It’s time to take the Red Pill and change your mind

Are you afraid of changing your mind about a deeply held belief, about an emotionally strong conviction that you have? A few years ago, I changed – as an environmentalist – my mind about GMOs. Since then, and due to my contacts with the effective altruism movement, I changed my mind about many beliefs that I had (e.g. about organic food, wild animal suffering, the moral value of biodiversity, animal advocacy strategies and economic issues). In the political spectrum I consider myself as a progressive left liberal, meaning that I value social justice and I am against all kinds of unwanted arbitrariness such as discrimination (racism, sexism, speciesism,…). I am part of the left, criticizing the right. Criticizing the right is easy, because right wing ideologies contain a lot of irrationalities (such as unwanted arbitrariness that violate the moral golden rule) and pseudoscience (such as climate denialism). However, I start to realize that also in my left wing camp there are a considerable amount of irrationalities (such as the opposition against GMOs amongst leftist environmentalists, the criticism against vaccines or the strategies used by some animal rights activists, social justice warriors or people from the so called regressive left). As a rational ethicist, I not only want right winged people to become more rational, but I also want to improve rationality amongst leftist people. Therefore I also criticize irrational beliefs amongst left-wingers.

It is unlikely that all your beliefs are true. Even the beliefs that you strongly, emotionally care about may be wrong. I can say this, because that is what I experienced in my own life. Ten years ago I would have underestimated the amount of false beliefs that I strongly believed. I would have underestimated the number of moral mistakes I made. Now I realize that I should not trust my convictions based on emotions and gut feelings. So now I try to become less emotionally attached to my beliefs. When I am confronted with new evidence that contradicts my belief and I feel a strong emotional reaction that attempts to defend my belief, I become more alert and I try to suppress that emotional response, because I’ve learned that those emotional responses are unreliable. They have deceived me so many times. I should not have trusted them. These emotions generate all kinds of cognitive biases such as confirmation bias and desirability bias. As a consequence of avoiding emotional reactions, I became much more flexible to update my beliefs in the light of new evidence, ideas and arguments. And as a consequence, I changed my mind about many things. This strongly improved my rationality and my effective altruism.

So I want to create a culture where changing one’s mind is socially accepted and admirable. A culture where we dare to change our minds, to become more rational (meaning accurate in our beliefs, effective in our means and consistent in our ends). If you believe that all your currently strongly held beliefs are true, you are most likely wrong. If you believe that your strong emotions do not generate cognitive biases, you probably have a cognitive bias: the bias blind spot. If you want to become more effective in doing good, you will probably have to experience changing your mind about beliefs that you hold dear. You will probably have to swallow the red pill (as in the movie The Matrix).

Speaking about the red pill: I recently saw a documentary that I highly recommend: The Red Pill by Cassie Jaye. It is about a feminist’s journey into the men’s rights movement. The documentary is interesting because of two facts: first it tells about interesting facts and arguments made by men’s rights activists. Second, it follows the director Cassie Jaye in her struggle to change her mind about feminism and the men’s rights movement. She started as a feminist being very critical about this new movement that in her eyes was highly misogynist. But interviewing those men’s rights activists, it eventually resulted in Cassie Jaye saying that she no longer calls herself a feminist, even though she off course still shares the leftist values of gender equality and antidiscrimination (antisexism). Cassie Jaye is a prime example of a leftist person with good moral values, but who dared to change her mind about a topic that she held dear. She interviews people like Warren Farrell and Erin Pizzey, two persons who were deeply involved in the feminist movement but changed their minds about men’s rights issues (which resulted in receiving threats by feminists). In the documentary, we see emotionally strong reactions by feminists protesting against men’s rights activists. In a similar way, the documentary itself became highly controversial after its release, resulting in boycotts and feminist protests against its screening.

So, the documentary also changed my mind about gender issues. First, I believe that the feminist movement’s reaction against men’s rights issues is irrational, with feminists misrepresenting a lot of men’s rights activists as rape apologists. Second, I now no longer believe in something like a patriarchal system that systematically privileges men and suppresses women. The existence of a patriarchal system is a core belief in many feminist theories, so in that sense I no longer call myself that kind of feminist. The documentary gives a lot of examples that indicate that if there were such a thing as a patriarchal system, then that system is highly inconsistent. It becomes reasonable to doubt the existence of such an inconsistent system. Here are some examples.

-Child custody: if the judicial system were dominated by patriarchal, male judges, then why are children so often assigned to the mothers in cases of divorce, even when the fathers clearly state that they strongly prefer custody over the children? (It reminds me of the movie Mrs. Doubtfire that I recently saw.)

-Criminal sentencing: if the judicial system were dominated by patriarchal, male judges, then why do men receive 60% higher sentences than women for equal crimes? Arrested women are more likely to avoid convictions and are twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted.

-Health: if the scientific research and health systems were dominated by patriarchal, male researchers, then why does breast cancer receive twice as much funding than prostate cancer, even when prostate cancer is almost has deadly as breast cancer? The burden of disease, in terms of loss of healthy life years (DALY), premature deaths (mortality) and loss of health (morbidity), both globally and in the rich, western countries, is higher for men than for women.

-Military: if the military were dominated by patriarchal males, then why are men drafted? Why would those privileged men send men to die at the front? More than 95% of soldiers that die in war are men.

-Disasters: if there was a patriarchal system that privileges men, then why “women and children first” in case of a sinking ship?

-Dangers: if the man was in charge in the house, then why would the man risk his life to go downstairs at night when there is a burglar in the house? Why send men on dangerous exploration missions?

-Work: if the economy were dominated by patriarchal males, then why are more men doing the dangerous jobs? The death rate on the job is 11 times higher for men than for women. It is as if men are more expendable. And why would men allow women to be in charge of education, risking their own children being indoctrinated with feminist ideas? Wouldn’t it be better for men if men did the education part and women did the dangerous jobs?

-Media: if the news media were dominated by patriarchal male journalists, then why did the abduction of about 200 girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria receive much more attention than the kidnapping and killing of thousands of boys by Boko Haram?

-Interpersonal violence: if men create a patriarchal system, then why are more men than women victim of interpersonal violence (in terms of deaths and loss of healthy life years, both globally and in rich, Western countries)?

-Domestic violence: if politics were dominated by patriarchal male politicians, then why are there 2000 times more women shelters than men shelters in the US, for victims who want to escape from situations of domestic violence, even if domestic violence is close to gender symmetric? There are almost as much male victims and female perpetrators of non-reciprocal (no self defense) domestic violence. If the police were dominated by patriarchal male policemen, then why are women who assault their male partners more likely to avoid arrest than men who attack their female partners? When a woman calls the police to report domestic violence, the man is often arrested or ordered to leave the house, but if a man calls, the woman is almost never arrested or ordered out of the house, and even worse: the man who calls has a more than 10% probability of being arrested himself. Why would a man call the police if he risks being arrested himself?

All of this doesn’t make any sense in a patriarchal system that systematically privileges men. There are too much weird inconsistencies. And worse: if feminists target a patriarchal system, it might harm men even when those men are not the real problem. The real problem is gender roles that systematically disadvantage women in some ways and men in other ways. We should avoid a simplistic black-white male-female dichotomy where men are the privileged evil-doers. We should simply focus on eliminating all kinds of sexism and gender discrimination, of both men and women. And feminists should acknowledge that the men’s rights movement does not need to be silenced and that a lot of men’s rights activists raise valid concerns and are not rape apologists who hate women. Some but not all men’s rights activists hate women, but also some but not all women’s rights activists hate men.


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De onderschattingsdenkfout

Wat hebben de volgende voorbeelden met elkaar gemeen?

  • In een interview beweerde de filosoof Maarten Boudry dat het jihadisme haatdragender en daarom in zeker opzicht gevaarlijker is dan het nazisme, omdat jihadisten geloven dat andersgelovigen en ongelovigen zoiets slechts doen (namelijk niet geloven in Allah) dat ze een straf van eeuwige extreme marteling in de hel verdienen en men dus best mag pronken met de gruwelijkste slachtpartijen van andersgelovigen, terwijl nazi’s naar joden kijken zoals een tuinman naar onkruid: iets dat efficiënt uitgeroeid maar niet oneindig gehaat moet worden. Vanuit antinazistische en antifascistische hoek kwam hierop kritiek, met de bewering dat Maarten Boudry aan negationisme (Holocaustontkenning) doet en daarom ontslagen moet worden van universiteit van Gent.
  • In een artikel maakte psychologe Roos Vonk een vergelijking tussen de vee-industrie en de Holocaust: in beide gevallen gaat het om een systematische grootschalige onderdrukking, opsluiting en doding van miljoenen slachtoffers. Ook hierop kwam kritiek vanuit antifascistische hoek, met onder andere de bewering dat dergelijke analogieën ongepast zijn voor de slachtoffers en nabestaanden van de Holocaust (ondanks het feit dat veel Holocaustoverlevenden zelf na de oorlog die analogie gingen maken; zie het boek Eternal Treblinka van Charles Patterson).
  • In de documentaire The Red Pill over de mannenrechtenbeweging presenteert de documentairemaakster Cassie Jaye enkele cijfers over hoe mannen in de westerse samenleving op een aantal vlakken systematisch benadeeld worden en er dus moeilijk sprake kan zijn van een patriarchaal systeem dat mannen stelselmatig bevoordeelt en vrouwen onderdrukt, zoals veel feministen geloven. Zo blijkt dat er in de VS meer dan 2000 vluchthuizen zijn voor vrouwen die willen wegvluchten van situaties van huiselijk geweld door hun partners, terwijl er slechts 1 vluchthuis is voor mannen. Dat terwijl het huishoudelijk geweld bijna gendersymmetrisch is: er zijn volgens statistieken van de Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bijna evenveel mannelijke als vrouwelijke slachtoffers van huiselijk geweld en bijna evenveel mannelijke als vrouwelijke daders (het geweld van een man is wel iets schadelijker voor het slachtoffer). Vanuit feministische en antiseksistische hoek kwam zware kritiek op deze film, met onder meer boycots, verstoringen van filmvoorstellingen en het zwart maken van Cassie Jaye in de media.
  • In een tweet schreef de beroemde bioloog Richard Dawkins: “Date rape is bad, stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” Daarop werd Richard Dawkins door feministen en antiseksisten aangevallen met de kritiek dat men verkrachtingen niet met elkaar mag vergelijken, dat de schade van date rape voor de slachtoffers niet te onderschatten is en dat dergelijke uitspraken ongepast zijn voor die slachtoffers van date rape.
  • Als dierenrechtenactivist maak ik regelmatig de vergelijking tussen niet-menselijke dieren enerzijds en mentaal gehandicapte weeskinderen anderzijds, in de zin dat beiden rechten verdienen omdat ze voelende wezens zijn, ondanks hun gebrekkig rationeel-moreel-zelfbewust denkvermogen. Daarop werd ik door Social Justice Warriors (SJW’s) beschuldigd van ableisme: discriminatie op basis van handicap, alsof ik gehandicapte (disabled) mensen discrimineer ten opzichte van ongehandicapte (abled) mensen.

Wat deze voorbeelden met elkaar gemeen hebben, is wat ik noem de onderschattingsdenkfout of  ‘moral gravity bias’. De vergelijkingen tussen bijvoorbeeld jihadisten en nazi’s of tussen varkens en mentaal gehandicapten raken telkens een gevoelige snaar bij de critici en wekken bij hen hevige emoties op. Die emoties zorgen ervoor dat de critici als het ware blind zijn voor hun denkfout. Ze denken spontaan maar ten onrechte dat de bekritiseerde personen in kwestie de ernst onderschatten van bijvoorbeeld het nazisme, de Holocaust, huiselijk geweld door mannen, date rape of rechtenschendingen van mentaal gehandicapten.

De bekritiseerde personen – Maarten Boudry, Roos Vonk, Cassie Jaye, Richard Dawkins en ik – maken een vergelijking tussen A en B en de critici denken dat de bekritiseerde personen daarmee A trivialiseren en de ernst van A onderschatten. Maar een vergelijking maken tussen A en B zegt nog niets over hoe erg A is. In plaats van denken dat de bekritiseerde personen de ernst van A onderschatten, kan men net zo goed denken dat de critici de ernst van B onderschatten. Dat is logisch gezien evengoed mogelijk. Maarten Boudry kan dan stellen dat hij het nazisme even verwerpelijk vindt als zijn antifascistische critici maar dat zijn critici de ernst van het jihadisme ernstig onderschatten. Roos Vonk kan repliceren dat ze evengoed tegen de Holocaust is maar dat haar critici de ernst van de veeteelt onderschatten. Cassie Jaye kan stellen dat de feministen de schendingen van mannenrechten onderschatten en dat er niet minder vluchthuizen voor vrouwen maar wel meer vluchthuizen voor mannen moeten komen. Richard Dawkins kan dan weer argumenteren dat zijn antiseksistische critici de ernst van verkrachting door een vreemde met mes op de keel onderschatten en dat de kritiek van die antiseksisten ongepast is voor de slachtoffers van dergelijke verkrachtingen. En ik kan zeggen dat ik niet de morele waarde van mentaal gehandicapten onderschat, maar dat mijn critici (die zelf betrokken zijn bij dierenrechtenschendingen door bv. vleesconsumptie) wel de morele waarde van niet-menselijke dieren onderschatten.

Waarom wijs ik op deze denkfout? Ik ben tegen nazisme, tegen verkrachtingen, tegen huiselijk geweld, tegen onderdrukking van vrouwen, tegen sociaal onrecht en tegen alle vormen van discriminatie en dus ook tegen ableisme, racisme en seksisme. Ik deel dus de linkse progressieve waarden van de antifascisten, feministen en social justice warriors. Wijzen op de talrijke irrationele opvattingen en denkfouten van het rechtse conservatieve kamp is eenvoudig. Dat conservatieve kamp promoot vele vormen van discriminatie en sociaal onrecht. Maar ook in het linkse, humanistische, liberale, progressieve kamp circuleren soms nog irrationele opvattingen en denkfouten. Als rationeel ethicus wil ik het progressieve kamp sterker maken door het op vlak van rationaliteit te versterken. Daarom uit ik relatief veel kritiek op linkse activisten die denkfouten maken, ook al zit ik samen met hen (en samen met Maarten Boudry, Roos Vonk, Cassie Jaye en Richard Dawkins) in hetzelfde progressieve kamp dat strijdt tegen allerlei vormen van discriminatie.

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How to compensate your carbon footprint

How can you make sure that you do not have a negative impact on the climate system and that you do not contribute to global warming? How can you do this in the most effective and fair way? The answer is simple and consists of two steps: 1) reduce your carbon footprint (your emissions of greenhouse gases). 2) compensate the rest of your carbon footprint by donating money to the most effective and ethically responsible organizations.

Concerning the first step: an average person in a rich country (e.g. Belgium) has a carbon footprint of almost 20 ton CO2-equivalents per year. (See Eureapa or for Flanders the MIRA 2017 report De Koolstofvoetafdruk van de Vlaamse consumptie). With some eco-friendly technologies and behavioral changes (consuming less, using green electricity from renewable sources, isolating the house, setting room temperature low in winter, using public transport instead of car, eating vegan, buying second hand, avoiding flights, avoiding food waste) I manage to reduce my carbon footprint below 5 ton CO2-eq. per year. This is below the world average per capita footprint (which is 7 ton CO2-eq.) and corresponds with the climate target (maximum per capita emissions to avoid 1,5°C global warming) for the year 2025, so I’m a few years ahead.

But it is the second step that offers a lot of opportunities. What is the best donation strategy to offset our greenhouse gas emissions?

First, we can pick the lowest hanging fruit. A recent study in Science[1] demonstrates the cost-effectiveness of payments for ecosystem services: offering forest-owning households in poor countries annual payments if they conserved their forest. These financial incentives for forest owners keep their forest intact, so CO2-emissions from deforestation are avoided. The net present cost to permanently avert a ton of CO2 would be 2,2 euro. An organization that offers payments for ecosystem services is Cool Earth, which is according to Giving What We Can probably the most cost-effective organization to avoid CO2-emissions. So I have donated 100 euro to Cool Earth, which offsets 45 ton of CO2, which corresponds to my total carbon footprint for 9 years. In a sense, my past 9 years are now climate neutral.

But if there are more highly cost-effective organizations, from a risk perspective it is better to fund more than one of those organizations. If you support only one organization, it might be the case that new evidence shows that that organization happens to be less effective than previously estimated. So if you can pick different low hanging fruits, it is better to not put too much of the same fruit in one basket.

So I can do better. A second very cost-effective intervention is the promotion of plant-based (vegan or vegetarian) food, because vegan products have a much lower carbon footprint compared to animal products. One of the most effective strategies could be online advertisements for plant-based eating. Animal Charity Evaluators gives estimations for its cost-effectiveness. The most pessimistic or conservative estimate is 3 euro per ton of CO2 avoided: paying 3 euro for online ads results in 1 vegetarian year (the equivalent of one person eating a vegetarian diet for 1 year). And eating vegetarian or vegan reduces the carbon footprint with roughly 1 ton CO2-eq. per year compared to an average omnivore.[2] Therefore I donated 100 euro to the Animal Charity Evaluators top recommended charities that invest in online ads, which results in 33 ton CO2-eq. averted, the equivalent of my total carbon footprint of the past 7 years.

Payments for ecosystem services and promotion of plant-based diets are probably the two lowest hanging fruits, the two most cost-effective interventions to reduce the global carbon footprint. They are able to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in a short term (less than 10 years). Reducing emissions the next few years instead of in the far future is important, because we have to avoid exceeding hidden thresholds in the global climate system that could result in a runaway global warming due to positive feedback loops in the climate system. The earlier we reduce our global carbon footprint, the lower the risk of transgressing a hidden climate threshold.

However, not everyone can pick this lowest hanging fruit. Our global greenhouse gas emissions cannot be offset with merely those two cost-effective interventions. Over the longer term, after a few years, we will need other climate-friendly solutions. We can invest in e.g. renewable energy, but our current technologies are not yet the most climate-friendly. It might be much better to invest in scientific research, to invent new climate-friendly technologies that can be applied in the future. According to some economists and the Copenhagen Consensus Center, the benefit-cost ratio of doing more energy research could be 11 euro benefits (increased social, economic and environmental good) per 1 euro spent (invested costs). That benefit-cost ratio is an order of magnitude higher than 1 and could be much higher than e.g. doubling renewable energy or doubling energy efficiency with our current technologies.

Therefore, I also donated 100 dollar to cutting edge research done by one of the most prestigious technology universities: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with its Energy Initiative Fund. We cannot predict how much CO2 will be avoided by donating to research because we are uncertain about the new technologies that will be invented. But this investment may be worth 1100 dollar of benefits.

Apart from developing more climate-friendly energy technologies, also our food system can become more climate-friendly. One possibly very effective new food technology is clean meat: lab grown meat without the animal. The production of clean meat can become much more climate-friendly compared to the production of animal meat. Therefore I also donated 100 euro to the Good Food Institute, also a top charity recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators.

However, merely employing climate-friendly technologies will not be enough, because there is a risk for a rebound effect: the efficiency gains might be lost due to increasing consumption levels. For example the investment in scientific research led physicists to the development of highly energy efficient LED-light bulbs. That was a very cost-effective investment because companies and households can now switch to LED-lights. That is why those physicists earned a Nobel price. However, this lowers the electricity consumption and hence the costs. Due to lower electricity costs, households might increase the use of light bulbs or might have more money left for other consumption activities such as an extra travel by plane. This could partially negate the energy efficiency gains.

How can we avoid this rebound effect? The economically most effective way is either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system (a governmental auction of tradable emission permits). There is a European Emissions Trading System (ETS) for some European industries, but this is not yet implemented in a fair and most effective way. Therefore, I donated another 100 euro to the Carbon Market Watch. To promote the idea of a carbon tax, I donated also to the Carbon Tax Center.

What would the situation be if there was a global cap-and-trade system? In such a system, the governments would distribute a fixed amount of emission permits. Every person on earth would get an equal share of emission permits to be used for one’s own emissions or to be sold if one’s own emissions are lower than the maximum fair amount of emissions (the cap) allowed per person. The poorest people have fewer emissions than the cap, so they could sell their non-used emission permits to the richest people who have more emissions than their maximum allowed level. If such a system would be present, people who have more emissions than the cap would have to buy emission permits at a price of roughly 100 euro per ton of CO2, increasing with 5 euro per year (this would be the price of an efficient carbon tax to achieve climate targets and to reduce global warming below 1.5°C[3]).

In our current economic system, people in rich countries don’t buy emission permits, even though they have emissions higher than the cap. This is basically equivalent to saying that when rich people have emissions above the maximum allowed level, they are stealing emission permits worth 100 euro per ton CO2 from the poorest people who barely emit any CO2.  Therefore, we have a duty to donate money to the poorest people, as a remuneration fee for stolen goods. An organization that give direct cash transfers to the poorest people, is GiveDirectly, a top charity recommended by charity evaluator GiveWell. I have donated 100 euro to GiveDirectly, which is equivalent of buying from the poorest people a virtual emission permit of 1 ton CO2.

And last but not least, I had the choice to pay a remuneration fee for all the health damages caused by my carbon footprint. The highest estimate of loss of healthy life-years (Disability Adjusted Life Years or DALYs) from climate change that I could find in the literature, is 0,003 DALYs per ton CO2-eq.[4] So emitting 1 ton of CO2 means the loss of 1,3 healthy days due to global warming. This is the health impact of malnutrition (harvest losses due to bad weather), diarrhea, cardiovascular diseases (heat deaths), malaria (mosquito spread due to higher temperatures) and floods.

How can I compensate for these damages? Again I can pick the lowest hanging fruit by donating money to the most cost-effective health organizations. One organization is the Against Malaria Foundation, also a top charity recommended by GiveWell. I donated 100 euro to this organization, with which they can save 1 healthy life year. In terms of health benefits, this is the equivalent of avoiding 300 ton CO2 emissions. At a yearly emission rate of 5 ton CO2, this donation avoids climate change related human health damages that I caused for my entire adult life (i.e. 60 years).

As a summary: I reduce my carbon footprint by reducing my consumption. This also saves money, allowing me to donate about 40% of my income to the most effective charities. This month, I donated 700 euro to offset my carbon footprint in multiple ways. First I picked the lowest hanging fruit by donating 200 euro to the two most cost-effective CO2-compensation mechanisms (payments for ecosystem services and promotion of plant-based diets), which avoids emissions that I emit over 16 years. I donated 100 euro to scientific research about climate-friendly energy technologies with an expected benefit worth 1000 euro, and another 100 euro to develop climate-friendly food technologies. I donated 100 euro to implement economic systems (a carbon tax or cap-and-trade) to avoid rebound effects generated by the development of new, more efficient technologies. Finally I paid the poorest people to buy from them virtual emission permits worth 1 ton of CO2 (about 1/5 of my yearly emissions) and I compensated for the climate change human health damages caused by my emissions over my entire adult life. All of this more than offsets my total carbon footprint for this year.

Note: people in Belgium can make a tax deductible donation to GiveDirectly or the Against Malaria Foundation at:
Koning Boudewijnstichting, Brederodestraat 21 – 1000 Brussel
IBAN: BE10 0000 0000 0404
with as message for AMF:  TGE – UK – Against Malaria Foundation
and for GiveDirectly:  TGE – GB – GiveDirectly UK

[1] Jayachandran S. e.a. (2017). Cash for carbon: A randomized trial of payments for ecosystem services to reduce deforestation. Science  Vol. 357, Issue 6348, pp. 267-273.

[2] Springmann M. e.a. (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 113(15):4146-51.

[3] This value is a rough estimate of an efficient carbon tax, based on the ‘high damage scenario’ under ‘random estimated climate sensitivity’ according to: Simon Dietz & Nicholas Stern (2014). Endogenous growth, convexity of damages and climate risk: how Nordhaus’ framework supports deep cuts in carbon emissions. Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, Working Paper No. 180

[4] Goedkoop M. e.a. (2009). ReCiPe 2008. A life cycle impact assessment method which comprises harmonised category indicators at the midpoint and the endpoint level. Report I: Characterisation. Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment, the Netherlands.

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Waarom artificiële intelligentie alles op het spel zet

Zijn we blind voor misschien wel het grootste probleem dat op ons afkomt? Een existentieel risico, een globale catastrofale ramp waarbij iedereen sterft? We hebben al wel verhalen gehoord van enkele existentiële bedreigingen: een komeetinslag die de aarde vernietigt, een pandemisch virus dat iedereen doodt, een supervulkaan die uitbarst, een op hol geslagen klimaatopwarming of een nucleaire winter door een wereldwijde kernwapenoorlog. Bij een existentieel risico staan letterlijk alle toekomstige generaties op het spel, meer dan we ons kunnen voorstellen: ofwel worden er in de toekomst nog triljarden nieuwe levens geboren, ofwel stopt het simpelweg.

De meeste existentiële risico’s zouden we kunnen vermijden als we slim genoeg zijn. Dan kunnen we asteroïden opsporen en uit koers duwen, vaccins tegen pandemische ziektes uitvinden, klimaatvriendelijke technologieën inzetten en wereldvrede realiseren zodat er geen kernoorlog komt. De meeste existentiële risico’s krijgen veel aandacht dankzij bijvoorbeeld de milieu- en vredesbeweging. Maar er is één bijzonder venijnig existentieel risico waar we per definitie niet slim genoeg voor zijn. En laat dat nu net een bedreiging zijn dat sterk verwaarloosd wordt en waar bijna niemand van wakker ligt: artificiële superintelligentie.

Daarom dat Elon Musk, de CEO van Space-X en Tesla, vorige week opriep om de ontwikkelingen op vlak van artificiële intelligentie beter te reguleren. Ook vanuit het Effectief Altruïsme – de sterk groeiende mondiale beweging die de belangrijkste maatregelen onderzoekt om de wereld te verbeteren – klinkt die roep steeds luider. Wat is het probleem precies?

Momenteel hebben we al krachtige computers die bovenmenselijke capaciteiten hebben, die bijvoorbeeld beter kunnen schaken, poker spelen, medische diagnoses stellen of gezichten herkennen dan mensen. Met recente technieken zoals deep learning worden zelflerende computerprogramma’s ontwikkeld. Het gaat om software die zichzelf schrijft en zichzelf autonoom update.

Aangezien computers en robots alsmaar slimmer worden, is het niet onredelijk om aan te nemen dat ze ooit slimmer worden dan de slimste mensen. Superintelligentie kan best wel mogelijk zijn. Hoewel die superintellegente computers niet noodzakelijk een eigen bewustzijn hebben, denken ze wel veel sneller en verwerken ze veel meer data dan wij. Daar kunnen wij niet tegenop. Ons menselijk verstand verhoudt zich tot een superintelligente robot zoals een chimpanseebrein zich verhoudt tot ons. Die artificiële superintelligentie is gewoon te slim voor ons.

Wanneer die eerste artificiële superintelligentie het licht zal zien weten we niet, maar de meeste experts verwachten nog wel ergens deze eeuw. Van zodra computers qua algemene intelligentie in de buurt van die van de mensen komen, zullen ze al snel de intelligentie van de mensen voorbijsteken. Misschien wel sneller dan dat we het doorhebben.

We mogen niet de gigantische potentiële voordelen onderschatten van goede artificiële intelligentie. Maar het houdt ook een bedreiging in. Kennis is macht. Wie slimmer is, heeft meer macht. Superintelligente robots zijn dus machtiger dan ons en zouden ons kunnen onderdrukken net zoals wij met onze hogere intelligentie andere dieren onderdrukken. Die eerste superintelligente computer kan ons dus maar beter goed gezind zijn. Maar artificiële superintelligentie is heel onvoorspelbaar, want door het zelflerende vermogen kan het zichzelf modificeren en versterken.

Superintelligente machines hebben een geprogrammeerde doelfunctie die ze nastreven. Al de rest moet wijken voor dat doel. Het is dus van cruciaal belang dat dat doel in overeenstemming is met onze waarden en dat die machines correct rekening houden met onze belangen. En dat geprogrammeerd krijgen in een moreel algoritme is geen kleine uitdaging, zeker niet wanneer artificiële intelligentie zichzelf modificeert. We moeten beletten dat die machines ons aanzien zoals wij mieren aanzien. Als wij buiten willen spelen, gaan wij voor ons doel en letten we niet op de mieren in het gras.

We kunnen misschien wel proberen om op tijd nog slimmere en meer ethische superrobots te ontwikkelen om de slechte robots te bestrijden. Maar eigenlijk hebben we maar één kans: als de eerste superintelligente machine bedoelingen heeft die botsen met onze belangen, zijn we te laat. Daarom begonnen organisaties zoals het Machine Intelligence Research Institute en het Future of Humanity Institute met onderzoek naar de veiligheid van artificiële intelligentie. De job van computerprogrammeur had nog nooit zo’n belangrijke morele relevantie. Een kernwapenwedloop was maar een klein probleem in vergelijking met een wedloop naar almaar intelligentere machines.

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Deep canvassing for animal rights

Deep canvassing is a new, evidence-based effective persuasion strategy (for more information, you can listen to this interesting podcast episode). It was developed by the LGBT-community in the US. The effectiveness was demonstrated in a randomized controlled trial, published in the journal Science in 2016 (Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing). A 10 minute conversation substantially and persistently reduces transphobia. A very similar technique, known as street epistemology which uses a Socratic method of asking questions, is successfully applied by atheists to the subject of religious faith and critical thinking. Earlier evidence from door-to-door canvassing (but not deep canvassing, i.e. not following the techniques of active listening) comes from the Get-out-to-vote studies (Green & Gerber 2008, Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout). In terms of cost-effectiveness, door-to-door canvassing was the most effective with $19/vote, compared to e.g. leafleting ($43/vote) and direct mail ($67/vote).

I personally apply this deep persuasion canvassing method to the topic of animal rights, antispeciesism and veganism, having mind-changing 10 minute conversations with people on the streets. I feel confident that it is a very effective method, because compared to my previous, more classical vegan outreach actions and conversations, the deep canvassing conversations have a very different, positive flow that I’ve never experienced before. In terms of cost-effectiveness (where a time investment of one hour has a monetary equivalent cost of 10 euro and the attitude and behaviour change is measured in terms of eating less animal products), my rough estimate is that it can be as cost effective as vegan leafleting, but I intend to do research on this in the future. For the moment I strongly pursue this deep canvassing strategy because it is more neglected compared to leafleting or online vegan ads, and it doesn’t require much preparation or financial costs. You can do it basically anytime.

Deep canvassing consists largely of active listening: a deep canvasser poses leading questions and shows genuine interest in the interlocutor, focussing on the experiences and beliefs of the interlocutor. The questions make the interlocutor think more deeply and in a new way about the issue. The deep canvasser gives the interlocutor the chance to look for answers and makes clear that he or she doesn’t intend to persuade the interlocutor. The interlocutor needs to think that it is not about persuasion, but about exploration and collaboration to look for answers, allowing the interlocutors to come to their own conclusions. Discussions and judgments are avoided. Instead of merely stating facts or giving counterarguments, the deep canvasser presents new facts of arguments by sharing them in personal stories or experiences, showing his or her own vulnerability. Deep canvassers limit what they say to neutral or positive responses, or critical questions.

Below I present a fictitious but still very realistic deep canvassing dialog to clarify the method. Of course body language matters as well, which I’m not able to demonstrate in the dialog below. A deep canvasser should mirror the interlocutor with smiles and nods, and avoid crossing arms, shifting weight, or frowning. Here we go.

I [approaching someone on the street]: “Excuse me, can I ask you a question? I am interested in what people think about animal rights, so your opinion about animal rights. Do you have a few minutes for an interview?”

Interlocutor: “Sure. I care about animals a lot.”

I: “I’m glad to hear that. I’m Stijn, by the way. Nice to meet you.” [handshake]

Interlocutor: “I’m Tom.”

I: “As a first question: on a scale from 0 to 10, where zero means animals do not have rights, you can do with them what you want, and 10 means animals deserve strong rights, to life, freedom,… like humans do, how important are animal rights to you?” [I think this is a good question to start the conversation.]

Tom: “It is not easy to give a number. An 8, perhaps?” [In my experience so far, most people give numbers higher than 7.]

I: “Fine, and which animals are you thinking about?”

Tom: “All animals: dogs, birds,…”

I: “And why would you give an 8 and not for example a 0?” [By asking why not lower, instead of why not a higher number, you make the interlocutor reflect on the positive values of animals and become more aware of the positive qualities of animals instead of the negative qualities, the things that the animals lack.]

Tom: “Well, they are living beings, you know. They shouldn’t suffer unnecessarily.”

I: “Can you give a specific example, a personal experience or moment when you saw a serious animal rights violation that affected you?”

Tom: “Sure: foie gras, for example. Fur. Or bull fighting in Spain.”

I: “So you saw it on TV? How did that make you feel?” [Focus on feelings and experiences of the interlocutor.]

Tom: “I felt angry. It’s disgusting.”

I: “You mentioned foie gras. What about other animals used for food: chickens, pigs?”

Tom: “You mean the way these animals are treated in slaughterhouses?”

I: “For example. Do you think breeding and slaughtering animals is ok?”

Tom: “I see where you’re heading. I still eat meat, but not so much. When a pig has had a good life, it is ok to slaughter it humanely. We have to eat something, you know.”

I: “I don’t want to rebuke you or persuade you of anything. But you made me curious. Would it be ok to slaughter and eat dogs?”

Tom: “Oh no. Dogs are not food. We see dogs as pets.”

I: “So suppose hypothetically: if I were to breed dogs, not to keep them as pets but to slaughter them and eat them, would you condemn me? Would you morally disapprove it? And suppose the slaughter is as humane as the slaughter of pigs.”

Tom: “Hmmm. I would not allow it. But perhaps I should, I don’t know.”

I: “Do you see a difference between a dog and a pig, in terms of rights? Would you give pigs a lower value than 8?”

Tom: “Ok, you got me there. I haven’t thought about it. No, pigs and dogs deserve equal rights.”

I: “The reason why I ask this, is because I’ve been asked the same question. My spontaneous answer was that dogs are pets and pigs are food. But then I saw videos of people who have pigs as pets. I didn’t realize that pigs also wag their tails when they are happy, that they like to play with the ball. That was surprising to me. So it got me confused when people asked me the question why we eat pigs and love dogs.” [Here I share my personal story or experience, and I show some vulnerability by acknowledging my confusion.]

Tom: “But people have dogs as pets because dogs are more loyal and intelligent. That’s why we love them.”

I: “On youtube I saw a video of a pig playing a computer game, which a dog couldn’t solve. Just google “pig plays video game.” It was funny to see how the pig immediately understood the connection between the joystick and the cursor on the screen, whereas the dog couldn’t figure it out. So some scientists believe that pigs are more intelligent than dogs. For me that changed the way I looked at pigs. How about you? Does that change your opinion?”

Tom: “So you are a vegetarian?”

I: “To be honest, I am a vegan, I don’t eat animal products. But again, I don’t want to force you or convince you about what to eat. That is up to you. I’m just curious about how you think about those issues. So I try to pose deeper questions. Digging to the roots of your beliefs, so to speak.”

Tom: “Well, I will not be easily convinced of vegetarianism anyway, so… But I understand your point. It is kind of inconsistent. But that’s what we are. I accept my inconsistencies.”

I: “Anyway, I appreciate your honesty and openness.” [Give a compliment from time to time.]

Tom: “Yeah, well…” [Give the interlocutor time to reflect. Use pauses.]

I: “So you think it is inconsistent to eat pigs when you would condemn someone who eats dogs, knowing that pigs deserve the same rights as dogs? Is that correct?”

Tom: “Yes. Well, I know in China they eat dogs… I never thought about it, actually.”

I: “I’m curious: how do you feel about that inconsistency? When I was confronted with that same inconsistency, I felt uncomfortable…”

Tom: “Yeah… I can live with it. Everyone is inconsistent… But we need to eat meat, you know.” [This is perhaps the most common argument for meat consumption. It refers to one of the four ‘N’s of a carnist ideology: meat is necessary. The other three will be dealt with below: meat is nice (tasty), natural and normal.]

I: “You mean for health reasons?”

Tom: “Yeah. Not everyone can eat vegetarian.”

I: “I thought so too. I eat a plant-based diet now, and what convinced me personally to become a vegan, was the position of the largest organization of dietitians, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. They literally say that well-planned completely vegan diets are nutritionally adequate for everyone, including pregnant women, athletes,…”

Tom: “But you risk shortages in vitamins and iron, isn’t it?”

I: “Well, the thing is: we have learned more about healthy foods and essential nutrients, so the new vegan alternatives in the supermarket now have all those essential nutrients. With what we find nowadays in the supermarket, it is possible to live healthy, or even healthier, because we have all the essential nutrients, but in plant-based products they are wrapped in healthy fibres, whereas in meat they are wrapped in unhealthy saturated fats. That explains why nowadays it is easier to eat a healthy vegan diet, compared to the situation of our parents or grandparents. But again, it is not my intention to convince of anything.” [Here I use an important strategy of filling the hole. When someone has an incorrect belief, such as the belief that meat is necessary, it is not sufficient to simply give a counterargument or debunk that belief. Debunking it leaves behind a hole, something that is left unexplained, like why they believed it in the first place. The uncomfortable presence of this hole can lead to a backfire effect where people prefer believing incorrect stories above incomplete stories. People can become more convinced that meat is necessary. Filling this hole is important to avoid this backfire effect. For more information, listen to this podcast episode.]

Tom: “Ok, I didn’t know that. But don’t you have to take vitamin supplements?”

I: “Yes, some vegan products in the supermarket, like breakfast cereals or plant-based milk, are enriched with vitamin B12, but if you don’t eat those products much, you need a vitamin B12 supplement such as a chewing tablet that you can add to your meal. Are you reluctant about that?”

Tom: “Yes, that doesn’t seem a natural healthy diet to me. You become dependent on the industry.”

I: “Interesting. I feel totally different about it. For me it is like toothpaste. You know: our modern diets are not healthy for our teeth, so we need a supplement: toothpaste. Our ancestors didn’t brush their teeth. I would say this makes our modern diet unnatural, but still I don’t have a problem with using toothpaste, even if it is produced by an industry. So I acknowledge that we need B12 supplements or fortified food. But the good thing is: with the supplements, the B12 is packed in calcium, which is healthy. In meat, the B12 is packed in unhealthy things like saturated fats.” [Acknowledging a weakness may be a virtue that makes you more trustworthy. It becomes even better if you can turn the weakness in a strength.]

Tom: “But still I’m sceptical about what you say. I know vegetarians who went ill and the doctors said they have to eat meat again and then they got better.”

I: “Yeah, I’m a bit worried now. [Express your feelings.] I’m relying on this position statement by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as well as on some dieticians I know and systematic overview studies of the scientific literature about health effects of different diets. And then I saw the website Great Vegan Athletes. So, that is my evidence that convinces me. That is how I look at it. Of course a vegan diet, like any diet, needs to be well-planned. Although my doctor said my vegan diet is healthy for me, I also heard people say that they know doctors who are sceptical, who give the advice to eat meat. Now I’m worried, do you think my approach, listening to the biggest organisation of dietitians, is less reliable than listening to those sceptical doctors? Is what I do imprudent of me?” [Merely stating what is the most reliable scientific knowledge might be ineffective and even result in a backfire effect. Asking the interlocutor why that sceptical doctor would be more reliable, might be ineffective as well as it puts the interlocutor in a defensive mode where he has to protect his own beliefs. So instead, we can use another strategy: show the interlocutor what we believe and ask them what could be the problem with our own belief. Something like: “Here is my map of the world, I see it is different from the map that you use. What could be wrong with my map?”]

Tom: “Nah, you’re probably right.”

I: “So let us suppose that eating a vegan diet is not unhealthy. Suppose you believe that is true. Would you become vegetarian or vegan if you knew meat was not necessary?”

Tom: “No, meat is too tasty.” [This is the second N in a carnist idealogy: meat is nice]

I: “You said foie gras is a violation of animal rights. Does that mean you are against the consumption of foie gras?”

Tom: “Yeah, that causes unnecessary suffering.”

I: “But what if I think foie gras is very tasty? So I love to eat foie gras. Am I allowed to eat it?”

Tom: “I would be against it. I wouldn’t eat it.”

I: “So, it seems like we are not allowed to eat some things, like foie gras or dog meat, even when they would be very tasty. How can I know which tasty things we are not supposed to eat?”

Tom: “When it causes unnecessary suffering.”

I: “Ok, I agree with that. Killing a dog in order to eat that dog, that causes suffering, and we don’t need to eat dogs, so it is unnecessary suffering. The same goes for foie gras. Or fur: we don’t need that.”

Tom: “Exactly.”

I: “But now I’m confused again, because killing a pig also causes unnecessary suffering. Well, at least I believe that I don’t need to eat a pig. So I believe keeping pigs in factory farms and slaughtering them so I can eat them, causes unnecessary suffering. Do you believe that I cannot eat a pig, like I cannot eat foie gras or dogs?” [It can sometimes be interesting to frame the situation in a personal way, what I believe and do and what the interlocutor thinks about my choices.]

Tom: “I see your point… [Leave a pause to reflect.] But still we are omnivores. That is our nature.” [This is the third N: meat is natural.]

I: “I hear that argument often, but it remains unclear to me. Can you tell me more about it?” [Always good to ask to tell more about something.]

Tom: “We are predators. If animals can hunt and eat other animals, why can’t we?”

I: “But what do you mean with being an omnivore or a predator? I don’t eat animals. Does that mean I am not an omnivore?”

Tom: “You are still on top of the food chain.”

I: “In what sense? In the sense that no other animal is eating me?”

Tom: “Yes.”

I: “And that gives me the right to eat other animals?”

Tom: ”Yes.”

I: “I’m sorry, that seems weird to me. I spontaneously thought of the argument: no human is killing me, so I am allowed to kill a human. But I guess that is not what you meant?”

Tom: “Well no. Look at the lions. They are allowed to eat meat. You’re not saying that they should become vegan.”

I: “Ok, lions eat primates, primates don’t hunt lions, so lions are on top of the food chain. Does that mean that lions are allowed to eat humans?”

Tom: “Humans are allowed to defend themselves and kill the lion if necessary.”

I: “I see… But still… [by reflecting on an issue, you show that you put yourself on the same level as the interlocutor.] Lions don’t care about animal welfare laws. They don’t care about humane slaughter rules. Does that mean we shouldn’t care either?”

Tom: “Lions are not able to morally reflect on their behaviour. We can.”

I: “I see. Interesting.”

Tom: “Ok, again I see it may be inconsistent of me. But as I said, everyone is inconsistent. That is why everyone eats meat.” [Here we arrive at the fourth N: meat is normal.]

I: “I really appreciate your effort to explain your view. But I’m interested in how people like you justify eating meat. Are you saying now something like: if everyone else eats meat, then it is allowed to eat meat?”

Tom: “I don’t know. It is just a fact that everyone eats meat. Well, not you. Almost everyone.”

I: “So I’m looking for a kind of rule that I can follow, to know what I am allowed to do. It seems reasonable that if everyone does something, it gives me a clue that I am allowed to do that as well. But then, what if everyone did something immoral. Like slavery: there was a time where everyone, or at least a majority of white people, believed we could keep black people as slaves. Or what if everyone believed that women do not have rights? It seems dangerous to look at what the majority does.”

Tom: “But with meat consumption it is different. You eat plants, but plants can feel pain as well. They only can’t scream.” [Let’s give a final carnist argument as an example. In most conversations, interlocutors don’t give many carnist arguments one after the other. They start doubting after one or two arguments, and then it is time to move on in the conversation.]

I: “Are you referring to those scientific experiments, that plants can respond to their environments and communicate with other plants when they are in danger?”

Tom: “Yeah, I don’t know the details, but I’ve heard about those experiments. It is like plants are warning other plants when a giraffe comes along.”

I: “I personally remain sceptical about the conclusions that we can draw from those experiments. Some robots or computers are also able to respond to their environment and communicate with other computers. The anti-virus software of my computer is pretty smart as well. But that doesn’t mean my computer has a consciousness and is suffering when it is infected with a computer virus. Would it be unwise of me to conclude that those communication and self-defence mechanisms of computers or plants not necessarily indicate consciousness?”

Tom: “But perhaps pigs do not have a consciousness either.”

I: “Or dogs. Or other humans… Now, we are concerned about animal rights, we support animal welfare laws. Kicking a dog or a chicken just for fun is not permissible. If we believe that plants are equally sentient, shouldn’t we propose plant welfare laws as well? Would it become illegal to kick a tree just for fun?”

Tom: “Ok, but what if plants were really sentient. Would you starve to death, or kill sentient beings?”

I: “I have thought about that possibility. I’m not sure what we should do then. I probably still would eat plants. And condone eating animals, especially animals that eat sentient plants. And I would look for animal free and plant free food, produced in the lab or something. I don’t know. I guess there are different consistent ethical systems, some of them lead to condoning eating plants and animals, some lead to starvation and suicide, some lead to doing more research. I’m not confident to say which ethical system is the most correct one in such hypothetical situations. What would you do?” [Sometimes it is good to acknowledge that you don’t know an answer. Demonstrating such vulnerability or openness may make you more credible.]

Tom: “I don’t know. The same as you, I guess.”

I: “Anyway, suppose you know that plants are not sentient. Would you then eat vegan?”

Tom: “Probably not. I would miss the taste of meat.”

I: “So that means plant sentience is not the crucial reason for you to eat meat?”

Tom: “Probably not.” [A useful, general question that we can ask when confronted with a fallacy or rationalization to eat meat, is the question: would you become vegan if you knew X was not the case? If not, then X was not the real reason to eat meat and you can look for other reasons.]

I: “Another question I had: imagine in the future, over 100 years or so, people would all eat healthy vegan food, no animal products anymore. Would you consider that as an improvement, as a moral progress of our society?” [This is another of my favourite questions in deep canvassing. Most people respond affirmatively. It avoids a kind of moral relativism.]

Tom: “Yeah. I would have no problem with that. But that wouldn’t happen.”

I: “I used to think that as well, but personally, I’m not so sure about that anymore. More and more people reduce their meat consumption. We see a strong growing trend where people try new vegan products. That means more meat substitutes are sold in the supermarkets. We see the arrival of a new generation of meat substitutes, that are almost identical to animal meat. If that trend continues, it can become a growing snowball effect. Have you already tried meat substitutes?”

Tom: “Some. They were ok, but not as tasty as meat.”

I: “But you are willing to explore new animal free alternatives, try new vegan products or recipes?”

Tom: “Sure, why not?”

I: “And what would be your major motivation to try new vegan products?”

Tom: “For the environment. But now also for the animals I guess.”

I: “The reason why I ask these questions, is because of a kind of worry. I asked these questions to many people, and they all have something in common. On the question how important animal rights are according to them, most people would give high numbers on this scale from 0 to 10: they would give values 7, 8, 9 and often 10. But still most of them eat meat. And most of them can’t explain why we love dogs but eat pigs or chickens. Most say a vegan future would be a moral improvement. It seems like we are collectively doing something that violates our own moral values, without us realizing it. Now I am a vegan, but I used to eat a lot of meat. I didn’t make the connection between the meat on my plate and the animal. Would you agree that it is possible that our meat consumption violates our own moral values and that we are so to speak morally blind about it?”

Tom: “Yes, perhaps. I’ve never thought about it before.”

I: “That is what I hear most people saying. And also interestingly, like your response, when asked whether they eat meat, most people say “yes, but not so much anymore.” Why did you add that you don’t eat much meat?”

Tom: “I don’t know…”

I: “For me it seemed like you somehow knew that eating meat is morally problematic, that you felt uncomfortable with your answer that you eat meat, and therefore add that you don’t eat it so much. But that’s just a guess.”

Tom: “You could be right.”

I: “One final question perhaps. On a scale from 0 to 10, where zero means our consumption of animal products is fine and I absolutely do not want to decrease my consumption of animal products, and 10 means we should all avoid animal products and move towards a vegan world as soon as possible, where would you place yourself?”

Tom: “A 7.”

I: “Would your answer to this question have been different if we didn’t have this conversation?”

Tom: “Probably lower, yeah.”

I: “So, if I understand you correctly, becoming vegan would be ideal, but it may be difficult at this moment, so you prefer to take smaller steps. You already avoid foie gras as a first step, and you are willing to try new vegan recipes or products, or introduce something like meat free days, is that correct?” [Here I use the combination of the door in the face strategy (start with the big ask to become vegan), followed by a foot in the door strategy (a smaller ask to reduce meat consumption).]

Tom: “Yeah, that’s how I would do it.”

I: “I appreciate your honesty. It was a nice conversation. I enjoyed it.”

Tom: “Yeah, me to. I’ll think about it.” [Handshake]


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Idealistic versus realistic animal advocacy: the need for effectiveness and rationality

This month, a new book was published about effective, rational approaches for the animal advocacy movement: How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach (Tobias Leenaert, Lantern Books 2017). This book is a wake-up call for many animal advocates, to start being more effective by being more pragmatic. In this article I summarize the basic argument of the book and extend the idea a bit further.

Realists versus idealists

First some definitions. With rational I mean: accurateness in beliefs (epistemic rationality), effectiveness in means (instrumental rationality) and consistency in ends or values (axiological rationality). Animal advocates have a vegan world (the abolition of animal rights violations, eliminating the exploitation of animals) as one of their most important ends. That is a consistent end, so that is axiologically rational. But when choosing strategies to reach that end, we need instrumental rationality: we need effectiveness. Here we see a divide within the animal advocacy movement.

The animal advocacy movement can be roughly divided in two camps (although there are intermediate positions):

  • the realists (or pragmatists, as Tobias Leenaert calls them) who use methods and strategies that work in the real world where people (meat eaters) have cognitive biases and do not always make rational decisions, and
  • the idealists who use methods and strategies that only work in an ideal world where people always behave rationally and would be easily persuaded by rational arguments or indignant judgments such as “meat is murder, dairy is rape, meat eaters are moral monsters, factory farming is an animal Holocaust”.

If the goal is to achieve a vegan world as fast as possible, a rational strategy uses effective means that not only work in the ideal world but also work in the real world.


The intuitive system 1 versus the rational system 2

Realist strategies are more effective but cognitively more demanding as they require rational, critical thinking, self-control and sometimes changing one’s mind, whereas idealist strategies are less effective but cognitively less demanding as they are based on spontaneous intuitions and gut feelings that can be very strong but sometimes irrational.

The difference between idealists and realists comes from a psychological duality what is generally known as system 1 and system 2 thinking. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman speaks about thinking fast and thinking slow.

System 1 generates automatic, spontaneous, intuitive, emotional, very quick judgments based on mental rules of thumb or short-cuts called heuristics. These work fine in familiar situations, but in unfamiliar situations, such as looking for effective strategies to create a vegan world, these intuitions or gut feelings can become unreliable and can generate cognitive biases. As an example: a bat and a ball cost $1,10 together, the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much costs the ball? If you give an automatic, fast response, using your system 1, your response is most likely wrong (the ball costs $0,05 instead of $0,1).

System 2, on the other hand, is slow, more effortful and logical. This corresponds with what Tobias Leenaert calls slow opinion. With effortful critical thinking, system 2 can correct erroneous judgments generated by system 1. Animal advocates need system 2 thinking to look for solid reasons and scientific evidence to choose the most effective strategies that work in the real world.

A paradox

Effective, rational animal advocates should be realists. In the real world, meat eaters often behave and think irrationally. It seems a bit paradoxical, but it means that rational, realist animal advocates should take irrationalities of meat eaters into account. Choices made by meat eaters often violate their own values or ends. Meat consumption is accompanied with many rationalizations (fake arguments) and cognitive biases. When confronted with animal rights arguments, there is clear evidence that meat eaters experience a so called cognitive dissonance.

An idealistic strategy is often more irrational because it does not properly take into account irrationalities of meat eaters. Idealists act as if meat eaters are rational and therefore should be easily persuadable by arguments or judgments. When meat eaters are confronted with judgments from vegans or become aware of the morally superior choices of vegans, they feel a cognitive dissonance. Their reactions can become counterproductive. A backfire effect is possible: meat eaters persist in their meat consumption, they derogate vegans and start denigrating animals even more.

Consistency in ends is rational, but paradoxically, this may require that we should be inconsistent in our means. In his book, Tobias Leenaert gives the example of consistently sticking to the rule to eat strictly vegan. At first sight, it seems that this strategy is effective, as it directly points towards the consistent end of a vegan world. But the consistency of sticking to a strict vegan diet may sometimes be ineffective to reach the consistent end. Ends should be consistent, but means can have to be inconsistent in order to be effective.

Mental purity and moral disgust

Idealistic animal advocates often criticize realistic or pragmatic animal advocates for adopting immoral strategies, because the system 1 judgments of the idealists are emotionally strong but not compatible with the thought-through system 2 conclusions of the realists. The strategies chosen by the realists are often counter-intuitive and hence appear immoral in the eyes of the idealists who use intuitive moral thinking instead of critical moral thinking.

One example of a strong system 1 effect that underlies a lot of idealist judgments, is mental purity. Idealists believe that it is wrong to ‘make our hands dirty’. This choice of words reveals a moral disgust. As physical disgust can be a very strong emotion, moral disgust can be strong as well. Let me give some examples where the difference between idealists and realists is based on this system 1 effect of mental purity. Most of those examples are discussed in more detail in the book How to Create a Vegan World.

Purity in consumption behaviour

Idealistic vegans are often dogmatic about sticking to the rule, being very strict about their vegan diets. For example they do not want to eat a vegan meal served at a non-vegan restaurant, they want to avoid all animal products and exclude the small animal ingredients such as some E-numbers, even in situations where there is no expected benefit for the animals and where their strictness can have dissuading effects on meat eaters. Consistently sticking to strict rules can push off meat eaters. Realistic vegans have a more relaxed, flexible concept of veganism, if there are reasons or evidence that it might be more effective to persuade meat eaters.

The dogmatism of idealists is based on system 1 thinking: a judgment that we should stick to a rule is made quickly and easily, whereas having to adapt to the situation or context (e.g. having to think about how meat eaters perceive strict vegans) requires more cognitive effort of system 2. Realists or pragmatists have to critically think about the consequences of their choices. Sometimes our choices appear to be good (e.g. strictly avoiding animal products), but can be counter-productive (e.g. dissuading meat eaters). Sometimes our choices appear to be important (e.g. avoiding small amounts of animal products) whereas they have no positive or negative effect on animals.

Compare the latter with an often irrational fear of toxic pesticide residues on food. People often want to avoid tiny traces of applied pesticides and want to pay a lot of money for e.g. organic products that do not contain those pesticides, even if the health risks of the synthetic pesticide residues are negligible compared to the much higher amounts of natural pesticides produced by the plants themselves or the organic pesticides that can sometimes be more toxic than synthetic pesticides and even if the pesticide risks are buried under the much higher amounts of healthy, protective chemicals produced by the plants. If we look at the willingness to pay to avoid health risks, some people are willing to pay much more to avoid the risks of the tiny traces of some synthetic pesticide residues compared to other risks such as traffic accidents or chronic diseases from an unbalanced diet, even if those other risks are much bigger. Those people apply the precautionary principle inconsistently, which is irrational.

Another example of purity is the fact that idealistic animal advocates are often reluctant towards eating cultured or clean meat that is the same substance as animal meat but does not involve animal rights violations. Those vegans have developed a feeling of moral disgust towards meat, which also extends to clean meat. Compare it with the experiment where you put a disinfected insect in someone else’s coffee. After removing the insect, that person is not willing to continue drinking from that coffee, even if there are no traces of it left in the coffee. Once a feeling of disgust is triggered, it cannot easily be erased. It requires a lot of cognitive effort (system 2 thinking) to overcome that feeling of disgust.

Purity in identity

Related to the previous examples, we can say that idealistic vegans think in black-or-white, which is characteristic of system 1 thinking. They believe “you are either vegan or not vegan”, like “you are either with us or against us”. For idealistic vegans, veganism is part of someone’s identity. It is not merely a collection of food choices. Seeing nuances requires a more effortful system 2 thinking. Idealistic vegans are often afraid of grey areas. Therefore they prefer to think in terms of all-or-nothing. For them, grey areas are dangerous because they are not pure, they are not white, they are contaminated with blackness, like the small traces of animal ingredients in a meal contaminates that meal with the blackness of animal rights violations. This idea of contamination reflects a moral disgust.

Purity in messages

Idealistic vegans often criticize realistic vegans for sending out wrong messages. Instead of the clear, straightforward message “Go vegan!”, realists often ask for e.g. “reduce meat, eat more plant-based, join Meatless Mondays.” A go-vegan message reflects the end goal, but might be too demanding or ambitious for most meat eaters at this moment, in this real world, so for them working with smaller steps can be feasible. But system 1 often objects to those more nuanced but perhaps more effective messages, because system 1 wants to stick to the clear message, a direct reference to the final goal.

Purity in focus

For idealistic animal advocates, we have to focus on the only important argument to go vegan: the animal rights argument. Introducing other arguments such as the health and environmental benefits of vegan diets are considered as a distraction or sometimes even as being harmful. Realistic animal advocates are open to those other messages, applying them if they are effective. The focus of idealists on one argument or one objective is an example of a single objective bias, as if talking about other benefits of veganism introduces impurities in the real message of animal rights.

Another example of a single objective bias can be seen with idealistic feminists who promote family planning (contraceptives) to improve women’s right to bodily autonomy. Unwanted pregnancies are serious violations of a right to bodily autonomy, and family planning intends to avoid unwanted pregnancies. But if some environmentalists also promote family planning in order to avoid unintended births and hence avoid future environmental impacts of newborn people, these environmentalists are criticized by the feminists who argue that women’s rights should be the only objective.

Purity in collaborations

In choosing with whom to collaborate, idealistic animal advocates often make ineffective choices that only work in an ideal world. Idealists are more exclusive and want to collaborate only with people who are fully like-minded. Realists on the other hand are more inclusive and can have many collaborations. In his book Tobias Leenaert gives the examples of idealists criticizing collaborations with businesses (e.g. fast food chains) that sell both vegan and non-vegan foods or with TV chefs who cook both vegan and non-vegan recipes. The idealists do not want to celebrate or support the choice of large meat companies that invest in animal free products. Those idealists are again rather concerned about purity than about effectiveness: they don’t want to make their hands dirty with some collaborations they deem unacceptable. But those idealists are not able to give evidence that such collaborations are ineffective or harmful. Hence, criticizing realists who favour such collaborations is irrational.

Another striking example of purity in collaborations within the animal advocacy movement, is the concern about animal activists who have racist judgments. People like Brigitte Bardot are advocating for animal rights but also make racist statements (e.g. against Muslims). Idealistic antiracist activists do not want to have anything to do with those racist activists: they want to keep their movement clean from racism. However, rejecting those activists is not always effective. First of all, those rejected activists are not going to change their minds about racism when they are rejected by the animal advocacy movement. Their level of racism will not decrease when they are not allowed to join the vegan community. On the contrary, they will associate themselves with other racists and start to distrust antiracists even more.

On the other hand, when they are not expelled from the community, those activists with racist opinions can more easily come into contact with antiracist activists. Both activists have something in common: their fight for animal rights. Due to this commonality, the antiracist activists are perceived as sympathetic by the activists with racist opinions. There is psychological evidence that people are more easily persuaded by other persons who appear sympathetic to them, so the antiracist activists are more able to persuade the activists with racist opinions. When the racist activists are welcome in the movement, chances are higher that eventually they will be persuaded by antiracist opinions, compared to the situation where they are not welcome. For the antiracist activists, welcoming those activists with racist opinions requires more effortful system 2 thinking, because they can no longer simply ignore those activists and they are in a sense forced to communicate with them in a more effective way. Believing that contact with racist activists makes your own hands dirty, is an irrational belief because it is not effective in fighting racism.


How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach (Tobias Leenaert, Lantern Books 2017).


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Being rational about organic food

In this article I summarize the most striking facts that led me to the following conclusions: 1) that, from an average consumer point of view, buying organic food is not clearly better nor worse than non-organic food in terms of environmental or health impact and 2) that, from an effective altruist point of view, if you have the choice between buying a more expensive organic product or an equivalent less expensive non-organic product, it is better to buy the non-organic product, save money on food expenditures and donate this saved money to the most effective charities.

Environmental impact

  • Organic has more land use and eutrophication than non-organic. According to a recent meta-analysis and systematic review of the scientific literature (Clark M. & Tilman D. 2017, Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters12:6), comparing organic products with non-organic products per unit of product, the organic products require on average more land (hence more loss of natural habitat if we increase organic food production) and cause more eutrophication (oxygen depletion and disturbance of water ecosystems due to excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into the rivers). Organic requires more land due to lower yields (due to avoidance of synthetic pesticides) and application of green manure and animal manure (requiring extra land). Organic has higher eutrophication because using animal manure doesn’t allow to choose the right doses of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) to help supplement the specific shortcomings in the soil and to meet the needs of the crops more accurately. Synthetic fertilizers can be composed in the right amounts and applied at the right moments according to the needs of the crops. Weed control in organic farming also can require more tilling of the soil, which increases nutrient runoff and eutrophication. This is in line with three other meta-analyses, so the evidence is pretty strong (Mondelaers, K., Aertsens, J., Van Huylenbroeck, G. 2009, A meta-analysis of the differences in environmental impacts between organic and conventional farming. British Food Journal 111 (10), 1098-1119. Tuomisto H. e.a. 2012, Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? A Meta-Analysis of European research. Journal of Environmental Management 112, 309-320. Seufert V. e.a. 2012, Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature 485, 229–232.)
  • Organic and non-organic have equal impacts on climate change and acidification. In terms of emissions of greenhouse gases and acidifying substances, the meta-analyses indicate no difference between organic and non-organic.
  • We do not yet know whether organic is better or worse for global biodiversity. Organic farms have more biodiversity on their fields, but are a stronger threat to biodiversity of natural habitats. Having a higher land use and more eutrophication threatens biodiversity of natural habitats, because turning natural habitat into farmland or polluting natural habitat with excess nutrients decreases biodiversity. The overall effect of organic farming on biodiversity remains unclear (Hole, D.G e.a. 2005. Does organic farming benefit biodiversity? Biological Conservation. 122 (1): 113–130). One study attempted to estimate the overall impact of farming systems on biodiversity and concluded that there is no relevant difference between organic and non-organic farming. (Gabriel, D., Sait, S.M., Kunin, W.E. & Benton, T.G. 2013, Food production vs. biodiversity: comparing organic and conventional agriculture. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 355–364.) Another review study says the evidence largely supports the idea that having a higher yield (as in non-organic farming), enabling larger areas kept as natural habitats, is better for biodiversity than having lower yields (as in organic farming), enabling more biodiversity on the field but less natural habitat (Balmford, A. e.a. 2015, Land for Food and Land for Nature? Daedalus 144(4), 57-75). But important questions remain.
  • Organic farming allows the application of toxic pesticides, such as copper sulphate (very persistent and more than 10 times more toxic than alternative synthetic fungicides), and pesticides that are harmful to non-target invertebrates such as bees (e.g. pyrethrine, azadirachtin, eucalyptus oil). According to one study for soybeans, organic pesticides were less effective in controlling aphids, were as toxic or more toxic for non-target invertebrates and had higher Environmental Impact Quotients than synthetic pesticides (Bahlai, C., Xue, Y., McCreary, C., Schaafsma, A., & Hallett, R. 2010, Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans PLoS ONE, 5:6).
  • Organic farming can be worse for biodiversity than GMO farming. Organic farming does not allow the use of Bt-crops, which are GMOs that produce a Bt-toxin that acts as an insecticide. However, organic farming does allow the spraying of that same Bt-insecticide. The Bt-insecticide produced by plants and used in the Bt-GMOs is as natural and safe (for humans) as the Bt-insecticide produced by bacteria and sprayed by organic farmers. However, according to a meta-analysis, the Bt-GMOs are better for biodiversity, in particular for nontarget (harmless) invertebrates (Marvier M, McCreedy C, Regetz J, Kareiva P. 2007, A meta-analysis of effects of Bt cotton and maize on nontarget invertebrates. Science 316(5830):1475–7). This study compares three kinds of fields: one where no GMO crops are used and where Bt is sprayed (which can also be an organic field), one where Bt-GMO crops are used and no Bt is sprayed, and one where no GMO crops are used and no Bt is sprayed. The latter field has the highest biodiversity of nontarget invertebrates, but it also has lower yields and hence requires more land and hence more habitat loss, so it is not necessarily the most biodiversity friendly field. The first field (which can be an organic field) has the lowest biodiversity of nontarget invertebrates, because spraying insecticides causes more collateral damage. When the insecticide is produced in the plant, only the harmful target invertebrates are affected.
  • The organic rules involving unintended contamination are unfair. Organic farming does not allow the use of GMO crops. When a neighbouring farmer uses GMOs, organic farmers fear losing their organic label due to a risk of cross-pollination or unintended GMO contamination of their own fields that should remain strictly GMO free. As GMOs are not more harmful to the environment or human health than new organic plant breeds whose genes can also unintentionally contaminate neighbouring areas, there is no reason why organic farming should be so strict about excluding GMOs. As a result of these strict rules, organic farmers complain against neighbouring non-organic farmers who use GMOs that pose a threat of contamination, making coexistence of GMO and organic farming difficult. But the real unfairness works in the reverse direction: from organic farms to neighbouring non-organic farms. Organic farmers have more difficulties controlling pests, so pests can develop and migrate to neighbouring farms. This is also an unintentional, uncontrolled spreading of something harmful, and organic farmers have a causal responsibility in this, because they refused to apply more effective pest control methods. So non-organic farmers could complain against organic farming.
  • Biological pest control can result in the uncontrolled spreading of invasive species that is harmful to local biodiversity. Organic farmers warn against the imagined risks of GMOs, in particular the threat of cross-pollination and uncontrolled spreading of the GMO genes into the environment, resulting in biodiversity loss. But such effects of biodiversity loss due to GMO crops have never been observed even if GMOs are planted for decades on thousands of hectares. And there is no clear reason why GMOs would pose a more dangerous threat than the new crop breeds used by organic farmers. And most of all: organic farming did already have some examples of an uncontrolled spreading of something exotic, threatening local biodiversity. As an alternative to pesticides, organic farming often uses biological pest control, introducing insects (ladybirds, weevils, wasps) to control pests (weeds, aphids). Sometimes those introduced insects are invasive and threaten local biodiversity. (Vilcinskas A. e.a. 2013, Invasive Harlequin Ladybird Carries Biological Weapons Against Native Competitors, Science340 (6134): 862-863. Louda S. e.a. 1997, Ecological Effects of an Insect Introduced for the Biological Control of Weeds, Science 277:1088-90. Strong D.R. 1997, Fear No Weevil, Science 277:1058-59.)
  • Organic products are too expensive to cover environmental costs. The additional cost (higher price) of organic food is an order of magnitude higher than the externality cost of environmental pollution of non-organic farming. In the Netherlands, a study claims that organic farming saves about 10 million euro per year in negative external effects (Meeusen, M.J.G., S. Reinhard & E.J. Bos 2008, Waardering van de duurzaamheidsprestaties van de Nederlandse biologische landbouw, LEI Wageningen University). These negative external effects or environmental costs include e.g. the cost to purify the water from the pesticides used in non-organic farming. This value is an overestimation, because the study did not properly take into account the higher land use and eutrophication levels per unit product for organic production. The Dutch people spend about 1130 million euro per year on organic food. If organic food is about 30% more expensive, that implies an extra cost (surplus spending) of 280 million euro for organic food. This is 28 times higher than the savings (lower externality costs) resulting from organic farming. In other words: in the Netherlands, due to organic farming society spend 10 million euro less in environmental costs, but consumers spend about 280 million euro extra due to the higher prices of organic products. Taxing food to internalize the negative external environmental costs in the price of the product can be done in a more effective way.
  • Organic farming allows the use of finite, depletable resources such as fossil fuels and mineral fertilizers. The production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer uses fossil fuels, the production of synthetic phosphate fertilizer uses rock minerals. Both resources are exhaustible. However, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer can also be produced with renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. Organic farming also uses fossil fuels (e.g. for tilling machines, for burning down weeds) and allows the use of rock phosphate to produce organic phosphate fertilizers. The animal manure used in organic farming is often produced by animals who eat a lot of crops fertilized with synthetic fertilizers produced from depletable resources. In this sense, we cannot say that organic is more sustainable.
  • Many studies about the benefits of organic farming or the harms of GMOs were done by researchers and institutions who had conflict of interests with the organic agriculture sector. Some names include: Charles Benbrook (had undisclosed conflicts of interest: worked at the Organic Center and research was funded by Whole Foods, Organic Valley, United Natural Foods, Organic Trade Association and others), Gilles-Eric Séralini (consultant of Sevene Pharma that sells homeopathic antidotes against pesticides), Judy Carman (anti-GMO research was funded by Verity Farms and published in a journal sponsored by the Organic Federation of Australia) and the Rodale Institute.


Human health impact

  • Critical review studies of the scientific literature are not able to indicate whether organic food is better or worse for human health. For some food products and some nutrients and some toxics, organic is better, but for others it is the same or worse than non-organic. The overall effect is unclear. (Dangour, A., Lock, K., Hayter, A., Aikenhead, A., Allen, E., & Uauy, R. 2010, Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92(1), 203-210. Smith-Spangler C. e.a. 2012, Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 157(5):348-66. Magkos F. e.a. 2006, Organic Food: Buying More Safety or Just Peace of Mind? A Critical Review of the Literature. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 46:23–56.) For example organic animal products may contain higher levels of unhealthy trans fatty acids and dioxins. Organic milk can contain higher levels of healthy omega-3 poly unsaturated fatty acids and iron, but lower levels of essential minerals such as iodine and selenium. (Średnicka-Tober D. e.a. 2016. Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses. Br J Nutr. 115(6):1043-60.) If there are differences in levels of nutrients or toxins, the differences between organic and non-organic are small.
  • Some restrictive organic food regulations make organic foods less healthy. For example enrichment with vitamins is not allowed in e.g. organic soy milk. Non-organic soy milk enriched with calcium and vitamins B12 en D can be healthier than non-enriched organic soy milk as well as cow milk.
  • Organic crops can have higher levels of mycotoxines. Organic farmers use no synthetic fungicides on cereal crops. Combined with a higher sugar content in organic cereal crops, this makes these organic crops more vulnerable to fungicides that produce toxic mycotoxins. On the other hand, organic farming does not allow the use of GMOs such as Bt-corn. As Bt-corn is less vulnerable to damage from insects that carry fungi with them, Bt-corn is less infected with the fungi that produce mycotoxins. (Wu F. (2006) Mycotoxin reduction in Bt corn: potential economic, health, and regulatory impacts. Transgenic Res. 15(3):277-89.)
  • Organic food products can have higher health risks from dangerous bacteria. Due to the application of animal manure (that is not treated with non-organic radiation or antibiotic means to kill the bacteria), organic crops can have a higher risk of contamination with dangerous E.coli bacteria. (Mukherjee A, Speh D, Dyck E, & Diez-Gonzalez F 2004, Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. Journal of food protection, 67(5), 894-900.)
  • The health impact of pesticide residues in food, and the difference between organic and non-organic, is negligible. Almost all measured levels of pesticide residues on non-organic foods are below very strict maximum allowable levels, such that expected health impacts are negligible. 99,99% of pesticides in fruits and vegetables are produced by the plants themselves to protect themselves against insects and fungi. These pesticides cannot be avoided. Only 0,01% are pesticide residues from the application of pesticides by the farmer. Also organic foods can contain pesticide residues from applied organic pesticides. On average, the natural pesticides produced by the plants are as toxic (carcinogenic) as the pesticides applied by the farmers. (Ames BN, Profet M, Gold LS. 2009, Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural). Proc Natl Acad Sci87:777–81. Ames BN, Gold LS. 1997, Environmental pollution, pesticides, and the prevention of cancer: misconceptions. FASEB J. 11(13):1041-52.) Organic products can contain higher levels of plant-produced pesticides because organic farmers use crop breeds that are more resistant to insects and fungi. These more resilient organic breeds produce more pesticides to defend themselves. But even if both organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables contain toxic pesticides (natural and residues), these products also contain very high levels of healthy chemicals that protect against cancer and toxic effects; so both organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables are very healthy overall. As a comparison, one study estimates that the reduction of cancer risk from consuming healthy chemicals in fruits and vegetables is 2000 times higher than the increased cancer risk of pesticide residues. For every case of cancer from pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables, 2000 cases of cancer can be avoided by eating those fruits and vegetables. (Reiss R. e.a. 2012, Estimation of cancer risks and benefits associated with a potential increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Food and Chemical Toxicology 50(12):4421-4427). As an intriguing fact, note that some studies indicate that organic food has higher levels of healthy antioxidants or polyphenols. The reason is that those chemicals are produced by the plants to act as pesticides (deterrence of herbivores and prevention of microbial infections). Even some pesticides can be healthy.
  • Buying more expensive organic food to reduce health risks is irrational. The abovementioned study about cancer risks of fruits and vegetables says that the cancer risk from pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables is at most 1 in 15 million per year. To simplify the calculation, let us suppose that the overall mortality from the consumption of non-organic food is 15 times higher, which means 1 death per year per 1 million people who do not consume organic products (not all of the cancers result in death, but there can also be non-cancer risks and there is also consumption of other products than fruit and vegetables). This mortality risk corresponds with 1 micromort per year: a 1 in a million probability to die. Suppose you want to eliminate that risk by eating 100% organic products. Organic food is on average 30% to 50% more expensive, so buying 100% organic results in an additional cost of about 600 euro per year (33% extra costs on a total yearly food consumption budget of 1800 euro per person). However, looking at safety measures (e.g. in traffic, safety features in cars) we see that the maximum willingness to pay to eliminate a mortality risk of one micromort is about 50 euro. People are not willing to pay more than 50 euro to eliminate a micromort risk. This is an order of magnitude (factor 10) lower than the extra cost of organic food. As a comparison, driving 20 km by bike also has a mortality of one micromort, because driving a bike can result in a deadly accident. How much money are you willing to pay in order to eliminate that mortality risk for every 20 km that you drive a bike? Are you willing to pay 600 euro? If that is too much, but if you are willing to pay extra for organic food in order to reduce your mortality risk, your choice for organic food is irrational. We can also look at the value of a statistical life: how much we as a society are willing to pay to save 1 life. This value is about 10 million euro. If 1 million people buy 100% organic instead of 100% non-organic for one year, they will each avoid 1 micromort and hence in total they avoid one death. Together, those people pay an additional cost of 1 million times 600 euro. This is 60 times higher than the value of a statistical life, which means again that organic food is too expensive to justify buying it in order to reduce health risks.

Effective alternatives

  • Instead of focussing on organic food, we should rather focus on vegan (animal free, plant based) food. Veganism does have multiple benefits for both the environment and human health. It has lower land use, water use, pesticide use, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, acidification and other kinds of pollution and resource use. See here and the abovementioned the meta-analysis (Clark M. & Tilman D. 2017, Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters12:6). Compared to organic food, review studies show that there is much more scientific evidence for the health benefits of plant-based diets (Springmann M. e.a. 2016, Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. PNAS. Orlich MJ. e.a. 2013, Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2. JAMA Intern Med.173(13):1230-1238. Dinu M. e.a. 2016, Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: a systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. Huang T., e.a. 2012, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality and Cancer Incidence in Vegetarians: A Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review. Ann Nutr Metab; 60:233–240).
  • Spending money on the most effective charities instead of organic food does more good. An average person in Belgium buys 1% organic and spends about 25 euro per year on organic food, which means an extra expenditure of 6 euro due to the higher price of organic. Over a lifetime, this is an extra expenditure of 500 euro. There are effective human health charities such as the Against Malaria foundation that can save 5 to 10 healthy life years (quality adjusted life years or QALYs) with a donation of 500 euro. It is very unlikely that a person in Belgium will lose 5 or 10 healthy life years when he or she consumes 0% instead of merely 1% organic food. In other words: buying cheaper non-organic food and donating the saved money to the most cost-effective health charities (recommended by the charity evaluator GiveWell), will do much more good in the world in terms of global health. When you are concerned about the environment, you can donate the money to the most effective environmental charities, in particular organisations that promote plant-based diets (e.g. recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators).


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