Get the Facts Right Even When It Hurts

I’ve been pondering the more than 400 comments from my last post at “Since other animals are predators, why shouldn’t we eat animals.” Some were supportive; some provided constructive feedback; some were nasty. Many went back and forth with increasing vitriol between those commenting. It was at times disappointing and discouraging, but mostly, it was very disturbing.

Too often commenters bandied about “facts” that weren’t facts at all. For example, some supporting the overall thesis of my essay said that humans are herbivores. Others arguing against the thesis of my essay said that humans require meat. Neither claim is true. Some said that science reveals that plants can suffer and feel just like animals, but there is no science to support such a claim. These false “facts” were flung about, and then argued about, with everyone able to find a website or article to support their view, but actual truth was in short supply. And truth is precious.

I’m worried about our culture’s relationship with truth. I’m concerned that we’re not educating our children to parse the messages they receive and determine what is true and what is not. When anything can be written and spread on the Internet, then anyone can argue that they hold the truth because they read it on a website. Without the ability to distinguish opinion from fact, and without the capacity to evaluate information critically, we will be at the mercy of whomever does the best job at marketing and at saying what the majority wishes to hear.

I was recently reading a bestselling book on nutrition. I deeply respect the author of this book, who is a physician who has helped so many thousands of people to overcome terrible health problems through a plant-based diet. His book refers to many scientific studies that support his dietary prescriptions. But when he wrote that primates were “the only animals on earth to taste sweet and see color,” I was brought up short by this falsehood. How could someone so dedicated to science, research and truth write something so patently wrong?

He, like all of us – myself included – cannot possibly research and investigate every claim.

In fact, we can only rarely do any true research at all beyond investigating the sources and protocols behind any given statement. We must rely on those sources and methodologies we trust and hope that they are doing their job. But even the most reputable scientific journals have published papers that have later been discovered to be inaccurate. We may rightly rely upon The New York Times over the National Enquirer, but the Times sometimes gets it wrong, and occasionally (e.g., the John Edwards affair) the Enquirer gets it right.

So what are we to do?

The best we can do is to try to be vigilant about getting our facts right. Trusting a single source for information, relying on an organization with an agenda as one’s primary purveyor of truth, depending upon only a couple of news sources – these are all bound to skew information. If we’re going to buy into a perspective, it’s critical that we be willing to learn about other perspectives before we uncritically spread what we have decided is gospel. If we’re going to be informed we need to listen to, watch and read a variety of news sources and if we’re going to be purveyors of information, we can at least say, “I read in [x, y, or z] or saw on [a, b, or c] …” as a way of identifying the source of our information rather than presenting it as inviolate truth.

Then let’s offer our perspectives with a bit of humility, knowing that, with rare exceptions, we weren’t the ones to do the basic research, investigate at the actual source, or discover the information on the ground or in the field. This might have the added benefit of increasing the civility of our discourse and laying the groundwork for greater dedication to discovering what is, in fact, true.

Related Stories:

Want Your Kids to Read? Give Them Banned Books

Will Science Rule Out the Existence of God?

10 Lessons American Protesters Can Learn from Quebec’s Students


Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.

Image courtesy of dreamsjung via Creative Commons.


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

i liked this article. thank you

Raghavendra Madasetty
Raghavendra MS5 years ago

Very Nice Article. The Evolution of Humans and Animals is very complex with complex Sensory, Control and Coordination events That makes both alike. The terms signalling, feeling when used in context of plants refer to an analogous mechanism but not "sentience" in any manner like in Humans and Animals. Plants don't possess a Central Nervous System and an Endocrine system which Animals and HUmans have and So Animals are like us in their ability to feel pain, joy, fear, love, have emotions and even social relationships, familial bonds and parental care. There is a clear line of evolutionary distinction between Plants and Animals. Plants are called "Primary producers" and animals are called "Consumers" in the Food chain.

When Meat production involves suffering, cruelty, Pain and miserable death of a fellow sentient being and when a Human being can survive with out Meat, Its easy to realize the truth, choose between Killing and Living on a healthy, environment friendly diet and take a compassionate decision - nor just for animals, But for own health and for environment. After All, we are Human beings who call ourselves "Civilized" and "Evolved" with a highly evolved brain that can help us reason, analyse things, see the truth and take a decision.

Kathy K.
Kathy K5 years ago

Great post. I work in a medical library and am keenly aware of such issues are health literacy, evidence-based medicine, the skewing of evidence because we see what we want to see, the proliferation of "studies" to back up practically anything that's being claimed, etc. One thing I would like to see more of is training, especially for kids, in how to evaluate information.

Sian R.
Sian R5 years ago

an excerpt from Michael Crichton's The Lost World

" "We realize that plants, in their ceaseless struggle to survive, have evolved everything from complex symbiosis with other animals, to signaling mechanisms to warn other plants, to outright chemical warfare."
Kelly frowned. "Signaling? Like what?"
"Oh there are many examples," Levine said. "In Africa, acacia trees evolved very long, sharp thorns-- 3 inches or so-- but that only provoked animals like giraffes and antelope to evolve long tounges to get past the thorns. Thorns alone didn't work. So, in the evolutionary arms race, the acacia trees next evolved toxicity. They started to produce large quantites of tannin in their leaves, which sets off a lethal metabolic reaction in the animals that eat them. Literally kills them. At the same tame, the acacias also evolved a chemical warning system among themselves. If an antelope begins to eat one tree in a grove, that tree releases the chemical ethylene into the air, which causes other trees in the grove to step up the production of leaf tannin. Within 5 or 10 minutes, the other trees are producing more tannin, making themselves poisonous."
"And what happens to the antelope? It dies?"
"Well, not anymore," Levine said, "because the evolutionary arms race continued. Eventually, antelopes learned that they could only browze for a short time. Once the trees started to produce more tannin, they had to stop eating it. And the browsers developed new strategies. For example, whe

Richard T.
Richard T5 years ago

thank you!

Michael G.
Michael T5 years ago

When you consider for example that there are so many wave lengths in the electromagnetic spectrum and how ill equipped the human eye is to discern even a fraction of those wavelengths and that there are people who are color blind, the abilities of this persons horse is not so marvelous. The addition of the information that countered the earlier assumption held that horses were color blind is an excellent example of how important it is for people to not simply stand on their previous views but to check and recheck whether or not the substantive information has actually changed before asserting that one thing is fact when newer information shows that it isn't the case as what was once believed.

Desiree R.
Desiree Russell5 years ago

@Joanne D. : I think it is now well established that horses _do_ see colour (see for example, however, not in the same way as you and I do. Interestingly enough, reds and purples do not tend to feature so much in their colour range. So why your mare had a preference for those colours, who is to say?

Joanne D.
Mary Deforest5 years ago

I was laughing at animal science-while it helps keep my animals healthy, I've seen animals demonstrate the opposite of what scientists say. Horses don't see color- only gray. I had a mare that loved purlple food-and ran from purple clover to purple clover-Aha- she smells them-How about when she got in the clothes line area and properly chewed up purple thongs, bras, nighties. She ignored thongs and bras in other colors and they all smelled like unscented Tide. Maybe I was mixed up and riding a 1200 lb primate in a horse suit? I think lots of the veternarian researchers observe penned animal-how stimulating can it be for an animal that's in a pen to be observed?

Michael G.
Michael T5 years ago

@Colleen says Michael G. allegedly there are people living in some places, whom, for thousands of years them and their ancestors are strict vegans. not even eating insect or anything. and there may of been Irish vegans in the year 1400.

And these peoples are where? The last sentence made me laugh as the first thought that popped into my head was did these Irish die off? I am not trying to make fun of you, but it was the humorous response that came to mind first.

I understand that the diet of some has caused an increase in health in regard to certain conditions. But I am also aware that this isn't a consistent across the board response in all cases. I am personally aware that certain medications do not cause the same responses in my body as they do in larger numbers of the public. My understanding of anatomy and physiology makes me aware we do not all respond the same way to everything.

Colleen Prinssen
Colleen Prinssen5 years ago

Michael G. there is an artical here where some people say a vegan diet cured their diabeties. some peanut allergies.

brain cancers, Multiple Sclerosis...who knows. maybe even schizophernia.