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Prove it, or else: Unpopular views and the onus of evidence

October 13, 2014

One thing you’ll notice if you happen to hold an unpopular political view, is that other people who don’t share it will insist that the onus is on you to provide evidence. Despite the fact that I, not being a scientist or researcher, try my best to make hypothetical points and observations that anyone could reasonably make, it is always held that I must “prove” what I’m saying is true.

But you see, I’m not the one with the strong views. Not really. I’m only suggesting the possibility that there might be other ways of doing things. It is other people that respond with a firmness that suggests they have a God himself on their side. If I turn the tables, and ask these people to prove me wrong, they instantly puff up as though I’m questioning established general knowledge, or common sense itself.

The problem with general knowledge is that it’s open to misinterpretation and over-simplification. The problem with common sense is that it’s culturally variable. People will say that it is “common sense” that certain behaviours are inauspicious or that certain events are clearly proof of the will of some deity. Those who come from different cultures with different superstitions will snort at this, as it will appear to them common sense that this can’t be, while claiming their own set of beliefs to be the obvious, inarguable truth – when they are equally questionable. Tolerance education has taught us some grudging acceptance, but certain less established belief systems don’t enjoy the same kind of reverence. See a Christian arguing with someone who believes in horoscopes.

Our way of interpreting things has nothing to do with sense. It has far more to do with certainty and trust, and trust in certainty itself as proof of validity. We forget the origin of our belief, yet it solidifies and becomes immoveable, beyond the realm of doubt. This is how common misconceptions occur. Why are people so incredulous when you tell them that taste buds are no longer thought to be localised to different areas of the tongue, or that sushi refers to a style of cooked rice, not raw fish?

No one remembers where they learnt the information they hold as fact, and yet they hold it firmly, encased in concrete by the many years of affirmation by other people equally as wrong for the same reason, who got their misinformation from much the same set of sources without realising it. The problem with the wisdom of the crowd is that the crowd it not as dispersed as you might think, but rather close enough to get constantly caught up in a game of Chinese whispers, however much against their will.

This is even more the case when not dealing with solid, simple facts, but rather complex, multi-layered concepts that require careful thought and research. The blurring of the facts casts a long shadow over people’s perception of truth. Once, some friends of mine both looked at me scathingly when I said I didn’t understand what they meant by a “soul”, yet neither of them could define it for me. To them, a soul was a concept like air; you accept that it exists, even if you can’t see it, because people in the know tell you that it does. Though in their case, the people “in the know” happened to be vaguely religious parents, no more authoritative than my own not-remotely religious parents, who never talked to me about “souls” as though they were objects as identifiable and obviously extant as the coffee table.

Our tendency to cease to question complex ideas comes early. To understand air, you have to understand about mixtures, compounds, elements, particles and all manner of increasingly complicated matters. No wonder, then, that we stop wondering what air is, and accept it as the substance that allows us to breathe, when this is a scant – not to mention subjective – truth. We tend to define subjects by their immediate relevance to us, whatever us entails: in this case, living beings and earthlings; in other cases, humans only; in others still, specific cultures or groups.

In order to fully engage with the world, we must accept that the concepts we once understood to be simple, or true, may be based on facts that are simplified for our convenience, or may come from sources so far before our time our access to them is limited. Through word of mouth from established authority figures, we learn to accept truth as what is thought by other people. Books, we imagine when we are of school age, are written by people with ultimate knowledge. People who read books are regurgitating this knowledge and thus are always right. The understanding that books frequently disagree with each other comes much too late; by that time, the first book or first book-regurgitation has become our accepted truth. Everything else is alternative.

So, we are sceptical of disagreements where they arise, even if they come from a source just as well-established as the original source for our currently accepted theory. We forget that everything was once new, once untested, and treat the invader with dismissal bordering on derision. This behaviour reminds me of social animals buffing challenges to the established rule of the dominant male; any change in the order disrupts, so the interloper must prove himself beyond doubt before he is accepted.

So, it is always the newer of the ideas that is appraised suspiciously when it arrives, and pleas from the new order to question the old one are often met with shrugs or snorts. The old order works perfectly well for many people, so the new one seems surplus to requirement. New theories can require changes to behaviour, to thinking and living which are simply not welcome.

Thus it is always the demand of people who I talk to about veganism that I prove that, say, raising a child vegan probably isn’t that harmful to them. There’s no doubt that there are not enough vegan children in the country to run a study with a proper sample. On top of that, our understanding of health is incomplete. A qualitative (hence far more expensive and difficult) or controlled study would be required in order to find out the differences. Since children have different genes, diets and preferences, financial situations and different environments in other ways too numerous to count, I suggest it is nigh on impossible at the current time to draw any certain conclusions.

This automatically means that there is equally no proof that a vegan diet is bad for children. Since “X is Bad for You” is such a bald statement, I suggest that it is this statement that needs to be conclusively proved, or abandoned completely. As I said in my “10 Reasons” list, there is a cultural arrogance in suggesting that vegetable based diets are Bad for You. Other cultures seem to get on all right with it. They do not die of malnutrition. By and large, malnourished people are those who barely ever eat, or eat very little of nutritional value. In other words, the world’s poorest, or people with eating disorders. Neither set is getting sick because they’re eating only vegetables.

The biggest killers of the world other than starvation and malnutrition are diseases that are not nutrition-related. Far more people die of malaria and cholera than scurvy or rickets. Indeed, rickets, a disease caused by calcium deficiency, is supposed to be counteracted by drinking milk; yet, dairy intolerant people do not tend to get it, meaning there are other ways in which it can be averted. Those who laud animal proteins may not be recognising that a decent quantity of food will automatically contain necessary nutrients without one necessarily having to go out of one’s way to acquire them. We focus too heavily on the vitamins and minerals we need only in traces and can get from all manner of sources, not attributing enough importance to calories – the main gain of food.

People in richer societies tend to undervalue or even fear calories, forgetting that the fact that we can obtain a sufficient quantity of food keeps us from malnourishment more than any ability to locate trace elements like iron or zinc. Indeed, there are people alive who, for various reasons, haven’t been able to bring themselves to eat anything but crisps since childhood – and while they may not have the nicest complexions, seem to have enough energy and haven’t dropped dead of any disease. No doubt medicines and money are inextricable factors of health in a developed society.

Those who tell me that not eating animal protein is Bad for You don’t ever seem to be able to tell me what will happen as a result. If you’re going to claim it, you should be able to say what exactly will go wrong, otherwise it’s nothing but a superstition. If the problem is trace elements, like B12, supplements will deal with it. To my mind, supplements are both an elegant and more civilised way of ensuring the best possible nutrition. Some people treat this idea like its akin to cheating on a test, like taking supplements is an insult to food. Disregarding the fact that that’s the biggest load of nonsense I’ve ever heard, it’s so obviously irrational, this view shows a lack of awareness about the extent to which our processed foods (vegetable and animal) are fortified with vitamins not naturally found in the ingredients.

Moreover, some omnivores, due to various medical conditions, have no choice but to take these supplements. Once again, the complexities of health in relation to individual differences puts people in the same society on different footing. We cannot all be the same level of health by eating the same food, so we should attempt to eat ethically, and make adjustments in accordance to our needs. In short, our personal needs should come second – the health of one’s own children, by the way, counts as personal.

The idea that we must all eat the same thing to be equally healthy is ludicrous. We have barely scratched the surface of age, race and sex differences, or differences occurring in indigenous people of different climates and ecosystems – less studied, as they are less accessible. The more we learn about nutrition, the less we seem to know, and the better we know not to generalise. Deaths do occur more in poorer countries where there is little meat per person, but like many connections, this could so easily be incidental – they also do not have our modern medical interventions, or the money to buy them. Mindful of the diseases that most often kill children (malaria), I predict that this is a far greater factor in health. It would be impossible, with the huge differences in wealth between civilisations, to make any clear observations about the affect of diet only on health.

One clear conclusion that we can draw is that Britain and America do not have the healthiest possible diet. As far as one ever accepts scientific conclusions, one should accept that there are many that observe a correlation between increases in heart disease and bowel cancer with consuming too much saturated fat. It’s downright audacious of us to suggest that our society, heavy on the animal protein that is the biggest provider of saturated fat, is the best and healthiest diet for everyone worldwide. As far as I can tell, we are healthy(ish) in spite of our eating habits, not because of them.

Rich societies that prefer less red meat and more fish tend to have fewer incidences of the above diseases. It may not be the fish that is making them healthier, but rather the comparative lack of red meat. Similarly, societies that don’t eat much fish do not appear to be in mortal peril. Clearly, the reduced consumption of either food is not greatly detracting from anyone’s health. Following this, is there any reason to imagine that cutting either out completely ought to have catastrophic effects?

There may be parts of meat and fish that contain traces of substances which are Good for You. But, all elements found in animals are found elsewhere, since every living thing is a chemical formula made up of elements of the earth. In time, it may be possible to construct “animal” protein from something other than living beings. I vaguely observe that people are not dropping dead like flies wherever they don’t eat red meat, so I suspect we wouldn’t need to construct a great deal of whatever it is that we (might) need from red meat in order to optimise health.

I have spoken about optimising health and I want to point out I don’t have much care for it as a concept. As the smokers say: “You have to die of something.” [Though I’d certainly prefer it wasn’t lung cancer]. Trying to eke out more uncertain years of arthritis and other currently uncomfortable and incurable conditions doesn’t seem like much of an life’s aim; trying to avoid them via of all sorts of rituals when there is no promise of success doesn’t seem like much of a life.

Where there is a clear correlation between certain habits and painful death, you would be a fool not to take caution, but where there is mass uncertainty and the effect is comparatively trivial, I can’t see the point in pulling muscles trying to keep up with the ever-changing science. If not eating meat doesn’t kill you within a few short years, I can’t say I see much point making a fuss about its possible health disadvantages. Until we have cured more or less everything (by which time, we’ll have all the supplements and medications we need to sort out various inadequacies in our dietary choices), it strikes me as a mad preoccupation.

In a world of cancer and car crashes and Alzheimer’s disease, finicky aspects of nutrition couldn’t be more irrelevant. There is no one serious disease known to afflict a child raised vegan. We are scrabbling around after the concept of health like its Enlightenment, rather than an inexact and personal science no one knows very much about. As I’ve indicated, children all over the world live through far worse than *shock* being able to eat more vegetables and grains than they will ever want or need.

Since we started eating meat for nearly every meal, we’ve imagined that not eating it will lead to some sort of tentacle-sprouting illness, even though simply getting enough to eat puts us at a huge advantage. If our children won’t die or suffer obvious disability or illness within a measurable length of time from their birth as a clear and direct result of having been raised on a vegan diet, then what’s left is other less tangible matters of health, and thus not worth fretting about; the world is full of furious predictions and doom prophecies about the long-term dangers of eating satsumas. I think we would all be happier if we left that stuff to those clever people who can define the term “compound” without having to use peas and carrots as an illustration.

Those less tangible matters include aspects of health defined by a great deal more than diet, and certainly more than meat versus vegetable diets. Energy levels can be affected by weight, allergies and lung capacity; speed of growth is affected by genes; and concentration is affected by sugar intake, both the timing and the regularity. Until we know what causes everything and systematically solved every problem one by one, enough to isolate clear cause and effect, making a fuss over the effect of an absence of animal proteins is premature. In the hope of living a more ethical life, running the risk that your child might not be as tall as other children isn’t such big a deal.

Moreover, vegetarianism has been around for some time and has not yet been proven detrimental to health. Yes, I have known anaemic vegetarians – they lived entirely off jacket potatoes and beans. I’ve known overweight vegetarians – who, unable to cook, smothered their every meal with cheese and butter to improve the flavour. What they had in common is a bad diet, which they needn’t have had. They could have eaten better and remained vegetarian with more effort and better knowledge of food. As it happens, they share this problem with many people in our society, most of whom are meat eaters. The problems experienced may not be quite the same – meat eaters are not usually anaemic – but this doesn’t suggest overall worse health, since the long term effects are unpredictable and anaemia is not known for being deadly in the way that heart disease is.

There has not been any great scare that all vegetarians are on Death’s door, and since there’s a good history hyperbolic objections to vegetarianism, I will have to conclude that there are no significant problems. If there has not been anything inherently damaging about vegetarianism, there’s no reason to imagine there’s any greater problem with veganism, which is subject to the same (and more) hyperbolic objections.

Now, to the final and most important point. The fact is, it doesn’t much matter if children need animal protein: we can’t keep on taking it. The environment can’t sustain it and animal agriculture can’t sustain all living people, especially with the promise of huge population increase. As mammals, we are supposed to drink our mother’s milk, and who knows how long for – perhaps we wean too early. No sensible vegan is against mother’s or voluntarily given human milk, so if it turns out veganism will tragically kill us all (it won’t) then I say Bring on the Breasts.

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From → Animal Rights

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