Friday, March 14, 2014

Of Pigs and People

How many changes in our lives are caused by well-intentioned but ignorant people?  By ignorant, I don’t mean stupid, just poorly informed or unaware of the reasoning behind current decisions.  Critical thinking often requires research so that we know all the facts, both sides of the story, and are not carried away by strong, but ill-advised emotional appeals.

Take two cases that seem to have little relationship but send the same message.  One involves decisions about how to raise pigs, the other hospital care for people.

A recent AP article highlights the costs and difficulties of converting pig farms from the gestational crates or stalls model, where pregnant sows were isolated with only a small, cramped area for each, to the large-pens model, where pigs congregate together in a more roomy environment.  The change is driven by “image-conscious buyers” who are in turn driven by the popular opinion/controversy, which is driven by animal rights activists who argue that the individual stalls constitute cruel treatment.

The other side to this story, which gets much less attention, comes from a farmer who tells about  the use of group pens on traditional farms.  “We would throw feed over the gate, and the sows would all go crazy ... one sow would eat three times as much, and others would get gypped or didn't eat enough.”  They also moved to stalls to “prevented pecking-order fights and injuries caused by sows mounting each other.”  Even today the large pens can lead to injuries that result in miscarriages or even death of the mother pig.  Farmers did not use the stalls to be cruel to their animals, but to protect them from these dangers.  Now they must spend about 30% more to conform to the new standards while still protecting their investment by using computerized eating stalls and schemes to try to keep their pigs from hurting each other.  Naturally, these added costs will be reflected in prices at the grocery store.

The parallel example comes from the book, God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet.  It describes her experience working as a physician at Laguna Honda, a unique hospital dedicated to caring for the sick poor.  One story (p. 109) is about a Department of Justice inspection.  Among their findings was that the old-fashioned wards, large rooms with 34 beds, “violated the patients’ right to privacy” and must be remodeled.  That sounds caring and reasonable, but there is another side.

The author explains that the nurses liked open wards because “they could see all the patients at one time” and see immediately if anyone was in pain or doing something dangerous.  The doctors liked them because it made it easy to “stroll around” and talk to and evaluate patients.  The patients like them because they were “interesting and social, especially if a patient was bedbound.”  Remember, these are poor people with fewer visitors and longer stays than a typical hospital, sometimes months or even years.  The DOJ inspectors could not seek out information about these advantages.

This leaves us with two examples where changes were forced by two groups with authority, the DOJ with legal authority and the activists with a kind of moral authority gained by their appeals to a public unfamiliar with and far removed from the problems of farming.  Each requires a costly solution to a problem that may not have even existed, except in the minds of the authorities that thought they were doing a good and caring thing but lacked a thorough understanding of the entire situation.

Both examples remind us to proceed with caution before jumping onto the latest bandwagon based on emotional appeals, outrageous, heartrending videos and arguments that paint the other side of the issue as cruel or uncaring.  Critical thinking requires that we look at both sides before drawing strong conclusions, then supporting and applauding quite possibly wasteful changes.  It pays to be a little skeptical; there’s usually more there than meets the eye.

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