A rant about IFLS

I Fucking Love Science (IFLS) has become one of the most popular feeds on social media, with over 24 million likes on Facebook. This has been great for science, as I suspect that most of the people that read their science news there are not professional scientists, but interested in the topic. If I could wish one wish, it would be for every human to be more interested and invested in scientific research. So I’m a big fan of what IFLS is doing.

But lately, I’ve become frustrated with the occasional post there, which contains either scientific inaccuracies or fallacies of logic that wouldn’t hold up in any debate. This misinformation (which granted, is relatively rare on this site….I’d unscientifically guess <5% of the time) is a problem. When you’ve people interested in science, it’s a crime to then teach them what science is NOT. Here is one example:

IFLS recently posted an article titled “Why it’s impossible to actually be a vegetarian” that was full of misleading information and flaws in logic. If you don’t want to be a vegetarian, then fine (and the author is apparently vegan). There are many sources of protein, and humans certainly evolved eating many sources of protein that came from animals. I would argue that we (human, especially Americans) eat WAY more meat than our ancestors did, but that’s a subject for another post. The author lays out these claims to support his argument:

(1) The transitive property. This is largely a mathematical property, but the author uses it to suggest that “you are what you eat”. Plants use nutrients that were once a part of animals, which were once a part of plants, and therefore by eating plants, one is really eating animals. First, typically we associate “life” with more than just a collection of abiotic nutrients. A field of dirt is different from the forest that might eventually develop on that pile in a hundred years. Second, very little of the fertilizer we use on our food crops comes from animal sources anymore. Almost all of the nitrogen we add to crops is produced artificially (listen to a great Radiolab about that here). Second, using the same transitive property suggests it’s then morally defensible to kill and eat a blue whale or a chimpanzee because they’re just a collection of phytoplankton or fruits.

(2) Plants are sentient beings because they respond to environmental stimuli. Our feelings about animals as sentient beings are generally not tied to their ability to respond to environmental stimuli. Bacteria respond to stimuli too. I’m not too concerned about that when I use soap to wash my hands. Plants have no nerves, no brains, no emotions. Nice try, but nobody is buying this argument. Besides, if you’re concerned about the feelings of plants, well the animals raised for consumption eat far more plants you do. Energy isn’t transferred efficiently up the food chain.

(3) Vegetarianism isn’t always eco-friendly. The amount of land and deforestation required to raise large herds of animals have huge impacts on the environment. The author uses the tired argument that almonds use lots of water. It takes 1929 gallons of water to raise a pound of almonds. It takes 1847 gallons of water to raise a pound of beef (info here). But ask yourself, even as a vegetarian, how many pounds of almonds do you eat in a month? Now, how many pounds of meat did you eat?

I totally understand that the author of this article is attacking this issue philosophically (he’s an Asst. Prof. of English and Philosophy at Drexel), rather than making a scientific argument. That might be a fun debate to have in a philosophy class or over a few pints. But it’s not science. There’s no data-driven evidence or testable hypothesis presented here. You don’t do science by just sitting around and pondering whacky ideas. That’s what half of America already does. They don’t “believe” in climate change, or evolution, or vaccines, because it doesn’t match what they think in their head. You doing by proposing a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis. Remember the scientific method? To quote Neil Degrasse Tyson, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”. I just find it frustrating to see IFLS presented this belief on a website that’s otherwise devoted to presenting good data-driven science.



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