Hungry to Learn (East Coast Tour - Part 4)

Hungry to Learn

by Wayne Hsiung

(This is the fourth in a multi-part series about DxE's East Coast Speaking Tour. Read all the blog posts from the tour here.)

About 16 years ago to the day, I decided to go vegan.

By starving myself.

There was a huge amount of research coming out about the benefits of so-called “caloric restriction” at the time, a diet with 20-30% fewer calories than a normal human being. The prevailing theory was that caloric restriction put your body into “emergency mode.” It was a signal to our DNA, “You haven’t had the chance to reproduce. Don’t age or die!” The resulting self-protective measures prevented not just aging but heart disease, cancer, and dementia (a particular concern for me, since I had a relative at the time who was suffering from mental decline).

I hated pretty much all vegetarian foods.  But I wanted to be: (1) ethical; and (2) healthy. Severe caloric restriction seemed an obvious way to accomplish both. I would eat a huge bowl of broccoli for lunch, a bowl of raw and unflavored tofu for dinner, and perhaps have some Fiber One as an after-dinner snack. I drank massive amounts of water, but never touched juice or even soy milk. And the occasional once-a-week granola bar was a treasured treat.

I lost 40 or so pounds (from a very fit 175 -- my current weight -- to a ridiculously slim 135), and my parents/grandparents thought I had gone insane. Not only was I giving up meat -- the dietary sign that our family had finally made it in the world -- but I was losing a terrifying amount of weight. But it didn’t matter to me because I was accomplishing my goals. I would live, I thought to myself, to the age of 120!

Or would I?

Our ability to understand even a single human being’s body is shockingly limited. Nutritional science, for example, has taken centuries, with thousands of experiments, to give us a very limited understanding of the impacts of various diets on human health. Antioxidants were once thought to be a cure all to everything from heart disease to cancer, but the most recent evidence suggests, in part due to the body’s adaptive mechanisms, they don’t do anything at all. Fruit juices that were once considered part of a healthy diet are now seen as major contributors to the diabetes epidemic. And fats, especially saturated fats from animal products, were once deemed the bane of human health -- and waistlines -- but the latest evidence shows that all the fears were probably overblown. 

In short, when it comes to complex systems such as the human body, our science is painfully limited, and constantly subject to revision.  That has been true, sadly for my 16-year-old self, of caloric restriction. The promising early studies have not held up to further scrutiny. I’ve subsequently put back on most of the weight… and satisfied my family members that I am not, in fact, insane.

But what is true of the study of the human body is perhaps even more true of the human brain. With 100 billion neurons firing in a dizzying array of patterns and sequences, each seemingly different than the last, the complexity of human brain puts nutrition science to shame. We lack even the most basic understanding as to what causes phenomena such as love, addiction, or even consciousness, and a true breakthrough may be thousands of years away.

And yet we remain startlingly confident in our ability to predict how the brain and mind work, as manifested in not just individual behavior, but social change. This confidence, as the brilliant Duncan Watts puts it, is false.

“The social world… is far messier than the physical world, and the more we learn about it, the messier it is likely to seem. The result is that we will probably never have a science of sociology that will resemble physics. “

In everything from the best methods to stop war and encourage peace, to the expected outcome of a business merger, to trying to ensure a couple will stay together, to determining how to stop people from smoking, our ability to make predictions about the social world is astonishingly bad. Yet, because our common sense evolved to help us make sense of such questions, we are confident that we have solutions. But the conventional wisdom has it backwards. Rocket science isn’t so hard (despite the everyday person’s perception of its difficulty); social science, as I’ve written previously, is.

I’ll develop these ideas further in later blog posts. (I know I still owe many of you a sequel to “Science or Sciency-y.”) But I bring this point up now because the difficulty of the problems we face has been a common theme of the tour. In meeting with incredibly smart and open-minded leaders such as David Coman-Hidy at The Humane League, Rob Wiblin of the Centre for Effective Altruism and Animal Charity Evaluators, and Dawn Moncrief of A Well Fed World, I’ve really appreciated the common understanding of the difficulties we face as social justice activists -- and the resulting need for creative strategies and careful strategy and analysis.

I learned, for example, that David believes that some of the most important aspects of his work are, in fact, unmeasurable -- the community building dimension, for example, of THL’s chapter model. I learned that Rob is increasingly interested in movement building approaches to effective activism -- notwithstanding CEA’s traditional emphasis on individual-level change. And I learned that Dawn is involved in a dizzying array of projects, from giving out PB&J sandwiches to the hungry to offering grants to promising animal rights groups internationally. I learned, in short, that a lot of people are thinking hard, being creative, and recognizing the complexity of the problems we face.

Perhaps even more, however, I learned that it’s important for us to connect with one another. Casey Taft, the founder of Vegan Publishers and a professor at Boston University Medical School (where he works on stopping domestic violence) is not necessarily the first person you’d think to ask, in trying to understand social change. But insights he has developed as one of the world’s pioneers in stopping domestic violence can, in fact, be applied to animal rights, as he powerfully argued in a recent article.

The insight we can glean from listening to Casey is an example of a broader phenomenon: the importance of cross fertilization in obtaining good answers to difficult problems. There are numerous examples of this in my own field economics. Behavioral economics (resulting in at least two Nobel Prizes, and many more to come) was a result of cross talk between economists, psychologists, and sociologists. Paul Krugman’s Nobel Prize winning trade theory was developed from insights stolen from the scholarship on geography. And even the now discredited rational choice paradigm was the result of interactions between mathematics, physics, engineering, and economics. In short, on hard problems, we need to seek out perspectives from different areas of knowledge to get better at what we do.

And I think this is especially true when those other areas of knowledge contradict our own. This is why I was so excited to discuss DxE’s campaigns with Bruce Friedrich, one of the leaders at Farm Sanctuary. Bruce is most recently famous for debating Gary Francione on the value of welfare reforms. His prior position at PETA led him to undertake a number of campaigns, e.g. advocating controlled atmosphere killing, which brought down the ire and wrath of the radicals within our movement. Bruce, in short, is not a natural party for conversation for a group like DxE. 

But that makes his insight (and yes, his criticism) especially important to entertain. And in our conversations with Bruce, two things became apparent.

First, if our goal is network building, it is absolutely vital to emphasize that our model of activism -- building a movement for nonviolent direct action -- complements many of the strategies taken by other groups. If we are successful -- as I fully expect we will be -- our activism will make the lobbying, outreach, and education that Bruce does exponentially more effective. Indeed, in many ways, that is the entire point of nonviolent direct action: to create so much energy behind an issue that less assertive methods can finally sink in the way they should!

Second, while the It’s not Food, It’s Violence campaign has created an impressive international mobilization, it’s important for us to think strategically about how it fits into the longer term objective of building empowered networks for change. And, perhaps just as importantly, it’s important for us to explain this strategy to the world. How are we to get from A to Z, without taking steps B, C, and D?

There were a number of other important criticisms leveled at DxE by Bruce. But the key point, for me, is that there is much to learn from even those with whom you disagree -- especially when they have as much experience and wisdom as someone like Bruce (who, in his younger years, served 2.5 years of collective prison time for civil disobedience as a peace activist), and when our objective -- total animal liberation -- is one and the same.

That does not mean we have to give up our strategy, much less our values. Bruce himself would be the first to acknowledge that, if there is a genuine ethical concern, it ought to be directly raised. (We had some intense conversations on the ethics of killing.) But if we want to find right answers, to change others, and to learn ourselves, we have to be willing to talk… and yes, even build bridges with people with whom we might disagree.

We are stronger together. We are smarter together. And it is only together, that we will achieve our greatest dreams.