Skepticism & Values: Vegan vs Living Vegan

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about skepticism and social justice and now how I wondered if people who wanted to focus on skepticism weren’t just bored with skepticism. Most people understood what I was getting at, but a few didn’t. I got into a little comment discussion with one such person, about mixing skepticism and values. At one point I said the following:

…I’m not aware of any double blind test to “prove” the ethics of veganism…

The guy on the other side responded with:

Then I’m sorry but to me you’re engaged in special pleading.
Veganism would have a great affect on the entire agricultural industry…I’m sorry but you’re everything that bothers me about the skeptical movement.

Now, here we have a case where I was surely not asking for special pleading, I was simply saying I was unaware of any way prove whether the ethics of veganism were true. He replied that we could measure the effects of veganism on the agricultural industry. You could take it a step further too, and see the effects on greenhouse gas emissions, health (I’m not implying there is an effect, but you could measure the changes or lack of changes), etc. So it appears to me we each had two different ideas about what constitutes veganism. This got me thinking and I will now attempt to outline a new approach for thinking about veganism. This may or may not apply to other values/ethics.

If you’re a vegan, and you’ve read a lot of literature on veganism, I think you might agree with me that it’s hard to pin down what veganism really is. Large groups of people are vegans for different reasons with different goals. Some goals make it harder to stay vegan, some might make it easier.

So first, let’s state one thing straight up: Living vegan, the act of not consuming or using any product that comes from an animal, is an action that can be measured (I realize I’m simplifying this). It may not be practical to measure the effects of one single vegan, but in aggregate I’m confident it’s possible to make predictions and perform tests to see the effects. We can conduct tests to see if vegans live longer or shorter, have more or less heart attacks, or are more or less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Living vegan, though, is not necessarily the same as being vegan. The above commenter, who said I was asking for special pleading, was really only looking at “living vegan”.

So what is “being vegan”? This part gets much more complicated, and I will perhaps dance to close to the line of “No true Scotsman.” To counteract that, I will say up front that I’m not sure what a “true vegan” really is.

Some vegans come to veganism for health reasons. This is perhaps one of the weakest reasons to become a vegan, if your goals are better health. You don’t need to be vegan to eat healthy, and a vegan diet isn’t necessarily healthy. I’m thinking about making a cheeseburger calzone: does that sound healthy?

There are those that become vegan because of a fear of the modern industrialism of food production. They want to eat organic, or some times raw. Their goals are usually a combination of wanting better health and living a more back to nature kind of life. These kind of vegans often perplex me because I’m not sure I understand their goals. They often run smack into the naturalistic fallacy.

Others become vegans out of the rights for animals. Some, like myself, start out as health vegans, and move to be an animal rights vegan. I have looked at the science, I’ve looked into the history of animal subjugation, and I’ve come to the conclusion that animals deserve the same rights and respect we give (or should give) to all humans.

Back to the commenter I was having a discussion, how would you prove this? I still am unaware of anyway to “prove” something like this.

So which of these different kinds of vegans are truly vegan? Eh, I don’t know. I wouldn’t even know where to start. My friend Dave has written a great post on similar ground, and you should read his blog period. I outlined just three kind of vegans, but there are more for sure, as he shows. There are a lot of problems, as Dave shows, with all that the vegan movement tries to encompass, so much so, that it’s almost a certainty that people will fall in and out of veganism as their goals change.

So where does this leave me? Well, I often describe myself as “vegan”, but perhaps a better description would be “living vegan for animal rights” or something along those lines. It outlines my actions and describes why. It illustrates what actions I take that can be measured, and shows my values which are the result of skepticism.

I would love to hear your views so please comment down below! This line of thinking is a work in progress so any and all input is welcome.

Skeptic History: Past and Present

Two of the most inspiring presentations I saw at TAM2013 were done by Daniel Loxton and Susan Gerbic. Daniel did his presentation on skeptic history and Susan was part of a crowdsourcing workshop. Both of these presentations have had me thinking for weeks on skeptic history and the skeptic present. Things have been bouncing around in my head for a while.

First, in Daniels presentation, I was struck by how much skeptic history there is and how much is forgotten. It is also striking how so may skeptics, well, “skeptics” are outwardly scornful of the past. The attitude that because the skeptic history was dominated by white men of advanced age, it’s worthless or tainted, is disappointing. I don’t say that because I’m a white male of middle age. I say this because we can’t change the past, and no one can deny the problems of the past. The answer, though, is to add to and build off the lessons of the past.

Daniel also showed how much skeptic history, and this might surprise you, is not contained on blogs. That’s right. There is information, perspective, scholarship, and lessons to be learned in these things called books. Often these books are available in modern e-book format, but a lot of times you actually have to go to a library, a building that contains lots of books. I did a recent scan of some of the more controversial “skeptic” blogs, focusing on those that I feel are hostile to the past. I noticed that few if any books are ever reviewed, much less referenced. I’m guessing that for a lot of people, exposure to skepticism only runs blog deep.

Susan Gerbic is a hurricane of skeptic energy. You cannot hear her speak and not get jazzed up to do something. She runs the Guerrilla Skepticism group who goes on Wikipedia and gets the skepticism going on high traffic pages. It’s a fantastic project. It’s one I wish to help with once I clear out some time and get my writing skills up to snuff.

I consider what Susan is doing as writing down the skeptic history as it happens. Living figures have their biographies updated. People like Sylvia Browne have their pages updated with facts that her fans would never add. Because Wikipedia keeps track of edits, we also now have a living history of the work that goes into keeping articles in shape. The history is right there! She’s making it happen now on the biggest educational resource on the internet.

I wrote a recent post about bringing back the blog, and I want to reiterate how important it is for skeptics to not keep all their ideas in discussions in silos. Let’s email each other, and keep it forever. Let’s maintain our own blogs so our ideas are searchable, cacheable, and public. Let’s not limit all our interactions to tweets that fall down the memory hole. In twenty years ago, let’s hope that Danial Loxton isn’t doing a skeptic history presentation at TAM2033 talking about what’s been lost in the last twenty years.

Let’s Bring Back the Blog!

In my thirty days away from social networking, my only direct way to express myself was this blog. I may or may not have cheated with my posts being auto-shared to various social networks, but didn’t see anything that was commented on or retweeted until now. So, what do I do now, now that I’m back on the social networks?

I plan to continue to blog. I started to feel really comfortable with the format again, and after years of writer’s block, it seemed that things started to flow again. When I was young, I used to think about being a writer. When I was a teenager, filled with stereotypical teenage angst, I actually was a good fiction writer. Happiness and success has dulled my fiction writing skills somewhat. Blog writing, for some reason, never developed as a skill. I just would sit at the screen, type a couple sentences, and then be off to another browser tab “researching”.

Now that I’ve broken some of the bad habits I had before, by cutting myself off from the social networks, I still seem to be able to sit down and write. Even with the occasional time spent on Twitter or Google+ (I still loath the Facebook website). I still believe that we are losing a lot of good skeptical content to the social network silos. It is true, and certainly true for the last thirty days it turns out, that we are also losing a lot of garbage to the social network silos. It’s probably a good thing that most of our tweets and status updates are disappearing.

However, let me throw this out. A certain prominent blogger decided it was ethically okay to publish serious accusations with little to know evidence or vetting. As far as I know, this post still remains up. Think about the impact that post has had, versus if it had only been a tweet or a status update. It would be just as serious and unethical, but since it’s a post, it’s more permanent and will be picked up by more search engines.

Blog posts work! Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad, but they work! I really, really want to see more skeptical blogging, more long form skepticism, and more focus on scholarship rather than gossip. Some great examples of what I’m talking about are Doubtful News and the Skeptic Blog. Each is an example of well written skepticism that maintains a record and a search set of data for search engines.

So let’s do it! Let’s bring the blog back! Fill my Feedly Skeptics category with hundreds of new blogs!

Saying Goodbye to Ralphie Boy & Kaylee Baby

The hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make was the night I had to call Kelly to say that Kaylee was in chronic renal failure. The second hardest call I’ve ever had to make was just eight days earlier when I had to call Kelly to say Ralphie was in kidney failure. Going into the end of April of 2013, we had seven dogs, running around the house. By the end of May of 2013, our two oldest dogs had passed away, within twelve days of each other.

Kelly has done an amazing writeup of how it all unfolded. I warn you, that it is both long and emotional. For me, who lived it, it’s also touching and somewhat cathartic.

There is no way to adequately write in words how much Ralphie meant to me, to us. If things had not worked out with me and Ralphie, things would not have worked out with Kelly and I. I would not be married, I wouldn’t have the house I do, and I wouldn’t be surrounded by dogs and a cat, all who love us and brighten my day. Ralphie felt like a constant in our lives. We knew he was getting older. He’d lost one eye to a benign tumor, he had hypothyroidism but even close the end, he was pretty active. He lived a full life right up until his last week. He was closer to sixteen than fifteen when he passed, and I think he enjoyed his life almost every single day. Even his last few days were filled with him going on walks and eating lots of food.

If we’d never adopted Ralphie, we’d never have adopted Kaylee. Kaylee is the toughest being I’ve ever seen. She was abandoned by her previous guardians, and had the worst teeth you’ll ever see in a dog. She lived with abscesses and busted roots for years, that must have caused her pain. Her last few years, she suffered from a heart murmur, that could have turned serious at any time. In her final week, she was suffering from kidney failure, a disc problem in her back, and probably a snake bite. We found out she had spleen cancer. Finally, some sort of aneurysm was what finally led her down the path to passing away. During all this, she only showed signs of illness at the very end. We gave her the best gift I hope we could ever give a dog in her circumstances: we gave her the chance to pass away as an old dog.

We still have five other dogs to take care of. It sounds like a lot of dogs, but after having seven it seems like nothing. Ralphie and Kaylee combined weighed less than thirty-five pounds, but they sure filled up this big house of ours. I told Kelly a few weeks ago, that the rest of the dogs feel like they’ve been orphaned. It still feels like that.

Peedee, the second dog we adopted and now the new oldest, has taken on a lot of Kaylee’s affectations. He now likes to spend hours outside at night poking around the yard, just like Kaylee did. He wants to lick every dish after we’re done with them, just like Kaylee did. I think he misses Ralphie too.

O-Ren seems clingier to Kelly. She hates to be alone. Jayne, who we adopted along side Kaylee, seems a little older to me, like this experience has hardened her a little. Mags and Finnick, the newest dogs in our house, seem the most unaffected. Mags, however, now considers it her house. She tries to rule it all, all twelve pounds of her.

It’s been three months, and we’re doing okay. We’ve been able to move forward in our lives, laughing and crying at times. The house still feels a little empty, but with lots of pictures of Ralphie and Kaylee everywhere, I still feel they are part of the house. I don’t mean that in a spiritual way, but strictly from a memory point of view.

We were forever changed when Ralphie and Kaylee came into our lives, and we are forever changed now that they have left us. I know I’m a better person for having known them. To me, the pain we have felt has been worth it, knowing we gave them a good life. There will be new dogs in the future, dogs we adopt or dogs we foster, and it will be in large part due to knowing Ralphie and Kaylee. That’s how we pay tribute and thank them.

Thank you Ralphie. Thank you Kaylee.

On Not Speaking Out

I’ve been blogging more and getting more reach than usual. A lot of people who’ve read my recent entries have never heard of me, or know me. Few know where I’m coming from. I recently received the following email from a stranger who took issue with some of my articles.

Why are you writing about all this crap? Who cares, ther are
more important things to write about with what’s going on

I assume by “what’s going on” he means the recent accusations and such going back and forth in the skeptic community, which I’ve made almost no public comment on. After reading Wendy Hughes’ post post from yesterday and listening to the last episode of Strange Frequencies Radio, I see people who are also cautious with what little real information is out there. They inspired me to speak up a little here.

It comes down to this. If you’re like me, you’re not in the know. You don’t get the anonymous emails. You haven’t heard the whispers at conferences because there is no reason for anyone to tell you. You’re not in a position to vouch, and all the people who do the vouching, who’s vouching for them? I’m not one of the cool kids. I literally have almost nothing to go on to make an informed opinion.

So I don’t know. I really don’t. I have feelings and intuitions, but those are based on really scant information. Some day I might be in a position to know more, but that’s unlikely. Maybe in the future more information will come out and I can form better opinions. This isn’t “hyperskepticism”, either, whatever that is supposed to mean.

One of the best answers a skeptic can give to a question is “I don’t know”. And that’s where I am. I don’t feel the need to pick a side, to join a team, or to be in the good graces of anyone. I just want to get back to work.

If you didn’t catch Bob Blaskiewicz’s great post on What’s Right with Skepticism?, you should. It’s a great summary of all the good that’s happening with skepticism, and it doesn’t involve any large scale organizations for the most part. On this, I will indeed speak out. Great skepticism is happening, right now, and it doesn’t matter what some random blog post tells you. But don’t take this random blog post’s word for it, check it out for yourself!

Why I’m Not Celebrating My Birthday

My birthday is August 20th, a birthday I share with people ranging from Robert Plant, to Mark Langston, to Ron Paul, to Misha Collins. I’m inching closer to forty, and a lot of people stop celebrating birthdays as they get older. I already started that last year when I had a pretty low key birthday. However, this year the reason is a sadder one.

Ralphie passed away on 5/9/2013. It was my wife’s birthday. My wife may always associate her birthday with Ralphie’s passing, and so when I think of our birthdays, I think of Ralphie too. In addition to that, how I can celebrate my birthday knowing that Kelly’s is forever a reminder of sadness?

It’s been over three months and I still catch myself expecting to hear his bark, to see him trotting around the yard, or to see him curled up and snoring in the bent of the couch. Maybe I’ll feel differently next year, or maybe two years from now. With the number of animals we’ve had over the years (two cats, seven dogs, three of them have passed on), the odds of one of their passings coinciding with a significant date is not that high.

So on Tuesday, when I wake up to being a year older, I’ll treat it like any other day. I’ll go to work, I’ll do yoga, I’ll pet the dogs, and I’ll miss Ralphie, Kaylee and Ozzy. Just another day.

Knowing the Right Audience for Skepticism

The smartest thing I’ve heard in the last couple weeks was from Sharon Hill of Doubtful News. I’m slightly paraphrasing here but she said “I’ve decided that the public is the audience”. Sharon’s website focuses on bringing a skeptical eye to news stories of the strange and adding rational commentary. Two people I know personally were swayed by her website to look at stories differently, two people who are not part of the skeptical movement, but simply the public.

She’s right and it’s something a lot of us forget when we work on our own skeptic projects. Let me illustrate how I’ve forgotten and been dumb. With the advent of the internet and social media, it’s easier than ever to meet and greet the big name skeptics that have influenced you. I’ve gotten to shake the hand of James Randi, interview Michael Shermer, and be recognized by Blake Smith at TAM without having to introduce myself. It seems like such a small thing, but my first night of TAM I rode in an elevator with Sharon as I was crashing after a long day, and she was checking in. She recognized me and said hello, again, without me having to introduce myself. My memory beyond that is hazy as I was beat at that point, but you get the picture. We all get a thrill at knowing the big names.

Sometimes, and often, and even in my case, this leads to a desire to become known only to the community and work your way up the popularity latter (I don’t mean this in a high school popular manner). You worry about who’s following you on Twitter, you love it when someone accepts your friend request on Facebook, and man, if someone ever retweets you to their several thousand followers, wow, time for a drink! The closest I ever came to this is in 2012 when it’s very possible Richard Dawkins read a blog post I wrote. Greta Christina tweeted at him a post I wrote, and his later tweets seem to indicate he did read it. I couldn’t help but check the server logs for UK hits, and I did have them.

But forget about the choir for a second, isn’t it really about the non-skeptic public? Sharon is dead on here. Her audience is the public, and I bet for most of us it should be too.

I’m working on Skeptunes which so far I’ve primarily only advertised to other skeptics. When asked by a TSA agent about my Skeptunes tee-shirt I wasn’t quite ready to explain to a non-skeptic. When I got to talk to Kevin Smith(sorry, totally name dropping here) and he asked about Skeptunes I still wasn’t ready with my pitch, though I did nail the skeptic elevator pitch.

I should have been ready. I should be passing the cards out to the public. I should be leaving these cards in magazines at the dentist. The audience for Skeptunes isn’t the choir, the extremely disjointed in-fighting choir. It’s the public. That’s who will benefit most from the Skeptics Guide. That’s who will learn the most from the Tetrapod Zoology podcast.

Humans are sometimes so obsessed with gaining status within their own community, they forget the real goals. In-group, out-group behavior takes over. Thankfully, though, we have smart people like Sharon who can give us a kick in the right direction.