Changing Vegan Advocacy from an Art to a Science

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Guest blog by Nick Cooney

Excerpted and adapted from a talk given at the 2013 Animal Rights Conference

The Lessons Of Alchemy

Over two thousand years ago, around 300 BC, the practice that we now know as alchemy got its start.

If we think of alchemy today, we probably picture strange old men wearing funny clothing and trying to turn lead into gold. And indeed, one of the goals of alchemists was to turn lead and other common minerals into things like silver and gold. But they also had loftier goals as well, such as figuring out how to cleanse the human soul, or how to develop a potion that would help people live forever.

Today we can look back at what the alchemists were doing and laugh at it, but in its time alchemy was taken very seriously. There were schools that taught alchemy, there were alchemy textbooks, and in certain countries governments issued licenses to professional alchemists.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there aren’t too many alchemists around these days. You don’t meet college students who are alchemy majors, and you don’t see alchemists setting up shop down the street. In fact, there’s only one place you can still go to if you want to see strange old men muttering bizarre sayings and trying to turn one thing into something completely different: Fox News.

Okay joking aside, what happened to alchemy? In the 1700s and 1800s alchemy was replaced by chemistry. As you may have noticed, the names have something in common. And whereas alchemy, in its 2,000-year history, produced almost nothing of value for humankind, chemistry has been wildly successful in just a few hundred years. If you enjoy life-saving medication, your smart phone, or having fresh clean drinking water coming out of your faucet each morning, you can thank chemistry (in part) for each of those things.

So what was the difference between chemistry and alchemy? Why did one so wildly succeed where the other so miserably failed? And most importantly of all, what in the world do chemistry and alchemy have to do with vegan advocacy?

The difference between alchemy and chemistry is very simple and easy to explain. But it’s also a very fundamental difference. And here it is: alchemists did not use the scientific method. Chemists did (and do) use the scientific method.

For those of us who might not remember our fifth grade science class too well, the scientific method is basically all about testing. If we’re going to assert that something is true, we better be able to do the testing that shows that to be the case.

Testing is the heart of science. Look the word “science” up on Wikipedia and the first sentence will tell you that science builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions.

It is proving certain facts through testing that allowed chemistry to progress step by step out of the murky world of alchemy. It is testing that allows any knowledge-based discipline to advance step by step to greater understanding and effectiveness.

Testing In Every Day Life

It’s no surprise to most of us that hard sciences like chemistry, physics, or biology advance as a result of testing. But those aren’t the only areas of society where testing is being used.

In the business world, testing and research are used all the time to help corporations sell more products and make more money. I recently met a graduate student at Yale who, prior to going back to school, had worked for years in the auto industry. He helped oversee the direct marketing campaign for a particular car company, sending out print mailings to people who had been identified as potential customers. In order to figure out which mailings worked best he’d test different fonts, different colors, different color cars, highlighting different car features, and so forth. And he found – as he expected to – that seemingly minor changes in the print mailings could make a big difference in how many people came in to the showroom to buy a car. Over time, through this direct testing, he was able to figure out how to design mailings that would be as effective as possible at selling automobiles.

Today, every major corporation worth its salt uses testing and data to guide its decisions. These decisions include what features people like and want in a product, what target audiences should be advertised to, and what products or services to sell in the first place. Companies spend billions each year on market research for the simple fact that it benefits their bottom line.

But the business world isn’t the only place where people use direct testing to figure out how to succeed. In 2012 Barak Obama was re-elected President of the United States. And while there are many reasons historians can point to in describing why he won re-election, there was one factor that the Los Angeles Times and other publications singled out as the secret weapon in Obama’s arsenal: data.

Here’s what it looked like: the Obama campaign hired a team of over 50 data analysts to amass a mountain of data on individual voters in swing states. They collected up to 80 pieces of data on each individual, everything from their age, gender, and religion to what magazines they subscribed to, how much their house was worth, and so forth. After all the data was collected, the Obama team ran tests to determine which demographic groups were most likely to be undecided voters who could be persuaded to vote for Obama. Further testing – carried out through countless phone calls, mailings, and door-to-door visits – showed which messages would be most effective at persuading undecided voters to lean toward Obama.

After the testing was done, the outreach effort was kicked into high gear. Hundreds of thousands of undecided voters in swing states were targeted at the individual level through mailings, door knocks, and telephone calls. They were targeted with scripts and materials specifically tailored to their demographic group. And the rest, as they say, is history. Obama won nearly every swing state and cruised to re-election.

Direct testing is also being used in the non-profit world. One of the primary goals of human health charities is to eradicate malaria, an infection that kills millions of people each year. One approach that anti-malaria organizations use to stop the spread of the disease is distributing netting that people can put around their beds at night to keep mosquitoes away. (People often contract malaria from being pricked by an infected mosquito.)

But researchers looking into these efforts had a question: was it better to give the nets away for free, so that everyone could have one; or to charge a small price that everyone could afford based on the idea that people who had to pay for the nets might be more likely to actually use them? Human health advocates could come up with assumptions and philosophical reasons to support either approach. But the researchers didn’t care about assumptions, and they didn’t care about philosophy. All they wanted to know was, which approach would save the most lives?

So they tested it out. They tried the first approach in one area, and the second approach in another. It turned out that giving nets away for free was a lot more effective than charging a nominal price for them. And once anti-malaria organizations knew the more effective approach to take, they were able to do so. There are probably thousands of individuals alive today who would have died of malaria if this simple test had not been done to answer the question empirically.

One of the non-profits fighting the spread of malaria is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As you probably know, Bill Gates is the founder of Microsoft and one of the world’s richest people. When it comes to succeeding in the for-profit or non-profit world, few have even come close to Gates’ achievements.

Every year the Foundation puts out its annual “Gates Letter,” an open letter from Bill Gates on how their programs are progressing and what they plan to do to move forward. The 2013 Gates Letter had one central theme: testing is absolutely vital to success in the non-profit world. As Gates himself states, “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.”

Those words are so powerful, and from such an authoritative source, that I think they bear repeating: “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.”

Can Testing Save The Lives Of Animals?

Gates was talking about non-profit work to help human beings. But can the same approach save the lives and spare the suffering of farm animals?

Absolutely. If testing can be used to sell products, to win elections, and to save human lives, it can also be used to save the lives of animals. Not only can it be used, but it’s my strong belief that those of us who care about farm animals have an ethical obligation to use testing and research to guide our vegan advocacy work.

Historically, our movement has not taken this approach. Consider the following questions on the best way to carry out vegan advocacy:

  • Is it better to use statistics, stories, or both in talking about the plight of farm animals?
  • Is it better to encourage the public to go vegan, to go vegetarian, or to eat less meat?
  • Is it better to share a video about the animal cruelty involved in farming, the environmental consequences of eating meat, or the health benefits of going vegan?

In the past, our movement has viewed these as questions of opinion or questions of philosophy. More often, we haven’t even thought about questions like these at all. We’ve simply copied what others have done, or worked off of assumptions and personal preferences.

But if we define “better” as “sparing the lives of more animals,” then the questions above are not simply matters of opinion or philosophy. They are questions of fact. They have concrete answers. We as a movement just haven’t taken the time to find out what those answers are, and that is precisely the problem.

Let me give you an example of why I believe that not only can we use direct testing to improve our vegan advocacy efforts, but that we have an ethical imperative to do so.

The Humane League (THL) is a farm animal protection group that spends a large amount of money running Facebook ads that promote vegan eating. The ads target young women, and – when clicked on – bring viewers to a website with video of factory farm cruelty and resources on vegan eating. In 2012 their ads drew about 700,000 young women to THL’s video website. (Disclosure: I am the founder of THL, and a board member. I am also a staff member with the organization Farm Sanctuary.)

It’s unclear exactly what percentage of visitors changed their diet as a result of seeing the video. THL has teamed up with university researchers to find out, but the study hasn’t been completed yet. For the sake of argument here, let’s assume that 1 out of every 100 young women who visits the site goes vegetarian, and that the other 99 visitors make no change to their diet whatsoever.

If that were the case, it would mean that in 2012 THL’s Facebook ads spared about 217,000 farm animals from a lifetime of misery (based on this research about how many animals a vegetarian spares each year). That’s great! But here’s the thing: there are a number of different factory farm cruelty videos that exist. And THL wondered, how do we know whether the video we’re using is the most effective one?

So over the course of two months they carried out direct testing to compare the impact of four different farm animal cruelty videos. The result? The best video seemed to be about 70% more effective at inspiring young women to move toward going vegetarian (by clicking to order a vegetarian starter guide) than the video THL had been using. This particular study didn’t track actual diet change. But since both groups were given the same resources, and came at random from the same demographic audience, the group more likely to order a guide should also be more likely to go vegetarian.

As a result, THL switched their entire ad campaign to the more effective video. In doing so, they probably made their campaign about 70% more effective. And that means that if they reach the exact same number of people, they will go from sparing 217,000 animals last year to sparing 369,000 this year.

That’s over 150,000 additional animals spared – without spending one extra penny. Over 150,000 additional animals spared simply by switching from one video to another.

That is the incredible power of direct testing. And that is why I believe that those of us who care about farm animals – and especially organizations conducting vegan advocacy work – have an ethical obligation to use direct testing to increase our effectiveness.

It seems bizarre that things like font size or color could affect how many people buy a car. It seems bizarre that knowing what magazines people subscribe to could help win a presidential election. It seems bizarre that giving away mosquito nets for free versus charging 60 cents for them would mean life or death for thousands of people.

And it seems bizarre that something as simple as direct testing could spare the torture of so many animals. And yet, it is so.

Whenever there are four videos – or leaflets, or vegetarian starter guides, or vegan eating websites, or humane education talks, or whatever – one of them is going to be most effective at changing diets and saving lives. That is simple fact. So why not find out which is most effective, and use it? If we care about animals, we have an ethical obligation to do so.

And no matter how good any video – or leaflet, guide, website, or talk – is, it can always get better. Improving its effectiveness by even 10, 20, or 30% can spare massive numbers of animals, as we saw in the example earlier. So why not try different tweaks to these materials and find out which tweaks make them more effective? Direct testing makes that possible.

Sure, testing is an imperfect science, and the results of one study can’t give us an ironclad guarantee that one method is better than another. But as long as the studies are designed well, the results will be correct more often than not – and that probability alone makes them worthwhile and life-saving. Plus, the more direct testing we do, the more certain we can be.

Wringing our hands because no test can perfectly account for every variable would simply be an excuse to avoid having to put in work, to try something new, and to be willing to be wrong. The business community, politicians, and other non-profits are not paralyzed into inaction. We can’t be either.

It would be similarly misguided to avoid testing on the grounds that the results might not line up with our philosophies. For example, if testing found that encouraging the public to “go vegetarian” spared more animals than encouraging the public to “go vegan,” it might put some vegan activists in a quandary.

But it is always better to know than to not know. And for every assumption we have about how the world works, we should be able to identify a feasible test that could prove us wrong. To the extent we disregard empirical data in favor of philosophy or sociological theory, we are valuing the ideas in our head over the tangible misery of animals just out of sight.

A Clear Choice

We as a movement have two choices. Just as the alchemists assumed they knew how to turn lead into gold, even though they had no empirical evidence to show they were correct, our movement can assume we know the best ways to turn omnivores into vegans. Or, like the early chemists, we can insert the scientific method into our work and become significantly more effective.

And in fact, that shift is now underway and gathering steam. Groups including The Humane League, Farm Animal Rights Movement, Mercy For Animals, and VegFund are starting to carry out direct testing on their own programs. Most importantly of all, they are using the results to shape their program decisions.

THL recently launched Humane League Labs, a research wing created to do direct testing of different vegan advocacy approaches. And while there is little direct testing in it, a new book I’ve written analyzes hundreds of studies on vegetarians to provide data useful for vegan advocacy efforts.

And of course the Humane Research Council has played a key role in steering the animal protection movement in this direction, carrying out research and testing for a number of vegan advocacy organizations and sharing pertinent studies on

By way of conclusion:

Alchemy lasted for nearly 2,000 years before the scientific method was inserted and a long exercise in futility turned into a triumphant success for humanity.

The vegan advocacy movement has been around for roughly 70 years. Let’s not wait another 1,930 years – or even another three – before we start holding all of our work to the standard of scientific rigor.

The animals suffering in misery should not have to, and cannot, wait that long.

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Nick Cooney is the founder of The Humane League, and the Compassionate Communities Campaign Manager at Farm Sanctuary. He is also the author of Change Of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change. His work for animals has been featured in hundreds of media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and National Public Radio. He resides in Washington, DC.


I agree with the article that testing of major campaigns, when there are options to choose from, can make a huge impact. Just look at the numbers. I read the critique by Ian Smith and would disagree with almost all of it. It seems to be written from an emotional-fear based perspective. I would agree with his one comment that we actually have more than 2 choices, but I do think it was more of a semantic point. For a small, grassroots group with a $200 budget, testing different materials for outreach is not feasible. However, for large organizations, it is an intelligent tool which can be very effective in reducing harm to animals, human health and the environment. When the results are published by the big organizations, hopefully the small groups will decide, on their own, to use the best resources available.

Please see this response by Ian Smith

This reply is worth reading: "From Social Justice to Social Science? A Response to Nick Cooney"

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