Should I Be Vegan or Vegetarian? How to Resolve the Question

"No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people."
--William Howard Taft

"It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many things have a logic we do not understand that is smarter than our own."
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes


Should we all be vegans? Or at least vegetarians? We're fed all kinds of reasons for it: to save the planet, for ethical reasons, because it's supposedly healthier, to help the Green New Deal, and so on.

One way I address the question of whether to be a vegetarian or vegan is by first understanding that I am part of a system that I do not fully understand. I certainly don't know all there is to know about the human body and how it responds to dietary inputs. In other words, I begin from a place of epistemic humility. I know lot less than I think I know.

Second, I'm not in the business of "laying down rules of conduct" for others. On the contrary, in the business of sharing how I think, how I try to play chess rather than checkers in the various domains discussed here at Casual Kitchen. But you should eat how you want to eat! I don't want to tell you what do to when you're fully capable of deciding for yourself.

Unfortunately, we also have an oversupply of health and diet experts who, in stark contrast, love to tell us how to eat, and they do so with a total lack of epistemic humility. A few blatant examples: It was only a decade or two ago that the medical establishment realized that dietary cholesterol does not equal blood serum cholesterol, which made laughably incorrect the overconfidently dispensed 1980s-era dietary advice that eggs were unhealthy. Worse, our government went so far as to recommend carbs as a preponderant element of our diets. And to top it all off, they still haven't admitted that the horrendous, totally upside down food pyramid was utterly wrong from the start.

One shudders to think how many other things our expert community currently believes to be right, but will later discover to be wrong.[1]

All of this is to say that even if I were to learn as much as I possibly could about veganism and vegetarianism, even if I were to learn all the latest, most rigorous science behind it, it's still enormously likely I'll arrive at errant conclusions, basing those conclusion on soon-to-be-debunked dietary "science." Even more embarrassing, because I "know" so much about all the latest "science" about it, I'll be more confident than ever that I'm right! [2]

Now, humans have been eating meat and animal products for millennia, and our ancestor species likely consumed meat for millions of years before that. So, one possible decision framework in deciding what to eat would be to let "what has worked well in the past" guide your decisions in the future. This is a heuristic, an imperfect one admittedly. But using it in the dietary realm will help you avoid recently-invented foods (Velveeta, hydrogenated oils) and stick instead to foods that have been around for, say, several centuries at a minimum.

Second, I can try to back up this initial tentative choice by carefully observing the results of people around me. Are the vegans and vegetarians that I know healthier and fitter than an equivalently healthy meat-eater? What of my vegan friends who decided to resume eating meat: why did they do this and what are their results? Readers can observe their circle of friends and acquaintances and copy the most effective behaviors.

Now let's go one step further. Let's say that despite this "what do humans historically eat" heuristic, I still want to consider veganism or vegetarianism because I'm persuaded by the various reasons given in this posts' first paragraph. So, knowing that meat and animal products are historically part of our diets, I could make an epistemically humble choice to experiment with the quantity of meat or animal products I eat, and keep that quantity low. This would be a partial-measure solution that would still provide the nutritional inputs that my species historically appears to need without overtinkering with a complex dietary system that I cannot fully understand.

Essentially, this is how we've thought through this issue. It's why we've embraced what we call partial vegetarianism here at Casual Kitchen, where we eat animal products like milk, cheese and eggs and some meat. And it's why we're unlikely ever to be vegans or vegetarians.

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[1] What's even more offensive to me is that nobody ever seems to apologize when a major medical, dietary or psychological claim is later debunked. "Oops, sorry about all those statins we put you on, our bad."

[2] A naive reader easily persuaded by cheap rhetoric might interject here, claiming I am "anti-science." Not in the least. What I am against is when experts use the patina of science to justify epistemically arrogant claims and to tell us what to do. And this goes double when what they tell us to do later turns out to be wrong! Further, calling something "science" does not make it so, which is why I use the (deliberately condescending) phrase "studies show science" to distinguish domains like psychology, nutrition/diet, healthcare, sociology, economics, etc., from genuine sciences like physics. Finally, readers can also use this expression as a reliable rule of thumb: Studies show science is not science.


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1 comment:

Marcia said...

Being vegan is obviously the healthiest way to eat, hands down, for everyone. I know because I read it somewhere on a website written by Dr. Greger. Or McDougall. Or...

and of course, they'd NEVER misrepresent the results of scientific studies, or fail to report the results of ones that disagree with their message.