Monday, May 12, 2014

Applying Critical Thinking Skills to Arguments about Veganism

The first time my child came home and told me he had a class called Critical Thinking, I was quite surprised. That certainly wasn't a subject we'd covered in my elementary school! However, I quickly recognized the reason and the benefit. In an age when access to information is at its peak, access to misinformation is also at an all-time high. Today, we are bombarded with false messages from marketers, advertisers, media, politicians, special interest groups, and chain emails from our well-meaning grandmothers.

In Critical Thinking classes, children are being taught to look at the credibility and logic of messages they receive. There are many different techniques for teaching this, but the basic steps are:
  1. Identify the argument being made in the message.
  2. Assess your own knowledge on the subject, and use that knowledge as a base for evaluation.
  3. Identify what opposing points of view may exist.
  4. Evaluate the evidence in favor of either position.
  5. Look for unwarranted and/or unfair assumptions.
  6. Identify techniques and devices used to 'sell' a position, such as false logic, manipulations, etc.
  7. Draw conclusions based on the reliable evidence and common sense assumptions. 
This sounds more complex than it is. Put simply, critical thinking can be summed up by the old axiom, "Question everything."

It struck me recently that so many of the arguments that we routinely hear against veganism don't even stand up to the most basic of questioning. I'm speaking specifically of a few arguments that have reached meme status (by which I mean that they are a cultural contagion, not that someone has made them into an animated .gif - although come to think of it, they probably have). I'd like to explore just a few of these notions.

1. "You only eat plants? But where do you get your protein?"

Step one in critical thinking is to identify the message. What is the message here? The message conveyed is that protein comes solely from animal products: meat, dairy, and eggs. Is this message true?

Step two is to assess your own knowledge on the subject. What is protein? If you took middle school biology, this was likely your automatic answer to that question: "Proteins are the building blocks of life." Yes, proteins are molecules found in all living organisms. That includes plants. Where does the cow you're eating get its protein? From plants.

So why do many of us think of protein as something that only comes from animal products? Well, does this look familiar? 

You'll notice that the food pyramid that so many of us grew up with has a level often referred to as 'proteins' that contains mainly animal products. Even this, the 2005 USDA version only gives a discreet nod to plant proteins by including "dry beans" and nuts. (Dry beans? Really?) 

But is this based in science? Steps 5 and 6 (evaluating assumptions and looking for the 'sell') come into play. Googling tells us that the initial food pyramid was developed with little or no regard for nutritional science. It was developed in Sweden to promote cheap nutrition sources. What began as a cooperation between the government and a chain grocery became a marketing tool when the government agency backed off the pyramid concept but the grocery continued to push it. The idea soon spread. 

Now, 40 years later, the concepts it conveyed persist, even though it's considered outdated and wrong. The USDA now acknowledges that vegetarian/vegan diets can meet all your protein needs. Granted, they're still incorrectly suggesting you that you need to rely on beans and nuts to do so. For the record, broccoli contains more protein than beef. 

So step 7, drawing conclusions... we've been erroneously led to believe that plants don't contain protein. They do. You can get your protein from plants.

2. "If we all stopped eating meat, cows would take over the Earth." 

The first time I heard this, I thought it was a joke. But I soon learned that this was an accepted belief for many people - they heard it asserted somewhere and thereafter accepted it to be true. The thinking goes that, since we currently have enough cattle on the planet to satisfy the number of meat eaters, if everyone stopped eating meat, those animals would reproduce and overpopulate, thus draining our natural resources. Let's think critically about this message.

Immediately obvious should be the false logic of this message: it is based on the idea that "everyone" would stop eating meat simultaneously. It's certainly true that if everyone on the planet stopped eating meat today and no measures were taken to control the natural reproduction of cows currently housed for future use as meat, the population might become unsustainable. However, I've yet to meet a vegan that expects a moment of glorious global epiphany to occur in which all mankind suddenly realize the superiority of veganism and swear off meat in an instant. Asking you to reduce or eliminate your meat intake is not the same as expecting a spontaneous universal abstinence.

So let's reduce that absurd argument to a more logical question. If meat consumption continues to decrease (as it has yearly for about a decade), will we face overpopulation of cattle? Assessing our personal store of knowledge (step 2), we can recognize that wild animals can become overpopulated in a given area. Is this how cattle currently reproduce?

No. Cattle are not wild animals, but commodity animals. As a commodity, they are subject to the laws of supply and demand. They are warehoused like other commodities, and their production (in this case, reproduction) is strictly controlled. Livestock producers create only enough new product to meet the demand. Less demand, less product. (Lest you think I'm attempting to cast the beef industry in a bad light be referring to living animals as 'products', please see this fact sheet from the beef industry itself, entitled Modern Beef Production.) Were this not the case, after ten years of declining demand, would we not already be overpopulated?

But what if everyone did eventually give up meat? To avoid extinction, some cows would have to be released into the wild, right? Released into their natural habitats, cows would face the same perils and predators they faced prior to domestication. Nature strikes a balance.

Drawing a final conclusion, we're in no danger of a cow coup. Don't bother making banners to welcome your bovine overlords.

3. "Drinking milk is good for cows. Cows have to be milked, or they'll die."

The message here is that cows naturally produce milk and we're doing them a favor by milking them.

Drawing on our own knowledge, we know that cows are mammals. A key characteristic of mammals is that they nurse their young. (This is why the milk-producing organs these animals possess are called "mammary glands.") So do cows naturally produce milk? Only in response to pregnancy. Just like humans and other mammals, a cow must become pregnant before milk production begins.

Are cows somehow different from other mammals, where once triggered their milk production continues ad infinitum? No. Over time, a cow will 'dry up' like any other mammal. This is true when a cow's calf naturally weans, and it's also true of dairy cows, who are separated from their calves hours after birth so that they can be milked for human use. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, dairy cows are milked for 10 months, dry up, then they are re-impregnated to start the process over again.

Where does the belief that a cow will die without being milked come from? From rare circumstances where high-producing dairy cows developed infections  as a result of not being milked. So to be clear, the cows died, not from something that happens naturally, but from something that happened as a result of our unnatural method of warehousing nursing cows without their calves so we can take their milk for humans. We are creating that problem, and then asserting that we're solving it by perpetuating it. Doesn't it seem logical that a better solution is not to create the problem in the first place?

From this critical examination, we can draw the conclusion that under natural circumstances, cows do not need to be milked by humans.

What's the Point?

Combining some elementary school or middle school science and some quick internet searches with a few critical thinking skills, we've managed to very easily debunk a few basic concerns people may have about veganism. The point I'm making is that many times we hear and accept arguments as true without actually examining them. If you are a person who has heard things about this healthy, compassionate lifestyle that concern you, make sure you've thought them through or done the necessary research to get at the truth. In fact, that's probably a good policy for any topic in your life... think it through, learn the truth. Words, I think, to live by.