In this thought-provoking video, I explore the recent decision of popular YouTuber @CosmicSkeptic to abandon his vegan lifestyle. With a critical eye, I analyze his apology letter, delve into the potential reasons behind his decision, and examine the complex factors that contribute to our choices. Through this exploration, the video offers an insightful and engaging look at the cognitive biases and influences that shape our beliefs and behaviors, and the lessons we can learn from them.
CosmicSkeptic, vegan no more. What can we learn from this? Anyone who followed him is likely to be disappointed, but I think this is a great opportunity to debunk the debunker, so to speak, and prove that even intelligent, typically rational individuals are not immune to the well-known cognitive pitfalls that afflict all humans.
First, let’s take a look at his apology letter. It’s strikingly vague, a classic sign of bs. Specific, actionable claims can be debunked or contested. Nonsense, on the other hand, thrives when everything is kept sufficiently ambiguous.
Numerous pseudoscientific regimens make non-specific assertions of detoxing or cleansing, without ever specifying precisely what it is that they are attempting to purify. Many supplements market themselves as sources of “turbo chad alpha masculine energy”, with advertising campaigns that border on the old viral PowerThirst video, yet never clearly define what that entails. There is Feng Shui, which has numerous rules, but following them simply results in vague good fortune that cannot be scientifically tested. The examples are abundant.
Similarly here, Alex alludes to suspiciously non-specific health issues that aren’t elaborated on or explained in any way. I have no good explanation as to why he wouldn’t be specific and detailed with his troubles here, except for: I suspect it’s because he knows those claims would not stand up to public scrutiny. By keeping things vague, he precludes any potential counterarguments.
Now, you might say: that’s a malicious interpretation of Alex’s motives. You’re treating him as a bad faith actor and that’s unfair. Ordinarily, I’d agree with you. I wish I could offer a more charitable interpretation of these events, as I attempt to apply the principle of charity whenever feasible. Nonetheless, I am struggling to come up with any interpretation of why Alex would keep things so nebulous.
Especially since, quite recently, he said he felt perfectly normal on a vegan diet, so was he lying then or is he lying now or did he, by chance, develop novel unbearable health troubles in an incredibly narrow, highly coincidental window of time? Either way you slice it, the probability of there being some bs in play seems exceptionally high.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of privacy, and he does not wish to disclose his medical history. However, if this is the case, he must be aware that his silence will lead to precisely the kind of conclusions that I have drawn here.
Second, let’s talk about motivated reasoning and rationalizing our choices.
What would a health-concerned vegan do, if they found they have some mysterious health issue that can only be resolved with animal products? Eating bivalves is the obvious answer. Bivalves have plenty of omega 3s, they’re rich in minerals, they’ve got animal protein, an insane amount of b12, iron. Basically all those things people claim they eat fish for? You can get those things from bivalves.
If you’re leaving veganism for health reasons and seeking a magical nutrient that can only be found in sealife, then they are the most defensible animal product to consume. They most likely don’t have any subjective experience whatsoever and most vegans, I expect, avoid them not because they believe that mussels have subjective experience, but rather, because they find them gross or out of an abundance of caution. That is, there’s a small chance they have subjective experience and better safe than sorry.
Except… What if your reason for quitting veganism isn’t actually health? bivalves are not nearly as convenient as other animal products, and they are not as appetizing as alternative sources of animal protein. They look like massive blobs of snot, and the sensory experience of consuming them is not much better. Now, if bivalves are deficient in whatever magical meat nutrient, insects are the next most apparent choice, but they have an “ick” factor and are not as convenient as fish. You can’t typically find cricket burgers at your local restaurant.
But Alex, I suspect, didn’t have health concerns at first. I suspect he started with some other, true motive that made him quit and health concerns were a rationalization that came after.
If health were genuinely the reason for his actions, he would be informing us of his decision to consume bivalves or perhaps weighing the ethical considerations of consuming insects. Instead, we’re merely informed that he will be eating “primarily, but not exclusively seafood”.
But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe bivalves are exactly what Alex is consuming and he just forgot to mention this extremely important fact for some mysterious reason, who knows?
It seems to me like the real reason here is taste and convenience. Those excuses might be somewhat understandable, if he were navigating ARFID and seven different allergies and other health conditions, but as far as I know, this isn’t the case. He’s not some special unique snowflake. He’s a regular bloke with an abundance of choices available to him.
Anyway, why is Alex citing health concerns when it’s highly unlikely to be the true reason for his actions?
Lesson three: placebo and nocebo effects. Is Alex actually lying here? I suspect not exactly. Being an online skeptic doesn’t make you immune to placebo and nocebo effects. There’s this fascinating study showing just how powerful and prevalent they are:
Here’s the study design. Take people who experience side effects from a class of medication known as statins. Randomize them in such a way that they all act as their own controls. Over the next year, there will be four months where they take no pills, four months where they take a placebo sugar pill and four months when they take statins, in randomized order.
Here’s what we expect: real side effects should happen in those months when you take the real drug. Obviously, right? That didn’t happen. The end result of the study was that 90% of the side effect burden was attributable to nocebo. Think about that – almost every side effect was effectively an imaginary self-inflicted problem.
Here’s the greatest twist: participants in the study were selected not merely from those who had side effects, but they were people who said that their side effects were so bad that they had to discontinue treatment.
I suspect that Alex realized his heart was no longer in veganism, and his mind began searching for a plausible excuse to quit. The thing is, it’s effortless to find such excuses if you’re looking for them. Suddenly, every sniffle, bad night’s sleep, mild indigestion, or day when you feel tired is attributed to veganism, similar to how the participants in the study attributed all their side effects to statins.
As soon as you start paying attention to these things, you can nocebo yourself right into feeling awful – remember, the patients in the statin study had nocebo side effects so bad they didn’t want to take medication intended to save them from heart attacks.
Now, I don’t know anything about Alex’s lifestyle or health habits, but I’ll be frank: if vegan nutrition is a challenging topic for him, I don’t think he’s very well educated on the topic of what makes for a healthy lifestyle.
Lesson four, for some reason, there’s this common delusion in vegan circles that anyone who goes back to being an omnivore was never vegan in the first place. I’m willing to bet I’m going to see a thousand comments like that about CosmicSkeptic in the coming weeks or months.
That is frankly some prime grade vegan copium.
I know that it’s comfortable to think “I’m awake now, I’m an enlightened cosmic superbeing, I’m never backsliding, because I know better”. That’s a nice, comforting thought, isn’t it? That there’s this shiny part at the core of your ethics that you can’t possibly get worse at.
However, people aren’t rationality machines or morality optimization machines. We’re people, we’re fallible, we suck. Thinking that you can’t regress as a person is about as naive as thinking that free democratic countries can’t backslide into authoritarianism.
Moreover, I’d even argue it’s *dangerous* to think that. The kinds of people who think they’re invulnerable to temptation, hardship or irrationality are exactly the type of people who won’t pay attention to the chinks in their armor until it’s too late.
Lesson five, so why did Alex go back to eating animal products? I think the real answer is some mix of taste, convenience and FOMO. Fear of missing out.
Some of the played up fears are false – it is simply untrue that we miss out on any key nutrients. However, it’s an effective tactic, because some things we do miss out on. Operating outside of accepted social norms means that you miss out on certain frictionless, stress-free social bonding events.
What I would suggest, however, is that missing out on compassion and kindness is a far greater sacrifice than missing out on socially frictionless barbecues.
Lesson six: no heroes. Alex is vegan no more and it’s yet another lesson that people are fallible. [V for Vendetta: ideas are bulletproof]. Alex’s videos and arguments are still valid, even if he himself is no longer convinced. People come and go, but ideas are enduring. You can’t be disappointed by the right idea.
And hey, last but not least, Alex, if you happen to watch this video, you can feel free to reach out. I’m not a registered dietitian or any such thing, but given that I’ve been vegan for just as long as you, while supporting a far more demanding lifestyle of someone very into endurance sports and athletics in general, I’d say I have a considerably better grasp of nutrition than you do. I’d be happy to help or even just to talk. You can’t undo the mistakes you’ve made so far, but you can stop from making even more.