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Misuse of “Effectiveness” Language in Animal Advocacy

Written by Casey Taft, PhD

Originally Published by Vegan Publishers

Nowadays you will see the term “effective” thrown around a lot in animal advocacy circles. Where I have seen it most often is among those who claim that it’s more effective to ask people to reduce their animal use rather than eliminate it. In other words, they claim it is not effective to ask others to go vegan.

As an example, this recent viral article by Tobias Leenaert begins with this premise:

Let us assume for a minute that asking anything less than veganism is immoral (and that veganism is the moral baseline). Let us, however, at the same time assume – for the sake of the argument – that asking “things less than veganism” leads to a higher reduction of animal suffering and killing. What, in that case, should we prioritize: the morality of our outreach, or its impact? In other words, should we – again assuming for a minute that we know for sure – use a less effective message because we believe it to be a more moral one?

The remainder of the article continues with this hypothetical premise that asking others to reduce their animal consumption is more effective than asking them to go vegan. The problem with this is that there is no actual published science (or even unpublished research that I’m aware of) indicating that this is more effective, just highly debatable speculation about why it may be more effective, which in my opinion runs counter to what clinical psychologists have long known about how to promote true behavior change.

There has also been a proliferation of very biased non-published, non-peer reviewed research that I have recently criticized as being pseudo-scientific. What’s most troubling about this research is that the conclusions tend to always be in line with the advocacy method of choice for most animal advocacy organizations, suggesting that we should ask others to simply “cut down” on their animal exploitation, even when the data does not support such conclusions. In fact, for one of these studies the data seemed to indicate the opposite—that promoting veganism may lead to the greatest long-term change.

There are also Facebook groups for “effective” animal advocacy. In these spaces, those who advocate the promotion of veganism as a social justice issue are regularly dismissed and those who favor treating veganism as a diet dominate and seem to mostly agree that we should be promoting reducetarianism. Again, there is no peer reviewed, published data to back such claims of “effectiveness.”

Other groups such as Animal Charity Evaluators supposedly help those who want to donate money to an animal advocacy group by picking out the organizations that are most “effective.” According to their mission statement: “ACE’s mission to find and advocate highly effective opportunities to improve the lives of animals drives our research program. We seek to understand a wide variety of animal advocacy activities at a basic level in order to identify those areas that are most promising. We then undertake deeper research into interventions and organizations within those areas, in order to identify which have the strongest evidence of efficiency.”

While this is a worthy goal, the problem is that there is no credible, peer-reviewed quantitative scientific evidence to indicate that any organization is more effective than any other. Thus, we run into a “garbage in, garbage out” scenario where the conclusions drawn are of questionable validity because the data used in the determination of effectiveness are nonexistent or faulty. Again, groups who promote veganism as an issue of social justice are not included in the list of top charities.

The picture that emerges from the above is that there seems to be this false claim of “effectiveness” among those attempting to push the notion that we should avoid asking others to go vegan. We need to be mindful of the source of such claims. If animal advocacy groups can claim that their method of reducetarian advocacy is “effective,” they can then engage in such activities that will not upset their donors. In other words, they can have their cake and eat it too. They can convince the animal advocacy world that they’re engaging in effective animal advocacy while also bringing in more and more donations from non-vegans who appreciate not being asked to go vegan.

I don’t claim to have any insider knowledge of the true reason for why there seems to be such misuse of the word “effectiveness” when referring to animal advocacy, but I can say for sure that it does not help the animals. If we want to make claims about effectiveness, we should be conducting randomized controlled clinical trials to truly determine the most effective methods. The resources and the research methodologies are there. We just need animal advocacy groups to put their money where their mouth is if they want to make claims of effectiveness. We should conduct scientifically honest and rigorous research into animal advocacy or stop talking about effectiveness altogether.

We must also keep in mind the limitations of our research methods. For example, it may be possible to demonstrate that one form of advocacy is associated with greater short-term reductions in meat and dairy consumption than another among some individuals, but that tells us nothing about whether these individuals go vegan long-term. Creating life-long vegans should be our end goal since this has the greatest potential for minimizing harm to animals. Moreover, if we continue to promote the notion that it is acceptable to exploit animals in moderation, we fail to challenge societal norms that make all forms of animal exploitation possible, ensuring that we will never see the end to all animal use.

This article was originally published on the Vegan Publishers website at:

Casey is co-owner of Vegan Publishers, Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, and staff psychologist at the National Center for PTSD in the VA Boston Healthcare System. He’s an internationally recognized researcher in the area of violence prevention, winning prestigious awards for his work from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has published over 100 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific reports, and has a book forthcoming on trauma-informed violence prevention, published by the American Psychological Association. 

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