How to influence stuff – what didn’t work

A few months ago, I wrote a post on ‘How to influence stuff‘. My motivation for this was that I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s easier than people think to have influence organisations and individuals to change or do stuff differently. People assume that it’s hard and then don’t try, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here I want to talk about some of the stuff I’ve tried that didn’t work, because it would be remiss of me to only talk about the stuff that did work.

What hasn’t worked

Contacting podcasts

Similar to what I said in the first post about getting websites/organisations to change stuff, I try asking podcasts to make corrections to factually incorrect statements, especially when I think it’s an important topic.

In this podcast, the host said some factually incorrect (and frankly, defamatory) things about the Good Food Institute. The most surprising to me was that the host claimed GFI was a business that could be sold to Monsanto. GFI is a charity, and can decidedly not be sold to Monsanto. I emailed the host and asked them to change this and other wrong things. They refused, and even attacked my character. Luckily, it didn’t escalate further, but this is an example of some wasted emails.

I also emailed Sam Harris after he misrepresented the field of wild-animal suffering research on his podcast (through ignorance, rather than malice, I’m sure – I’m usually a big fan of Harris’ podcast and work). I emailed him asking for a correction to be issued, but never heard back.

I’m not sure I did anything particular wrong in either of these cases, it’s just a matter of not being 100% successful. I still think you are more likely to affect change in this way than you probably think. I did have some minor success with the Skeptics Guide to the Universe when they spoke about charity and overhead. They claimed something to the effect of ‘a charity with 10% overhead is always better than one with 20% overhead’ (if you are familiar with effective altruism, you will instantly see why this is not necessarily true).

The did read my comments in full on the podcast which added nuance, however they had a minor retreat to their original position before ending the segment. I’ll still chalk that up as a win.

Op-eds and letters to the editor

I’ve written a lot of op-eds, opinion pieces and letters to the editor, mostly in Australian local and national newspapers, and am still yet to get one published. Part of me wants to chalk this up to the fact that the things I’m pitching are controversial and therefore not something the papers want to publish (e.g. “Care about X? Then go vegan.”). But part of me thinks there has to be more to it. There must be tricks.

The below are some tips that have been offered to me, mostly by Jacy Reese (who has been successful at getting op-eds etc. published on topics similar to what I write about).

  • Make sure you find the personal email address of the opinion editor, or at the least.
  • Calling them and making a personal contact is even better. Engaging with them on social media, especially Twitter, could be a good way to do this. Bonus points if you can make it relevant to something they work on.
  • If a journalist writes about something you can comment on, just try emailing them saying “Hey, I’m a source, reach out if I can be useful”.
  • Lead with your credentials, especially if they are relevant, and if you have published anything before (even online articles) lead with a mention of your best one.
  • Have your submission text in the body of the email rather than an attachment. It is more likely to get viewed, and may allay and concerns of viruses.
  • Make sure the submission is timely, especially relating to a recent major news event.

Social media

I use social media a lot – arguably too much. I sometimes use Twitter and Facebook to try and pressure organisations into changing their position, much in the same way as I use email as I mentioned in the previous post (sometimes I use both). I don’t seem to have a lot of success with this – I do better with email or phone calls. I think there is a decent chance that social media is just too easy to brush over or ignore. There might be an argument for a concentrated social media campaign involving a lot of people, but as one person you’re unlikely to do much, especially for a big organisation, unless you’re pretty famous.

Three notable examples of times I’ve tried to influence via social media are:

  • I tried to convince a BBQ day for prostate cancer (or something) that they were being super hypocritical because of the impact of processed/red meat on prostate cancer. They just gave me some stock-standard responses.
  • I got a non-vegan meal on a flight after I ordered a vegan meal, and they ended up having no vegan meals on board. I tried to a) get them to change their policy (their meals listed as ‘vegan’ were all non-vegan) and b) get a refund via social media, but got nowhere. In the end, I called them and got a $100 flight voucher (if you ever order a vegan meal and don’t get one, don’t forget to try and claim your voucher!).
  • I often leave Facebook comments on posts by Greens (an Australian political party) members, calling into attention their hypocrisy (they’re all about environment but are anti-GMO, anti-nuclear and pro-animal agriculture). The party or members have never responded, but I once called their office and said I was a past supporter of the Greens (not untrue) but was concerned that their blatant hypocrisy was harming their reputation. The staffer thanked me. As an aside, there’s something to be said for approaching such conversations as a concerned supporter rather than an angry external.

I also spend a lot of time debating people online. Mostly, this just makes me angry. A few times, I have been able to shift someones’ opinion, but most of the time, we talk past each other. I think there are definitely better things one can do with their time. I’ve even gotten a few death threats, which isn’t great. I sometimes try to salvage some of my effort by taking the good parts of my comments and turning them into blog posts.


As well as successfully contacting a bunch of famous/important people for advice or help, I’ve been unsuccessful with a bunch as well. Same goes for scholarships, entering essay/writing competitions and correcting news articles. Not much to say here – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Volume (as well as actually trying) is the key.

Why God probably does(n’t) exist

I’m genuinely shocked that The Conversation allowed this article, titled ‘Arguments why God (very probably) does exist’ to be published. This isn’t science-based journalism. I’m still harbouring some hope that it was satire.

Before reading my comments, you should read it yourself, as I speak directly to the points made. In short, the author seeks to outline some arguments from logic for why God probably exists. The author presents an inexplicable misunderstanding of most. The article also seems to be a thinly veiled promotion of the authors’ book:

In my 2015 book, “God? Very Probably: Five Rational Ways to Think about the Question of a God,” I look at physics, the philosophy of human consciousness, evolutionary biology, mathematics, the history of religion and theology to explore whether such a god exists.

Disclaimer – I am a Conversation published author. I feel compelled to write this because this article harms the credibility of the site, and thus all other authors.

On to my comments.

The author pointed out a few people that have doubts over evolution, but failed to acknowledge the reams of evidence in its support. They may as well be denying the existence of climate change.

The second to last point can be easily explained by confirmation bias (you don’t remark on the almost- or non-coincidences, only the ones that actually occur), and the last is not a reason to believe the existence of a god at all. It is possibly a reason to believe that humans have a hunger to be a part of something greater than themselves, whether it’s spiritual or otherwise.

That the universe seems strange and unlikely in many respects can be explained by the anthropic principle. If the universe didn’t quite have the right characteristics for life to exist, we wouldn’t be here to think about it, so it’s not that surprising that we observe the universe to look this way. It’s like saying, ‘wow, I exist, how unlikely’. If you didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be able to ponder that thought. It’s quite staggering that the author didn’t mention this.

Consciousness is weird and hard, but it is not therefore divine.

Adventures on the east coast of USA

I went to the east coast of USA for the first time a few weeks ago. The trip started off very well. I bought a magazine from the book store at the airport, and the chap said “Enjoy your flight”, to which I responded, “Thanks, you too.” I then boarded and showed the flight attendant at the entrance of the plane my ticket so they could check it. Apparently this isn’t a thing in USA, because the flight attendant and I just had a staring contest for a few seconds before I awkwardly lowered my ticket and walked towards my seat.

“Enjoy your flight.”
“Thanks you too.”
This was a good read, which makes up for the awkward exchange.

First stop was DC, which was pretty neat. Since my existing views of the city were formed by a combination of House of Cards, The West Wing and Miss Sloane, it’s fair to say that it was a little different.

When I was walking from the train station to my hostel, a man came up behind me and asked, “Are you going to the vegan conference?” I was kind of surprised, so I just said yes without thinking. “Oh cool, me too.” he said. I asked how he knew I was going. For a brief moment, I wondered if I was famous, but he just pointed the the vegan sticker on my luggage.

Anyway, turns out I was going to the conference, I just had no idea what he was talking about at the time (sorry!). It was the Green Festival Expo, with a combination of environmental and vegan stalls and presentations. I spent the afternoon there and got to try some of Quorns’ new vegan food line up, as well as meet some people from the Humane Party and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, one of whom happened to be an effective altruist. He was very excited when I told him I used to work with Effective Altruism Australia.

The one downside of the conference was, as is seeming more and more common, the general disdain towards GMO food and blind positivity towards organic food. To avoid sounding like I’m repeating myself, I’ll just refer you to here for my feelings on this. In short and simplistically, it’s not backed by science.

One evening at the hostel, I was sitting in the common area working on my laptop (covered with vegan stickers), when a woman sitting next to me told me she liked them. “I’m vegan too.” she said. I’m pretty late to the ‘put stickers with messages on things you own’ party, and I always assumed it was mostly to try and convince others of the message, but now I’m wondering (from my anecdotal data) whether there’s more value in signalling what you’re interested in to other people, and meeting people with similar interests.

Strangely enough, you can’t see Capitol Hill from every point of the city.

I was lucky enough to get a tour of Capitol Hill (which you can do by contacting your local congressperson or senator). I saw a Trump supporter at Capitol Hill (I could tell because they were wearing a ‘Make America great again’ hat and a Trump t-shirt), bringing the number of Trump supporters I’ve knowingly seen in person up to two.

I also enjoyed the never-ending selection of museums, almost all of which were free. I especially recommend the National Museum of American History and the Newseum (which was around $20 – it was worth it, but there are many free alternatives which are good).

The first dog to drive across America and his car and hooman.

I made some friends and went looking for politicians and staffers in local bars known to be politician hangouts like Bistro Bis, but failed. Until I left DC I was still holding some hopes for discussing socialism with Bernie Sanders over a stout.

No Sanders, Underwoods or Spaceys in sight.

In Philadelphia I stayed with my cousin, who moved to America 15 years ago for work, met and married an American then never came back. He took me mountain biking, and only told me that he once snapped his collar bone after I agreed. While rolling down those rocky paths and swearing in Australian I was very grateful that my university’s health and travel insurance included leisure travel.

The post-survival selfie.

I didn’t get around to exploring many of the classic tourist sites in New York as I was at the Reducetarian Summit for most of my time there, but I did get to sample some of the fine Manhattan vegan foods (see below for a compilation of bomb vegan food I found on my trip) and not so fine bars.

I had a pretty interesting experience at one very small bar I went to with my friend. It was very dark and underground, with a single bartender and about 10 patrons. My friend gave me some money to buy us a drink then went to the bathroom. I ordered him a beer and got a coke for myself. “I don’t serve that kind of thing here.”

“Oh, I’ll just get a water then.” He gets me the beer and water, then says something to the effect of “If it gets busy tonight, I’ll have to ask you to leave if you don’t order anything.” I was pretty surprised but he looked deadpan serious so I just said ok. When my friend got back, I told him what happened and he agreed that was kind of strange. The bartender must have overheard because he comes back and says “If you’re going to make me sound like a dick to your friend at least tell him the full story.” “I thought I did.” “You left out half of it.” “Which part?” “Where I made it clear I was joking.”

It can’t have been that clear. He said I didn’t understand hospitality and had probably never worked the industry. I told him I did for several years, unless the Australian hospitality industry was totally different to US. He backtracked a bit and became the nicest guy ever. Weird. I told another friend later and they said that happens sometimes in Manhattan.

Vegan Philly cheese steak from Hip City Veg in DC.
Vegan Burrata from some place in DC.
Another vegan Philly cheese steak from Wiz Kid in Philadelphia. Even my non-vegan cousin agreed this was pretty good. “I could tell its not steak, but not that its not meat.”
Plant-based sushi from Beyond Sushi in Manhattan. So good! My non-vegan friend who dislikes new foods tried one then asked for more.

How you can make a difference this World Environment Day (June 5)

The political response to climate change from a number of countries, in particular Australia and USA, has been lacklustre. In the last few days, there has even been discussion of President Donald Trump potentially pulling out of the Paris accord. We can obviously no longer rely on governments to guarantee a solution. Many people have taken the first steps in reducing their environmental impact by swapping their car time for a bike or bus, adding solar panels to their home, or being more conscious of their water use. There is one option for reducing personal environmental impact that is surprisingly effective, but very often overlooked.

Adopting a plant-based, or vegan, diet is one of the most effective individual acts you can make to reduce your impact on the environment and CO2 emissions (more effective than forgoing showers, having solar panels, or using bikes instead of cars). Using American figures, on average vegans use 1/18th as much land for food as a meat eater, while vegetarians use 1/6th as much. Vegans also use 50% as much carbon dioxide, 9% as much oil and 8% as much water.

In 2006, the Livestock’s Long Shadow report (by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) highlighted the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Of note, an estimated 14.5% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the result of the livestock industry.

Globally, farm animals produce around 130 times more waste than humans. This waste can be home to a range of diseases. If waterways become contaminated by this waste, it can be disastrous for human health. If the wastewater reaches the ocean, it can be a source of major environmental degradation, creating what are known as dead zones. The Australian livestock industry also uses a disproportionate amount of water resources.

The impact of climate change is increasing, and will continue to increase into the future, even with immediate action. Of particular note to Australians are the effects on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Over the last 100 years, sea temperatures on the GBR have risen by around 0.4°C. The combination of rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification will lead to more frequent and intense coral bleaching events and a reduced ability of corals and other sea organisms to calcify.

Rising land surface temperatures will also lead to more heatwaves, with the governments’ own estimates suggesting a quadrupling of heatwave related deaths in Australia by 2050. This will hit our ageing population the hardest. The World Health Organisation estimates that, from 2030 to 2050, an additional 250,000 deaths will result each year due to climate change.

In addition to the serious environmental impact of animal agriculture, there are a range of global health issues that can be simultaneously addressed.  A few weeks ago, an open letter was written to the next Director-General of the WHO (shortly after revealed to be Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus), calling on them to recognise factory farming as a major global health challenge, and signed by notable individuals such as Noam Chomsky and Mark Bittman.

By this time next year, 700,000 people will have died as the result of resistance to antibiotics. The bulk of antibiotic use is not in humans, but in the livestock industry, to increase productivity and keep animals alive. With a growing global population, these issues will only get more serious.

In 2015, the World Health Organisation announced that processed meats are a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans), and red meats are a Group 2A carcinogen (probably carcinogenic to humans). A diet rich in plant-based food is suggested to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, and reduce the risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease.

Animal agriculture also creates unimaginable suffering for the animals themselves. Undercover investigations in Australia have revealed pain and suffering as standard, particularly in the industrial farming of pigs and chickens. Most people agree that needlessly causing animal suffering is wrong, and so by simply avoiding animal products, you can align your ethical values with your actions.

Living a compassionate and environmentally-minded lifestyle has never been easier. Increased demand for plant-based foods from vegans and non-vegans alike has lead to the creation of realistic animal product alternatives that are now readily available at supermarkets. With relatively little planning, a plant-based diet can be cheaper, healthier and delicious.

So while you consider your bike and solar panels this World Environment Day on June 5, why not give a plant-based diet a go as well? Bring the family together over a tasty meal and let your imagination run wild. Who knows, you might even decide that it was so easy you will want to keep going.

On whether to send back non-vegan food

If you order a vegan meal and it comes out with non-vegan food in it*, should you send it back or should you eat it? I see this question come up a lot on social media and it seems to have people pretty divided, so I just thought I’d formally write up my opinion. Hopefully it helps you decide what you would do if it happens to you.

In short, I would almost always** send the meal back. If I’m with non-vegans, it shows them I take this whole ethics thing seriously, and it makes a statement to restaurant. It might even stop it from happening to the next vegan. Some restaurants are pretty clueless. I once went to a place that served chicken stock in a little bowl as a side to an item listed as vegan on their menu. I asked if it was vegetable stock, and they said no, it was chicken. “Why, do you not eat chicken?”

“Well, I ordered the vegan option.” They seemed pretty confused about the whole thing, so hopefully making a point about it stops it from being served with chicken stock in the future.

Also, especially in a non-restaurant setting, if non-vegan friends or colleagues see you accepting animal products, they may be more likely to serve you them in the future.

I guess there is the counter-point of people seeing you as ‘not flexible’ which might make people see veganism more negatively, or might slightly nudge someone away from trying it. My intuition is that this effect would be small, but I’m happy for someone to try and change my mind. There is the issue of ‘wasting food’, but again, one meal would make pretty little difference to global food waste.

I’ve also had many vegan pizzas come with dairy cheese instead of no cheese or vegan cheese, which I send back. I used to work at a pizza restaurant, and I know first hand that food sent back as a mistake tends to get eaten by the staff. This definitely mitigates the food waste argument.

I have been told second hand about one individual who has risen fairly high in the US public servant sphere (I have been asked not to share their name – let’s call them Casey).

Casey wields a lot of influence, and their job affects the wellbeing of a lot of sentient beings both now and in the future. They often have meals with very important and powerful people. Casey is a vegan for ethical reasons, but they are not very public about it, and when it comes to eating with said important people, rumour has it that they have taken up eating meat again. This is my guesswork, but I’m assuming this is because Casey is worried about how they might be perceived after revealing that they are vegan, and that they believe their job is so important that the possibility of harming their effectiveness is too great to risk.

A couple of comments on this. I can’t share with you what Casey actually does for work, so you’ll have to take my word on this, but I really believe that their job is so important that this is a valid concern. What’s important to maximise is your impact on suffering and wellbeing, not ones’ personal purity (which should just be a tool for the former).

However, with the knowledge I have on the situation (granted, not as much as Casey has), I disagree with their (assumed) conclusion. I don’t know how much being publicly but quietly vegan would harm ones’ reputation and effectiveness in certain circles. I also think that there could be some benefit in being a super important person that also happens to be vegan.

Having said that, I am open to that being the best course of action. In extreme cases, I might even do the same, as hard as it would be to bring myself to do. However, I want to stress that I don’t think I’ve come across a situation yet in my life where I would have been better off pretending to not be vegan (and I’ve had dinner with the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company), and I don’t think that most people ever will.

One thing I haven’t discussed yet is that some vegans might just be totally disgusted by the prospect of eating animal products. This seems like a fairly valid reason to send the food back. Your personal wellbeing should be equally weighted with that of others. I personally enjoy the unami taste (meaty taste) of food, which is why I can eat realistic meat alternatives while some other vegans can’t. But I would still be disgusted by the knowledge that I am eating an actual animal or their excretion.

In short, I’d advocate for sending back the meal.

* For clarity, I’m talking about something like any of the following; your vegan pizza comes out with dairy cheese or meat on it, your veggie burger is actually a beef burger, your laksa has fish stock in it instead of vegetable stock, or your meal comes out with a non-vegan side.

** Just meaning that I would require extenuating circumstances to not send it back.

Evidence-based voting

I enjoyed Michael Plant’s article in The Conversation today, ‘Which party’s manifesto promises would make Britain happiest?‘ Plant attempts an evidence-based approach to choosing which party to vote for by reading their manifestos. Despite it being basic and limited, I’m very glad it exists, and I think there should be more attempts to select an objectively best party to vote for.

Call me a radical, but I think people should vote for the party that will do the most to increase happiness. If a party’s policies won’t reduce misery and help people have more pleasant, fulfilling lives, what are they good for?

You may recall that myself and Hugo Burgin attempted a similar analysis in 2016 for the Australian Federal election. As we said then, “We say ‘attempted’ because such analyses are incredibly complex (which is possibly why none exist), although we believe that some attempt at picking the best party is better than no attempt.

Voting correctly is a lot more important than people often think it is. Again, in 2016 Burgin and I said:

People often say that you’re unlikely to have any impact when voting, or that the impact of your vote is so small that it’s not worth thinking about, but this is only true if you only care about yourself. In Doing Good Better, Will MacAskill simplistically estimates that the expected value of voting for a US citizen, when spread out across all citizens in USA, is around $5,200 USD (~$7,000 AUD at the time of writing). That is to say, on average, $5,200 of the budget will be spent differently as a result of your vote (see the appendix for a more detailed explanation of why this is so). This means it’s very important to vote for the party that will spend the budget in the best way possible.

I do have some concerns around Plant’s analysis. I want to stress first that I’m not necessarily criticising Plant for this. He was (presumably) operating alone, with limited time and resources, and also had a limited number of words on the article to play with. I’m just outlining what I would want in an ideal analysis. Having said that, my concerns are as follows.

Plant doesn’t account for non-human animals (edit – he did mention them briefly, I just missed it), which is a major gap, though he does try to account for non-British citizens. He also doesn’t seem to look at the future or far future. Needless to say, far future effects (e.g. 1,000 years plus) are extremely difficult to predict, so again, this is not a criticism of Plant. He relies on manifestos and promises, which won’t necessarily be kept. An ideal analysis would look at history and likelihood of individual parties meeting their promises.

One reservation around these types of analyses in general is that people might use them to come out with the answer they want, whether consciously or subconsciously, although there are ways around this with sufficient oversight.

My ideal outcome looks something like this: A group of benevolent individuals grants an organisation funding say 1 year prior to an election. This organisation can’t be a non-profit in many countries (e.g. Australia), because they are not legally able to support any one political party. This organisation then produces and releases the report shortly before the election. The majority of the population, being motivated by maximising wellbeing of all sentience over the course of the universe (I wish), votes accordingly.

There is a very real question as to how many people would trust such an analysis. There will probably be some people who will never change the party they support out of sheer mistrust that it didn’t pick their party. The trust may have to be built up slowly over several elections and with strong, impartial oversight. I have no idea how to do this, but I do think it is important and worth dedicating time and money to. People have $5,200 worth of impact every time they vote, and we surely want to see that impact being positive.