Science can differ, complicating animal welfare issues

While you may be able to prove a point while using scientific information, people with differing opinions can often prove their points by using another set of scientific information.

Roy Graber Headshot
Alexa Lamm
Alexa Lamm
Roy Graber

To most people involved in pork production or egg production, it would seem that rules like California’s Proposition 12 that ban the use of gestation crates or battery cages are based on emotions, rather than science.

Alexa Lamm, University of Georgia professor of agricultural leadership, education and communication, agreed that the push for such laws has been largely driven by people’s emotions, but she also said you can’t rule out that there could be some scientific merit in people’s minds. That’s because, contrary to what many people think, science isn’t always consistent, nor is it set in stone.

During the World Pork Expo seminar “Building Trust in Pork” one Canadian pork producer asked Lamm if Proposition 12 was based on science or emotion, she responded, “My guess is probably people’s definition of both.”

“One of the tricky things about science and science communication is that science can often contradict itself,” Lamm said.

For instance, she could be testing one hypothesis in Georgia at the same time another person is testing a contradictory hypothesis in another part of the world.

“We can both come to the conclusion that we were correct, and yet they oppose each other,” she said.

When it comes to laws like Proposition 12, she said, a lot of people can find “quote-unquote science, whether it’s true science, pseudoscience that can back their claim, and often, then, pick and choose from the scientific community what they use to back up their claim and their side.”

In other words, people pushing these laws could be using science “to defend an emotionally charged decision.”

Another thing about science is that it is not perfect, she said. People are unable to prove something in its entirety and know that it will remain that way forever.

For example, doctors may perform a procedure or treat an illness in a certain way, and the patients accept that. Yet, she said, they aren’t necessarily surprised when medical treatments shift or change over time.

Technology can also change science. There might be some hypotheses that had unknown conclusions, but when the right technology is there, the hypothesis can be further tested and a better conclusion can be drawn.

That uncertainty of science is something that often isn’t taken into consideration, she said.

“We don’t ever talk about practicing science. We talk about scientific fact and truth. What we can do is we can show scientific facts for what it is in the moment, and we can’t keep people from picking and choosing and distorting that, but what we can do is provide sites that apply science in the way you do,” she said. “So, when things like Prop 12 come up, they will have a resource that is scientifically grounded in messaging that will resonate with specific audiences that you can use proactively.”

And when you are trying to communicate science-based points about animal welfare issues that play at people’s emotions, Lamm suggests being proactive in presenting that information, rather than being reactive. When information is available early, you have more credibility and you have proven that you are willing to share information, she said.

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