Vegan eatery places ban on dairy in baby formula – is it effective?

The short answer – I have no idea. And you probably don’t either.

The Spanish vegan restaurant El Vergel placed the ban recently, and reportedly asks mothers feeding their babies with cows milk, including in formula, to stop or leave. This has lead to some mothers feeling humiliated, and leaving a negative review.

This is already a very charged debate in my social circles. People are arguing whether it is effective or not, with some very strong opinions in both directions. So far, none really seem that backed by evidence. I would just encourage you all to forget all of your predispositions right now, and think objectively about what is most effective here.

Ultimately, we want to improve the lives of humans and animals. We should only care whether humans get angry at something insofar as it effects future wellbeing of humans and animals. Angering humans in and of itself is not necessarily wrong.

Also consider steelmanning (a super useful technique) the opposite side of the debate from what you think. What are the pros and cons of each side? I don’t think this is being done enough here.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea how effective this is. I simply have next to no information and don’t know enough about human psychology to know whether the positives outweigh the negatives. I do want to list what I think are some pros and cons, though, to get this flowing in a constructive direction. I think these are all accurate, but note I don’t know what the magnitude of their effect is.

Pros

  • Gets parents people thinking about the issue
  • Might cause people to realise cognitive dissonance
  • Media attention on animal treatment in dairy industry

    Cons

  • Might turn people off veganism
  • Might reinforce the belief that animals are less capable of experiencing suffering (some very weak evidence for this)
  • Unwanted negative media attention
  • Might lose non-vegan customers who otherwise would be eating vegan food
  • Might lose vegan customers who disagree with this

Misconceptions about clean meat

I’ve seen a lot of misinformation about clean meat (also known as cellular agriculture or ‘lab meat’) and want to try and clear some of this up. I first just want to highlight this podcast interview of Our Hen House with Christie Lagally, scientist at the Good Food Institute, which covers much of the basic science and implications of clean meat. In particular, it covers many common misconceptions, and I’ll refer back to it.

First, a definition – According to New Harvest, cellular agriculture isthe production of agricultural products from cell cultures“. It is currently produced primarily by using fetal bovine serum (from my understanding, purchased from farmers when a pregnant female cow has been slaughtered), but can in theory be produced entirely from plants, without any animal intervention whatsoever. As Christie Lagally says in the Our Hen House podcast, if clean meat is ever to replace a large percentage of traditional agriculture (animal farming), this has to be the case. It is simply not feasible to mass produce clean meat using fetal bovine serum.

Yes, it is not ideal that we are currently using fetal bovine serum, and this is the crux of why many animal advocates oppose clean meat. But I would argue they are missing the bigger picture. For arguably a very small involvement in animal agriculture, we have the opportunity to reduce a vast amount of animal suffering. If clean meat replaces even just 1% of meat demand globally, it will have been worth it.

It is intriguing that most vegans are (admittedly sometimes without realising) ok with some participation in animal exploitation if it leads to better outcomes. For example, most car tyres are not vegan. Yet I still utilise vehicular transport. I, and many others, argue that the small amount of animal products used in this way is outweighed by the good that we do elsewhere because we are able to get around easily. You probably wouldn’t be a very good animal advocate if you had to walk everywhere. I would argue that clean meat is just another form of this argument, except with near limitless upside (it could revolutionise the food system), and it’s temporary. It’s because of this upside that I donated $60,000 AUD to the Good Food Institute last year (So perhaps you could say I’m biased? I would argue the opposite, I thought carefully about the arguments for and against and decided to donate as a result.).

This isn’t to say that I don’t think there are some potential downsides to clean meat. I do wonder if the looming possibility of commercially available clean meat might cause some near-veg*ns to not make the transition, because they figure they can hold out for clean meat. I’ve never seen an analysis of this, but it certainly seems plausible.

This brings me to an engagement I had via email with Trisha Roberts, host of the Vegan Trove podcast. In an online discussion about the pros and cons of clean meat, someone directed me to her podcast on the topic. If you don’t want to be biased by my summary, I suggest you listen first.

In short, I was pretty blown away. Not only was much of the material misleading, some of it was just blatantly incorrect. I sent Trisha an email addressing my concerns, so I’ll just copy that below.

Hi Vegantrove,

I just heard your two part podcast from 2016 titled ‘Clean meat’: http://www.vegantrove.com/2016/07/05/vegan-trove-0035pt1/

I thought it raised some good points, but I’d just like to point out some misleading comments.

You spoke about how GFI is a business which is publicly listed and can be bought and controlled by the likes of Monsanto. I’m unsure where you got this impression from, as GFI is a non-profit and can’t be bought.

You also made it sound like the way clean meat is produced today is the way it always will be produced. This is likely misleading, because clean meat companies recognise that the only way to get scale with this is to be able to develop the culture entirely from plants, with no animal involvement whatsoever. This is not only theoretically possible, but similar work has already been achieved.

You criticise Bruce Freidrich et al for putting money into clean meat instead of vegan advocacy, but I think this misses the point. Bruce did that because he thinks it’s a more effective way of reducing suffering than vegan advocacy. E.g. there are many people in the world who wouldn’t be convinced by veganism, but many of them might switch to clean meat. I think this issue comes down to a difference in ethical framework rather than any factual disagreement. I understand that you approach animal ethics from a deontologist/abolitionist perspective, while Freidrich and many others approach it from a consequentialist perspective. If you hold different ethical views, you will of course come up with different answers for what we ought to do.

I hope this shed some light on the material you discussed in the podcast. I also hope you will consider issuing a correction. The comments that GFI is a business are particularly damaging, and entirely false.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want to discuss this at all.

Best,

Michael

I was particularly distressed by how she claimed GFI was a business, and went on about this at length. I have no idea where she could possibly have gotten this idea from. She also spoke at length about a possible future world where we all had a local chicken or pig or cow that we could harvest cells from and grow them in a culture whenever we wanted food. As I said above, this is unrealistic and not feasible. If people think this world really is the future of clean meat, I can see why people would reject it.

Trisha responded with a rather detailed email of her own. I’ve asked her for permission to share part or all of it here, as I think it highlights her views succinctly, but she declined, so I will briefly cover them here.

First, she didn’t address my concern about her claims that GFI is a business that could be bought out by Monsanto and used for evil. That point was either missed or ignored.

She raises a good point that even clean meat would likely be unhealthy, so why should we promote something unhealthy? This is a fair point, but human health seems to be a distraction here. By sheer scale, the primary issue at hand is the 70 odd billion land animals (plus many more marine animals) farmed for food each year. Further, why should this be any different from promoting vegan junk food to help get people across the line?

She goes on to reiterate many of her points, but does manage to find the time to criticise the work that Santos does, an energy company in Australia that is involved in hydraulic fracturing. I used to work for Santos. At first I was confused because I never mentioned Santos or fracking. I’m guessing she looked me up, saw that I used to work for Santos, and used the opportunity to criticise me for that. This is somewhat of a distraction, but I do find it amusing that she first said she had little time to respond, but had time to look me up and use my previous line of work as a talking point.

I think a very large part of the debate here is not about scientific facts, but about disagreement on the correct moral framework. It seems the case that those who reject clean meat do so because it involves animal exploitation, however small an amount, in the short term, and no amount of potential impact in the future could justify that. As a utilitarian, I think this is a fairly poor way to make ethical choices in this world, but that’s a discussion for another time.

At the very least, I would like to encourage people to keep differing ethical frameworks in mind when they discuss this issue. It rarely seems acknowledged, but if someone has a different ethical framework to you, they will almost certainly come up with a different answer to you on what we ought to do.

Frack Free Future is misleading and incorrect on fracking

Recently, Frack Free Future put out a video about the effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Western Australia. The video was presented by former politician Carmen Lawrence. You can watch the video here, but in short, it was inherently misleading, and quite factually incorrect. I provided some information, and asked Frack Free Future to issue a correction/apology, however haven’t heard a response.

Frankly, I’m not too surprised. I’ve said this before, but with a name like ‘Frack Free Future’, they have already played their hand. They are not interested in the science of the matter, they have already decided that they want a future without fracking regardless of what the science ever says about its safety and benefits.

I’ve copied my comments below for your reading pleasure. Watch the video first for full effect.


I don’t know the specifics of this operation, but this was so oversimplified as to be totally inaccurate and misrepresentative of gas extraction. This is disappointing by Prof Lawrence and Frack Free Future. I hope both consider apologising to the public. Here are some things to keep in mind:

* Minor – You don’t ‘mine’ for gas, saying that highlights misunderstanding. But we can let that slight mistake go.

* “This is how companies are intending to mine for gas” – Mining execs are not actively planning to release gas in to the water table.

* Quick geology lesson – Sedimentary rocks are made up of many layers. Some of these layers are permeable, meaning they have spaces that liquid and gas can flow through. Some of these layers are impermeable, meaning that fluid and gas can’t flow through.
The coal layers are permeable. They are covered by a layer of impermeable rock in between it and the watertable, which is another layer of permeable rock with water. It is because of this impermeable rock that we *don’t already have* gas flowing into the water table. So what you’re claiming is that something is going to happen to break meters of impermeable rock. I will now say why that is baseless.

* In about 10% of coal seam gas wells (not 100% like people love to claim) the coal undergoes hydraulic fracturing, which is the pumping of water and some other chemicals (recall that water is a chemical before you get upset about chemicals for the sake of chemicals) in to the ground to induce fractures in the coal to increase gas flow in to the well.
Modelling is performed to ensure with a high degree of certainty that these fractures won’t propagate through the impermeable rock. In fact, fracture propagation doesn’t work like most people think it does, and it certainly doesn’t work like this model suggests.

* When a hole is drilled, especially in Australia where we have better regulation than USA, there are many measures that take place to ensure absolute minimal contamination of ground water. There are too many to cover here, but look up a simple video of how a gas drill hole is made.

“Chloe Coscarelli Fired for Defending Veganism” – more to the story?

This post regards the breaking news that Chloe Coscarelli, founder of the popular By Chloe franchise, a popular vegan food outlet in USA, has been fired for defending veganism. Specifically, they wanted to expand with non-vegan options, and Chloe was overruled. Many vegans are outraged that the company would do this, and are vowing to boycott By Chloe (in particular, by leaving a 1 star review on their Facebook page).

As usual, I am here to argue that this is probably not as simple as it seems. The world is more complicated than you want it to be!

Surprise, there’s another side to the story. In the past 24 hours it has been revealed that Chloe was actually fired because an arbitrator ruled she was grossly negligent. It also seems possible that the claims about plans to start serving meat were unfounded.

But Wasser says the claim is “outrageous,” and they never planned to stray from being vegan. She also alleges that Coscarelli has been less involved with the business and has undercut its success for some time.

Meanwhile, Wasser just wants people to know that she is committed to keeping By Chloe the same vegan restaurant that it’s always been. Since news broke about the split, people in the vegan community have allegedly been sending Wasser and ESquared death threats — many under the belief that ESquared pushed Coscarelli out so that they could start serving meat products. She doesn’t blame them for supporting Coscarelli but wants them to know her side, too.

This is fucking scary. I don’t think I’ve sworn on my blog before, so I hope that emphasises how scary I think this is (not as scary as existential risk, but still pretty scary). This is what happens when people jump on a media story before knowing all of the facts. You literally send a death threat to someone who has done nothing wrong, and support someone who was maybe justifiably fired for being grossly negligent.

I don’t blame people for getting upset about this before the second announcement. It’s hard to project forward and foresee such an occurrence. But just think, if it can happen with this story, it can happen with any story. I guess the take away here is to not rush in to action. This can be frustrating when the media cycle generally demands you act fast to get your message out, but it is super important to get your facts straight.

I wonder if boycotting the franchise would have even been a good thing if the first story were true. How much of the new version of the franchise would have been non-vegan? If not much, maybe the positive effects of a mostly vegan company outweigh any negative effects, and we shouldn’t boycott it.

It will be interesting to see if she will start a new franchise. She’ll basically be going in to business against herself, as she is still (presumably) a part owner of the initial business, she just no longer works there. I’ve heard of this happening a lot in the startup world when a founder is disgruntled and removed, then goes into competition against themselves. This most likely isn’t in their best interests, and seems to be driven by emotion.

Perhaps the original story is true and the second is a cover up, or there is still another layer to this, but one thing is for sure – the world isn’t as simple as you want it to be.

Addicted to outrage: For the love of the bandwagon

In our society, we are addicted to outrage and jumping on the latest bandwagon. This is a bad way to go about things, and maybe even dangerous. I want to share a particularly great example that occurred through a conversation I had recently on Facebook with some random people on a post made by Adam Bandt, Australian Federal Government Greens member for Melbourne. He was talking about a proposed coal mine in Queensland, Australia, which the Australian resources minister Matt Canavan had said would be a net positive for the environment. Queue outrage.

Bandter with Adam Bandt’s supporters

I decided to simply screenshot the conversation without removing names as it was and is entirely public on Facebook anyway.

What happened here exactly? If you made it through all of the comments, I’m impressed. I read the linked article and another about the issue, and resources minister was making some plausible arguments for how this mine could be a net positive for the environment. Sure, it might have been better to have renewable energy or gas instead, but if what we’re comparing is a world without this mine and a world with this mine, Mr Canavan’s argument might hold. Here is how:

“…using high-quality coal to displace lower-quality coal”

I know nothing about this mine, but if it were true that the coal was higher quality (releasing less emissions per unit energy produced) than the average existing coal, and the production of this coal meant lower quality coal was not produced, the claim might be true. There are several other minor arguments, such as:

““They will do things that will improve the environment here in central Queensland and they’ll protect an additional 31,000 hectares for the black-throated finch,” Canavan said.”

And:

““They will limit the drawdown on the springs in the area and also return water to the Great Artesian basin – around 730 megalitres a year.”

So basically Adam Bandt and his followers seem to be arguing that these claims are baseless. Fair enough, maybe they are. So I asked Adam Bandt if he did indeed have evidence that these claims were baseless.

“This seems plausible, does it not? Adam Bandt are you saying that you have evidence that this statement is false?”

No response from Adam, but his supporters were pretty upset. E.g.

“Have you got shares in the coal industry or are just stupid as Canavan” [sic]

“Michael you really are naive if you think what they said will actually happen. Look at history of Adani and their broken promises…get the facts from many sources before you slavishly believe one source.”

This one was particularly amusing because I’m actually questioning the source (Adam Bandt) unlike them. There was also one nice chap who asked me whether my (PhD) supervisor knew what I was saying here, but he has since deleted his comment.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that we are addicted to being outraged at certain things without much evidence about the specifics. This seems like a pretty bad heuristic. If you have read any of my work relating to effective altruism, you would know that even strange ideas can lead to great outcomes, and great ideas can lead to negative effects. I wouldn’t fall off my chair if something that sounded environmentally damaging on the outset turned out to increase wellbeing.

Best of all, I never said I supported the project, I was just not jumping on the bandwagon. This was taken to be a full, unwavering support of the project. As I said in the post:

“These things are always more complicated than people want them to be. For the record, I think the project shouldn’t go ahead. It is amusing to me that people here have assumed that I am in favour of the project, as I never said anything of the sort.

What kind of sad world we live in where merely thinking through the consequences of actions instead of jumping on the bandwagon is seen as a bad thing.”

Along a slightly different theme, but no less ‘bandwagony’, is this example. This was posted in a closed group called Friendly Vegans in Melbourne, so you might not be able to see it. As a result, I have hidden the identities of the original poster and commenters.

Some friendly vegans

 

I really don’t have much to add here. But once again, refusing to jump on the bandwagon makes people think less of you. Go figure.

I will just say that this should in no way cause you to be against veganism, simply because some friendly vegans celebrate human suffering in specific circumstances.

Thank you sir, your visa has been approved

Yesterday, I got my US visa for a one year visiting researcher position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and what a process it was! I’ve organised my own visa before for a trip to Nepal, but the US consulate was so exceedingly different from the Nepali consulate that I felt like I had to write about it.

Nepali consulate

Small, one story building, no security guards, two visible staff. Walk in, hand over documentation, get asked a few questions, get visa, walk out.

US consulate (some details omitted for security purposes)

Walk in, get told you can’t take photos, get told to turn my phone off, get asked to wait in the pre-line, get moved to the main line 5 minutes after my appointment time, get documents checked, go through security clearance, go up to another floor, go through another security check, talk to someone at a booth through a glass window, talk to someone else, get directed to another window to pay, get directed back to the second guy, get visa, walk back to elevator, go back down 50 odd floors, go back through security, exit, fist pump.


Basically, this feels like a taste of USA as much as the laid-back Nepali consulate felt like a taste of Nepal. I’ve heard a few horror stories of both US and non-US citizens trying to enter the country, especially post-Trump administration, but part of me suspects that I’m much less likely to run into any issues than it seems.

Has anyone got any recent US travel tales they’d like to share?

How to influence stuff

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s actually pretty easy to influence stuff. It seems like people don’t try because they assume it will be too hard to change anything, and this is self-reinforcing. I’m talking about things like emailing your local politicians, getting articles and opinion pieces published, and getting a company or website to change their public position. From the age of about 20, I kind of just made a decision to be gutsy, and so far it has paid off.

I want to share some of my successes and tips, and encourage you to try being more engaged and active in issues that matter. I’ll also cover my failures and try to analyse what could have gone better, but I must say the failure rate is far, far lower than people assume it is.

This ended up being a very long article, so I’m going to publish my failures and learnings separately. Make sure to subscribe to get notified when that comes out.

What has worked

Scholarships

My first realisation of how little people try to do stuff they think is hard came in 2013 when I was about to start the final year of my undergraduate degree. I was unsure about applying for scholarships because my results had been lackluster until my penultimate year when I started caring. However, two of my professors encouraged me to try anyway, and one of them mentioned that not many people actually apply. I ended up receiving 4 scholarships with a total value of just under $10,000 AUD, including the prestigious Playford Memorial Trust scholarship, which comes with political networking opportunities (more on this below), and a $2,000 scholarship to which I was the only applicant despite advertising attempts by the organisation.

The takeaway here – if a scholarship looks hard to get, that deters people, and may actually increase your chances. And – you’re may well be more capable than you think you are.

Political lobbying

This next one was a smaller financial reward, but really broke down a lot of mental barriers to trying other stuff in the future. In 2014, I signed up for and was accepted to Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project training in Melbourne, a three day course where we learned about climate science, policy and communication skills.

As I mentioned, the Playford Memorial Trust offers networking opportunities with politicians, and I spoke with the opposition leader of South Australia for a few minutes. Amusingly, he approached me because he was impressed by my bio. As an aside, he was in the audience falling asleep when they read it out, and I got the pleasure of seeing him get startled to wakefulness.

I later emailed his office to ask whether they would be interested in sponsoring and funding my trip to the training in Melbourne, citing the reasoning that I would be able to better communicate the risks of climate change to his constituents. His office declined, and I asked whether he would make an introduction to my local state representative to try again. He did, and my local MP’s office got in touch to say they would pay for $100 of the trip as long as I said that they sponsored me.

Let’s take a close look at what happened here. This was clearly a valuable spend of money for them. They spend a paltry $100 and get to demonstrate that they care about climate change. It was very much a mutually beneficial situation. This is the second takeaway I’d like to leave you with. So you want to change something or get something. Half the battle is pitching it in a way that makes it desirable to them as well. Of course, I was very happy to get to say that I was sponsored by my state government to attend climate advocacy training with Al Gore.

You might say that I had some help here thanks to an introduction, and you might be right, but I don’t think it’s that unlikely that I wouldn’t have been able to land this anyway.

Contacting famous people

I often hear people complain about the stance of some famous (or otherwise) individual, but never do anything about it except type angry Facebook posts. I hear the opposite too – where someone is in awe of some individual, but never contacts them. I’ve had a lot of success with cold emails (your unintroduced email to them is the first contact between you), and want to share a few.

In early 2015 I emailed Peter Singer (I got his email from his website), one of the co-founders of the effective altruism movement, after seeing his hugely successful TED Talk on the movement. The talk really resonated with me, and I desperately wanted to know how to get involved. Amazingly, he responded within 30 minutes, and suggested that I start a chapter in Adelaide, then put me on to some people to help. As an aside, his email actually went to my spam. I never checked my spam email, but did this time, and was stunned to see his email there. Now I always check my spam. The lesson, always check your spam.

I once saw a talk by famous British geologist Iain Stewart at a geology conference in Australia. He was well-known for science communication and had been in a number of documentaries. I later emailed him for advice on getting better at science communication, and was pleasantly surprised to hear back from him.

Gary Yourofsky is an well-known animal activist who has given hundreds if not thousands of talks around the world about animal exploitation. I emailed him with some questions about how to have an impact in the space, and he replied with a long, detailed email. To be fair, he said he spends around 6 hours a day replying to cold emails, but I think this just highlights the point that famous people do respond to stuff.

There are many more examples, but I’m sure you get the point by now. I once toyed with the idea of emailing Bill Gates but didn’t, but in all honesty I think the chances of getting a personal response are higher than we all think. In terms of what to say in an email, it depends on what you want to achieve. If you just want to ask advice, just be honest and polite, and giving some context doesn’t seem to hurt (e.g. I saw your speech and it resonated with me. Would you mind if I asked you some questions? The questions are…). If you want to influence them on something, you might want to start with a more innocuous question to build rapport, and increase the likelihood of them responding. I’ve covered this a little more below.

Radio

At the end of 2015, I had a very interesting radio experience. I had already been on radio a few times by this point to talk about solar thermal energy through a committee role I had, but the interviewers were all on board and receptive, since they ran a climate related radio spot. As I found out, there is a very big difference between receptive and hostile on the radio.

It started when I saw Neil Mitchell (an Australian radio host) and two other individuals talking on Channel 9 News about the World Health Organisation announcement that processed meat is carcinogenic, and red meat is likely carcinogenic. They laughed and downplayed the announcement using a number of shoddy arguments, claiming that all things are safe in moderation. My main issue with this was that they were on a segment labelled as ‘news’, and were presenting opinion as fact without being kept in check by the news host.

I decided to take a rather aggressive approach, which turned out to work… sort of. I started a petition on change.org to hold Channel 9 News and Neil Mitchell accountable for their irresponsible health remarks. In fact, I called for them to be sacked. You can see the full petition here including my rationale, but here are some key points from the program that I took issue with, and my responses.

““I really don’t think that bacon is the prime suspect.” It is irresponsible to state an opinion as if it is fact. Processed meats such as bacon are indeed one of the leading causes of cancer and heart disease.

“We’re always being told… don’t eat this…” – “Don’t listen.” This medical advice being provided from a news anchor is simply dangerous. Being told to not listen to health advice is in no way acceptable.

I shared the petition on Facebook, including various Australian vegan Facebook pages. I then followed up with an email to share the petition to key staff at both Channel 9 and 3AW radio where Neil works. Despite only ending up with 147 signatures, the producer of Neil’s program called me the next day to ask if I wanted to speak to Neil that day live on air. I said yes, but if I knew then what I do now about how hostile radio works, I probably wouldn’t have. As I said before, it’s very different to an interview where they are already on board. The first take away lesson here is to judge for yourself whether the interviewer will be at least neutral to your message. If not, it’s probably not worth your time unless you are a pro and have carefully considered the risks.

You can hear the full interview here. I wasn’t as assertive as I should have been, and should have stuck my to my key talking points. Several times he strayed from the topic and it distracted me. He played the audio of part of the news session in question, and I later realised that they had edited it to make Neil sound more reasonable. I should have noticed this at the time and called him out on it, but I was stressed and in the moment. I got some flak from a bunch of random people on social media. But at the end of the day, it was a valuable lesson, and I now know a solid way to get people’s attention.

Since then, I have been on a number of radio interviews about both my PhD research, and my work with Effective Altruism Australia while I was CEO. These opportunities actually mostly fell on my lap (more on the PhD interviews below), so I don’t have too much to say except to put yourself out there, because you never know. With the media, you will often get either no attention, or a lot of attention.

The popular discussion panel Q&A recently launched a radio segment that follows their main TV slot where people can call in to ask questions and talk about what was discussed during the program. After a discussion on climate change that lacked any mention of animal agriculture, I called in to raise this, and was chuffed to get 60 seconds of air time. Unfortunately, the host was pretty dismissive, but it was a good opportunity to share the message to a large number of people.

Pitching articles

I’ve also discovered that it’s surprisingly easy to get an article published somewhere, so long as you’re strategic about it. My PhD research is mostly on developing new techniques to understand the physical properties of asteroids, but I also dabble in asteroid impact risk mitigation, asteroid mining and space ethics. Being concerned about existential risk (the risk of some event that might wipe out either humanity or all life), I pitched an article to The Conversation.

The Conversation publish short articles written by researchers in the relevant field on key issues of the day. Their motto is ‘academic rigour, journalistic flair’. They partner researchers with an editor to make an accurate but enjoyable article. I had previously pitched an article on public health, but was rejected because it wasn’t in my area of expertise. I later pitched an article on my PhD research and got an interested editor. He was more interested in the possibility of an asteroid impact and what we can do about it than anything directly related to my work, but I took the opportunity.

Overall, this was a wildly successful use of my time. The article has now been published in two languages and viewed by almost 100,000 people. I was contacted on the day it was published by ABC to do a 3 minute TV interview on the same day, and was contacted for several radio interviews on the same topic. Sometimes opportunities have great flow on value.

I later pitched an updated version of my public health article to the Australian Vegans Journal, where it was accepted (in a forthcoming issue). This is a pretty simple example of why target selection is important. You need to think about what audience would be receptive to the story, but also what outlet would be receptive to publishing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always align with the audience you’re trying to reach, especially if you want to talk about something like factory farming, but you can take easy opportunities to build up your profile and have a better chance later.

I also pitched an article about effective altruism to Plant Based News on how it can and should be merged with animal advocacy. This was a pretty easy sell; because of course animal advocates want to be effective. Unfortunately I have had push back elsewhere with this pitch, because not everyone in the animal advocacy community agrees with the message, but it never hurts to try.

Getting a website or organisation to change something

I have two standout examples of where I contacted someone to change something, and they did. The first and best involved an online article by the Daily Mail titled ‘If you want grandchildren, make sure you eat protein, study finds’. They’re pretty notorious for low quality reporting, and I usually ignore their articles, but this one caught my eye.

This article originally claimed that a study showed low protein diet in humans lead to low fertility. I read the study they cited, and it actually had no data on humans, it was about bovines and fruit flies. So essentially the article had drawn their own conclusions that weren’t backed up by data. I put in a complaint, and impressively, they amended the article. The complaint and response from the Daily Mail are below.

As a scientist, I’ve first hand experienced poor media reporting of science. The article says that the study reports low levels of protein can negatively affect offspring’s fertility. The news article then says that low meat intake can result in the same, presumably because they assume meat has a lot of protein, even though a plant based diet has already been shown to be more efficient for protein intake. So the author of this article likely made their own assumptions. However, it is impossible to tell because the article didn’t link to the original study, so I can’t fact check it. Overall, this seems like a very poor example of science reporting. I think it is more than appropriate that the article is revisited. If the article is indeed misleading, it should be corrected. I will be following this up with a formal complaint, including to other news outlets, in several weeks if it is not addressed.

Dear Mr Dello-Iacovo,

Thank you for your email, which has been passed on to me for a response. We are sorry for the delay in responding to you and please be assured that we meant no discourtesy.

We are extremely grateful for you to take the time and trouble to address these points and as you may be aware we have amended the copy to reflect these.

If there is anything further we can do to assist you then please do let us know.

I can’t find the study now, but a very high percentage of media reporting (I think over 50%) has at least one minor scientific inaccuracy, and some large percent has at least one major scientific inaccuracy. If you see something that looks erroneous, look into it and try to get it changed! This is also a reminder to not take the news, especially articles, for granted. I have already experienced poor media reporting of my own scientific work first hand, albeit minor (The Conversation allows articles to be republished with credit, so one outlet republished my article on asteroids, but gave it a title that had nothing to do with what I was saying, and made it sound like I claimed something that I didn’t). Make sure to read the original study, especially if you plan on acting based on an article.

The second example was more minor, but involved the Skepticon Australia 2017 conference, run by Australian Skeptics Inc. In case you’re not familiar with the skeptics movement, it essentially involves using a healthy dose of scepticism and rational thinking in your everyday life, being wary of pseudoscientific claims like astrology and homeopathy. Their website included ‘carcinogenic meats’ as a pseudoscientific claim. As I’ve already discussed above, this goes against the WHO announcement. I promptly emailed them to say that their claim was incorrect, and included links to the relevant WHO material. They corrected the website.

Competitions

My last example of success was my winning of the 2016 Sentience Politics Essay Prize (essay is available here). I had just discovered the field of wild-animal suffering research, and was pretty concerned, so I wanted to write about it and provide my own ideas. I was pretty unsure whether I could win, given that I’m not a philosopher and I sometimes question the quality of my ideas. But whether it’s because not many people entered, or because I am actually a visionary (I think the former is the stronger effect here), I won the $2,000 prize. Competitions probably suffer in a similar way to scholarships, in that people assume they aren’t worthy, so don’t try. You may be more capable or creative than you think.

Conclusion

I don’t see my success in this space ending any time soon, and I only expect to get better as I learn more, so I’ll be looking to update this post with new information from time to time, or to write a new post. I hope I’ve inspired you to try to influence stuff, because it’s honestly easier than you probably think (just please influence stuff in a positive direction!). Please share any future or past successes and tips in the comments to help me and other readers.

The side of the Auckland Airport dog shooting the media refuses to cover

Anger at the small, apathy at the vast

Last night, police shot a dog as it ran uncontrolled across the tarmac of Auckland Airport in New Zealand. The police claimed that it was necessary to shoot the dog, though many are rightly outraged and question why tranquilisers couldn’t be used, or why a more humane solution could not be found. Most people say that we shouldn’t kill or harm for no reason, or for enjoyment, and I agree.

However, it is ironic that most people who are outraged by this tragic event probably went on to eat animal products later that day. 70 billion land animals are killed for their flesh or excretions each year. It’s a mass killing of unimaginable scale, and it’s not necessary. There is no evidence that animal products are necessary in a healthy diet, and there is even some evidence that it is more healthful to avoid it. Animal agriculture is also one of the largest causes of climate change, accounting for some 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And finally, it is the cause of vast suffering.

People love dogs, and in a western country like New Zealand or Australia, we think it’s wrong to shoot or eat one. But pigs are cleverer than dogs, and are as intelligent as a 3 year old human child. It makes no sense to love dogs but pay for an industry to harm pigs just to eat their flesh. How can we be against harming animals for fun, yet continue to pay for animals to be harmed so we can eat them for fun?

Part of the problem is that people just don’t realise how bad life is for an animal in a factory farm. Chickens are crammed in to either cages or sheds with little room to move. So-called ‘free range’ or ‘cage free’ operations are little better, and one only needs to watch the prize-winning documentary Lucent to see what Australian pigs endure.

If you think killing animals for pleasure is wrong, there is an easy way to do something about it. You could simply choose to not pay people to harm and kill animals for you. Consider adopting a cruelty-free, vegan lifestyle or buying more vegan foods, which in our modern age are plentiful, delicious and healthy. Have this conversation with your friends and family, and have an open discussion about the way we treat our fellow earthlings.


This was submitted as an op-ed to a number of Australian print and online publications with no response, including The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Advertiser and ABC News.

A future without factory farming? Possible – because of cellular agriculture

A lot of people have misgivings about clean meat or cellular agriculture (lab meat) because they think it will involve ongoing exploitation of animals for their cells. This is a myth. This podcast with Christie Lagally of the Good Food Institute is a fantastic intro to the topic and I highly recommend it.

I strongly believe clean meat will hit market control long before veganism gets close to 100%. This will be better for the animals, the environment, and human health.

GFI provides strategic and technical support to food tech companies (plant-based and cellular agriculture). I believe they are currently the best charitable giving opportunity for reducing the suffering of sentient minds into the future. Here is my reasoning. Check them out and support them if you agree!

My fear: spreading insect suffering to Mars

One thing I’m personally worried about is the spreading of wild-animal suffering to other planets. In the short term, I’m most worried about spreading insects to Mars. I think (and have argued here) that this might happen sooner than we think. The use of insects on Mars for either food or to help terraform seems supported (or at least warranting further thought) by a good deal of the Mars community.

Currently, a potato is in development that looks like it might be able to grow in Mars atmospheric (open) conditions. Biology is a weak point of mine so maybe I’m more worried than I should be. But I fear that if potatoes are solved, insects potentially aren’t that much harder to get to survive on Mars, especially given there are already extremophile insects.

So basically I’d like to loosely propose that shifting public opinion about the use of insects for Mars and anything else is potentially neglected, given the scale here (accidentally or purposefully putting insects on Mars which spread uncontrollably). I don’t know how confident I am about this argument, but wanted to drop it here for discussion.