Founding scholars in sociology advocated an objective use of the scientific method for the most reliable, valid, and useful results from research. Some of these scholars, however, were wary that this objectivity is ultimately elusive and that the fantasy of pure objectivity could be used for political purposes to the overall disadvantage of society. Max Weber, for instance, emphasized that science-respecting, rationally-minded individuals may present themselves (and believe themselves) to be exempt from irrationality and bias, often with the effect of upholding unequal and oppressive power structures. Science, as with ideology, culture, attitude, and belief, is socially constructed. People engaging in science are not absconded from the influences of social construction; they live, breathe, query, and analyze within a socially constructed reality.
Although sociology students learn about the perils of “value-free” science, the incredible privilege that most academics in higher education are granted disables them from recognizing how their class, gender, nationality, and species can shape their attitudes, behaviors, and research. This was a latent lesson for me in graduate school. I earned my PhD at Colorado State University in the late 2000s and early 2010s, a time when academia had finally come to terms with the crisis of planetary destruction. I chose CSU in particular because the university (and the sociology program in particular) specialized in understanding and solving environmental problems. Naturally, most of my colleagues and professors were environmentally savvy folks who rode their bicycles to campus, recycled (at a time when recycling was much more cumbersome), and supported whole and local food production. Curiously, however, I was the only vegan in the department. And, when I began teaching, I was also the only instructor in the faculty who taught and researched Critical Animal Studies and vegan politics.
To this day, the department’s obfuscation continues to baffle me. Nonhuman Animal consumption is a leading, if not the leading, contributor to greenhouse gasses (between 17% and 51% depending on the variables included in the calculation). It is also a prime cause of habitat destruction (including rainforests, which are cleared for Nonhuman Animal feed), desertification, and the pollution of air, land, and water. Surely, this should be a core topic of study in any environmental sociology program.
Yet the vast majority of my interactions with colleagues on this topic ended with flippancy, excuses (more than one faculty member insisted they “had” to eat flesh for one reason or another), and downright rudeness (consider the coworker who wore a “PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals” t-shirt once a week). One student in my cohort even openly laughed at me when I mentioned the term “speciesism” in a class discussion.
This was not specific to my department at CSU, either. As a master’s student at Virginia Tech, my involvement with the student animal rights club effectively ostracized me from my cohort. I found myself no longer invited to graduate student social events, and those students who did not outright ignore me would brazenly laugh about me or insult me with regard to my veganism when they thought I was out of hearing range.
As a student then and a professional now, I have found it exceedingly frustrating that my fellow scientists, who have been trained for years in critical thinking and rational evaluation, stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the plight of our society’s most victimized and exploited group: Nonhuman Animals. For those completely uninterested in examining their human privilege and involvement with speciesism (understandable given the strength of prevailing ideologies), I am still amazed that none recognize the importance of veganism in reducing environmental destruction and human suffering. My colleagues publish copiously on topics of environmental sustainability and food justice, but no one seems to be willing to consider that Nonhuman Animal use itself is problematic.
Scientific training does not guarantee objectivity—it does not even guarantee an appreciation for evidence. Scientists are human, and humans are influenced by the society in which they live. Fortunately, the scientific community does value (to some extent) a diversity of expertise and perspective. Dialogue may yet provide the opportunity for social advancement in the case of Nonhuman Animals.
But the problem is pervasive. As a former blogger for Skepchick (an organization run by Rebecca Watson that is “dedicated to promoting skepticism and critical thinking among women around the world”), I was disturbed to find that writing about veganism and animal rights triggered outright dismissal by the readership and a blatant refusal to seriously consider the arguments. In fact, I wrote a blog piece similar in argument to this essay on the illusion of objectivity in rationality circles and Watson’s team deleted it before it was ever published.
In more professional circles, the American Sociological Association resisted the incorporation of Society and Animals as an official section for some years before it was finally approved. Membership continues to be low, though interdisciplinary fields are beginning to legitimize its need. During my time as chair, we were routinely shut out from collaborative activities. For instance, when I wrote to the ASA on the relationship between speciesism, COVID, and environmental problems for a collaborative publication for which all sections were invited to contribute, our section was stonewalled (although the British Sociological Association later picked it up as a blog piece).
Like many social movements and scientific progressions, it is likely that change will not happen until the given social problem reaches a crisis level and a critical mass of activists popularize their demands. Academics and scientists may not be able to look past their human privilege to recognize the importance of Nonhuman Animal liberation, but they will not be able to ignore the crises of climate change and diet-related diseases and death.
Until then, the frustration in the Critical Animal Studies community is palpable. Surely, as thought leaders and policy influencers with years of rigorous training in the principles of the scientific method, researchers should be able to recognize the personhood of other animals as well as the role of Nonhuman Animal agriculture in exacerbating global warming and human sickness. Surely, researchers will be aware of science’s historical complacency with enslavement, colonization, genocide, and extinction. Surely, they do not believe that the misuse of science ended in the 20th century when science must now plod through an era of late-stage capitalism and pervasive exploitation.
Critical thinking can be used to liberate, but the pretense of critical thinking has also been used to shut down liberatory discourses, dismiss the claims of marginalized groups, and maintain an unequal status quo. Weber reminds us that reality is more than the material–it is also found in shared subjective meanings. Objectivity, knowledge, facts, and truth are subsequently vulnerable to political maneuvering. If no science is value-free, what values will we apply? Values of violence or values of justice?