Wayne Hsiung
Published on
October 17, 2014

Understanding Causes

by Wayne Hsiung

You often hear people in our movement say, "You can't do that! It will make animal rights activists (including me) look bad!" This is one of the many "common sense" propositions that activists are so sure about that they don't even think to question it. But as one of the most brilliant social scientists of the last generation taught us, by examining reams of data on human beliefs an behavior, common sense is often a bad guide when we are trying to understand the complexity of social behavior. 

For example, let's take a look at a series of statements that were recently made to me about PETA. 

A. People associate the AR movement with PETA.
B. People have a negative view of PETA and its extreme tactics.
C. Therefore, people have a negative view of the animal rights movement.

Damning case, right?

Wrong. Because, unless there is some test (whether statistical or otherwise), we have not proven causality. Now, you might say, "Well, there's no need for a test because causality is obvious!" But it's actually not, in most cases, because there are literally an infinite number of causal models for every pattern of data, and many of them may be just as plausible as the "obvious" model upon further examination.

For example, the good cop, bad cop effect (which has empirical support) may actually imply that, even if A and B are true, people's perceptions of other activists are in fact improved by PETA's tactics and negative reputation. "Thank god you're not one of those PETA types! (Oh, and since you're one of the nice ones, please tell me what you have to say... and what you want me to do.)" 

Even if the good cop, bad cop effect does not apply in this case, causality may run C > B > A rather than A > B > C, i.e. people may have a negative view of PETA and its tactics precisely BECAUSE they have a negative view of the movement and its ideology -- not vice versa. 

We need to distinguish between these theories. But, too often, we -- even the best and most effectiveness-minded minds in our movement -- fail to do that. 

Want to read more about using science in activism. Check out our prior blog post -- Science or Science-y -- here

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