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How Effective is the Vegan Lecture? Exam Scores Tell a Horrifying Story

How Many Animals Killed?

Can you estimate how many animals are killed for food in the United States each year?

In 2015, I added this innocuous extra credit question at the end of an exam in my Introduction to Sociology course. Since we had discussed violence against animals in class, students had been assigned readings on the topic, and it was explicitly listed in the study guide, I expected that most students would guess in the ballpark of several billion. Instead, many were reporting numbers in the several millions, or even several thousands. The lowest guess was just 2,000.

I was so utterly astonished by the exam results, I was compelled to repeat the question on future exams. I have shared my findings in an open-access article with the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food. Over the course of seven semesters, I eventually presented the question to nearly 200 students. All students (presuming they did not skip class) had been exposed to an 80 minute lecture on human/nonhuman relationships. This lecture clearly stated the FAO statistics on the numbers of animals killed in the United States (about 10 billion). I even made sure to linger on the sheer magnitude of individuals killed.

Results

Sixty-six percent of the class significantly underestimated the number of animals killed, and only 29% offered a reasonable estimate of between several billion and trillion (I clarified in lecture that FAO statistics do not include aquatic life). About 1 in 5 students were not even confident enough to hazard even a guess. Because 2% of students grossly overestimated the number of animals killed, the class average was skewed. However, the median response was in the millions. The bottom 10% of student responses averaged just 24,667. About that many chickens are killed every one and a half minutes in the United States (or 9 billion annually).

Predictably, students who scored A’s and B’s were more likely to guess an appropriate number. This suggests that students with good classroom behavior and study hygiene are more likely to retain information (at least up to the exam date). There was no significant correlation with gender.

Low Food Literacy

Low food literacy is well-documented across developing countries by food justice organizations, states, and industries which work to manipulate consumer decisions and public nutrition. Sociologically speaking, the systematic killing of other animals has been effectively removed from our social sensibility. Most consumers only relate to other animals as packaged products and menu items. Psychologically speaking, people employ a number of cognitive barriers to avoid uncomfortable knowledge.

The reasons for low food literacy are many, but the results presented here are especially sobering. Afterall, these are college-educated adults who have been trained to think critically and are exposed to current events, global trends, and multiculturalism. These are also college students who had been specifically exposed to information about nonhuman experiences in the food system. This suggests to me an inherent limitation to lecture as a means of lasting knowledge transmission.

Are Lectures Effective?

My suspicion is that, as Sociology 101 is a survey course, I am obligated to cover a large variety of sociological theories, concepts, and trends. I am not able to frequently return to each and every concept to aid with retention–that privilege is granted to key theories and paradigms. For vegan lecturers outside of academia, these results suggest that one-off lectures may not be sufficient to persuade. However, in research I conducted in 2017, I did find that a significant number of respondents became vegan after having watched a film or read a book on the topic.

There are a number of methodological shortcomings to this research. For one, my Introduction to Sociology course is aimed at first-year students, meaning that many respondents were still finding their academic footing. Second, I offered no control group. The estimates provided by my experimental group were so very low, however, I would find it hard to believe that a control group would have done much worse in having not been exposed to lecture.

I also did not conduct a post-test to measure if the knowledge was retained beyond the exam. After the exam, I went over the extra credit results with the class. When I explained how numbers so low could not possibly be accurate given that several thousand nonhumans are killed just to sustain the university cafeteria each semester, many students laughed and nodded. I would be curious to know if this debriefing had any effect on knowledge retention.

Readers can access the entire article here.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Solving Moral Conflicts in a Non-Vegan World

In “How to Help When It Hurts?” my friend and colleague Cheryl Abbate considers an ethical conundrum often facing vegan activists, advocates, and rescuers who feel responsible for the well-being of Nonhuman Animals in adverse conditions with conflicting needs. In cases of genuine moral conflict, she suggests an application of the guardianship principle to assist with decisionmaking.

By way of an example, obligate carnivores like lions who are rescued from circuses and zoos deserve a chance to thrive in sanctuaries, but their ability to thrive is predicated upon harm inflicted against other animals who must be killed for their food. Rather than support systematic violence against cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals whose bodies are purchased as food for sanctuary inmates, Abbate suggests that sanctuaries, as guardians, might take up “hunting” (a euphemism for the killing of free-living animals).

There are a number of key flaws with this application of the guardianship principle. First, although Abbate frames a sanctuary’s decision to “hunt” as a case-by-case decision, that free-living animals (specifically deers) are considered a tappable resource indicates that their status is not much higher than that of traditionally farmed animals. Abbate counters that deers, unlike rescued carnivores and farmed animals, have a higher quality of life having lived free from human oppression. Their being slated for death suggests otherwise. Worse, they are being made to pay the dearest price for humanity’s moral wrongs. If humans are responsible for the injustice suffered by carnivorous refugees, why would human flesh not be offered in retribution?

Deer communities, incidentally, are regularly harmed by humans, too. Humans “manage” their populations, constrict their movements and migrations with boundaries and barriers, and terrorize them with automobiles and pollution. Although this life is pitted as superior given the relative freedom that deers experience, Abbate contradictorily banks on the difficulties of life in the wild (poor weather, hunger, disease, and overpopulation) as justification for sacrificing deers. This justification, however, brings up some troubling assumptions about right-to-life for ill or disabled bodies. It also harkens on a colonialist politic in assuming that demographics coded as inferior must be “managed” by “guardians.”

Obviously, solving moral conflicts such as these is no easy task, but complicating the issue is the tendency for advocates, philosophers, and consumers to constrain themselves to individual-level thinking. Sociology recognizes that oppression stems from a society’s economic mode of production. In this case, it is capitalism’s reliance on animal bodies that has created the oppressive behaviors and attitudes facing circus refugees, farmed animals, and free-living species. The problem, in other words, is much bigger than unethical or irresponsible individual choices. Only through a vegan restructuring of society will painful moral conflicts be eliminated. Whether or not sanctuaries rely on farmed animals as foodstuffs is beside the point; as long as human society is built on speciesism, farmed animals will continue to be killed en masse.

The assumption that consumers control the path of production is a misleading, if predominant, belief that has its roots in the nonprofit logic of the animal rights movement. It is actually industry and the state which control production such that sanctuaries turning to hunting are not likely to reduce the number of animals killed in slaughterhouses. Great quantities of animal products are now produced, and these quantities only increase by the year as markets deepen and expand. Consumer boycott has not been shown to be an effective means of reducing animal fatalities given state and industry control. Veganism’s political power lies in its ability to shift public consciousness and challenge the legitimacy of industries and the state, not in actually reducing the number of individuals killed in production. There must be cultural support for veganism and a political reconfiguring before the numbers begin to drop.

Little Tyke

So how to manage the conflict in lieu of a vegan world? Given the limited capability of consumer boycott in a society in which consumers have very little control, using the bodies of farmed animals who are being killed at high volumes regardless of vegan protest may be an acceptable short-term solution. The vast quantity of edible animal products which go to waste might be repurposed for sanctuaries as well. Universities, for instance, often host food recovery programs to systematize the redistribution of leftover food to the needy. Sanctuaries might also develop such a program.

That said, efforts should be invested in obtaining (or even developing) healthful and tasty plant-based or at least partially-plant based menus for carnivorous refugees. Indeed, veterinary research supports that large cats (such as the hypothetical lion used in Abbate’s thought experiment) can survive healthfully on a vegan diet. There is also the famous case of Little Tyke, a lioness raised on a farm who refused to eat flesh. She lived the whole of her life on a plant-based diet by her own choosing.

Whatever the short-term solution, it is necessary that change-makers begin to conceptualize social problems as systemic. This will entail a move away from individualized solutions that wrongfully pit sanctuaries and consumers as responsible for violence against animals. Individualistic thinking renders invisible the state, industries, and the structures the two have created to normalize and reproduce speciesism.

My full response was published with the Animal Studies Journal and may be read here.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about vegan economies and the politics of consumption in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Project Intersect in Bluestockings

Bluestockings 01-16

While visiting New York City this weekend, I stopped into Bluestockings Bookstore and found Project Intersect for sale! I was beyond thrilled that my little essay on atheism in ecofeminist spaces was tucked away in this historic feminist landmark. I actually saw quite a few vegan feminist and critical race vegan books on offer.

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Adviser to the INSSVV, University of Vienna

I am pleased to announce that I have joined the Advisory Board for the FEWD Research Area Foodethics and International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. I will also be serving as editor to the program’s upcoming Encyclopedia for Cultural and Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism.

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Status Contamination in Animal Rights

tofu-08-cover-store

My article, “Status Contamination: Women, Nonhuman Animals, and Intersectional Liberation” was published today in issue #8 of T.O.F.U. Magazine on sexism in the animal rights movement. Copies of the magazine are available on a pay-as-you-can system.

 

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