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Robert Todd Carroll


 

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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 76

March 15, 2007

"....scientific literacy is our best defense against irrationality - from pseudoscience to racism to homophobia." --Jon D. Miller, Michigan State University

Previous newsletters are archived at skepdic.com/news/

In this issue:

What's New in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

There are two new dictionary entries and one new essay: the Pufedorf hoax, the law of attraction, and a short history of psi research.

There is one new entry in the What's the Harm? blog:  Blind faith healing: a paradigm for the hopeless about Nicolai Levashov and the Prichard family.

There are two new entries in the Mass Media Funk blog: one on herbal cures for AIDS and one on Arnold Schwarzenegger's appointments to the Board of Chiropractors.

There is a new entry in the Mass Media Bunk blog about Oprah Winfrey's continuing promotion of New Age woo-woo regarding psychics and The Secret.

I revised the entries on ghosts, haunted houses, Ouija boards, parapsychologypoltergeists, and Rudolf Steiner. And I updated the entries on dowsing (to include a link to Grave Dowsing Reconsidered by William E. Whittaker, Ph.D., RPA, Office of the State Archaeologist, The University of Iowa), feng shui (to include a link to an article about the Los Angeles Zoo hiring a feng shui expert for some monkeys), remote viewing (to include a link to an article about the British testing psychics for use in warfare), and rumpology (to add some details about a blind rump reader).

More proof of design

There are signs of design everywhere and we'd see them if only we took the time to seek them out. For example, I recently learned of two exquisite examples of design, involving birds and spiders, from This Week in Science.

I've known for some time that the European Cuckoo is a brood parasitic bird: it lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species for the host to hatch and raise the offspring. An especially lovely feature of the European Cuckoo is that when its chick hatches it pushes host eggs or chicks out of the nest. But I had not known that Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) not only fly into other birds' nests and lay an egg for the other birds to hatch and raise, but they also keep track of which hosts remove the cowbird eggs from their nests. In a study of cowbirds and warblers, researchers discovered that when that happens, the cowbirds return and destroy the warbler's nest and eggs. "The researchers found that when cowbird eggs remained in the nest, only 6% of the warbler eggs were damaged. However, when cowbird eggs were removed, 56% of the warbler eggs were destroyed." If that's not evidence of design, I don't know what is.

More proof of design is provided by the sexual behavior of the wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi). Females of this species like to eat their male partners after sex. That alone would support the design hypothesis, but there's more. Some of the male spiders, apparently aware of the after-sex appetite of their consorts, make such a quick exit after sex that their sex organs (two pedipalps) snap off and plug up the female. This prevents any other males from fertilizing the female's eggs. Scientists refer to the abandoned genitalia as chastity belts, but whatever you call them they are more proof of design.

Proof of intelligent design, however, was provided by Gabriele Uhl at the University of Bonn, Germany, and her colleagues who study the mating habits of these spiders.

To find out if leaving behind part of the pedipalp helped the males escape death, researchers compared the damage to this organ during first-time sexual encounters with damage sustained in subsequent encounters.

You'll never guess what they discovered.

The experienced males monitored in the experiment had mated once before and only had a single remaining pedipalp intact. These males would enjoy no evolutionary benefit from surviving after mating a second time because they have generally lost both of their pedipalps at this point, and can therefore no longer inseminate females.

I can't argue with that logic.

According to Uhl, if detaching the pedipalp did offer a survival benefit, one would expect to see it happen more among virgin males, which could mate again, than experienced males, which could not. But the researchers found an equal amount of pedipalp damage among these two groups.

They therefore concluded that detachment of the pedipalp tip cannot significantly enhance a male spider's chance of escaping attack by his mate.

You'd think that would be enough information gained from one experiment, but these researchers were not finished.

Uhl's team also found that a pedipalp tip left inside a female affected how long she copulated for in subsequent encounters. Normally virgin females mate for about 16 seconds, but those with a pedipalp plug mate for only half as long.

What, you may wonder, is so important about how long a female wasp spider copulates? The longer the copulation time, the greater the chance of fertilization of her eggs.

For some reason, this story reminds me of a line a student wrote in a paper for my philosophy of religion class some thirty years ago. I remember it as if it were yesterday. "The Bible," he wrote, "is not a single book. It is the copulation of many books."

Amen to that, brother. Amen.

Phony Doctors?

According to Ben Goldacre (Bad Science, Guardian), a character by the name of Gillian McKeith has used the title of "doctor" to sell TV shows, diet books and herbal sex pills. She's been doing this for years even though her doctorate was purchased through a correspondence course from a non-accredited college called Clayton College. According to Goldacre:

she is an empire, a multi-millionaire, a phenomenon, a prime-time TV celebrity, a bestselling author. She has her own range of foods and mysterious powders, she has pills to give you an erection, and her face is in every health food store in the country. Scottish Conservative politicians want her to advise the government. The Soil Association gave her a prize for educating the public. And yet, to anyone who knows the slightest bit about science, this woman is a bad joke.

McKeith, apparently, knows next to nothing about science, yet she is treated like a Nobel laureate when she spouts "mumbo-jumbo" that "she dresses up as scientific fact." Goldacre writes:

She talks endlessly about chlorophyll, for example: how it's "high in oxygen" and will "oxygenate your blood" - but chlorophyll will only make oxygen in the presence of light. It's dark in your intestines, and even if you stuck a searchlight up your bum to prove a point, you probably wouldn't absorb much oxygen in there, because you don't have gills in your gut. In fact, neither do fish. In fact, forgive me, but I don't think you really want oxygen up there, because methane fart gas mixed with oxygen is a potentially explosive combination.

I recommend Goldacre's latest column on McKeith. If you're like me, you'll finish by shaking your head and wondering how somebody with so little knowledge is able to blowhard her way into prominence as an expert. It's a nice reminder that we in the U. S. are not alone when it comes to having know-nothings take over the airwaves (except here they often take over the PBS airwaves) and find that exposure of their questionable qualifications and pseudoscientific claims seems to make them more popular with the masses.

Another case of a questionable doctorate is that of Dr. Marcus R. Ross, a young earth creationist who wrote a doctoral dissertation in geoscience at the University of Rhode Island about the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. My guess is that he did what he did so he could say that he's a real scientist with a real Ph.D. who doesn't believe in evolution. Ross is probably considered a hero by the anti-evolutionist folks at the Discovery Institute. (John R. Baumgardner is another young earth creationist with a Ph.D. in geoscience. His was granted by UCLA. The most famous young earth creationist with a Ph.D. from a secular institution, however, is Kurt P. Wise, who earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1989 under the guidance of the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.)

Ross is obviously a very smart fellow and had no problem rationalizing what might appear to be hypocrisy to non-believers. The methods and theories of paleontology are one paradigm for studying the past, he says, and Scripture is another. "I am separating the different paradigms." That's one way to look at it. A dumb cluck such as myself, however, finds it impossible to see Scripture as a paradigm for anything scientific. You might as well claim that Alice in Wonderland or Finnegan's Wake are just alternative paradigms for history or paleontology. However, the question many are asking is: should Ross be considered a real doctor of geoscience? On the one hand, he did all the required work. On the other hand, what doctoral student hasn't put forth ideas he or she didn't accept in order to please an adviser? Is Ross being singled out for criticism because of his suspected motive?

Cornelia Dean, in an article for The New York Times, raises some serious questions that I haven't a clue how to answer:

May a secular university deny otherwise qualified students a degree because of their religion? Can a student produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held beliefs? Should it be obligatory (or forbidden) for universities to consider how students will use the degrees they earn?

Michael L. Dini, a professor of biology at Texas Tech University, says: "Scientists do not base their acceptance or rejection of theories on religion, and someone who does should not be able to become a scientist." In 2003, Dini was threatened with a federal investigation when he would not write letters of recommendation for graduate study for anyone who would not offer "a scientific answer" to questions about how the human species originated. No investigation occurred.

Dr. Fastovsky of Rhode Island University said he had talked to Ross "lots of times" about his religious beliefs, but that depriving him of his doctorate because of them would be religious discrimination. "We are not here to certify his religious beliefs," he said. "All I can tell you is he came here and did science that was completely defensible." Ross currently holds a teaching position at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, thinks otherwise. In her view, graduate admissions committees are entitled to consider the difficulties that would arise from admitting a doctoral candidate with views "so at variance with what we consider standard science." It is discrimination "on the basis of science" not religion, she says.

I wonder how the young earth creationists would react to a flock of atheists enrolling in Bible colleges and faking their way through to get their divinity doctorates and licenses to preach. Would they welcome us and our impeccable credentials with open arms as we told their congregations that there is no God, no redemption, no life after death? Fortunately, most atheists are too moral to engage in such hypocritical, subversive behavior. As they say: All's fair in love and war. The young earthers are at war with the real world and real science.

The moral of this story may be that at the present time having a doctorate doesn't mean jack. Forget your title; let's see your data and your arguments. Do you hear me, Harvard Ph.D. Gary Schwartz?

There's one born every second!

We're talking about mediums, not suckers. (There are two of those born every second!) First, welcome John Holland. Like the government, he's here to help you by sucking the life out of your soul! Kathlyn Rhea is right behind John, waiting in line to help you find whatever it is you might be looking for. I could go on, but why bother? Just watch Oprah, Larry King, Montel Williams, or...actually, just turn on your TV.

Animals Eating Animals

Stephen wrote:

I'm curious what skeptics, such as yourself, have to say about how we human animals treat other animals. For instance, do you eat meat? If you do, then do you think there is scientific evidence that non-human animals do not feel pain, do not suffer, or do not have emotions much like we humans do? On the contrary, if you think science provides evidence that non-human animals do feel pain, do suffer, and experience emotions and yet you think that killing and eating other animals is acceptable and/or justified then what (scientific) logic do you use to justify that position?

Stephen assumes that if animals feel pain, suffer, and have emotions then killing and eating them requires justification. This sounds plausible and it has led some people - some Buddhists and the Jains, for example - to try to go through life without harming any living creature. Some Jains don't even like to walk anywhere for fear they might step on an insect. They wear masks so they don't accidentally swallow any microbes or bugs in the air. Most vegans don't feel there is any need to justify eating store-bought potatoes or other vegetables, or eating fruit picked from their own trees, but Jains won't even do that.

Why assume that only animals should not be eaten? Insects and pears might not feel pain or have emotions, but why discriminate against them just because they can't feel? Isn't this a kind of speciesism? We have no qualms about trying to kill viruses and bacteria. Isn't this a kind of speciesism?  We try to kill microbes to protect ourselves. We don't feel any qualms about it because we would rather kill a billion viruses than see one human suffer. Just because viruses don't feel anything in itself doesn't justify our doing whatever we want to them. A beautiful sculpture can't feel anything but that doesn't mean we are justified in smashing it to bits.  A comatose patient or even a healthy but sleeping person may not feel anything if we smother them to death, but just because they can't feel pain or emotions doesn't mean we can do whatever we want to them. Whether something can feel or not doesn't impose on us any particular obligations toward it. Would Stephen think that if we anesthetized animals before killing them and eating them, any obligations we might have toward them vaporizes with their ability to feel? Our obligations towards other humans, animals, insects, inanimate objects, or whatever have to be grounded in something else besides the ability to feel.

It is a fact that living beings, animal and non-animal, must have nutrients to live and that there would not be the great abundance and variety of living beings that there is if we did not eat each other. Many animals end their lives as meals for other animals. That in itself is neither moral nor immoral. The real question is not how can you justify eating meat, but is it immoral to eat meat if the meat you are eating comes from animals that have suffered? If you've followed my argument in the previous paragraph, you know that the answer is "not necessarily." But this answer and this argument has nothing to do with skepticism. I have no idea what other skeptics might think about eating meat. Those of us who eat meat don't do so because it is logically required as the conclusion of some valid syllogism. We don't do so because we have scientific evidence that indicates we must or should eat meat. We eat meat because it's tasty. (That explains why we eat meat; it doesn't justify eating meat. And I'm not saying that I'd eat anything if it were tasty. I wouldn't eat a cat, a dog, or whale, elephant, giraffe or monkey meat even if they were tastier than pork.) If we felt that it was immoral, I don't think most of us would eat meat. I don't feel any need to justify eating meat, however. I would prefer that meat farmers not abuse their animals before sending them to market, but I don't feel obligated to investigate the origin and treatment of every package of meat I buy at the grocery store.

Perhaps I should care more about all the pigs, cattle, and chickens (the sources of my favorite meats) who suffer so I and millions of others can enjoy our meat without having to go hunting. If I had my way, all the pork I eat would come from happy pigs. (I suppose I should say that I'd prefer that millions of field mice, rats, rabbits, and other small animals not suffer so that farmers can plant huge acreages of corn and wheat, but I'd be dishonest. For some reason, I feel no qualms about killing rats or mice, and I don't wince a bit at all the dead rabbits, skunks, crows, and other carrion I pass on the roadways.) There is only so much time in the day and only so many things I can concern myself with.  I know that any given pig, steer, or chicken would eat me in a flash if the opportunity or need arose. I wouldn't blame them for it. I know I don't have to eat dead animals. The fact that I am able to choose to eat or not eat meat doesn't seem to imply that I should choose to not eat meat. If you truly believed that you have a duty to not cause any unnecessary suffering then you should become a Jain or a Buddhist. They are the only ones with the moral authority to pontificate about what people should or should not eat, though I realize that one need not live up to one's principles for those principles to be valid. My own view is that the Jains and Buddhists are imposing duties on themselves that I consider absurd. I assume a Jain would choose to let a mosquito bite him rather than kill the insect, even if it means malaria and death. Buddhists won't use ant spray, even if the ants are fire ants and bite them while they meditate. I feel no urge to imitate these behaviors. And if killing mosquitoes is immoral, then I'll choose to be immoral rather than run the risk of contracting West Nile virus.

The long and the short of it is that I don't know that I can justify eating meat, but I don't feel I need to any more than I need to justify eating carrots or potatoes, or killing flies and spiders.

Feedback on the morality of eating meat

Nevyn wrote: I must take issue with your response to "Stephen" regarding ethical justifications for eating meat.

It seems "Stephen" poorly worded his question, but taking your assumption of his proposition as valid, I will only address the "if/then" you mention in the first sentence of your reply.

[You write:] Stephen assumes that if animals feel pain, suffer, and have emotions then killing and eating them requires justification.

This does indeed sound plausible. However, to lead directly into a misleadingly vivid example of Buddhist and Jain religious practice simply strawmans his position. They come to their position through irrational means, and to use them as a counter-example seems spurious. Since the original question was about skeptics and meat-eating, a more appropriate example would have been the arguments of ethicists such as Peter Singer, whose work I am sure you are familiar with in some respect.

Bob Carroll replies: I admit that my call to joining a religious group if you believe that you have a duty to not cause any unnecessary suffering was totally uncalled for. Obviously, I shouldn't have mentioned the Jains or Buddhists in the same sentence as duties people impose on themselves. They are completely separate issues.

Singer was the point of my mentioning speciesism.

[You write:] Why assume that only animals should not be eaten? Insects and pears might not feel pain or have emotions, but why discriminate against them just because they can't feel? Isn't this a kind of speciesism?

It is interesting that you use Singer's phrase "speciesism." It can indeed be construed this way. However, this is to equivocate on his term. He has a rubric of consciousness by which we can make these decisions, and thus eliminate viruses, fruit and bacteria. This is not a perfect yardstick by any means, but to ignore the nuanced way he presents the term, and still use it, is, again, spurious.

Bob Carroll replies: I use the term 'specieism' precisely because Singer uses it, unjustifiably in my view, as an analogue to racism and sexism. He claims that species with consciousness and those species that have sensation and can feel pain are somehow deserving of "rights" because of these facts.  This is arbitrary. To convince me that I have a duty not to eat meat, I am going to require that the argument do more than assert that I have an obligation always to act in ways that do not encourage the increase of suffering to conscious, sentient species. In my view, that begs the question. No creature has a "right not to suffer," much less a "right not to be eaten." I may not have a right not to be eaten but you don't have a right to eat me, either.

[You write:] We have no qualms about trying to kill viruses and bacteria. Isn't this a kind of speciesism? We try to kill microbes to protect ourselves.

This seems to go against your following position regarding amoral necessity in the natural world. You are of course right that there is no moral claim to be drawn from nature itself, but you speak here not of sustenance, but of self-protection. To conflate these motivations seems a false analogy.

[You write:] The real question is not how can you justify eating meat, but is it immoral to eat meat if the meat you are eating comes from animals that have suffered?

I won't go so far as to call another strawman here, but the larger ethical issue seems to be "is it wrong to cause unnecessary suffering?" or more provocatively, "is it wrong to cause unnecessary suffering for our own pleasure?" If it is true that eating meat is not necessary as you say, "I know I don't have to eat dead animals," and eating meat causes unnecessary suffering, is it then unethical? I'm not seeking to answer this question here, just to point out that there seems to be a better way to frame the question.

[You write:] That explains why we eat meat; it doesn't justify eating meat. And I'm not saying that I'd eat anything if it were tasty. I wouldn't eat a cat, a dog, or whale, elephant, giraffe or monkey meat even if they were tastier than pork . . . I would prefer that meat farmers not abuse their animals before sending them to market . . .

Why? I think this is what's at the heart of "Stephen's" question. I would guess that you have a host of reasons why you wouldn't eat dogs and whales, and that among them are issues of consciousness, preservation and ethicality. These, as you know, are the hard questions, and do not deserve such short shrift.

[You write:] Perhaps I should care more about all the pigs, cattle, and chickens (the sources of my favorite meats) who suffer so I and millions of others can enjoy our meat without having to go hunting.

The appeal to numbers here seems to muddy the waters a bit, but I know a blog is more position biased towards issues so I won't belabor the point. But the either/or of suffering or hunting looks like a false dichotomy. You mentioned yourself that there are ways to minimize or eliminate suffering and still eat meat, besides the fact that hunting has its own promulgation of suffering to contend with.

[You write:] There is only so much time in the day and only so many things I can concern myself with. I know that any given pig, steer, or chicken would eat me in a flash if the opportunity or need arose.

There are several problems here. First off, your books have taught the world that critical thinking is a mindset, not something to be turned off and on as time allows. As to farm animals eating you, even if this tenuous claim is true, it is a naturalistic fallacy to support your position with the possible behavior of farm animals. Again, you likely know the is/ought problem better than I do.

[You write:] If you truly believed that you have a duty to not cause any unnecessary suffering then you should become a Jain or a Buddhist. They are the only ones with the moral authority to pontificate about what people should or should not eat, though I realize that one need not live up to one's principles for those principles to be valid.

I'm actually writing to you because of these two sentences. This reasoning seems beneath you. It is a blatant bifurcation error to say that one should be a Jain or Buddhist if they feel an ethical duty to not cause unnecessary suffering. It again also commits the strawman by making it seem like religious practices are the only path to performing this duty. It also ignores the capacity to suffer that some religious practices ignore (perhaps due to an irrational adherence to religion), making a refutation easy to dismiss as (rightly) absurd. It also seems to devalue what many secular philosophers consider a moral precept. Beyond that, as you point out, it's irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the principle (or the validity of the induction). Of course I can have the moral authority to say it's wrong to eat certain things (children, dogs, whales, etc.) and I don't have to be an extreme religionist to do it.

[You write:] The long and the short of it is that I don't know that I can justify eating meat, but I don't feel I need to any more than I need to justify eating carrots or potatoes, or killing flies and spiders.

I'm not sure how to take your closing. The principle of fairness leads me to assume you do not equate justification of suffering for sentient animals (with a clear capacity to suffer) with "killing" a potato. I think you do make such a distinction (as do Jains and Buddhists for that matter) as evidenced by what you've said you would and would not eat. In closing, this issue deserves a proper treatment. I don't know if your site is the proper place for it, and I'm not suggesting that it should be. Perhaps this would have been better as a private response to "Stephen." Obviously you cared enough about it to devote time and web space to the topic. Yet once you do so, you commit yourself to a certain treatment demanded by your admirable standards. If you still go to the APA conferences, perhaps we'll get a chance to meet some time. I also try to make the skeptical events, such as TAM, when I can. You seem to be a wonderful person, and I hope you do not take this as an affront of any kind. Who knows, I may apply for a job in your department some day and I wouldn't want to burn any bridges. And just a final FYI, my area is the philosophy of mind, not animal ethics. It's been some time since I've read Singer or Rachels (I think he had a similar position), but I remember enough of them to know they posed some very interesting and difficult philosophical questions. I hope to hear from you.

Bob Carroll replies: Nevyn makes many points that should be addressed. I replied to Stephen in the newsletter rather than privately because (a) I don't have time to get into long and interesting e-mail conversations with the many people who write me with interesting ideas and (b) I wanted to let him and others who might be curious know that there is no official "skeptical" position on eating meat and (c) I wanted to say that I don't think I have a moral justification for eating meat and, for whatever reason, that fact doesn't bother me.

Also, the reason I wouldn't eat dog or whale meat has nothing to do with those species being conscious, or with preservation of species, or with any rights those creatures might possess. The reason is purely cultural. If I had been raised in a culture where eating dogs or whale meat was a common practice, and I found them tasty, I would probably eat dog and whale meat. Would I eat whale if I thought that by doing so I was contributing to the imminent extinction of whales? No, of course not. (I realize this topic deserves a book.)

Whether Stephen worded his question poorly is not for me or Nevyn to decide. I think I understand what Stephen is getting at. The standard utilitarian argument from John Stuart Mill onward has been that we should follow what has been called The Greatest Happiness Principle. But since I don't think it makes sense to talk about non-human animals being "happy" or "unhappy" (again, a book length topic), I prefer the discussion to be in cruder terms regarding pleasure and pain. I don't know that all non-human animals can feel pleasure or pain, but I feel certain that most of the ones I eat can feel pain. Mill argued that we should act so as to maximize the ratio of pleasure to pain in the world while considering the effect of actions on all sentient creatures. So, whatever pleasure comes from the farming, transporting, selling, cooking, serving, and eating of an animal must be weighed against the pain of killing the animal and, I would assume, also against the deprived pleasure the animal might have gotten had it lived a full life. I find consideration of such hedonic calculations absurd. In any case, the utilitarian principle and its hedonic basis form one approach to morals. And, if one is clever enough, I don't doubt that one can demonstrate in some rational fashion that eating meat is immoral. However, I don't accept the fundamental principle of utilitarianism that there is a duty to increase the ratio of pleasure to pain in the universe by one's actions. Now, perhaps I misunderstood Stephen altogether and he had no intention of promoting the utilitarian notion that the measure of morality is the amount of pleasure or pain it causes. But the way he worded his question seems to indicate that he did. Even so, I didn't think it necessary to go into detail about utilitarianism in responding to Stephen because his focus was clearly on the issue of causing pain and suffering to animals. He seemed clearly to be asking me how can I eat meat when it causes suffering to animals.

***

Brennen writes: I am writing to offer a comment on your remarks regarding eating meat. I was a little disturbed by them, not so much by the conclusions, but by the cavalier tone and the apparent lack of interest in the potential ethical question involved.

The original question seemed polite and reasonable, so your rather brusque dismissal of the entire subject seemed a bit excessive. As you indicated, there are only so many things a person can concern themselves with, and you certainly spend considerable energy on a great variety of subjects. However, one the the great falsehood skeptics have to battle is the notion that without a supernatural basis for morality and ethics we would have none. Clearly, as a scientific naturalist and an agnostic (on technical grounds, though in practice I am essentially an atheist), I disagree. I think it is possible to establish a rational foundation for ethics. As you are a prominent and effective spokesperson for skepticism and rationalism, I suspect you would agree that ethical behavior can be founded on rational analysis of potential ethical issues. Yet in responding as you did below, you seemed to suggest that this particular issue was just not worth your time, and further to imply that considering it seriously or reaching the conclusion that it is not ethical to eat animals is tantamount to joining such extremists as the Jains. That seems to feed into the stereotype of skeptics as uninterested in right and wrong. It also falls short of your usual standards in considering an idea, since you equate the question itself with the most extreme positions on the question rather than arguing the merits.

Clearly, the majority of your efforts in debunking nonsense involving protecting people from being harmed by it, so of course you must have a commitment to ethical behavior. And I don't have any particular interest in debating the merits of vegetarianism with you, since I'm not much for proselytizing anyway and you clearly have the right to do as you please (though I'd be happy to give you my thoughts on the subject if you are interested). But I just thought I'd make the points that 1) consideration of the issue, and the specific idea of basing standards of treatment on capacity for suffering, are not a priori woo-woo or irrational and 2) perhaps a more constructive response would be to decline to offer a particular opinion if you aren't able to or interested in considering the question, but to refrain from implying that there is nothing for a skeptical intellect to consider and the subject is properly the province of the religious or the extreme.

Bob Carroll replies: Again, I owe my readers an apology for bringing up religious groups when discussing moral duties. Moral duties don't depend on religion and atheists can believe it is wrong to harm any living thing without having to become Jains. (Actually, Jains are atheists, but you know what I mean. You don't have to belong to any group, religious or otherwise, to have a defensible moral code.)

I admit to taking a cavalier tone about eating meat. I did not consider that some people might be very sensitive about this issue and take my moral indifference about eating meat to be insulting to them. For many people, the treatment of animals is a moral issue of the highest magnitude.

Eric wrote:

Regarding the moral evaluation of not eating animals: This argument seems to be based on one facet of the issue--we should avoid eating animals (unless inevitable) because they have feelings or consciousness. But isn't there another facet? From the Kantian perspective we should act as if our action should be a universal rule. If meat production is less efficient (it takes up more resources to yield calories) than other forms of food production (e.g. vegetables) and if people are starving, isn't it immoral to support (by eating) inefficient modes of food production?

My guess is the good skeptic would argue against the above by tackling the premise (relative efficiency of food production) rather than the consequences of the argument.

Bob Carroll replies: I must admit that I find Kant even less useful than Mill in deciding moral issues. The clever carnivore and the clever vegan should each be able to come up with a satisfactory universal rule justifying their contradictory positions, assuming each takes a moral stance on the issue.

On the other hand, I would argue against a universal rule that says we should always act in the most efficient way. (Plea bargaining comes to mind. It's efficient but a good case can be made that it's immoral because it systematically leads to more injustice than justice in sentencing.) If the question is Should we grow vegetables and fruits and not raise any animals for meat if to do otherwise would mean mass starvation? then my answer is, yes. To go into any more detail on obligations to feed the world, and how, etc., takes us into book length territory.

Carol writes:

You say you don't feel any qualms about killing rats and mice. Really, what is the fundamental difference between rats and mice and humans? Why is it morally ok to take away the lives of rats and mice and not humans? Is it just that there are legal repercussions when you kill a human?

Bob Carroll replies: I don't identify my not feeling qualms about x with it being morally okay to do x. I was just being honest about my feelings. I was not trying to draw any grand conclusions about what's moral or immoral. I wasn't advocating killing mice and rats. I was simply noting that I don't feel any anguish at the thought of all those field animals being killed to make room for crops. It may be immoral to kill a rat. Even so, I would not hesitate to kill a rat if I had to choose between killing a rat or killing a human. I'm not saying it would be justifiable to hunt down and kill every mouse or rat alive. If someone told me that she killed a mouse in her house, I probably would feel nothing at all. I certainly wouldn't feel moral outrage. If someone said she killed a child, I'd be outraged. Do I value humans more than mice? You bet I do. From an evolutionary standpoint, however, the mouse is no less valuable than the human child.

You regard it as fine to kill other animals for food, since we need the nutrients and animals are tasty - would it be OK to go out and slaughter someone on the street because you are hungry and you like the taste of human flesh? What's the difference? Most people say it's because animals don't have souls and we do, or the bible says it's alright or some such codswallop - but I know you are not going to say that.

Bob Carroll replies: I didn't say it was fine (or morally okay) to kill animals because they're tasty. I said I eat meat because it's tasty but noted that that does not justify eating meat. I specified a number of animals I would not eat even if they were tastier than pork. I didn't mention humans, but that should not be taken to imply that I would eat humans if they were tasty or that I think it would be justifiable to eat humans if they were tasty. Again, I was trying to explain why I eat meat, not justify killing animals and eating them. As I said in my original comments: I'm not sure I can provide a moral justification for eating meat.

Is it Ok because they are "not as intelligent"? Should we be able to kill mentally challenged people, then? Or is it Ok to kill animals just because we can? I'm not trying to be facetious - I'd really like to know what you think.

Bob Carroll replies: One of the main points I was trying to make is that if it is immoral to kill animals, it is not because they can feel. I don't claim that it is morally justifiable to kill animals and eat them. What I said was that I don't feel any need to provide such a moral justification. I would put having intelligence in the same class as having feelings: neither quality in itself gives one a right not to be eaten. On the other hand, it doesn't follow from that that beings with more intelligence are justified in eating beings with less intelligence. If it is morally justifiable to kill some animals, it doesn't follow from that that killing any animal at any time for any reason is justifiable.

Finally, I don't think it follows from anything I have said about eating meat that anything goes when it comes to the treatment of animals. There are immoral acts that humans can engage in that involve cruelty to animals, including cruelty to animals harvested for food. Just because it is legal to raise animals for food, does not mean that one should thereby be permitted to treat those animals in ways that cause wanton and unnecessary suffering. There should be laws that regulate the treatment of animals, including animals harvested for food. Those laws should not allow some of the kinds practices that are currently common, e.g., farrowing crates.

Tim writes:

While growing up on the farm we raised pigs and used farrowing crates. The "crates" we used were wood, not metal as pictured in your link They not only kept the sows from laying on and killing their piglets, but they also kept these omnivores from eating (many) of their young. If we ever had a sow give birth in a pen without the crate at least half the piglets would not survive. If a sow ever gave birth in the field *none* of the piglets would survive the night due to cannibalism in the pig herd.

James writes:

None of the animals we use for food seem to have any sort of funerary custom, nor do they seem to care what happens to their bodies after death. Therefore, eating an animal that we didn't kill has no particular moral weight.

Every animal dies eventually, whether we eat it or not. Food type animals don't seem to plan for the future or have much ambition, so I don't see that a short life could have much effect on the quality of what life they have. Therefore, it doesn't seem that killing an animal has any particular moral weight beyond reducing overall years of happiness and whatever pain is caused by killing.

If the animal is replaced by an equally happy animal, there is no net loss of happiness other than the pain of killing the animal.

Responsible pet owners frequently euthanize pets who are dying of natural causes, so I don't think we can say that killing an animal is automatically bad.

It seems like what really matters is how many animals are alive at any given time, how happy they are, and how humanely they are killed, not how long the individual animals live or what we do with the bodies after they are dead.

The meat industry keeps hundreds of millions of animals alive at any given time. The exact number depends on how well the markets are doing. Reducing the amount of meat and other animal products consumed will reduce the overall number of animals in existence at any given time. If those animals are generating any positive amount of happiness while alive, then reducing the overall number reduces the overall happiness, unless the remaining animals become happier. This only seems likely in cases of over-crowding, which can be relieved in other ways.

On the other hand, if we end meat production altogether, what do we do with the meat animals? Keeping them all in captivity would be prohibitively expensive. Setting them free would be an ecological disaster and most of them would die anyway. One way or another, the over-all population of these animals would have to be reduced drastically, probably by something like 1000:1. That would mean that unless the remaining animals are a thousand times happier than they were as food animals, we would lose overall happiness.

I think that as long as we make sure that each individual animal has at least some net happiness in their life, the meat industry will generate a huge amount of net animal happiness, and as long as the each food animal is at least 1/1000th as happy as it could be, we generate more animal happiness with a meat industry than without.

Bob Carroll replies: I'm sure there is another utilitarian out there who has another set of calculations that leads to a different conclusion. This is one of those roads that goes on forever. I once worked for a man who loved bullfights. He defended bullfighting by pointing out that the bulls who were taunted, speared, and killed in the arena before thousands of cheering fans lived very good lives before their final day. They lived longer and more comfortably than the average bull. Plus, he claimed, the meat from the bull was given to the poor, making a lot of people happy.

Munish writes: As a thought experiment, let us assume that you find me mercilessly stoning/beating/harming a tied/enclosed chicken/pig/cattle. I have no doubt that you would feel pity on the animal and would attempt to stop me from continuing my admittedly reprehensible actions. On other hand, you have no qualms about taking my actions to the extreme - i.e. killing the above animal and having it for dinner!! There is a weird moral dichotomy involved, which is worth paying attention to.

As you remarked, we eat animals because they are tasty and not to fulfill essential dietary requirements, which can easily be met by a combination of fruits/vegetables/whole grains etc. This is done not only by Jainists and Buddhists but also by millions of Hindus in India, where I come from. The entire meat/poultry industry exists precisely to cater to this taste. As another thought experiment, let's assume that in fact you have an adequate supply of fruits/vegetables/whole grains to meet your dietary needs. There are also an ample number of chickens/pig/cattle available in your vicinity but with one proviso - if you want to indulge your taste for meat, you have to kill the animal yourself. To simplify things, let's assume that there would be no physical labor involved in the killings, it may be done just at the touch of a button. But you would have to be present near the animal, push the button yourself and watch it die. This is different from professional butchers and those who work in the meat-processing industry - they are doing it to earn a living and for their own sustenance, not out of passion for their work. My point is that since this industry divorces the actual killings from the meat-eating, most people don't have to deal with the attendant moral issues. If they are forced to face them head-on, most people will choose not to eat meat. Naturally, I don't have any surveys to back this up, this is just my conjecture.

It may be the case that meat-eating may be one of those things that we just take for granted in our time, to which future generations may react in shock and horror - like slavery, racism and inequality of the sexes for example. A minor example would be your own essay in which you tied yourself into knots, committed several of the logical mistakes in argument which you warn other people about, while never being able to justify meat-eating, and finally concluding that the issue is simply not worth thinking about (in that case, what was the necessity of the essay??).

Maybe we might as well just admit that meat-eating is simply not morally justifiable but we do it anyway. This may be an admission of weakness in some sense, but also the honest approach.

Bob Carroll replies: I never said the issue is not worth thinking about. I said that I don't feel a need to justify eating meat, but I'm not sure I could justify it if I did feel such a need.

Scientific Literacy/Illiteracy

In 1988 only about 10 percent of the U. S. adult population knew enough about science to understand reports in major newspapers, a figure that grew to 28 percent by 2005, according to Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University. The positive side of this is that there was a huge increase in literacy over the last twenty years and only the Swedes are more scientifically literate than we are in the U. S. The downside is that 70% of us in the U. S. don't know enough science to understand newspaper reports about important scientific subjects.

If it is any consolation, there are a number of countries that currently score at or below where the U. S. was in 1988: Australia, Ireland, Poland, Spain, Greece, Portugal, and Japan, for example. The bottom line seems to be that the majority of people on the planet are scientifically illiterate. That's a cheery thought to carry with you as you listen to your favorite young earth Ph.D. pundit pontificate about global warming, AIDS, stem cell research, or the need to invade Iran to bring about some scriptural prophecy.

Skeptics Circle

Fortunately, not everybody is trying to get messages from the dead or promote superstition. One candle in the dark is the Skeptics Circle. If you haven't visited the Skeptics Circle, it's time.  View the latest compilation of skeptical writing at Shalini's place, number 56, your lucky number! The circle keeps growing. Please join in. Soon skeptics will rule the world!

And thanks to Toby Selwn for his Tribute to the Skeptic's Dictionary (click on that listing to the right under recent posts).

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