There’s been a story circulating through social media regarding cows dying on an organic dairy farm. The story originated with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). I’m going to accept the facts as presented in the PETA article: Cows were found starving on a financially troubled organic dairy farm that could no longer afford to feed its cattle. What I take issue with in the article is the sloppy inductive reasoning, specifically the fallacy of faulty generalization. The primary conclusion of the article is that because the cows on this particular organic dairy farm were abused, the animals on all organic farms are abused. If starving cattle were a common management practice on organic dairy farms, PETA would have a point. However, that is not the case. The cattle are not starving because they are on an organic dairy farm. They are starving because they are on a financially troubled farm. That the farm in question happens to be organic is not relevant to the abuse of the cattle.
There are times when the generalization from one farm to an entire industry is warranted and logically correct: when the abuse is the result of a standard management practice. For example, video has circulated of sows held in gestation stalls for the entire time between litters with space sufficient only to stand up and lay down. The video has been used to attack the inhumane practices of the global pork industry. Because the inhumane treatment flows from the use of gestation stalls and gestation stalls are widely used in the industry, there is no problem with inductively reasoning that therefore the majority of sows on hog farms receive inhumane treatment.
Another example of a valid generalization comes in the conventional fine wool industry. The diameter of wool fibre is correlated with how well the sheep is fed. The better the diet, the thicker the diameter of the wool. It is common practice on commercial wool farms to keep their flock of wethers (castrated male sheep) at a nutrition level just above starvation to produce the finest, highest quality wool. The farms can’t do this with the breeding ewes because reproductive performance would be compromised. However, the wethers serve one purpose only – to produce fine wool (primarily Merino sheep). If video were to surface of half-starved Merino wethers, it would be logically valid to induce that most fine wool sheep receive inhumane treatment. I can assure you that our sheep all receive a robust diet – our primary source of wool is our flock of breeding ewes. We do not keep wethers. This practise is viewed as inhumane even within the conventional ag industry outside of prime wool producing areas. A classmate of mine who became a vet travelled to Australia and visited a sheep station. She could hardly believe that what she saw was standard practise. When she found out we had started into the wool business, one of her first questions was – Do you starve your sheep? There was no room in her value system (or mine) for deliberately keeping animals close to starvation.
Critical thinking seems to have been removed from school curricula. The logical fallacies that masquerade as good arguments appear everywhere you turn in today’s society. I’m not even sure that most authors realize they are arguing using faulty inductive reasoning. Our homeschooling curriculum includes a good dose of critical thinking. I don’t expect everyone to get it right every time but I would hope that most writers would at least recognize the term logical fallacy and understand the major groups.
Or am I just an old school egghead?
The PETA article can be found here: http://www.peta.org/b/thepetafiles/archive/2013/01/09/cows-dying-on-organic-dairy-farm.aspx