Wayne Hsiung

Published on:

July 24, 2013


Stephen Colbert coined the term “Truthiness” for “convictions
from the gut” that are resistant to logic or evidence. But there is a parallel
problem that afflicts the animal rights movement – for “facts from the gut” that
are just as resistant to logic or evidence.

One example of this is the insistence on surveys as a “factual”
measure of success. Surveys have long been seen as unreliable indicators of
behavior, among social scientists. And they are astonishingly easy to
manipulate. For example: even medical experts will reverse their opinion on a
medical intervention
, depending on whether a treatment is framed as “saving
lives” or “having side effects.” Respondents generally try to guess what their surveyor is asking for, in deciding how to respond. And critical examinations of vegetarian surveys have found that 60% of self-described vegetarians continue, in fact, to eat animals.

And yet animal rights activists continue to use these discredited methods, and cite these suspect figures (e.g. regarding the supposed 1-2% conversion rate from veg leaflets or ads) , as if they were "facts."


I think it has something to do with our basic human discomfort with uncertainty. Harvard's Dan Gilbert describes uncertainty as an emotional amplifier in his fantastic book Stumbling on Happiness. As bad as a distressful event often seems, uncertainty about that distress  is even worse.

This is what makes a good horror movie. If the monster is fully revealed and explained in Scene 1, the movie loses most of its scary appeal. As animal rights activists, we care profoundly not only about the animals, but our ability to have positive impact for the animals. Injecting uncertainty into such an emotional issue is distressing -- like a horror movie monster that we don't see or understand. So we seek out the illusion of rigor. We seek out "Factiness." 

But Factiness is dangerous when we are dealing with complex systems. One of the causes of the financial collapse of 2008 was the insistence by bankers and corporate titans that financial uncertainty had been solved. Many were genuinely shocked when, contrary to their "factual beliefs", a nationwide decline in housing prices triggered a classic bank run, of the sort that had not been seen in the US since the 1930s.

The reality is that understanding certain complex systems requires a healthy acceptance of uncertainty. The reasoning and evidence that we use, in turn, is often metaphorical and intuitive, rather than strictly statistical. This is ok. In fact, some of the greatest thinkers in history -- Einstein, for one -- attributed their insights to intuition rather than data and reason. And the human brain, in its basic functions, is a highly intuitive machine. 

That does not mean that we should blindly follow our intuitions. It is important to check our intuitions against harder evidence. But it does mean that, for certain complex problems where data is unavailable or unreliable, intuition is vital, in generating solutions. 

And if anyone ever tells you otherwise, your "Factiness" alarm should start ringing.