How to design surveys that represent asexuals

[CW: mentions of sex.]

Most surveys that discuss the matter almost certainly misrepresent the asexual population in one way or another. Fortunately, if you’re creating a survey, or interpreting results from a previously-conducted survey, there are ways to make your results more accurate!

This post is based on my previous post about asexuality, which contains more detailed sources and reasons why I think this topic is important. The idea of this post can probably also be applied to representing diverse sexual preferences or even gender identities (e.g. allow varied responses, don’t make assumptions), but the specific suggestions are targeted towards asexuality. Feel free to share this with people who are designing surveys.

Remember that asexuality and aromanticism exist

If your survey touches in any way on romance, sexuality, relationships, or related behaviors, the most important thing is to know and account for the fact that asexuality exists at all.

The basics: Asexuality is an umbrella term for people who don’t experience sexual attraction. 1-8% of people are or could be called asexual (more info here). Asexual people aren’t an easily-dismissed minority, and they are in your sample demographic. (Probably.) Aromanticism, similarly, is not having romantic interest. We don’t know how many aromantics there are, but they’re certainly out there. People may be aromantic and asexual, or either one, or neither. Some people consider asexuality and aromanticism to fall under the LGBTQ demographic, some people don’t. (The extended LGBTQIA+ acronym does include asexuals – that’s what the ‘a’ is supposed to stand for.) More information can be found here.

In representing asexual people in your results, the first question is what you’re using your data for.

My survey is about general identity/demographic information

We might expect 2x-4x as many romantic asexuals as aromantic asexuals (where do these numbers come from?). This is important because people on the asexual or aromantic spectrum have multiple identities – they might be biromantic and gray-asexual, or aromantic and homosexual, or heteroromantic and demisexual. This means that a question like the following is likely to lead to inaccurate answers:

What’s your orientation?

  • Heterosexual
  • Homosexual
  • Bi/pansexual
  • Asexual

One community survey found that the number of asexuals doubled when asexuality was asked about separately. You could do the same thing:

What’s your orientation?

  • Heterosexual
  • Homosexual
  • Bi/pansexual
  • Other

Are you asexual?

  • Yes
  • No

A solution that might be less confusing for people who don’t know what asexuality is, is to allow respondents to check multiple boxes, e.g.:

Check which of the following best describe your sexual/romantic orientation:

( ) Heterosexual
( ) Homosexual
( ) Bi/pansexual
( ) Asexual

It would also be nice (and more accurate) to include some other options:

( ) Gray-asexual
( ) Demisexual
( ) Other

You could also ask about romantic and sexual orientation separately:

What is your sexual orientation?

  • Heterosexual
  • Homosexual
  • Bi/pansexual
  • Asexual
  • Other

What is your romantic orientation?

  • Heteroromantic(attracted to another gender)
  • Homoromantic (attracted to your same gender)
  • Bi/panromantic (attracted to all genders)
  • Aromantic (do not experience romantic attraction)
  • Other

(Edit, 3/4/17: Siggy points out in the comments that it’s important to include an “other” or write-in response on romantic orientation questions, as well as sexual orientation.)

You could also just have a write-in response:

What is your sexual/romantic orientation?  ___________________

You can then bin responses like “straight” and “heterosexual” as meaning the same thing, or, say, “aro-ace” and “gray-asexual lesbian” as both being on the asexual spectrum.

There is a downside in that people don’t necessarily know what “heteroromantic” means right away, even if they are that. (So if you’re going with options with less-familiar words, include definitions.)

Weed out troll answers with a lizardman question

The problem with more questions or write-ins is that those open up options to troll or confusing responses, perhaps from people who disagree with the basis of the question, or don’t understand.

Since people who troll on a gender or orientation question are likely to troll on other parts of the quiz, you could throw in a lizardman question – an absurd question designed to weed out troll respondents (or at least calibrate the honesty of participants).

In middle school, we got drug use surveys that asked us to check if we had ever done marijuana, heroin, hallucinogens, amphetamines, perscription drugs, inhalants, or derbisol (also known as DB, dirt, wagon wheels, or hope.) We asked the health teacher what “derbisol” was after the test, and she looked it up, and derbisol isn’t real – it’s a lizardman answer. (Apparently, 18.2% of high-schoolers in some groups have claimed to use derbisol. Remember: if you don’t talk to your kids about wagon wheels, bloggers will.)

The point is that you can adapt a lizardman question to a variety of contexts.

My survey is about sexual/romantic/relationship behavior

The keys here are A) remember that asexuality and aromanticism exist, and B) ask about behavior or preferences rather than making assumptions.

  • Many asexual people date people.
  • Some asexuals sometimes have sex.
  • Some people who don’t identify as asexual still don’t want to have sex for whatever reason.
  • Someone who’s gray-asexual may normally round themselves off as “asexual” on surveys, but have experienced sexual attraction before.
  • Some people are asexual but don’t know it.
  • Asexual people may or may not identify as queer.
  • Etc.

So if your question is about, say, attitudes from people who have or want to have sex with women, don’t ask if they’re heterosexual/bisexual men or homosexual/bisexual women. Instead, ask if your respondent has or wants to have sex with women.

Same goes for relationships.

The Asexual Identification Scale is 12 questions about behavior and preferences that capture 90% of asexual people, and can also identify asexual people who don’t realize they’re asexual. If you’re curious specifically about asexual-type behaviors, this may be your answer.

My survey is gathering data for both demographics and behaviors

State what you’re using the data for. For instance, if you have one question to ask college students about their orientation and who they’re likely to date, state that your study is  about dating preferences.

You won’t get a complete picture of people’s orientations, but you weren’t going to anyways with one multiple-choice question. And people with complicated identities (like “biromantic asexual”) are more likely to write in the part that represents who they’re planning to date, not have sex with. If you’re using the response to gather information about STD risk, make it clear that your question is about sexual activity. (And then clarify what “sexual activities” you’re talking about, since people define that differently too and it’s probably relevant to STD risk. Specificity counts!)

2. Avoid over-generalizing from your results. If you’re using data from a question like the first one (“pick one: homosexual, heterosexual, bi/pansexual, or asexual”), realize that your answers for who dates or has sex with whom are necessarily fuzzy, because your results are representing asexuals and aromantics poorly.

Throw a prediction party with your EA/rationality group

TL;DR: Prediction & calibration parties are an exciting way for your EA/rationality group to practice rationality skills and celebrate the new year.

On December 30th, Seattle Rationality had a prediction party. Around 15 people showed up, brought snacks, brewed coffee, and spent several hours making predictions for 2017, and generating confidence levels for those predictions.

This was heavily inspired by Scott Alexander’s yearly predictions. (2014 results, 2015 results, 2016 predictions.) Our move was to turn this into a communal activity, with a few alterations to meet our needs and make it work better in a group.

Procedure:

  • Each person individually writes a bunch of predictions for the upcoming year. They can be about global events, people’s personal lives, etc.
    • If you use Scott Alexander’s system, create 5+ predictions for fixed confidence levels (50%, 60%, 70%, 80%, 90%, 95%, etc.)
    • If you want to generate Brier scores or logarithmic scores, just do 30+ predictions at whatever confidence levels you believe.
  • Write down confidence levels for each prediction.
  • Save your predictions and put it aside for 12 months.
  • Open up your predictions and see how everyone did.

To make this work in a group, we recommend the following:

  • Don’t share your confidence intervals. Avoid anchoring by just not naming how likely or unlikely you think any prediction is.
  • Do share predictions. Generating 30+ predictions is difficult, and sharing ideas (without confidence levels) makes it way easier to come up with a bunch. We made a shared google doc, and everyone pasted some of their predictions into it.
  • Make predictions that, in a year, will verifiably have happened or not. (IE, not “the academic year will go well”, which is debatable, but “I will finish the year with a 3.5 GPA or above”.)
  • It’s convenient to assume that unless stated otherwise predictions that end by the next year (IE, “I will go to the Bay Area” means “I will go to the Bay Area at least once in 2017.”) It’s also fine to make predictions that have other end dates (“I will go to EA Global this summer.”)
  • Make a bunch of predictions first without thinking too hard about how likely they are, then assign confidence levels. This post details why. You could also generate a group list of predictions, and everyone individually lists their own confidence levels.

This makes a good activity for rationality/EA groups for the following reasons:

  • Practicing rationality skills:
    • Making accurate predictions
    • Using confidence intervals
  • Accessibility
    • It’s open to many different knowledge levels. Even if you don’t know a thing about geopolitics, you can still give predictions and confidence intervals about media, sports, or your own life.
    • More free-form and less intimidating than using a prediction market. You do not have to know about the details of forecasting to try this.
  • Natural time and recurring activity
    • You could do this at any point during the year, but doing it at the start of the year seems appropriate for ringing in the new year.
    • In twelve months, you have an automatic new activity, which is coming back together and checking everybody’s predictions from last year. Then you make a new set of predictions for next year. (If this falls through for some reason, everyone can, of course, still check their predictions on their own.)
  • Fostering a friendly sense of competitiveness
    • Everyone wants to have the best calibration, or the lowest Brier score. Everyone wants to have the most accurate predictions!

Some examples of the predictions people used:

  • Any open challenges from the Good Judgment Project.
  • I will switch jobs.
  • I will make more than $1000 money in a way that is different from my primary job or stock.
  • I will exercise 3 or more times per week in October, November, December.
  • I’ll get another tattoo.
  • Gay marriage will continue to be legal in Washington state.
  • Gay marriage will continue to be legal in all 50 states.
  • I will try Focusing at least once.
  • I will go to another continent.
  • CRISPR clinical trials will happen on humans in the US.
  • A country that didn’t previously have nuclear weapons will acquire them.
  • I will read Thinking Fast and Slow.
  • I will go on at least 3 dates.

Also relevant:

  • 16 types of useful predictions
  • Brier values and graphs of ‘perfect’ vs. actual scores will give you different information. Alexander writes about the differences between these. Several of us did predictions last year using the Scott Alexander method (bins at fixed probabilities), although this year, everybody seems to have used continuous probabilities. The exact method by which we’ll determine how well-calibrated we were will be left to Seattle Rationality of 2018, but will probably include Brier values AND something to determine calibration.

(Crossposted from LessWrong.)

Science for Non-Scientists: How to read a journal article

Scientific journal writing has a problem:

  1. It’s the main way scientists communicate their findings to the world, in some ways making it the carrier of humanity’s entire accumulated knowledge and understanding of the universe.
  2. It’s terrible.

It’s terrible for two reasons: accessibility and approachability. This first post in this series discussed accessibility: how to find papers that will answer a particular question, or help you explore a particular subject.

This post discusses approachability: how to read a standard scientific journal article.


Scientific papers are written for scientists in whatever field the journal they’re published in caters to. Fortunately, most journal articles are also written in such a way that you can figure out what they’re saying even if you’re a layperson.

(Except for maybe math or organic chemistry synthesis. But if you’re reading about math or organic chemistry as a layperson, you’re in God’s hands now and I can’t help you.)

Okay, so you’ve got your 22-page stack of paper on moose feeding habits, or the effects of bacteriophage on ocean acidification, or gravitational waves, or whatever. What now? There are two cardinal rules of journal articles:

  1. You usually don’t have to read all of it.
  2. Don’t read it page by page.

Journal articles are conveniently broken into sections. (They often use the names given, or close synonyms.) I almost always read them in the following order:

20160705_110250

1. Abstract

The abstract is the TL;DR of the article, the summary of what the studies found. Conveniently, it’s first. The abstract is very useful for determining if you actually want to read the rest of the article or not. Abstracts often have very dense, technical language, so if you don’t understand what’s going on in the abstract, don’t sweat it.

2. Introduction

As a layperson, the introduction is your best friend. It’s designed to bring the reader from only a loose understanding of the field, to “zoom in” to the actual study. It’s supposed to build the context you need to understand the experiment itself. It gives a background to the field, what we already know about the topic at hand, historical context, why the researchers did what they did, and why it’s important. It’ll define terms and acronyms that will be crucial to the rest of the paper.

It may not actually be easy language. At this point, if you encounter a term or concept that’s unfamiliar (and that the researchers don’t describe in the introduction), start looking it up. Just type it into Wikipedia or Google, and if what you get seems to be relevant, that’s probably it.

3. Conclusions

In a novel, skipping to the end to see how the suspense plays out is considered “bad form” and “not the point.” When reading papers, it’s a sanity-saving measure. In this part of the paper, the researchers write about what conclusions they’re drawing from their studies,and its implications. This is also done in fairly broad strokes that put it in context of the rest of scientific understanding.

4. Figures

Next, go to the figures that are strewn around the results section, just before the conclusions. (Some papers don’t have figures – in that case, just read the results.) Figures will give you a good sense of the actual results of the experiments. Also read the captions – captions on figures are designed to be somewhat stand-alone, as in that you don’t have to read everything else in the paper to tell what’s going on in the figures.

Depending on your paper, you might also get actual pictures of the subject that illustrate some result. Definitely look at these. Figure out what you’re looking at and what the pictures are supposed to be telling you. Google anything you don’t understand, including how the images were obtained if it’s relevant.

In trying to interpret figures, look at the labels and axes – what’s being compared, and what they’re being measured by. Lots of graphs include measurements taken over time, but not all. Some figures include error measurements – each data point on a graph might have been the average of several different data points in individual experiments, and error measures how different those data points were from each other. A large percent error (or error bar, or number of standard deviations, etc) means the original data points were far apart from each other, small error means that they were all close to the average value. If you see a type of graph that you’re not sure how to read, Google it.

5. Results

The section that contains figures also contains written information about the researchers actually observed in the experiments they ran. They also usually include statistics, IE, how statistically significant a given result is in the context of the study. The results are what the conclusions were interpreting. They may also describe results or observations that didn’t show up in figures.

Maybe read:

Methods

Methods are the machinery of the paper – the nuts-and-bolts, nitty-gritty of how the experiments were done, what was combine, where the samples came from, how it was quantified. It’s critical to science because it’s the instructions for how other researchers can check what you did and see if they can replicate the results – but I’d also rather read Youtube comments on political debates than read methods all day. I’ll read the methods section under the following circumstances:

  • I’m curious about how the study was done. (You do sometimes get good stuff, like in this study where they anesthetized snakes and slid them down ramps, then compared them to snakes who slid down ramps while wearing little snake socks to compare scale friction.)
  • I think the methodology might have been flawed.
  • I’m trying to do a similar experiment myself.
snakes on a plane.gif
Snakes on a plane! || Gif from this video.

Works cited

Papers cite their sources throughout the paper, especially in the introduction. If I want to know where a particular fact came from, I’ll look at the citation in the works cited section, and look up that paper.

Acknowledgement/Conflicts of Interest

Science is objective, but humans aren’t. If your paper on “how dairy cows are super happy on farms” was sponsored by the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, consider that the researchers would be very biased to come to a particular conclusion and keep receiving funding. If the researchers were employed by the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, I’d be very tempted to just throw out the study.

Science for Non-Scientists: How to find scientific literature

Scientific journal writing has a problem:

  1. It’s the major way scientists communicate their findings to the world, in some ways making it the carrier of humanity’s entire accumulated knowledge and understanding of the universe.
  2. It’s terrible.

This has two factors: Accessibility and approachability. Scientific literature isn’t easy to find, and much of it is locked behind paywalls. Also, most scientific writing is dense, dull, and nigh-incomprehensible if you’re not already an expert. It’s like those authors who write beautiful works of literature and poetry, and then keep it under their bed until they die – only the poetry could literally be used to save lives.  There are systematic issues with the way we deal with scientific literature, but in the mean time, there are also some techniques that make it easier to deal with.

This first post in this series will discuss accessibility: how to find papers that will answer a particular question or help you explore a subject.

The second post in this series discusses approachability: how to read a standard scientific journal article.


How to Find Articles

Most scientific papers come from a small group of researchers who do a series of experiments on a common theme or premise, then write about what they learned. If your goal is to learn more about a broad subject, ask yourself if a paper is actually what you want. Lots of quality, scientifically rigorous information can be obtained in other ways – textbooks, classes, summaries, Wikipedia, science journalism.

 

blog science stack
The great food web of “where does scientific knowledge come from anyways?”

When might you want to turn to the primary literature? If you’re looking at very new research, if you’re looking at a contentious topic, if you’re trying to find a specific number or fact that just isn’t coming up anywhere else, if you’re trying to fact-check some science journalism, or if you’re already familiar enough with the field that you know what’s on Wikipedia already.

You can look at the citations of a journal article you already like. Or, find who the experts in a field are (maybe by looking at leaders of professional organizations or Wikipedia) and read what they’ve written. Most science journalism is also reporting on a single new study, which should be linked in the article’s text.

If you have access to a university library, ask them about tools to search databases of journal articles. Universities subscribe to many reliable journals and get their articles for free. Your public library may also have some.

Google Scholar is a search engine for academic writing. It has both recent and very old papers, and a variety of search tools. It pulls both reliable and less reliable sources, and both full-text and abstract-only articles (IE, articles where the rest is behind a paywall.) Clicking “All # Versions” at the bottom of each result will often lead you to a PDF of the full text.

If you’ve found the perfect paper but it’s behind a paywall- well, welcome to academia. Don’t give up. First up, put the full name of the article, in quotes, into Google. Click on the results, especially on PDFs. It’ll often just be floating around, in full, on a different site.

If that doesn’t work, and you don’t have access through a library, well… Most journals will ask you to pay them a one-time fee to read a single article without subscribing. It’s often ridiculous, like forty dollars. (Show of hands, has anyone reading this ever actually paid this?)

But this is the modern age, and there are other options. “Isn’t that illegal?” you may ask. Well, yes. Don’t do illegal things. However, journals follow two models:

  1. Open content access, researchers pay to submit articles
  2. Content behind paywalls, researchers can submit articles for free

As you can see, fees associated with journals don’t actually go to researchers in either model. There are probably some reasonable ethical objections to downloading paywalled-articles for free, but there are also very reasonable ethical objections to putting research behind paywalls in general.

How good is my source?

Surprise! There’s good science and bad science. This is a thorny issue that might be beyond my scope to cover in a single blog post, and certainly beyond my capacity to speak to every field on. I can’t just leave you here without a road map, so here are some guidelines. You’ll probably have two goals: avoiding complete bullshit and finding significant results.

Tips for avoiding complete bullshit

  • Some journals are more reliable than others. Science and Nature are the behemoths of science and biology (respectively), and have extremely high standards for content submission. There are also other well-known journals in each field.
  • Well-known journals are unlikely to publish complete bullshit. (Unless they’re well known for being pseudoscience journals.)
  • You can check a journal’s impact score, or how well-cited their work tends to be, which is sort of a metric for how robust and interesting the papers they publish are. This is a weird ouroboros: researchers want to submit to journals with high impact scores, and journals want to attract articles that are likely to be cited more often – so it’s not a perfect metric. If a journal has no impact score at all, proceed with extreme caution.
  • Watch out for predatory journals and publishers. Avoid these like the plague, since they will publish anything that gets sent to them. (What is a predatory journal?)
  • Make sure the journal hasn’t issued a retraction for the study you’re reading.

Once you’ve distinguished “complete bullshit” from “actual data”, you have to distinguish “significant data” from “misleading data” or “fluke data”. Finding significant results is much tougher than ruling out total bullshit – scientists themselves aren’t always great at it – and varies depending on the field.

Tips for finding significant results

  • Large sample sizes are better than small sample sizes. (IE, a lot of data was gathered.)
  • If the result appears in a top-level journal, or other scientists are praising it, it’s more likely to be a real finding.
  • Or if it’s been replicated by other researchers. Theoretically, all research is expected to replicate. In practice, it sometimes doesn’t, and I have no idea how to check if a study has been replicated.
  • If a result runs counter to common understanding, is extremely surprising, and is very new, proceed with caution before accepting the study’s conclusions as truth.
  • Apply some common sense. Can you think of some other factor that would explain the results, that the authors didn’t mention? Did the experiment run for a long enough amount of time? Could the causation implied in the paper run other ways (EG, if a paper claims that anxiety causes low grades: could it also be that low grades cause anxiety, or that the same thing causes both anxiety and low grades?), and did the paper make any attempt to distinguish this? Is anything missing?
  • Learn statistics.

If you’re examining an article on a controversial topic, familiarize yourself with the current scientific consensus and why scientists think that, then go in with a skeptical eye and an open mind. If your paper gets an opposite result from what most similar studies say, try to find what they did differently.

Scott Alexander writes some fantastic articles on how scientists misuse statistics. Here are two: The Control Group is Out of Control, and Two Dark Side Statistical Papers. These are recommended reading, especially if your subject is contentious, and uses lots of statistics to make its point.


Review articles and why they’re great

The review article (including literature reviews, meta-analyses, and more) is the summary of a bunch of papers around a single subject. They’re written by scientists, for scientists, and published in scientific journals, but they’ll cover a subject in broader strokes. If you want to read about something in more detail than Wikipedia, but broader than a journal article – like known links between mental illness and gut bacteria – review articles are a goldmine. Authors sometimes also use review articles to link together their own ideas or concepts, and these are often quite interesting.

If an article looks like a normal paper, and it came from a journal, but it doesn’t follow the normal abstract-introduction-methods-discussion-conclusion format, and subject headings are descriptive rather than outlining parts of an experiment, it might be a review article. (Sometimes they’re clearly labelled, sometimes not.) You can read these the same way you’d read a book chapter – front to back – or search anywhere in it for whatever you need.

What if you can’t find review articles about what you want, or you need more specificity? In that case, buckle up. It’s time to learn how to read an article.

So You’re Not Ready To Go Vegetarian

[Content warning: Moralizing about what food you should eat, descriptions of bad things happening to animals, eating bugs. Also, lots of people can’t go vegetarian or significantly alter their diet at all due to health, cost, time, sensory issues, strong preferences, lack of options, inability to pick your own diet, etc. Most of the ‘alternatives’ posed here take money, time, or majorly changing your habits. If reading this post is likely to make you feel guilty or bad in an unproductive way, feel free to skip it.]

This is a rather utilitarian list of approaches to improving the lives of animals even if you still eat meat. I’ll start with some general strategies, ranked roughly in order from “least  to most weird”. See what works with your diet, resources, and preferences.


 Basic ideas:

  • Eat less meat in general.
  • Eat less chicken, eggs, beef, and farmed fish.
  • For other animal products, eat Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, or 100% Grass-Fed meat, or buy from a source where you know how the animals are treated.
  • Eat species that suffer less, either in farms or at all.
  • Pay other people to go vegan for you.
  • Support animal welfare by donating money effectively.

I suspect that some people will object to the notion that it’s ever alright to kill or use an animal, and that encouraging people to do this in a “less bad” way is just making compromises with the devil. (As opposed to veganism, which is merely selling your soul to Seitan.) If you’re one of these people, you’re probably already a vegan and this essay isn’t for you.

Not that I entirely disagree- many more people should be vegetarian. That’s not the point, though. Many people are Vegetarian Sympathizers, as I once was. As a young person, for instance, I knew that I had moral issues with the idea of eating animals- that a cow’s brain wasn’t very different from a cat’s, which also wasn’t very different from a human’s. I also knew that meat had unfortunate impacts on the environment and that global warming was a serious problem. But my developmental environment had lots of meat. And also, I had a very strong objection- cheeseburgers.

dicks
Pictured: The Seattle restaurant that was the source of my conflict. The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak. | By Jmabel (CC BY-SA)

This wasn’t a rational objection. But we’re not rational creatures, and the Cheeseburger Objection was the actual thing standing in between me and vegetarianism. And if I’m going to eat cheeseburgers anyways, why not eat steak, chicken, fish, etc.?

Honestly, the Cheeseburger Objection is a pretty good one. One cow makes a lot of cheeseburgers. One cheeseburger might make you very happy. Acknowledging that isn’t a reason to stop caring about animal welfare entirely. And Cheeseburger Objectionists can still make extremely meaningful contributions to animal welfare without depriving themselves of that cheesey goodness.

1. Only go vegetarian sometimes.

Meatless Mondays are a thing- don’t eat meat just one day a week. That’s 1/7 fewer animals you’re eating, and gaining valuable practice in cooking and eating vegetarian. If that’s too easy, up it to two days a week. Repeat.

Some other strategies that have worked for people: eat vegan before 5 o’clock (IE, meals before dinner), only eat meat outside the house, only eat meat inside the house.

Or, if you’re inclined towards vegetarianism- except for cheeseburgers- (or orange chicken, shrimp, your uncle’s venison, baseball stadium hotdogs, etc.-) consider just being a Cheeseburger Vegetarian. I think there’s this tendency to think that if you’re not doing something 100% all the way and identify as that, any tendency you have towards it doesn’t count at all. But that’s completely untrue. Given that we live in a world where most people do eat meat, conspicuously eating less meat both saves animals, and is a talking point that puts vegetarianism on people’s radars.

(Of course, if you’re being a Cheeseburger Vegetarian and hoping to talk to other people about it, people might take you less seriously. This might be a problem. You could either keep your cheeseburger habit private and secretive, hoarding McDonald’s in the dark like the world’s most gluttonous dragon – or you could acknowledge that if someone’s going think that plant-based diets are a joke and not important, they can already find whatever reason they want to do that.)

If you don’t know how to cook food or eat meals without meat, maybe the problem is educational. Look for recipes that contain tofu, beans, lentils, TVP, or vegetables. If you only know one kind of cuisine, broaden your horizons- Indian, Ethiopian, Mexican, Chinese, etcetera, all have lots of opportunities for low meat dishes.

We live in a golden age of easily available recipes. PETA, Vegetarian Times, and Leanne Brown’s free cookbooks are a few good resources. Google it. Also, if you want to make a favorite Food X vegan or vegetarian, look up “Vegan Food X” and you will instantly get 4,000 hits including step-by-step photographs and people’s life stories as told through salad dressing recipes. The internet is a magical place.

2. Eat humanely sourced meat.

This is way harder than it sounds. The good news is that meat is given labels which reflect how it was raised. The bad news is that some of these labels are regulated, and some aren’t, and it’s difficult to determine which labels actually correspond to good living environments and which are symbolic or easily falsified.

Look for the following words on packages:

Certified Organic animals may still be subject to a variety of inhumane conditions. The label means that hormones, antibiotics, and some other treatments are not allowed, and that the animal must be allowed to “exhibit natural behaviors.” I suspect that organic animals are somewhat harder to mistreat, because farmers are incentivized to raise animals in low-disease environments, so organic may be better than conventional if those are your only two options. *

Animal Welfare Approved is an independently-verified certification that has very high welfare standards, including for slaughter. Certified Humane is a less strong but similar certification. There are probably other good ones- look for what they require and how they’ve verified.

Hoofed animals: Look for 100% Grass-Fed, a legally-defined term in which all animals must be raised entirely on pasture (grass, etc) and not fed harvested grain. It seems much harder to mistreat a cow raised this way, since it can’t be confined. This is different from grass-finished, pastured, or normal grass-fed, since all cows eat some grass before they arrive at feedlots.

3. Be careful with chicken.

Chickens are extremely common and live extremely bad lives in factory farms, probably moreso than any other animal.

I don’t think cage-free or free-range eggs are significantly better than the alternatives. A cage-free chicken may have a somewhat better and more natural life than a non-caged chicken, though they’re newly at risk of fighting with other chickens, which caged chickens aren’t. They may still be subject to having their beaks cut off, slaughter of male chicks (half of all egg-laying chickens are killed shortly after hatching), bird flu, crowded environments, being raised in darkness, starvation-based forced molting, etc.

A couple examples:

  • Free-range – the amount of time or space required for “outdoor access” isn’t legally defined, and varies from facility to facility.
  • A cage-free chicken is still raised in barns or warehouses. They may have no outdoor access, or have their beaks cut or burned off without anesthesia.
  • Organic eggs still aren’t treated with antibiotics but can still be raised in factory farms.
  • More info on labels.
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Putting a picture of happy chickens here seemed disingenuous, so here’s some eggs, I guess. | The Home Front In Britain, 1935-1945.

Any given egg source may well not do some or all of these- for instance, I’ve heard that there are some egg producers that don’t slaughter male chicks, and the cost of raising them is passed to the consumer as a higher price. The key here is to do your research. If you buy based on label X or Y without further investigation, even at a “nice” natural foods store or co-op, your chicken will probably have been raised in painful, inhumane conditions.

I think your best chance at getting humanely raised chickens or eggs is to buy from a home farmer or very small permaculture farm, ideally where you can see the chickens. These are likely to be significantly more expensive than other options. Farms may still slaughter male chicks.

4. Eat species that suffer less.

Quantification of animal suffering is a new field, and practices for calculating it are general estimates. That said, its numbers come from easily understandable ideas- that it’s worse to be a factory-farmed chicken than a feedlot cow, for instance. Some other ideas include that being killed is painful, so an animal that produces more food over a long period means less suffering per food unit (assuming said animal’s day-to-day existence isn’t terrible.) Also, that having a more complex brain probably means you can suffer more. It’s not an exact science, but it’s what we’ve got.

Brian Tomasik, who has studied animal suffering extensively, suggests using this metric that by eliminating chicken, chicken products, and farmed fish from your diet, you reduce the suffering you inflict on animals by an enormous amount.

Clams and mussels have very simple nervous systems and probably do not feel much pain, while full of nutrients comparable to other animal foods. Ozymandias at Thing of Things suggests that eating bivalves and dairy, and otherwise being vegan, can be a good trade-off between health, enjoyment, and helping animals. Also, you still get to eat clam chowder (if it doesn’t have bacon.)

The jury is still out on whether insects experience suffering. On one hand, insects are pretty simple critters; on the other hand, to produce any significant amount of food, you need a lot of insects, so however much moral weight they do have gets multiplied by a lot. On the third hand, about a quintillion die every year, so your own contribution is pretty marginal. (That number is extrapolation- I suspect most insects live less than a year, so the number is probably higher.)

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Chingrit thot by Takeaway (CC BY-SA)

What is known is that insects are nutritious and environmentally friendly. Sourcing insects is difficult and pricey, so try raising your own.

Exotic meats. I suspect that exotic meats (deer/venison, buffalo, ostrich, etc.) are more likely to be raised in more ethical environments, because as species they’re less domesticated, and therefore harder to mistreat as in a factory farm. However, I have no evidence for this.

5. Eat environmentally sound meat.

Most of this list comes from a moral argument, but the negative environmental impacts of standard meat is so well-established that it’s worth discussing. 30% of the world’s non-frozen dry land is currently devoted to feeding or raising animals, and 18% of human-produced greenhouse gases came from agriculture. Lamb and beef have disproportionately high greenhouse gas emissions. You’ll note that chicken is rather low on this ranking, but as in the above section, there are other reasons to avoid it.

“Don’t non-animal-product foods also have carbon emissions?” Not that much.

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Source and more info.

Fish is extremely nutritious, but many species are overfished. Eat conscientiously to avoid making the problem worse- the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has detailed recommendations for the consumer based on your location, sorted into handy “okay to eat” and “avoid this” categories. Bycatch ratios are another thing to beware: shrimp fisheries are the worst, trawling up an average 6 times more non-shrimp than shrimp.

6. Convince someone else to go vegan.

A review (again by Tomasik) of organizations that run ads promoting vegetarianism suggest that the cost of converting a someone to be vegan for a year is, conservatively, about $100. Do you have the money to spare, and think there should be more vegans, but eating meat is worth more than a hundred dollars to you?

Utilitarianism: it works.

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Utilitarianism: It’s this cool. And the ends justify the memes.

This approach won’t work forever, of course – if everybody decided that they individually would eat meat but convince others not to, the cost of getting anyone to go vegan would skyrocket. But not everybody is, and for the time, it’s still low-hanging fruit.

7. Donate to effective charities.

Can we do even better? The average vegetarian saves ~25 land animals per year (and perhaps 371-582 animals per year including fish and shellfish) according to the blog Counting Animals.

The Effective Altruism movement, which is near and dear to my heart, has produced several lovely projects, including Animal Charity Evaluators– a highly evidence-based group that researches which animal welfare organizations have the most bang for your buck. (Sort of the Givewell of the greater biosphere.) An $100 donation to any of their top three charities is estimated to save the lives of 130-140 animals. (Via outreach, undercover video filming, corporate outreach, and more.)

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A final note: People sometimes get annoyed at vegetarians or vegans because they think they’re being smug or morally uppity. This always seemed to me like a strange criticism – the problem is that they’re doing something good? – but if you think it has merit, imagine how smug you can feel in the knowledge that every year, you donate $100 to a certain charity, and that has the same effects as going vegetarian for five years, every year.**


Further reading:


* Michael Pollen says in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemna that it’s difficult to get Organic certification, which has many requirements and regulatory steps, so some small and comparatively extremely humane farms may not (despite meeting many or all criteria for the certificate.)

**Note that you’re not allowed to use this to smugly dismiss vegetarianism unless you have actually made a substantial donation to ACE charities. If you don’t, and proceed to use the fact that that someone could make such a donation to be a dick to vegans, you’re doing negative good and the Utilitarianism Skeleton will get you.