What the Hell-th

This awful pseudoscientific pseudodocumentary inspired me to pen a post on How the Health Argument Fails Animal Liberation. It deserves a good debunking in its own right though. There’s been talk of a buncha vegans getting together a point by point refutation of this movie but that’s an undertaking I don’t see happening any time soon. Some non-vegans are just looking for an excuse to take a swipe at veganism are happily utilizing this opportunity. Others are legitimately appalled and recognize that this does not represent veganism. I’m collecting critical reviews just to to have all in one place. Again I must stress that I may not endorse the following reviews or authors but it’s a jumping off point. If there’s something I missed please let me know!

 

A Doctor Watches “What The Health” | ZDoggMD, Zubin Damania, MD

Y’all Vegans Got BEEF? | ZDoggMD, Zubin Damania, MD

What the Health, a [vegan] film review | LA Chefs Column

What the Health: A Movie with an Agenda | Science-Based Medicine, Harriet Hall, MD

‘What the Health‘ Review: Health Claims Backed by No Solid Evidence | Diet Doctor, Nina Teicholz

A Vegan Debunks ‘What the Health’ Documentary | Unnatural Vegan

Debunking What the Health, the buzzy new documentary that wants you to be vegan | Vox, Julia Belluz

How the Health Argument Fails Animal Liberation

The vegan movement started in the 1940s as an effort of animal emancipation. 1 In 1979 the Vegan Society amended the vegan definition to include “…promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.” That caused a rift in the movement that we struggle with to this day. The health argument in particular has injected questionable science and practices. This continues to derail the movement and even hurt the people in it. Ginny Messina, The Vegan RD has been holding down the front line in the fight against the heath argument in particular. 2 She is well-armed to do so with her science-based nutrition expertise and passion for animal rights. In 2010 she laid it out on the table in her How the Health Argument Fails Veganism article. Several points were made as to how the popular health arguments were failing the vegan movement. I summarize here but please do read her article in full.

1) A restrictive health diet tends to get more restrictive.
2) The ethical argument is all-encompassing whereas the health argument is narrow and temporary
3) It is not foolproof and can disappoint people, turning them away.
4) It is not unique and can sway people away for more compelling claims.
5) It just isn’t true, there really isn’t any health argument for veganism.

Fast forward to 2017 and here we are again. A new movie touting the exaggerated health benefits of veganism is quickly going viral. Dismayed, Ginny vented first on Facebook. This time though, in a climate where science is under attack spawning a new movement to defend it, she received a ton of positive support. In years previous it was a lonely fight. She was inspired to follow up with a new article reaffirming once again that Science Matters – for Vegans and Everyone Else. Her latest book, Even Vegans Die, co-authored with Carol J. Adams and Patti Breitman is an amazing read. It deals with the realities of our bodies and what that means for the animal liberation movement. Required reading, seriously.

Now, in the spirit of Ginny’s 2010 article I would like to extend the scope. Knowing that there just isn’t a credible health argument for veganism, that opens up issues of justice we should seriously consider. The ramifications of this myth within our social justice movement, I feel, undermines us in the following ways:

1) Framing it as a personal choice. How often have we heard “I respect your choice to be vegan but please respect mine to not.” Being confronted with the ethical dilemma of animal rights is uncomfortable. There’s nothing more speciesists would like more than to avoid this cognitive dissonance and relegate the movement to a diet fad. We undermine veganism’s central tenet by evoking the personal choice framing. 3

2) Activists are working to disrupt animal agriculture. There is a rapidly growing sector of technologists, scientists, and activists working to create animal foods without the animal. 4 Since then it has become substantially more real. Yes, we are going to replace animal products with the exact same (or better) things without having to steal another person’s life. This may not directly advocate against speciesism itself but it can lower the bar. As animal liberation activists it behooves us to benefit any doubt in the direction of progress. If there is any chance this may work and you have no significant evidence otherwise, please be an ally and don’t hinder possible progress5.

3) We are entangled. If you really believe that animal foods are toxic to humans as food then this would be an injustice. Because the struggles are connected you would be compelled to fight against animal foods whether they come from an animal or not. We know though, that animal foods are not inherently unhealthy towards those who consume them. It is though, for those who’s bodies were stolen. We should retain that focus. You have a decision to make here. If you believe the myth that food from animals are dangerous to humans you will find yourself fighting against fellow animal activist allies.

4) All life is one. We know through science that all life is related. It’s a beautiful truth that inspires me to fight for our animal cousins. Science is reaffirming what we knew all along. Animals have the same experiences we do. We are animals. Species is an artificial construct with no moral significance. Ironically though, to single out products made from other animal species bodies as harmful to ours, is a form of speciesism. It otherizes them into a special category that is open to personal interpretation. That can justify violence upon them or protection given the particular person’s bias. We have a much stronger case if we go with the objective standard that is supported by science. The science argument isn’t best utilized over health or environment, it’s ethics.

5) Truth is a tenet of justice. Science, we must admit, got society some pretty great advances. With a renewed focus on this tool of truth in a modern age of social justice we have the opportunity to make even much greater strides. Science is becoming a movement in response to a hostile environment. As a movement it is realizing it suffers from the same problems and baggage that many other group suffer in today’s society. It marginalizes a lot of groups and it’s time to clean house. As we decolonize science and diversify the participants we will see a broader range of perspectives. The impact on uncovering truths will increase multifold. Mahatma Gandhi championed the spirit of science with his “experiments with truth”. He even started a movement coined Satyagraha which roughly translates to “holding fast onto truth”. We need to know what is real to know how to make impactful change for justice. The truth should be upheld as a standard to be insisted upon in anything we do.

6) Movements require a beloved community that supports its members. We have the responsibility and gift of a vegan ethic of care6. Shoddy science and conspiracy theories about vaccines, medicine, or nutrition are not conducive to that support. The information for our minds needs to be just as healthful as the food for our bodies. Junk information has real deleterious effects. Allowing it to spread to spare personal conflict can cause detriment to the community. The beloved community should have conflict resolution and reconciliation as part of its inherent commitment to nonviolence. We should be able to resolve these conflicts within our community in a constructive way. This would further strengthen our culture and immunizes against threats, literally and figuratively.

7) A community shares a common set of values and beliefs. This should be obvious. The vegan community suffers when we come together under a set of practices rather than beliefs. The foundation of our movement is based upon animal emancipation. By tricking people into the community we undermine this foundation. Existing community members become burdened with the labor of an influx of people claiming an unwarranted stake in the community. Eventually the people who realized they were conned into it leave anyway probably never to return. That’s not fair for anybody. It dilutes the glue that binds us together as the community we so desperately need for a movement.

8) It’s a white thing. Veganism was conceived in a time and place by people who may not have foreseen or understood the implications of a justice movement they were helping to reignite. It is up to us to decenter the Eurocentric roots that limits the vision of our movement. It is not a mere matter of making the “ethical argument” the main thrust of advocacy. It’s a revisualization of this as a social justice movement in a modern day context. Advocates need the right framework. The one we have today was founded upon white male supremacy and that needs to be reformed for us to move on. A “health argument” is ludicrous when applied in a context of social justice.

9) People deserves the best of us. When talking to people about the issue of injustice we should do so with love. Martin Luther King Jr referred to this as agape: an all-embracing universal love inherent for others. With that we should give them the benefit of the doubt rather than misdirecting them with any selfish ploys. Perhaps when they hear the ethical argument they’ll curse you and run away. Maybe a few weeks later they’ll reflect and change their mind. Or, maybe if you scare them into being vegan with health arguments you’ll win them on the spot. Maybe a few weeks later they’ll learn the truth and feel cheated and never again trust another vegan. Maybe they will believe the food as medicine myth and delay science-based medical treatment and die from an otherwise treatable condition. Maybes aside, it’s just the right thing to to empower the people we talk to with the truth.

Common arguments I’ve heard for the health argument:

  • I started as a health vegan and now I’m all about ethics.
    Anecdotes are great but they aren’t necessarily great evidence for determining the right course of action. Steve-O went vegan because drug binge-induced voices in his head influenced him to do so. 7 We wouldn’t recommend drugs as vegan advocacy though.
  • Most people don’t care about ethics but they do care about getting skinny/health so we should appeal to that. Eventually they will pick up the ethical argument.
    People tend to confirm their bias and finding more reasons to support their veganism could be a real effect. But that is a tenuous approach with a bunch of pitfalls. Evidence points toward going with the ethical argument. It may not always feel like a home run but it’s the most honest and direct approach.
  • Animal foods are toxins and we must warn people for the sake of their health. 
    To believe that is to go against the consensus of nutrition science. What usually follows is a conspiracy theory that BigAg is colluding with BigPharma to keep people sick to sell them medical treatments. While there are valid criticisms of big industry, this conspiracy theory is a bit off the deep end.

But I get it. I understand the urgency for which many animal liberation activists feel. I know the temptation to throw everything at the wall. I understand the cultural influences of the vegan movement. I’ve been plagued and victimized by the same myself. It is because I have been there and have the very same passion for justice that I write this. I’ve seen more than my fair share of vegans and animal justice advocates get sucked into the rabbit hole of junk information and ideas. It breaks my heart and I hope to spare others the same misfortune. If we continue forward in a more community-minded and constructive spirit of a justice movement 8, perhaps we can really do this thing. Fight on! ✊

–FOOTNOTES–

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  1. ‘An Address on Veganism’ (Donald Watson, 1947), contains phrases such as the following: ‘…the right approach to the problem of animal emancipation’ … ‘to be true emancipators of animals’ … ‘The vegan renounces the superstition that continued human existence depends upon the exploitation of these creatures,’ and ‘ The time has come for us boldly to renounce the idea that we have the right to exploit animals.‘” Leslie Cross. “In Search of Veganism” The Vegan Autumn 1949
  2. Messina is so committed to nutrition and justice that she resigned from PCRM’s advisory board over some controversial body shaming. I wrote about this in my 2012 blog post IntegRD.
  3. This pertains to the “environmental” argument as well.
  4.  I wrote about this tongue-in-cheek in my post: Real Vegan Food in 2014
  5. Examples include:

    •Real Vegan Cheese is creating milk proteins like casein from scratch without animal bodies. They would use this to create cheese identical to animal cheese without using animals. Dr. T. Colin Campbell of The China Study calls casein a carcinogen. Cheese is a huge comfort food that people hate giving up. We have an opportunity to have our animal and eat cheese too.

    •The vegan Impossible Burger of Impossible Foods utilizes heme iron to replicate an animal burger. Plant-based doctors like Dr.Michelle McMacken are calling this heme a toxin. “When you eat foods like beef or steak or a processed meat, a hot dog, you are not just getting saturated fat. You’re also getting other additional toxins that are in that food, there’s heme iron, carcinogen, processing chemicals…“, from “What the Health” movie. It really isn’t to any degree people should be worried about eating it. Animal flesh burgers otherwise are 100% unhealthy for the animal it came from.

  6. a wonderful concept written about in Even Vegans Die. “The vegan ethic of care, which derives from feminist theory and is built around inclusive activism, acceptance of grief and acceptance of our dependency on others (including animals)”
  7. Q&A: Steve-O Talks ‘Jackass,’ Veganism and Quitting Drugs, Rolling Stone interview:
    Switching gears a bit, what made you want to become a vegan?
    It started back before I got sober. I was doing so many drugs that I literally started hearing voices. I considered the voices my spirit friend, and they were telling me to kill myself. Some of them were nasty characters, but other ones told me they were worried about me and this and that.One of them told me I was going to have to answer for shit. One time I did something particularly nasty. I tried to really hurt someone’s feelings with a text message. I heard a voice in my right ear say, “You’re going to have to answer for that.” Later I came across a YouTube video where this Krishna consciousness guy in India was talking about how it’s difficult for Westerners to be saved because there’s such little respect for life on the planet. This guy said, “How can you expect to be saved if you eat meat?” I put that together with the voices I was hearing and I became afraid of having some kind of spiritual punishment”
  8. Historically I myself have not been a good example of this FWIW but I can strive to do better.

The Case Against GMO

As an ex-anti-GMO activist I felt an obligation to right the wrongs of my past and became a “pro-GMO” activist. I double-downed hard. I’d wager right now that few people are more “pro-GMO” than I am. This is not easy for me to say but I now suspect that being pro-GMO is as wrong as being anti-GMO.

In the beginning I wasn’t sure it was fair to be pro OR anti.1 It wasn’t so much that I was pro-GMO but more that I was anti-anti-GMO. That nuanced distinction gets lost quickly in conversation especially with those already polarized into anti-GMO positions. So I adopted the “pro-GMO” rhetoric for advocacy.2

My efforts spanned years with such projects as MAMyths and VeganGMO. I explored the nooks and crannies of this issue from a variety of angles. My particular focus though was the social justice implications, which is what kinda got me in this mess in the first place. Now, with this perspective I think I have been doing it all wrong, again.

This got a bit long so before we go on I’ll give you the tl;dr version:

  • GMO is a conspiracy theory.
  • Some of the underlying GMO concerns are legit.
  • GMO is not scientific.
  • Saying “GMO” is making it worse.
  • Truth deserves a movement.

Anti-Chemtrailers
After fighting the fight from all angles it now appears to me more than ever that GMO is basically a conspiracy theory. Take the Chemtrail conspiracy theory for instance. If you haven’t heard of chemtrails, it’s this notion that planes are spraying biological agents on people for sinister purposes. All those lines in the sky planes leave behind, chemtrails. It’s easily debunked with the fact that they are a natural result of engine exhaust called contrails. But many haven’t heard of either because it’s so fringe.3

There isn’t a pro-chemtrail campaign in defense of aviation. They don’t call themselves “anti-chemtrailers” even though that’s what they are. There is “anti-GMO” though when GMO is a complete fabrication. Wikipedia literally lists the Chemtrail entry as “Chemtrail conspiracy theory“. You know how GMO is listed? “Genetically modified organism“. GMO is just as bad as chemtrails but treated as a real thing.

GMO may actually more closely resemble UFO.4 Both are acronyms but taken literally do not represent the descriptive understanding. An “unidentified flying object” is understood to be of extraterrestrial origin. So much so that investigators started to adopt “unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP)” for accuracy. UFO was big in its heyday but is now relegated to science fiction, if that.

The most boisterous anti-GMO group March Against Monsanto (MAM) is also in the chemtrail camp along with a slew of conspiracy theory nonsense.5  The underlying cynical distrust of corporate organizations and influenced institutions are shared in common. It’s not totally unjustified but the hypervigilance against those threats though can warp reality and backfire.

It would be great to see GMO get the treatment it deserves like any other irrational conspiracy theory. Turning that phrase into an embarrassment would help shift the conversation and discount it in the public eye. Whenever I think of GMO now I will substitute “UFO” and treat it accordingly. Right now that’s not what we have. GMO though, is getting more and more mainstream exposure now through the shrewd labeling tactic. It’s starting to soak into mainstream culture through the products they see on the shelves. Most people don’t really care enough to have a strong opinion either way. But it’s these marketing tactics that can influence them to lean towards a non-GMO purchase or worse, a tick mark on a ballot. That adds up to repercussions on future investment and exploration of science and tools that are needed so desperately.

Anti-GMO is Actually Not Quite Wrong
One thing I heard a lot while tabling on behalf of GMO/biotech at the March for Science was “I’m for GMO but not Monsanto”. In a science crowd. This isn’t very surprising because pro-GMO people hear it a lot.6 You can drop all the facts you want but the issue remains seemingly unfazed.  GMO usually stands for something greater than the sum of the letters in the acronym. It is not an unreasonable concern. Big picture perspective; we are burdened with the sins of the past. That is, there is a historical context to this situation such as corporate corruption as documented in Merchants of Doubt and unfettered pesticide application as described in Silent Spring. Corporatism and misuse of technology has a precedent. I knew this of course, but in my zeal to defend technology I wasn’t being sensitive enough to that legacy. Certainly it’s easy to list the number of ways biotechnology has and can help life on this planet but there is context to consider.7 Anti-GMO is still causing loathsome injustice but I have a renewed empathy for the spirit of their fight. It’s like an autoimmune response except now weaponized with tobacco science style FUD tactics borrowed from villains of the past.

It is no wonder that in defending GMO I often get painted as a shill. How many times do I have to hear “I’m not against GMO but #MonsantoTho” before I get it through my thick skull about what’s really going down here? GMO means something different to detractors. Something that is not unreasonable.

GMO is Non-Science
Even with the experience of GMO focusing on corporatism, efforts to quell fears over GMO have focused on the science. Funny thing though, scientists are loathe to use the term GMO in any professional capacity. It doesn’t describe anything accurately enough to make meaningful sense. Journalist Nathanial Johnson did a special series on Grist called “Panic-free GMOs“. Thirty-freaking-plus articles later finally concluding that “none of it matters” and “It’s practically impossible to define ‘GMOs‘”. European Union legislators regulating biotechnology tried to define GMO scientifically and had a helluva time:

Scientists have never called for a general deregulation of biotechnologies; rather, they have been recommending that each new cultivar, created via any method, should be tested and assessed based on its traits and its unique profile of risks and benefits. The same approach is outlined in the Codex Alimentarius, which outlines international food safety standards.

This rational appeal has gone unheeded, however, and the fake “GMO” concept has been born. It has created a bizarre flaw that amounts to a rickety fence tentatively erected on a fuzzy border to separate the bogus category “GMOs” from more traditional breeding methods—including physical and chemical mutagenesis—even when the traits thus obtained are the same.8

And so it goes where lawmakers try to bridge this gap between the irrational demands of the public and the scientific understanding. Something has to give. Which wheel is squeakiest?

I’ve said hundreds of times that there’s a scientific consensus that GMOs are safe. But how is that possible when GMO isn’t scientific? GMO cannot be both a scientifically meaningless term and recognized by a scientific consensus. Is science being undermined by making this fallacious point?

Don’t Think of a GMO
I made the mistake of falling for the myth that a rational exchange of information will change people’s minds.9 Looking for a new approach I read cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s book: Don’t Think of an Elephant! He breaks down the idea of framing. Words trigger conceptual structures comprised of emotions, narratives and metaphors. It’s the same type of cognitive science that marketers use but the ideas are the products. Associating an issue with familiar concepts makes them attractive, sticky, and viral. A good frame composed of a few words can make a response difficult as it requires a lot more work to unpack. Detractors become reactive rather than proactive.

All of this was sounding familiar making me think that maybe GMO is the frame! Those simple three letters along with decades of rhetoric have effectively framed the issue into the monster we see today. If this is true, the framing is reinforced every time “GMO” is mentioned, pro or anti. All my work of saying I’m “pro-GMO” may have been undoing my own biotech advocacy work.

It’s an elegant rhetorical device that spans the partisan dichotomy of Lakoff’s typical measure. Somehow it’s been bound up in representing the ills of society that resonate with people regardless of their political affiliation. But wait, it gets better because GMO serves double as a manufactroversy. By creating controversy where there isn’t any it effective nullifies science in public policy debates. We see that happening all over the place with labeling schemes, restrictions, regulations, and bans. Again those same tactics used by merchants of doubt in the past have come back to haunt us.

What to Do From Here
If Lakoff’s ideas are legit10 and GMO is their frame then priority should go towards the long slog of reframing the issue. Ideas must compete with theirs but those ideas need development beyond reactionary apologetics. “GMO” and “Monsanto” should probably be struck from the vocabulary. Any amount of contrived acrobatics in avoiding those words might be less harmful than playing into those narratives.

It’s not just the framing issue that gives me pause though in using “GMO”. Being annoyed by people who are wrong is a privilege I have. If that’s near the top of things I have to worry about I’m pretty lucky. I started this path as a debt to undo any anti-GMO contribution I may have had in the past and to fight for implications of justice. But slowly I think it became something less. I found myself in a troll party of skeptics. A group of people like me thumbing their noses for the lulz. I don’t think this is good enough for me anymore.

And hey, I’m an activist through and through. I get polarization, freezing targets, dramatizing the issue, disrupting social norms, keeping it enjoyable, all the classic lessons. I have put a lot of effort into the pro-GMO campaign and I tried all the usual justifications. I’ll tell myself I am co-opting their language, meeting them where they’re at, reappropriating their buzzwords. Are those strong reasons or am I falling for the sunk cost fallacy trap?

With my activist hat on my instinct is to build a movement. For that I look for allies and communities. Who are the allies for biotech?11? It can’t be companies. I’m not going to rely on profit-motivated entities as allies. Seeing the numbers of food producers taking on the Non-GMO Project labels (or making their own) have made me once again become cynical of capitalism. They are guilty once again of throwing science under the bus and exploiting consumers.

Part of this whole business may be whats been plaguing the skeptic movement all along. The hypocognition in dealing with this newly recognized phenomenon of pseudoscience might be something we never got around to dealing with in the first place. I hear the frustration in finding words to describe the situation we’re in. If we can account for the rabbit hole traps of our crude thinking organs with new common concepts and a lexicon perhaps we have a chance. Maybe this GMO business is the canary in the coal mine of a much bigger issue that plagues modern humans. Once we have the luxury to realize thinking critically is important for the truth we lose the perspective that it’s more than avoiding something that’s wrong. For outsiders it could seem like smug pedantry. The truth is important for justice and deserves a framework of protection. This is not an entirely new concept though as Ghandi coined “satyagraha” understanding the value of truth in a cause for justice. Utilizing today’s knowledge tempered with lessons of yesterday makes for a well-informed strategy for the future.

–citations and asides–

  1. “Is it fair to be “anti-GMO” or even “pro-GMO”?” You Say Tomahto, I Say Flavr Savr
  2.  There is a nuance to pro-GMO though. It wasn’t “I ❤️ GMOs”. It was “I ❤️ GMO” sans the plural ‘s’ because it was the technology I liked, not the trait. I must admit there could be some trait I would not ❤️. So GMO in my book stood for biotechnology in general and that I loved for its awesome promise.
  3. There is though plausibility in the form of cloud seeding, crop dusting, mosquito abatementGeoengineering, etc
  4. My spouse made that point to me while I was on a tirade, she rules. ❤️
  5. Tami Canal is the founder of March Against Monsanto and admits they are indeed anti-vaccine and anti-fluoridated water.
  6. My Experience Giving a ProGMO Talk at Skeptics Events, Myles Power
  7. But of course, anti-GMO is similarly insensitive when their actions take away life-saving solutions.
  8.  The meaningless pseudo‐category of “GMOs”, Giovanni Tagliabue
  9. Information Deficit Model, Wikipedia
  10. I haven’t read a solid critique of Lakoff yet. This field is new to me and I know better than to put too much stock into one person’s ideas. My zeal for this will likely be tempered as I dive deeper.
  11. We’ve been looking for allies the past year in re-crafting the mission and campaigns for MAMyths. We have a few leads and suspicions but it’s probably not going to be easy to gain trust in this environment.