical acceptance of claims we want to believe. In the long run, however, I believe that this causes more harm than good, because we lose support from people who have come to realize that we are not objective, and we miss chances to convince people who are inherently skeptical. Furthermore, most people are looking for some reason to dismiss us. Thus, it is imperative that we present information the public won’t regard as ludicrous and from sources that they won’t dismiss as partisan.


Some Potential Problems

There are several traps when it comes to choosing information. These include:

  • Starting with a desired claim and selectively building an argument to support that claim. This can be particularly harmful when the claim is so at odds with conventional wisdom as to be easily dismissed, in which case anything else said is tainted or ignored. An example is stating as fact that Jesus was a vegetarian when trying to convince someone that they, too, should be vegetarian. Some Christian vegetarians are drawn to this contention because it connects their two strongest beliefs, while some activists like the claim because it receives media attention.

    In the bigger picture, however, this claim, like others, can serve to harm the overall spread of the vegetarian message. Since the Bible portrays Jesus as eating fish, any Christian devout enough to base their eating habits on what Jesus did will probably believe the Bible. Others will conclude that vegetarian advocates will say anything to promote their cause, either by intentionally lying to the public or by deceiving themselves.

    Carl Sagan wrote: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary [i.e. overwhelming and indisputable] proof.” When we make an extraordinary claim without this proof accompanying it, we lose credibility. Claims in this category include: 75% of U.S. topsoil has been lost, with 85% of this directly attributable to raising livestock; an acre of trees disappears in the United States every eight seconds; and one burger costs 55 square feet of rainforest.

    (While getting my M.S. in Forest Ecology, I worked with people who have done extensive first-hand research on tropical deforestation. I also dealt with other foresters, as well as people working with the Soil Conservation Service. As much as I tried, I was unable to find proof for the above oft-quoted claims. Rather, I found contrary statistics or complex chains of causation.)

    Similar claims include: vegetarianism would extend the world’s petroleum reserves 20-fold; more than half the water and 33% of raw materials used in the United States go to livestock production; vegetarianism can solve world hunger; eating meat causes impotence. If we are going to make such extraordinary claims in our literature, they must be backed up with overwhelming proof in that literature if we expect people to believe them.

  • Another trap involves a single number from an uncertain range. One example is the claim that 25% of college males are sterile. Many years ago, I gave a pro-veg pamphlet to my college advisor (an open-minded individual) who dismissed it out of hand after coming to this. This is a reasonable reaction because research on the topic reveals information from a variety of sources that indicates 25% is much too high.

  • Unwarranted generalization is a related problem, such as taking the results from a single study (e.g., heart attack rates of vegetarians compared to nonvegetarians) and generalizing those rates as facts for the entire population. Often this is done when there are other studies indicating more conservative figures, or even opposing conclusions.

  • In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1999:70S), Walter Willett gives an example of the difficulties we face in getting good information: “Although an association between red meat consumption and colon cancer has been observed in many studies, the available evidence suggests that there is little such relation with breast cancer. Within Seventh-day Adventist populations, little if any reduction in breast cancer incidence has been observed in comparison with the general population. Positive relations between consumption of red meat and breast cancer were noted in a few studies, but a tendency to report positive associations but not to publish negative findings may have resulted in an overall bias in the literature.”

  • Some also extrapolate epidemiological data from another country to our own. Many activists use the results of research done in other cultures as though it necessarily applies to vegans in the United States. But there are a wide variety of confounding factors that make many extrapolations difficult, such as the amount of weight-bearing exercise in women as it relates to osteoporosis, and the fact that very little of this research is done on actual vegans.

  • Another problem is connecting unrelated or loosely-related facts, such as arguing that one should be vegan to avoid sterility. Most people who hear this could, if they desired, easily find information that would indicate that being vegetarian has little to do with sterility – e.g., the Endocrine Society lists nothing related to diet as a cause of male infertility.


Judging and Presenting Information

The general public is constantly being bombarded with “documented facts” from all sides (e.g., The Zone/low-carb/Eat Right for Your Type diet gurus). These and others are totally and passionately convinced of the truth of their facts. We can’t assume that the public will be swayed by our claims, just because we too are convinced that our facts are correct. We have to go beyond finding claims and research that appeal to us, and use materials that our target audience will find compelling and convincing. Specifically, we need to be appropriately skeptical of claims which support our position, and not dismissive of claims that don’t. The pro-veg case is valid – and not easily dismissed – even with less fantastic contentions.


Nutritional Information

In order not to scare off potential vegans, some advocates rarely mention any difficulties in being vegan. This can backfire by not preparing people well for a vegan diet. Our experience indicates there are a large number of people who become vegetarian or vegan, don’t feel healthy, and go back to meat-eating. As one nutrition professor recently told Jack, “You’re the only vegan I know. I know a lot of ex-vegans, but no vegans.”

For example, much vegan advocacy literature implies that being vegan reduces the risk of osteoporosis, and thus, vegans do not need to be worried if they get less calcium and vitamin D than non-vegans (most vegans do get significantly less calcium). However, recent studies do not show vegans to be more protected from osteoporosis than non-vegans. Thus, vegans should meet the Daily Recommended Intake for calcium, and pay attention to their vitamin D intake and/or sun exposure.

Researchers commenting on their study in the British Journal of Nutrition had the following advice:

The findings from the present and other studies suggest a need for dietary supplementation at two stages in an adult vegetarian career. The "new" vegetarian, who has recently given up some or all animal products, may go into negative mineral balance. If mineral absorption mechanisms need time to adjust to reduced intake of minerals (especially [the plant form of iron]), and increased [fiber] then a modest supplement might ease this transition. Iron, zinc and calcium would be affected. The vegetarian who progresses to veganism certainly requires additional vitamin B12, and iodine and riboflavin are to be recommended as well. Nutrient supplements recommended for adults are also needed by children receiving similar diets, and in addition a dietary vitamin D intake is considered essential for children." (Draper A, Lewis J, Malhotra N, Wheeler E, "The energy and nutrient intakes of different types of vegetarian: a case for supplements?" British Journal of Nutrition 1993 Jan;69(1):3–19.)

More info available in the vitamin D section of Staying Healthy on Plant-Based Diets.


Finding and Sharing Accurate Information

Getting accurate, complete, and unbiased information can be difficult. Until 1999, some of the information in Vegan Outreach’s pamphlets had been based on secondary sources. When we finally had the time to go to the original sources, they often did not correspond to what was being attributed to them. Even first sources have problems, and thus cannot be viewed in isolation.

Being rigorous and thorough may seem like an overwhelming task. But in addition to being more effective at reaching our target audience, these efforts will increase our confidence in the information we are using, and may even lead to other important facts and understandings.