Zach Groff

Published on:

August 8, 2015

The Evidence Bros


By Zach Groff

All opinions expressed in this piece are my own, and are not intended to represent my employer.

The animal liberation movement has an evidence problem. No, I don't mean the lack of evidence - though that's a problem, too, and any academic researcher willing to take on the task of studying effective activism could do our movement a tremendous favor. I mean a bro culture that treats as settled science what is very much not, and dismisses any argument to the contrary.

The most recent example of this was a post by the "Vegan Bros" advising DxE activists to lie down in a busy street. This is part of their schtick, and I agree that humor is vital for both satire and comic relief. But this unfunny joke reveals, I believe, an insidious dynamic in the modern animal liberation movement.

Activists, frequently men, use “logic” and “science” to quash counterarguments even when these are actually shakily masking common wisdom. For readers of Paul Krugman's blog, this is akin to the Very Serious People: those who present themselves as bold contrarians and demand austerity in the wake of an economic crisis as being what logic demands when in fact there is substantial evidence pointing in the other direction. These Very Serious People portray themselves as evidence-based contrarians when in fact they are the opposite: followers of public opinion that defies much of the evidence. In the animal liberation movement, supporters of "evidence" repeat the words "evidence" and "science" endlessly in response to disruptive or confrontational tactics with the assumption being that serious, evidence-minded people can resist the emotional pull of these protests.

I should note that I am myself a very evidence-minded person. I work at one of the leading research institutions on solutions to global poverty, one that is frequently cited by GiveWell in its charity recommendations. I identify as an Effective Altruist, I have donated substantially to GiveWell top-rated charities, and I believe that evidence should be the primary determinant of what strategies we pursue. I would add that there is a debate to be had over confrontation, but an evidence-based debate would look very different from the discourse of the modern animal liberation movement.

Having an appreciation for evidence means having an appreciation for the uncertainties, weaknesses, and qualifications of specific pieces of evidence. In the case of the animal liberation movement, this means being very careful when we specify precisely how many animals a particular action will save. It also means being open to multiple forms of evidence, provided we account for their underlying assumptions, and being aware of our tendency toward measurability bias: overweighting short-term, direct effects that are concrete and measurable and underweighting longer-term and more diffuse effects.

The case for collective action depends on these longer-term and more diffuse effects. In the immediate term, political scientists have found, voters broadly agree in their hatred of protesters. But conflict inspires activists to join in, attracts readers and attention, and then once a movement builds, 100,000 loud, obnoxious people are not to be mocked and dismissed— they are to be reckoned with and pacified by acceding to their demands. This is not to mention the subtle shifts in opinion that occur when a position begins to be portrayed as a common or significant one by a powerful movement rather than a fringe group.

Political scientists recognize this, as do sociologists and economists. But focus narrowly on the near-term, and all you will see are immediate, negative reactions. Look only at survey data to figure out what appeals to people, and you will miss out on the powerful social norms and emotional context that frame survey responses. Use studies with bias built in to the design, and you can easily find a life-saving impact of leafleting whether or not it exists.

The use of evidence by the "Vegan Bros" and others often commits the oversights mentioned above. At the Animal Rights National Conference, speakers cited debunked studies on leafleting and assumed causality in a downward trend in animals slaughtered that, according to the HSUS's own statistics, has at least stagnated. Yet despite the weakness of this evidence, the effectiveness of strictly accommodationist tactics— tactics that defy historical precedent— retains a stranglehold on the movement, while confrontation, despite a fair amount of research touting its potential (nicely summarized in this blog post), is regarded as freakish.

It is no coincidence that one of the most aggressive promoters of this "evidence" is the Vegan Bros and the bulk of the “evidence” crowd is largely cisgender and heterosexual men. This knee-jerk invocation of "evidence" to guard the prevailing wisdom conforms to narrative that has a long cultural history. From the Book of Genesis to Virgil's Aeneid, Western culture often portrays masculine reason as contrasted with feminine emotion and praises those who dispassionately do what logic demands despite the pull of their heartstrings.

Unsurprisingly, scientific and mathematical fields have a well-documented problem with gender balance. This is problematic in its own right, and as a movement, we stand a risk of alienating women, LGBTQ people and the broader, feminist left. Controversy over this problem is rife, and there's cause for concern about its effects: a peer-reviewed literature review suggests that men have a more autocratic approach to leadership, suggesting that male leadership on the movement's assessment of evidence puts us at risk of discounting alternative views— as seen, for instance, in our movement's all too common disregard of tactics viewed as emotional.

People are motivated not just by facts, but by emotion, and the most effective tactics must take this into account. The emotional content of an action is not a roadmap to its ineffectiveness. Instead, in the context of nonviolence, emotion is part of what makes the action work. Those who dismiss the effectiveness of provocation despite its emotional appeal make a fatal error, for that emotional appeal gives nonviolence its potential, and there is evidence behind this.

The irony is this: people often avoid nonviolent direct action because of their emotions— a desire for popularity, a discomfort with conflict, an inclination to conform. So it is perhaps the bros who are the most emotional of all, despite their attempts to hide this in the guise of reason. This is troubling for a bro, because undertaking nonviolence requires admitting the possibility that evidence and emotion are on the same side, and that those of us who care about the former should get comfortable with the latter.