Monday 9 June 2014

How wishful thinking is damaging PETA's cause

I was appalled a couple of weeks ago to see this advert by PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Readers of this blog will be aware that spurious claims of links with autism is one subject that gets me extremely cross - parents have quite enough to contend with, without the host of irresponsible people who come up with a new autism cause every day.

Needless to say, there is no scientific evidence for a link between milk consumption and autism, and so I wondered why on earth PETA should be promoting such an idea.

I didn't know much about them until this advert cropped up. I first came across PETA when I was in Australia and they had a campaign protesting about "sheep ships" - live export of animals to the Middle East. I was impressed at the way they highlighted the treatment of the animals, who were taken on a long sea voyage in vile conditions just so that they could be slaughtered in a particular way on arrival.

Now that I've read more background, I realise that the autism advert is, alas, a classic case of the "wishful thinking" fallacy, which tends to crop up in debate when there are complex ethical issues involved. Human rights and animal rights often come into conflict, and many of us find it difficult to steer a course between the competing demands. For instance, should I eat meat? I like the taste and it's a good source of protein and iron, but does that justify farming and killing animals? Should we experiment on animals? It may lead to important breakthroughs for conditions such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, but large numbers of animals will be subjected to unpleasant procedures as a result. Many people when confronted with such choices will give priority to the needs of humans, while at the same time trying to ensure the treatment of animals is as humane as possible.

PETA campaigners, however, take an absolute stance, arguing that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any way." Their agenda, then, is not to improve conditions for animals used by humans, but to prevent such use altogether.

This poses a problem. Most people aren't going to be persuaded to become vegan on ethical grounds. It seems that PETA therefore decided we need to be presented with other motivations, namely the idea that milk is bad for you. It would be convenient for PETA if this were true, because it would mean that sensible people would stop drinking milk, regardless of their attitude to animals. In this regard, it's wishful thinking. The claim was challenged last week by Sense About Science, whose conversation with a representative from PETA is described here. Rather than accepting that the evidence for an autism link was not supported by science, Ben Williamson of PETA responded with further outlandish claims, maintaining that consumption of milk contributes to “asthma, constipation, recurrent ear infections, iron deficiency, anaemia and even some cancers”.

The same wishful thinking style of argument is used by those who want to ban all animal experimentation and who consequently argue that all such work is pointless, has never achieved anything, and is only done to promote the careers of those doing the experiments. A moment's thought reveals the fallacy of this viewpoint: it would have to mean that all of those doing animal experiments are either so stupid they can't see the pointlessness of their work, or are sadists who enjoy being unpleasant to animals. Neither proposition is credible. But if it were true, the argument would be easy to win.

The wishful thinkers try to bypass ethically difficult decisions by arguing that there are good practical reasons for adopting their preferred solution. We should become vegan to avoid autism, they say. We should stop animal experimentation because it achieves nothing, they say. Would that life were so simple.

Not only is it logically indefensible to take this line, it is actually counterproductive. PETA's response to Sense About Science confirms that this is an organisation that cannot be trusted to get things right. They will say whatever is convenient to promote their views and will distort the evidence if it helps. Their latest campaign has destroyed any credibility they might have had with the scientifically literate public.


  1. Well I don't know. I bet almost every person with autism drank milk at one time. And, of course, as some wise person pointed out, every alcoholic started by drinking milk

    I don't think PETA has all that good a reputation here in North America. I know I had to check to see that they were not the animal rights terrorist group but it appears that I was thinking of the Animal Liberation Front.

    If they are that easy to confuse, I suspect a lot of people have little use for them.

    1. You could say the same thing, about water, sunlight and oxygen. Saying it does not make it true.

  2. No link has been established between milk and autism. However, that doesn't rule out the possibility that some people diagnosed with autism might be intolerant of lactose or particular caseins. Important for medical profession to bear this in mind when dealing with health issues of autistic patients.