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Social Science

Inflection Points

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I'm finally getting around to Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise - Why So Many Predictions Fail. And this graph from the first few pages is pretty astonishing. One simple breakthrough -- the printing press -- enhanced the spread of ideas by orders of magnitude.

Many scholars see this as a significant moment in the history, not just of civilization, but of social justice. Books allowed people to read about faraway places, and learn about faraway people. It became easier to see through another set of eyes. And once we saw through those eyes, it became impossible to denigrate and diminish the perspective of the other. 

Two take home points: 

1. Development, whether technological or moral, is not a linear process. It goes through fits and starts, but when it happens, it happens at rates almost unbelievable just a few years prior. 

2. Ideas of justice and empathy spread due to perspective shifting. It's not enough for people to see violence -- the pre-literacy era was filled with violence against humans and animals -- they have to interpret it as a violation of some individual. "Some individual not unlike me."

So all you writers out there, get to work! 

Individuals v. Systems: Emergence and Social Change (Video)

Colony wide properties, that no individual ant acts on or understands, matter more (even for understanding and predicting individual ant behavior) than an individual-level account. The intentionality of an ant colony is an  emergent property  

Colony wide properties, that no individual ant acts on or understands, matter more (even for understanding and predicting individual ant behavior) than an individual-level account. The intentionality of an ant colony is an emergent property 

The animal rights community typically focuses on individuals and individual decision-making, as the relevant locus of change. And yet a growing body of evidence shows that complex systems often have properties of their own -- so-called "emergent" properties -- that cannot be properly understood by examining individual components. So, for example, one cannot understand the behavior of a squirrel by using the tools of particle physics!

If human societies have emergent social and systemic properties, then one similarly cannot affect human social behavior by focusing exclusively on individual change. Focusing on systems, rather than individuals, leads to some important questions, such as:

- Should the movement be focused on creating public activists, or private vegans?
- Should the movement be targeting cultural norms, or individual consumer behaviors?
- How likely is it that any particular individual change, whether to a person or a business, is likely to sustain itself, if systemic properties remain static?

Effective Meme Spreading (Video)

Effective Meme Spreading (Video)

In disciplines ranging from economics to history, the cognitive revolution has shown that ideas that spread -- so-called "memes" -- are perhaps the most important forces in social change. But what causes some ideas to spread more effectively than others?

In this talk, activist, lawyer, and trained behavioral scientist Wayne Hsiung discusses three principles of "Effective Meme Spreading." Among other things, you will learn:

- why generating conflict and controversy (such as that created in the Civil Rights Movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the Arab Spring) might be vital to an effective meme; 
- why convincing a person's friends might be more important than convincing the person herself, if you want the idea you're spreading to stick; and
- how strong and supportive communities provide the necessary "fertile ground" for memes to grow, survive, and reproductively flourish. 

Slides for the presentation can be found here.  

About the Speaker

Wayne Hsiung is a lawyer, writer, and organizer for DxE in the Bay Area. Prior to entering the practice of law, Mr. Hsiung was a National Science Graduate Fellow researching behavioral economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harry N. Wyatt Scholar and Olin Law and Economics Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. He served on the faculty at Northwestern School of Law, as a Searle Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Law, from 2006-2007, where he focused on behavioral law and economics, free speech, and environmental law.

Mr. Hsiung has worked on social justice campaigns since 1999, including campaigns against capital punishment and on behalf of low-income youth, and has been a grassroots organizer in the animal rights movement since 2001. In his free time, he enjoys playing with his two dogs (Lisa and Natalie) and two cats (Joan and Flash).



The Meta Muddle

There is a lot of discussion in effective altruism/activism circles about "meta" approaches -- offering better strategies, and indirect aid, rather than working directly to help others. 


But as Peter Drucker famously put it, "culture eats strategy for breakfast." It doesn't matter how brilliant your plan is if you don't have the culture and people to implement it.


Peer Effects

Peer Effects

The New York Times is reporting again today about a fascinating study on facebook, which suggests that the interconnectedness of a couple's friends is a powerful predictor of whether their relationship will survive. 


What does this have to do with animal rights? Studies like this show that, even in our most personal and important decisions, our social graphs play a huge role.



Meat Consumption - In Decline, or Not?


Last year, at around this time, blogs and social media erupted over a Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) report indicating that per capita meat consumption had been on the decline, since 2008, and was projected to continue to decline in 2013. There was widespread cheerleading (and even some statistical analysis) to suggest that the animal rights movement's efforts had caused this apparent decline. Conveniently ignored in this was the fact that far greater drops in meat consumption were seen during the Great Depression -- including a one-year 18% decline (citation link currently unavailable due to government shutdown).

So how have things progressed? Well, the new numbers are out. And the results are sobering: across the board increases in demand, for all species other than turkeys. The 3% increase in chicken alone will overwhelm all other numbers, and manifest in hundreds of millions more individuals forced to endure the torments of animal "husbandry" and slaughter.  

By the logic used, around this time last year, does that imply that the animal rights movement has suddenly failed, despite its successes starting in 2008? Did we match our glorious success in 2012, with abject failure in 2013? Surely not. The demand for meat is a complicated variable that can't be linked to any one factor. And there is significant year-to-year variation that has nothing to do with our work. 

The upshot? Too much of AR activism focuses on short term data that has no impact on our long-term success: small down and up ticks in meat consumption; the percentage of people who "choose vegetarian" due to x, y, or z intervention; or even the passage of a regulation that does not fundamentally alter the "fox guarding the henhouse" dynamic inside the USDA. But don't be confused by the noise. The path to liberation requires a sound strategy, grounded in historical examples of success. Taking those steps, and not obsessing over minor changes in secondary variables (with doubtful scientific accuracy), should be our focus. 

Measuring Progress in Activism

From DxE's open meeting this past weekend. 

 "What does measurement have to do with the animal rights movement? What should activists measure, and why? When is measurement useful? When is it misleading? How can activists weigh the costs and benefits of spending some of their time, energy, and resources on measurement?"

PDF of the presentation can be found here


Turning Back the Clock - Seeing into the Future

Turning Back the Clock - Seeing into the Future

In 1990, a sample of the most dedicated animal activists -- people willing to fly across the country for a single demonstration -- showed that a mere 18% of activists were vegan. And 54% believed vivisection was the highest priority for the movement (compared to 24% who chose food). It's not surprising that a movement with such a composition failed to stem the tide of violence. As a close friend of mine put it, in discussing his initial hesitancy in joining the animal rights movement: it's hard to take a movement seriously, when it is complaining loudly about one form of violence, while turning a blind eye completely to even-more-horrendous violence supported by the movement's own adherents!

But something has been happening to the movement in the past couple decades. Animal rights activists are finally getting serious about, well, animal rights. And that new-found conviction provides a strong foundation for us to create a movement of real and permanent change. 

Science or Science-y: Part I

"Studies" in the animal rights community have the veneer of scientific respectability. They involve "experiments" and "testing" and give us startlingly exact numbers ("369,000 animals spared; 35% more effective"). But the truth is that these studies are not "Science."


They are "Science-y" -- claims that clothe themselves in the language of scientific rigor without having anything of substance, underneath them.


This post is the first of a multi-part series that explains, in detail, why.  



Naomi Wolf: "Mass Protest Always Works"

Naomi Wolf: "Mass Protest Always Works"

Naomi Wolf is a pioneering scholar and activist, Rhodes Scholar, consultant to presidential candidates (such as Al Gore), and widely-acclaimed social critic. She is, in other words, hardly a "radical." 

And yet, after an extensive analysis of social movements through history, she not only supports, but understands the vital necessity for, mass direct action. Why? Because it always works .