Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last week, you have seen the new systematic review of the existing evidence concerning the health effects and dietary guidelines surrounding red meat and processed meats. Without getting into the gory details, the review evaluates of the quality of the evidence that had guided previous dietary recommendations to reduce or eliminate red and processed meats. It turns out that most of the evidence is of low quality; i.e., they are primarily observational studies which, by design, cannot show causation and are replete with confounding variables. The authors conclude that the evidence isn’t strong enough to make recommendations either way and so people should just continue eating however they’re eating. (For a good review of the review go here).
When a review, meta-analysis, or study contradicts the main trend in the literature, the correct attitude is skepticism. However, after reading the review and several reviews of the reviews by credible scientists, I think the conclusions are worth taking seriously. The quality of the evidence that supported past guidelines was weak and doesn’t offer a firm foundation for recommendations one way or the other.
If there is an uncontroversial conclusion in nutritional science it’s that the greater the proportion of fruits and vegetables in one’s diet, the better. If there’s any downside to eating meat it probably comes from the trade-offs that occur with fruits and vegetables. High meat consumption usually means that fruits and veggies are a smaller proportion of your diet (you can only stuff so much food in your face). An implication of the review is that a healthful diet can contain meat as a side-dish but probably not as the main dish.
The online reception to the review was as predictable as someone commenting “BACON” on a vegan thread. Meat-eaters predictably gleefully reposted it, taking this review to be the One True Scientific Paper (while having completely ignored previous studies and reviews that had concluded the opposite). Animal rights proponents filled the internet’s comment section, desperately searching for flaws in the methodology and conflicts of interests.
Animal rights proponents have been going about this all wrong. Let me qualify that last statement. I’m referring to the current general public-facing online reaction of the animal rights community—not the philosophical literature. Among other things, they hung their moral case on contentious empirical facts. This is a losing strategy. As we should all know by now, empirical conclusions get overturned all the time in science, and especially in nutritional science.
It’s odd to see so many animal rights proponents combing through the review, grasping at straws in hopes of undermining the review. What if yet another high quality review comes out and concludes the same thing as this one? Then what? We all know that moral arguments demand moral premises. So, who cares whether there are mild health effects either way?
But it’s actually worse than that. We undermine the credibility of the animal rights cause when we cling to weak science to make our case. Let the science fall where it may. Our position shouldn’t depend on it (I’ll qualify this later). And it certainly shouldn’t depend on weak science.
This brings me to my next point. Why do animal rights proponents really cling to the hope that the empirical literature shows ill health effects for eating meat? Because we (I include myself here) want to make the prudential argument. We want to say, “you shouldn’t eat meat because it’s bad for you.” The not-too-unreasonable assumption is that many people care a lot more about themselves than anything else, especially out-of-sight farm animal welfare. We can avoid the hard work of the moral argument (and yes, it is hard work when engaging online) by offering the prudential argument instead.
But again this is a losing strategy. The moment the science flips, so does the prudential argument. And even if that weren’t the case, although people care about themselves a lot, they aren’t purely rarely rational agents. They gladly trade their long-term health for a hamburger or [insert your favorite self-destructive habit] today.
Finally, the other problem with the prudential argument is that we’re being disingenuous. None of us really think it’s the prudential argument that matters for animal welfare and rights. That’s not why any of us care about animal welfare and rights.
So here’s my suggestion. In public discourse, we animal rights proponents need to return to our roots. Concern for animal welfare and rights is grounded in a moral argument—it’s not empirical and it’s not prudential. To be sure, there are some necessary empirical premises such as the fact that certain practices cause unnecessary suffering and harm to animals. However, these empirical premises are not nearly as controversial or ephemeral as the shifting nutritional science we’re trying to cling to. And as for the moral premises? Most people already accept them. Our job is to help people see their true implications through the fog of personal advantage, culture, and socialization. Our animal friends are depending on us.