Saturday, April 12, 2014

Science was a Founding Principle of the Vegan Movement, Have We Heeded the Warning?

The primary argument in my upcoming book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights, is the unfortunate disconnect between activism on behalf of other animals and scientific evidence.  Tactics and theory in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement are largely designed according to personal leanings, hunches, religious beliefs, or that which brings the biggest financial return.  Important leaders in the movement spend a lot of time on podcasts, blogs, and books pontificating on what they think will work and why, and rarely, if ever, do they actually consult the decades of research in social movement theory, social psychology, sociology, psychology, economics, etc. to support their approach.  Meanwhile, new ageists promote plant-based eating for spiritual purity, good energy, or enlightenment.  I think Donald Watson and others who spearheaded the historic split from The Vegetarian Society would be quite disappointed to know that ideology and non-profitization has robbed our movement of one of its greatest strengths, that being considerable scientific support for our positions.  They would be disappointed indeed, but likely not surprised.

Supreme Master Ching Hai and her vegan Loving Hut enterprise comprise one of the largest cults in the world

In my book, I explore some of Donald Watson's and Henry Salt's early writings about the relationship between anti-speciesist work and scientific rigor.  From the very founding of this movement, they warned against woo woo.  The Ernest Bell Library has released an early issue of The Vegan yesterday which features another important push for respecting science in our outreach that I would have loved to have included in my manuscript.  Adherence to scientific rigor and the avoidance of nonscientific, religious claimsmaking was a founding principle of the vegan movement.

Titled, "Veganism and Science--And A Warning," author W. S. James writes in 1948:
[...] a warning is necessary if the vegan movement is to avoid the embarrassments and setbacks which the vegetarian movement has suffered.  There are those in the vegetarian movement, and no doubt there will be those in the vegan movement, who oppose scientific thought and try to pick a quarrel with science, attempt to discredit it, and thereby ridicule their own movement in the process.
Publications by the Vegetarian Society, it seems, included horoscopes and bizarre, unfounded dietary theories. James fears the disrespect for science gives the public the impression that we are a cult:
Veganism needs to avoid this sort of bunk and bathos, otherwise it will scare away the intellectually minded reformer for ever.
Scientific rigor, it is argued, is necessary to protect veganism "as a vital, progressive force."  Religion, too, was not part of the early Vegan Society values:
Keep veganism a practice based on ethics, aesthetics, humaneness, health, economics and science.  We shall agree on this: and we shall disagree on anything else.
The vegan movement founders warned us from the start that a disregard for science would imperil our effectiveness.  "Veganism has everything to gain by a wholehearted scientific attitude, and everything to lose by an unscientific approach," James concludes.  Have we heeded the warning?  I'm afraid we have not.  The vegan movement today appears to be more overrun with religiosity, new age quackery, and non-profit fundraising rhetoric than ever before.