Vegan Baloney

Vegan Baloney Detection Guide Cover

The cover of our vegan baloney detection guide. -click to unfold.

The irony for which I currently find myself embroiled, is that as I sit here and crank on veganism week after week I also happen to organize a huge honking vegan support group. The two rarely make the connection and the friends in between don’t tend to make a deal of it so it somehow works…for now. Years ago, when I had my vegan falling out, I downgraded our group’s mission statement from one of advocacy to one of simple support. It was the only way I could resolve the cognitive dissonance I dug up, but that’s something I’ll save for a whole ‘nother post. In that spirit of support I wanted to empower our niched vegan membership the power of critical thinking. Smacking down woo is a game of whack-a-molé (please, don’t smack moles) no person can win. The best thing to do is inoculate the population and hope for the best. This also protects them from me as it’s more likely than not that I’m biased, wrong, and simply unqualified. I gotta assume I’m fulla baloney, if history is any judge.

In the book Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan outlines what he calls “the baloney detection kit”, which is basically a guide to critical thinking. That book changed my life and I had a yearning to share it with others. I felt a deep connection between critical thinking and my recognition of animal injustice. Sagan himself alluded to this and while vegans would love to have seen Sagan vegan (say that three times fast) I think his ideas regarding other animals were far more powerful than any lentil burger. I believe the eventual outcome of reason, especially with all science has discovered about evolution, is to afford other animals a bit more recognition even if that means elevating ourselves above our supposed natural disposition.

Of course, I could just be yet another crank who thinks he’s thinking critically but really conforming it around a cherished bias. But how can one go wrong with advocating critical thinking? This, I think, is my new platform. I feel compelled to leverage my years of vegan advocacy experience to adopt this cause in the same manner. It’s a cause that is so fundamental that every other justice issue could benefit. It’s not just a solution, it’s a toolkit to empower the thinker to discover and invent their own solutions. As far as I know there hasn’t been a leaflet made up and passed out on the matter. That is my challenge.

So when the annual local vegan fest sprung up for which we would usually table as our vegan group I decide to use that as an excuse to finally finish the critical thinking advocacy piece, for which I was working on for months on I took Sagan’s “baloney detection kit” and attempted to distill it down to something palatable for the vegan masses. I made a play on the word “baloney” with the title saying “Baloney isn’t vegan!” to try to appeal to their interests. I added a “red flags” section that both exemplified fallacies and were commonly seen with vegan issues.

Within the course of a few weeks I rushed a designer through whipping up a tent card for 200 prints with 100 ‘No Baloney’ buttons made up to stick on the back of half. I spent the night before the event scoring, folding and sticking buttons on the cards with the help of my assistant organizer and somehow we pulled it off. I expected to give away maybe 50 or so the next day but people were way more receptive than I thought. We gave away almost every single one!

Throughout the course of the day me and my assistant organizers honed our pitch trying to explain the value of thinking critically. For every pitch we watched each other and borrowed and improved the process, it was so fun! We got some confused looks and some high fives but for the most part people seemed to get it and took a baloney detection guide (especially if it had a free ‘no baloney’ button on the back). It went a little like this:

So baloney isn’t vegan, right? And when it comes to eating animals vegans are critical thinkers, right? Shouldn’t though, critical thinking be practiced with everything? Just because something might claim to be vegan it might not be true, it might be baloney. This guide, [open and present] based upon the baloney detection kit from Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, [point at book on display] helps you detect what might be baloney and what might be true. Also, it comes with a free ‘no baloney’ button on the back! [flip around and show button] [hand over]

Since we were situated near the entrance we were often one of the first tables visited. Hopefully these guides came in handy when confronted by the anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, anti-gluten & chiropractor exhibitors tabling alongside us. Vegans are particularly preyed upon by those willing to exploit their distrust of mainstream culture. Baloney detection would go far to offset this vulnerability.

The guide isn’t perfect by any means and you could never fit a comprehensive guide on a leaflet. To make up for that we added a url to a page on our site <> as a supplement and ongoing updates. There we will hone and shape our own take on making critical thinking palatable. As I get feedback I intend to update the content and smooth out the rough patches and print a version 2. I was quite happy with the result of version 1 though and the support of so many people really help pull this off. If you, dear reader, have a critique of this guide I invite you to do so in the comments here.

Critical thinking, science, skepticism and animal rights are all subject for which people often associate with unattainable ideas for the common person. This, I don’t believe is, true. It’s just a matter of putting it within reach. While ideally this stuff would be taught in schools we have to bridge that gap and advocate this cause on all fronts just like any cause. It’s a fixable problem with an iterative solution but we need activists to do so. The skeptics are starting to catch on from what I saw at TAM 9 and each of us has a niche to fill. Outreach is going to have to be a bigger part of our repertoire if we’re serious about making things better.

Picture links:

* big thanks to tablers Debra, John and Mauricio of Vegan Chicago for kicking ass on the righteous tip!

19 comments to Vegan Baloney

  • Great post and great work.

    My experience with “skeptical types” in the past is that they’re generally pretty dismissive of veganism and AR. They’ll latch onto one of the (many) arguments for veganism that doesn’t make sense, destroy it, and then go about their business. OTOH, it’s not hard to blame them for doing this, because we can’t really expect them (or anyone) to try to seek out the most compelling evidence that they should make a life-altering decision. They’re just responding to what they’ve been presented with. OTOH, if they’re satisfied with just knocking down the low-hanging fruit and not getting deeper into it, they’re not really engaging with the topic as honestly as they could be.

    One thing that does sort of bother me about “skeptical types” is the same thing that I see in many vegans (especially the very cock-sure ones): this need for absolute certainty about something. With the vegans, they just want the case for morally obligatory veganism to be so sure, so they convince themselves that it is, and they get frustrated why other people can’t see that. With the skeptics, they see no reason why veganism is morally obligatory (and I agree with them), so when they can “prove” to themselves that it isn’t, they feel satisfied that they’ve given the issue its due consideration and they go on about their business.

    I would think one would have better luck with them presenting it as “this is why AR/veganism is better than NOT-AR/veganism” rather than “this is why you have a responsibility to X.” They’re all versed enough in logic and logical fallacies to be able to see through any argument that is held out as some kind of “proof” that eating meat is immoral.

    One other thing that struck me about people that identify as skeptics is that, in a lot of ways, it’s kind of a “negative” way of looking at the world. What I mean by negative is that it seems overly-focused on DISproving this, and DEbunking that. People seem to define themselves as much by what they DON’T believe as what they DO, all in the quest of “truth” and being right all the damn time. Some things in life you just need to jump into even when it doesn’t make 100% sense. This is not an endorsement of baloney or quackery or anything. I’m just saying that some things worth doing are never going to be 100% “true” in the provable,scientific way that some people might want.

    Sorry if this got a little tangential. It’s just something I’ve been thinking for a while (I used to listen to a lot of atheist and skeptic podcasts).

    • I’m pretty active in my local skeptics group and I’ve been challenged once and it went something like this:

      “So you’re a vegan…and a skeptic, eh? Well you must do it for health or environment reasons.”

      I was like “No, it’s strictly ethics.” Health and environment reasons are like the weakest arguments!

      Skepticism should be the default way to think for everybody and not a special interest group called “skeptics. It’s kinda silly. I don’t see it as a negative way of looking at the world even though I know why you would think that. Debunking really isn’t a skeptical approach. It’s their version of NOT VEGAN policing and there are alotta internal arguments over that.

      Nothing is 100% true though right? We can only say we know what is most likely true based upon past evidence. Can you give an example of something that might not be provable but still true without inquiry? I’m not sure what you’re getting at there.

  • I’m kind of surprised that (s)he assumed it was for health or environment reasons. Those are the two biggest reasons to be vegan that are actually based on scientific claims (and hence, falsifiable by science). But, now that I think about it, the fact that (s)he thought a skeptic couldn’t be persuaded by the ethical argument is probably because (s)he has always been presented with arguments for veganism that center on the idea of moral obligation. I think those claims are easy to counter in so many ways. And the pitfall of that approach is that, once the person has punched a hole in the logic somewhere, they feel like they’ve done their duty and they can just go back to their hamburgers with a good conscience. I think we need to stick to ethics (and environmental effects/policy can and should be a part of that, and maybe public health, but that’s more dubious, imo) and stick to talking about choice. When you tell people that they don’t have a valid choice other than veganism (which is essentially what you’re saying if you say they have a moral obligation), they will find a way to prove you wrong and then forget about it. If you frame it as “here is why veganism/AR is the better choice,” you’re not expecting them to swallow something, but to actively choose it.

    What I said “negative,” I did not mean “pessimistic” or anything like that. I simply meant that some “people seem to define themselves as much by what they DON’T believe as what they DO.” Do you see what I’m saying? I just kind of got that feeling after while. Sometimes it just seems to be so focused on the fallacious ideas of others, and there often seems to be little talk about what skeptics DO believe in (except apolitical things like science, truth etc). I find nothing wrong with skepticism (I’m a pretty skeptical person myself), but I just think that you have to also do a lot of thinking about what you DO believe, and accept that certain things do require a leap of faith in a certain sense (no, I’m not talking about religion). I don’t know – I guess in the same way that a group of atheists often make strange bedfellows (because all they share is a lack of belief), the same thing holds for skeptics. There’s just no “positive” worldview that holds them together. So it’s not at all surprising to hear that a movement like that is fractious.

    And I understand your point about truth not being 100%. Like I said, I used to listen to a lot of skeptic and atheist podcasts. That’s not lost on me. My point was not about epistemology, but about pragmatics: living life. Some things in life just require that you act without certainty.

    Anyway… I don’t dislike skeptics or the movement or anything like that. I think many of them do good outreach, especially for science policy, science education, and church/state separation (since the overwhelming majority of them are atheist, like me). I think it’s cool that you’re trying to do something that bridges the gap between them and the vegan/AR world. I find that most skeptics are pretty dismissive of the ideas, and that’s largely not their fault. Hopefully you can enlighten them 😉

    • Cool, thanks for the clarification.

      Veganism is also a “negative” way of living based upon not doing something so they relate well to skepticism and atheism. Nobody is the perfect skeptic just like nobody is the perfect vegan. We are not robots. It’s one thing to reserve judgement but another to act without certainty.

      I’m not trying to bridge the gap necessarily. The skeptics are fine on their own, they have the tools to find enlightenment. It’s the vegans that are living in the dark.

  • “Never underestimate the difficulty of changing false beliefs by facts,” – economist Henry Rosovsky

    This isn’t to say we shouldn’t try. Just that we can’t get our hopes up.

    – Norm

    • Is that similar to “You can’t reason somebody out of something they didn’t reason themselves into.”?

      Facts would make a more compelling argument if people understood how to value them. I think that’s where critical thinking helps. Keeping hopes tempered is a good strategy to avoid burnout, agreed.

  • Adam

    I’ve been meaning for some time to drop a comment to thank you for this post.

    In real life, I’ve only rarely hung out with vegans, so most of the vegan culture you rightly criticize has never really been a part of my life. That said, I have for some time been heavily involved in an activist organization which has a lot of the same baggage. Only relatively recently have I come to see how deeply embedded the misinformation and pseudoscience really is. I always knew there was some misinformation, but increasingly I find myself wondering if anything would be left if the baloney were to disappear.

    I briefly thought about leaving the organization, but the circumstances wouldn’t allow that in a way that would be fair to the people left behind. So I decided I’d stay and try to push people in a more reasonable direction. The problem is that I don’t feel like I ever learned about critical thinking. It’s kind of just been the only way I’ve ever known, which makes it hard for me to teach it to other people. So this post is very helpful to me. I’ll be looking at The Demon Haunted World and probably also borrowing from your Baloney Detection Kit (in fact, I recommended the critical thinking videos to a fifth-grade teacher in Switzerland last week).

    So thanks for the blog, and this post in particular. You’ve done a great service.

    • Thanks Adam! I know people like you, who for whatever reason think critically as a default but I never thought how that might affect the way that might hinder outreach. That’s an interesting thought. I guess I was lucky enough to live a life of credulity. :p

      My greatest hope is that somebody would stumble upon what I’m trying to accomplish here and improve upon it or become inspired to do something similar. Dumb passion inspired by the work of people like Carl Sagan is all that’s at work here. 🙂 I’m glad this was helpful though, thanks for the note!

  • I will put in my standard plug for Matt Ridley’s book, The Rational Optimist. He makes sausage of all lot of baloney. Welcome to the nuanced side.

    • Without even reading the book I’d call myself a rational optimist. I do have that book in my reading queue but the skepticism is elevated already due to already feeling the warm cheap glow of confirmation bias. 😉

  • Animal Wrongs

    “I feel compelled to leverage my years of vegan advocacy experience to adopt this cause in the same manner.”

    Then you’re setting yourself up for self-defeat. This is like saying, “I’m going to use my powers of critical thnking and empirical evidence to prove that 9/11 was caused by ghosts from the Moon!”

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  • […] Until you can do that your concerns will fall on deaf ears. If they are legitimate and you value the scientific method you should find your criteria that can provide something of substance. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of baloney. […]

  • […] Science is science and a plant-based diet panacea needs to go through the same rigors any other science–informed topic should. Until then it’s relegated to the realm of pseudoscience until it validates itself through peer-review and garners acceptance by the consensus of experts, not vegans. Anything less and vegans may have to eat crow and that’s just as NOT VEGAN as baloney. […]

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