Science, Non-science, Nonsense and Nastiness
in the Vegetarian World

Stanley M. Sapon, Ph.D.

(This is Part One of a Three-Part Series)

For a long time now, dissonant sounds of contention and conflict on the Internet have been troubling vegetarians. These hurtful words undermine the feelings of mutual respect and common goals that have nourished the vegetarian community for many years.

The symptoms of a chronic problem have reached an acute stage, and it is clear that the health of the community is now being challenged by a serious disease. This malady can sap its victim's strength, divert its energy, create mental confusion, motivational disorder, and cause serious emotional distress. If not treated vigorously, it can leave its victim disorganized and weakened, and its defenses in disarray. It resembles the auto-immune diseases in which one part of body, mistaking its own tissue as the enemy, attacks itself.

The disease has a name: it is a school of thought called "Scientism," and the dictionary defines it in this way:

1. The theory that investigational methods used in the natural sciences should be applied in all fields of inquiry.

2. The application of quasi-scientific techniques or justifications to unsuitable subjects or topics.

Having worked professionally for more than 50 years as an educator, a scientist and a clinician, and having practiced a vegan lifestyle for the past 20 years, I feel compelled not only to raise the alarm, but to make a strong effort to explore the antecedents to this affliction, illuminate its philosophical and ethical elements, and, in a way, seek to immunize people in the vegetarian community against similar behavioral pathogens.

It should be clear at the outset that as a scientist, I feel no hostility toward either science or scientists. On the contrary, it is precisely the intense commitment to the accurate, honest, and unbiased reporting that distinguishes science, that moves me to address the misuse of its name and the corruption of its fundamental tenets. Further, as a scholar who has an equally intense commitment to vegan philosophy, and to a set of values that sustain that philosophy, I feel obliged to bring those values to bear on the analytical exploration that follows.

I must confess to a feeling of personal responsibility -- perhaps negligence-- for some of the virulence of the current outbreak. The infection has been festering for several years now, but in a sense, I witnessed its origins.

I presented a paper at the 1996 NAVS Summerfest which offered a linguistic and behavioral appraisal of vegetarianism (see below for link to paper). A bright and enthusiastic young man came up to me afterward, praised my paper, and expressed his satisfaction at hearing someone bring a scientific approach to a discussion of vegetarian concerns. He went on to tell me he was establishing a moderated E-mail List, whose subscribers would be members of the scientific community, and invited me to participate. I accepted his invitation and subscribed, beginning almost a year of growing discomfort with the content and style of the List.

What emerged almost immediately was a lopsided perception of science that marked nutritional science as the only science relevant to vegetarianism, and personal good health as its paramount goal. With an occasional nod to environmental studies, Statistics appeared to be the sole validating methodology, and Medicine its proving ground. Such fields of scientific study as Cultural Anthropology, Linguistics, Behavioral Science, Ecology, Economics, Political Science, Sociology, Clinical Psychology and others, appeared as marginal, or outside the boundaries of "science" as viewed by the List Moderator. Reading the postings would lead a visitor to conclude that the primary scientific concern of vegetarianism centered on Vitamin B12, with Fatty Acids and Calcium trailing close behind.

My discomfort changed to dismay when the focus and full attention of the List came under the sway of an overpowering conviction that the most serious and challenging obstacles to the spread of vegetarianism were:

  • overstatements or inaccuracies of its nutritional benefits as a diet, and
  • exaggerations of the harm to the environment caused by animal agriculture.

This conviction was based on a na´ve and scientifically untested assumption that, were it not for the inflated advantages of vegetarianism, the movement would forge ahead smoothly, rapidly and triumphantly, attracting thousands to our ranks.

Taking that assumption for confirmed truth, they began a campaign to check out all sources of information on the internet regarding vegetarianism; the goal was to root out and identify what they proclaimed to be "bad science," "errors of fact," "false statements" etc., and to "expose" the authors/and or publishers of such alleged errors as dishonest, self-serving, purposeful disseminators of falsehoods. When they proceeded -- without benefit of accurate and contextually honest quotations -- to denounce, disparage and invalidate the entire body of work of responsible and accomplished scientists, the full and ugly image of the "Science Police" emerged.

I regret that my response was not stronger than merely "unsubscribing" from the List. I did not realize that we were confronting a case of rampant and contagious scientism, with a strong potential for infecting other sites on the internet, and the entire vegetarian community at large.


What gives the leaders of the Science Police the power to impress and intimidate so many people is the worshipful respect that our popular culture has bestowed upon a new kind of Priesthood: The Scientist. And it is the illusion that scientists are a special, gifted and all-wise breed of humans, that invites people to treat them with reverential respect.

What gets the most attention is the vast amount of information that scientists have acquired. Lost from view has been the simple, fully understandable definition of science as "a way of knowing," a set of methods for accurately and dispassionately describing events and objects in the natural world. Far from mystifying mumbo-jumbo, the scientific method calls for systematic observation of the subject being studied, and development of terminologies that describe the observations, either in numbers or in prose.

Observations -- "data" -- are the foundations for seeking relationships between different substances and different events. The "truth" of one scientist's observations will be confirmed -- or denied -- by the observations of other scientists. An "explanation" for a series of events is a hypothesis that can be tested by experiment. What distinguishes the scientific method as "a way of knowing" is its reliance on observation and experiment rather than on "authority," "logic," "common sense," "gut feeling" or the political power that can simply "declare" something to be true. A crucial property of science is the way that knowledge is acquired, disseminated and tested.

The subject matter studied by physicists, chemists and geologists is different from what is studied by biologists, and different yet from what commands the attention of the scientists who examine human society and individual relationships in that society. Their methods and their units of measurement will also be different, but they will all have this in common:

  1. a commitment to absolute honesty in reporting their findings, which will be
  2. uncontaminated by value judgments, and that support
  3. conclusions scrupulously limited to what their science has revealed.

These are requirements of science. There is no such thing as "bad science" -- if the above conditions are not met, it is simply not science; it is pseudo-science.

Good work as scientists earns the public's respect and confidence in their scientific pronouncements. Sometimes, however, we tend -- at our risk -- to extend our confidence and our respect to other pronouncements, unrelated to their special field of scientific expertise. Brilliant scientists may make statements outside of their field that we consider to be wise and benevolent. It is comforting to learn that Dr. Albert Einstein wrote appreciatively and admiringly of a vegetarian diet. But scientists may also make statements we consider to be mindless and cruel. Dr. James Watson, who with his colleague Dr. Francis Crick, remade biology by discovering the structure of DNA, took to sharing with high school students -- not his scientific knowledge, but his "wisdom." In one school visit, this Nobel Laureate contemptuously dismissed a student's concerns about animal abuse in research and animal rights, saying: "The logical conclusion is we won't do any research and will spend all our resources making monkeys happy. I don't like monkeys." So much for his "wisdom."

Troubled Waters -- What's the Beef?

The question of "how many gallons of water to produce a pound of meat?" has been at the core of incendiary charges of "unscientific!" Having noted that other sources had answered that question with different numbers, a self-appointed, self-anointed Defender of Truth mounted an attack on John Robbins' scientific credibility, challenging his statement in "Diet for a New America" that it required 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat. This challenge served as the rallying point and launching pad for a global assault on Robbins and other distinguished writers. Although by this time most people are thoroughly tired of this tempest in a chamber pot, there is a central point that merits examination. The flaming torch of the "Crusaders for Vegetarian Truth" is "Absolute Scientific Accuracy," and the differing figures for water use have been taken as confirming a lack of scientific precision. The crucial point is that science has nothing to do with the issue. We are dealing with a debate over the sources of a statistical determination. John Borders' rebuttal offers a thoughtful and incisively coherent review of this issue (linked below).

It is strikingly revealing that attacks on "scientific inaccuracies" in vegetarian advocacy appear to be almost exclusively focused on issues of personal health and environmental cost. Issues of "scientific accuracy" in the reporting of monstrous cruelty in factory farming procedures are never challenged for truthfulness. Nor have I seen or heard any "critical evaluations" of the numbers of chickens reported to have slipped past the "humane" safeguards of electrical stunning and mechanical throat-cutting, to die fully conscious in the tanks of boiling water used to "de-feather" carcasses. No one, not even the meat packing industry, seems to find it important to challenge the figure of 9 billion animals commonly reported to be slaughtered annually, and counter-claim that actually only 8,716,547,624 animals are killed.

We are all left to ponder why the litmus test of a writer's honesty, integrity and purity of motives should be exact, statistically verifiable figures relating to cancer deaths, requirements for vitamin B12, water use in meat production, and square-feet of rain forest per hamburger.

The Numbers Game

Statistics is not science. Statistics is a branch of applied mathematics that deals with the collection, organization and interpretation of numerical data. Scientists often make use of statistical procedures for organizing the data gathered during their investigations, and to facilitate the interpretation of their observations. Statistics is helpful in assessing the reliability of conclusions drawn from the data, and statistics can suggest relationships between a number of variables, or even a correlation between variables. Correlation, that is, "co-relation," means just that: events or conditions that co-occur in some order or that appear to be associated with one another. Correlation does not mean causation. It is important to underscore this, since issues of correlation and causation are of major interest in those sciences whose results have implications for our health.

So far as currently available data suggest, there is a 100% correlation between motherhood and female sex. We have no verified reports of childbirth in humans of any sex other than female. But no one would suggest that giving birth to a baby causes femininity... or that being female causes pregnancy. The best we can say, statistically, is that being female appears to be one of the necessary conditions for pregnancy.

As useful as it can be as a tool, statistics can not prove the truth of a scientific theory. Statistics can illuminate the data, and can suggest promising directions and/or details for further research. The most sophisticated statistical procedures can be no more reliable than the methods of acquiring the data, and the nature of the sample from which it is taken. Statistics cannot extract from the data facts that are not there, nor can it yield conclusions that are not supported by the observations themselves.

To believe that there is one true answer to the original question suggests a child-like innocence of the principles and conventions of science. A responsible researcher takes pains to identify sources of bias in the acquisition and reporting of the data. "Research" carried out by the beef industry, or by "scientists" hired by this industry, would be suspect at the outset. To fail to cite the source of a study and the names and affiliations of its authors is incomplete scholarship; to uncritically extract a calculated figure of "so many gallons..." from all the details of the inquiry, and declare that figure as the final, only, absolute and universal truth, is incompetent or irresponsible scholarship.

We often lose sight of the fact that statistics are "value-free." A statistically reliable report of the number of children that die every day from hunger-related causes gives nothing more than numbers. These numbers acquire meaning only after they have been examined in the light of our value systems. What is of utmost urgent and compelling importance is how we feel about those numbers, and what impact they have on our behavior.

There is a deeper question: what is the strategic significance of numbers? Are there individuals who would absolutely reject eating a steak that used up 2500 gallons of water, but would find it environmentally acceptable to eat a steak that used only 500 gallons? Is there a "critical mass" phenomenon regarding the environmental acceptability or unacceptability of meat in one's diet?

Scientific Questions and Answers

One of the most persuasive and convincing effects of scientific method is that the key words that characterize a piece of scientific research are "objective," "detached" and "dispassionate." It inspires confidence to know that the investigators did not skew either the design or the outcome of their inquiry to yield results that concur with their personal feelings, political agenda, religious beliefs or economic interests. Given these conditions, one can expect a credible answer to a scientific question.

One recent afternoon I went to my local pharmacy to pick up a prescription. Standing at the counter, I noticed a large sign that proclaimed in large, bold letters "Ask your pharmacist!" In a whimsical mood, I said to the pharmacist, whom I know quite well, "Paul, are you my pharmacist?" "C'mon, Stan," he replied, "you know I am!" "Great!" I said, "then I want to ask you... 'Which stocks should I invest in today?'" I enjoyed his stunned look for a minute, and we both broke out in laughter.

Mildly amusing, perhaps, but instructive: What kinds of questions should one direct to whom? Would it make sense to ask a nutritional scientist "If I eat an 8 ounce portion of veal, how many grams of fat am I likely to consume?" Of course.

Would the answer be believable and true? Probably. S/he could find the answer in a table prepared by other nutritional scientists ---correct to four decimal places. Now I can ask my next question: "Is it morally acceptable for me to eat the flesh of a cow's baby?"

Will the nutritionist have some kind of answer to my question? Possibly.

Will the validity of the answer be substantiated by the fact that it is a food scientist who is replying?

If the nutritional scientist is a purist and a stickler, s/he might very truthfully reply: "That is not a question that I can answer as a scientist. As a scientist, I can only answer questions that address issues that fall within the domain of my science."

You would fare no better if you asked the same question of your pharmacist, your physician, your meteorologist, or the moderator of a mail list devoted to science and vegetarianism.

The essence of this discussion: For valid answers to questions of science, address your questions to people whose way of knowing is through science. For meaningful answers to questions of ethics, spirit, conscience and human values, turn to people who follow other roads to knowledge.

Also see
What's In A Name by Dr. Sapon
Actually Getting the Facts Straight by John Borders, JD

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