Interpreting Sentience: Scientific Skepticism Vs. Common Sense
Envision a famous sculpture–say, Michelangelo’s Statue of David. Let your mind’s eye focus on it for a moment (or just look above). Impressive specimen, you might think. Now imagine a skeptic coming along and arguing that you weren’t really seeing what you thought you were seeing: the image of a man. We couldn’t be totally sure, the skeptic would say, that the statue represents a real live human being. Granted, a lot of evidence suggests that it represents a human being (such as the fact that it looks exactly like one!). But consider a few points: it’s seventeen feet tall, made of marble, and only shaped in a general resemblance of a human being–a resemblance that could, after all, be coincidental. None of these characteristics, the careful skeptic would argue, proves that Michelangelo intended it to reflect a human form.
Scholars are skeptics, and their cautious and systematic doubt–the kind that questions the representation of David–is prevalent in animal studies. A recent case in point is F. Bailey Norwood’s and Jayson L. Lusk’s Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare. Norwood and Lusk are accomplished, well-respected agricultural economists. Their book is generally superb. However, a compelling chapter on the sentience of farm animals stopped me in my tracks, reminding me how scholarly caution–usually an admirable quality–can lead to conclusions that are not only obviously wrong, but supportive of proof that’s empirically unachievable.
The chapter in question–”Animal Qualia: Investigating Animal Sentience”–summarizes an incredible hit list of peer-reviewed studies confirming animal sentience, emotionalism, and intelligence. We learn that cows “can not only solve simple problems but they become excited when a solution is found,” that pigs recognize as many as 30 of their peers, that after years of absence “a cow can still recognize up to 50 cattle and ten human faces,” that “pigs resemble humans to such a large extent that the heart valves from pigs can be transplanted into humans,” that chickens often behave “much like Pavlov’s dog,” that “unlike human infants, baby chicks will search for an object they have seen being hidden behind a screen,” and that pigs, which can predict what another pig thinks and sees, “are as smart as dogs.” It’s a spellbinding summary of sentience, and it’s hard to imagine an omnivore reading this chapter and not thinking seriously about becoming a herbivore.
Until the chapter’s conclusion. It’s then that that authors’ counterproductive skepticism kicks in, caution emerges, and a spade, all of a sudden, is no longer a spade. While there are “many reasons to support the idea of animal sentience,” there are, somewhat out of nowhere, “some reasons to cast doubt on the idea.” Despite the overwhelming, and often poignant, evidence that animal sentience is undeniable, the authors write that there is “a fair possibility that animals can feel pain.” A fair possibility? Even more befuddling, the authors conclude that, “it seems reasonable that this pain should be given some consideration.” Seems? Some? Where are these buffers coming from? What am I missing here? What’s most troubling to me about this two-page dance around the evidence is that the conclusion could have been reduced to a few choice words: stop eating animal products.
But, as an academic, I’m well aware that that’s not how we academics roll. We tread lightly; we complicate; we question, object, challenge; we never jump to conclusions; we deliberate; we don’t like bumper-sticker length conclusions. These tendencies, however, can backfire. Specifically, at the threshold of common sense, they turn a statue of a beautiful human being into a pile of marble and a beautiful, sentient, non-human being into a falsely justifiable dinner option.