Finding out what works

Do online videos of farmed animal cruelty change people’s diets and attitudes? Mercy For Animals, an organization that invests a lot in trying to make people watch online videos, recently contracted an independent research firm to investigate this question.

ACE (Animal Charity Evaluators), an organization that specializes in assessing which groups, campaigns, strategies etc are effective in making things better for animals, called the MFA study the “highest quality randomized controlled trial (RCT) so far of an animal advocacy intervention.”

Probably somewhat unexpectedly, the results of the research did not confirm that people who watched the video would eat less animal products than those who had seen an unrelated video instead (the control group).* This was, of course disappointing, especially since online videos are a relatively cheap, practical and measurable way of campaigning.

Mercy For Animals explains that there are several factors that make it difficult to draw any concrete and practical conclusions from the study: the study could only distinguish between increases or decreases in consumption of at least ten percent; the sample size may need to be a lot bigger; self-reports on dietary choices are very unreliable; the study only took into account people who clicked the ad, while apparently the majority of impact comes from people merely seeing the ad.

picture (c) Compassationate Action for Animals

The bottom line is that MFA feels the results can’t provide any practical guidance and hence will not cause MFA to reallocate funding for their online advertising.

Now my point, in this post, is not at all to tell you that having people watch these videos is of no use. I don’t think we can say that yet. My point is on a meta-level, about the mere researching itself. Here are some things that are great about what’s happened here:

  • an organization (MFA in this case) really wants to know if its allocation of resources (money for the Facebook ads etc) is efficient
  • donors are giving money to carry out that research
  • MFA contracted an independent firm to help guarantee a professional study design and execution
  • the research results, including raw data, have been shared with other groups like ACE, and results can be used by our whole movement
  • lessons on doing research have been learned, and new research questions have arisen.

But mostly, and this is the point of my post, MFA was not afraid to publish results that did not confirm the strategies they have been heavily investing in.

This may sound very obvious: we want to help the animals, right? So we do something and check if it works, right? And if it doesn’t seem to work, we stop doing it, right?

I hope you can see that in our movement, actually this kind of attitude is not so obvious at all. Not everyone of us is results-driven, and some of us are more interested in being truthful to an ideology or long followed strategy. Most groups don’t spend all that much on research and assessing what works. Many of us will cherry pick, using and publishing and talking about only the research that suits us. Confirmation bias may lead us to too quickly accept results that confirm our investments, and too quickly reject those that contradict them. While MFA and other organizations investing in online videos should obviously not disregard the results of their own study too quickly (which feel they won’t do), I have already seen other voices doing the opposite: they believe this research confirms that online videos don’t work.

We are all, to some degree, invested in our attitudes, our organization, our groups, our ideologies, our rules, our lifestyle, our identity. Confrontation with things that contradict whatever we are invested in, may be uncomfortable. But we should be willing to feel uncomfortable at times if we really want to help animals.

I have quoted this Tolstoy quote before, but I want to use it again here:

“I know that most people, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they had proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their lives.” 


* actually, if anything, the results showed that people having watched the videos ate slighly more animal products than the control group. It seems very unlikely that this result was significant, which is why here it is in a footnote 🙂









A career in doing good

I know there are many committed people who would like nothing more than to be able to devote themselves fulltime to animal rights, veganism, or other good causes. The problem is that it is very hard to make a living out of doing good things for the world. If you want to sell another laundry detergent, it’s relatively easy. Not so if you try to substantially make things better. Here are the possibilities you have.

  • The most obvious option is probably to find yourself a job in an existing non profit organisation. There’s not too many of them, and the positions are rather competitive as more and more people, fortunately, want that kind of job.
  • Alternatively, you can found your own non profit, and hope to get enough donations or grants to pay yourself and maybe some others a (sometimes very small) salary.
  • You can join a company that does good, or start one yourself, like a webshop.
  • You can of course become a teacher or a nurse or find some other job that can really have an impact.
  • You can try to make an income from something else, like Airbnb, so you have enough time left to do good things. A great book I recommend is The 4-hour workweek, which is about finding an earning model that leaves you with as much time as possible to do what  you really want.
  • Or you can just go for any high paying job and give part of your big salary to good causes, an idea which is called “earning to give” (I will write more about that and other effective altruism concepts at a later point).

Of course, you might be happy by just volunteering a part of your time, after hours, to a good cause. Obviously though, we need people who can be committed full time too. We need organisations who have the money to pay as many full time staff as possible, staff who can then profit from each others’ expertise, from the outreach channels and the network that the organisation has, from learning opportunities…

In case you’re interested, in the talk below, which I gave at an Effective Altruism congress in Basel, Switserland (sept 2015), I tell a bit of my own personal story, and how I got into animal rights and veganism, founded an organisation, and then left it do be on my own again.

Anti-vegan: the lasagne

It’s quite remarkable how little is needed to be called “anti-vegan” these days. In this second presentation that I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg (Sept 2015), I give some examples of what is considered anti-vegan messages or behavior by some.

One example in question is “the non-vegan lasagne“. Imagine you are dining at some new non-vegan friends’ house. They have made lasagne for you. They went through the trouble of finding a vegan recipe, buying soymilk, soy margarine, soy meat… and cooking up something they had never tried before. It’s a bit of a risk to them and they’re a little nervous. Right before you start eating, you find out that they overlooked one thing: they used lasagne dough with eggs. What do you do?

I asked this question to the audience and was happy to see that most of the people who put their hand in the air (there seemed to be a lot of undecided ones) would choose to eat the lasagne. A smaller part believed that they could convey in a polite way that they would not have any of it.

I said I was quite sceptical that not eating the food would *not* be damaging for the idea of veganism and vegans, and thus for the animals. I think it is an illlusion to think that refusing the food in such a case will not have a negative  impact.

Making this kind of exception is, I believe, the vegan thing to do, so to speak. When I do it, I feel I am true to the principle behind veganism, which is (for me) reducing harm and increasing happiness.

What I would do is tell those friends later, the next time I’m invited, if they could pay attention to this or that, because last time, you know… With some time having gone over it, pointing out their small “mistake” won’t affect them as much, I’m pretty sure.

If all this is non vegan, so be it. After the talk, several people told me I was quite brave to say all this publicly. I didn’t feel especially brave, but I thought that it was quite telling that some would think any bravery was required to say something like this. I would say: stop being afraid of others judging you as not vegan enough. Think about what you want to accomplish, and at all times, make *that* and not the definition of veganism, your bottom line.

(consistency, tho)

Making compassion easier: new presentation

This is a greatly updated version of my presentation Making Compassion Easier: a strategy for achieving vegan critical mass. I gave it at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg, sept. 2015.

Keywords of this strategy are moral vs nonmoral, pragmatism, incrementalism, meat reduction.

Your comments are welcome. I’m continuously updating my thoughts, so this strategy is entirely a work in progress.