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Science says

October 30, 2011

Last weekend I came across a pair of articles that are both interesting in-and-of-themselves and that encapsulate much of what I find perplexing about modern science. In both cases, I agree with the conclusion–with certain qualifications–but do not entirely trust the validity of the methods used. These are also both good examples because they’re not obnoxious quasi-neuroscientific accounts of why we don’t have free will; rather, they attempt to accurately describe real phenomena–one deals with ethics, one aesthetics–yet I still can’t help but find them somewhat reductionistic.

The first,“The Myth of the Ethical Vegan,” argues that ethical veganism, the avoidance of animal products out of a desire to not abuse animals, is incoherent, because no food product can be made without killing animals:

In the real world, the ethical vegan has no idea — none at all — whether their diet causes more animals to die, the same number, or fewer, than a diet which includes meat. Even when they engage in a completely irrational search for micrograms of animal material in their diet (I know of one vegan who refuses to eat black olives because squid ink is used in part to color them) their actions are purely symbolic; they have no idea what their real impact is. Instead, they obsess over micrograms of animal products in their food while ignoring the metric tons of animal life destroyed to bring that food to the table.

[...]

In fact, ethical vegans exhibit a stunning and savage hypocrisy. Ethical vegans, as a class, fail utterly to put any of their professed ethics into action. They claim to not cause harm to animals, but they do; when confronted, they claim to cause less harm to animals than the non-vegan, but they are utterly unable to show that to be true, and are willing to take no real effort to even quantify their impact. They are intimately involved, every day, in an activity that causes the deaths of millions of animals, and they do nothing about it.

The second, “The Architect Has No Clothes,” describes what it sees as “architectural myopia,” the failure of architects to create buildings that actually satisfy the needs of human life:

So often we have debated the phenomenon of “architectural myopia” with architects, who dismiss it and insist that is all about aesthetics, or a matter of opinion. But that old relativist narrative is flatly contradicted by a growing body of modern scientific findings. True, people have enormous varieties of experiences and tastes—and it’s wonderful that they do—but these phenomena are generated by a common set of structural processes that are identifiable and sharable. Some experiences are unquestionably damaging to health and wellbeing, in the same way that, say, the structure of car exhaust molecules is damaging to health and wellbeing. It does no good to say our narrative about car exhaust is such and such, we want people to experience it and be provoked by it—that will not change the fact that we are making people unwell.

As I said above, I agree with both of these conclusions, but I find the methodology suspect. I’ll avoid theorizing over-much about why, but I think what irks me in both is not their scientific backing so much as their implicit secular humanism. The first article assumes a utilitarianism and talks scornfully of “symbolic” behavior, while the second responds to claims of the absolute malleability of human nature by saying we’re not malleable at all, when the question ought to be, what should we mold ourselves into?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. autolycus permalink
    October 30, 2011 11:04 pm

    Excellent points, those. I was just reading another eye-opener — Hal Herzog’s book on our relationships (often irrational) with animals. See http://halherzog.com/ for details.

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