When Facts Mislead: Paltering and Veganism

Some critics of veganism routinely deploy facts about nutrition that aren’t true. They make use of facts that are narrowly true but only serve to muddy the waters in the pursuit of overall understanding.

There is a name for this form of deception: paltering. Lies of commission (intentionally making untrue statements) and lies of omission (failing to disclose relevant information) are already well known, but this falls into neither of these categories. Paltering short-circuits the definition of “lying” and emboldens people to deceive without the same guilt. For the person being deceived, it typically doesn’t matter whether it was by paltering or lying—the effect is the same. This makes paltering an attractive, yet risky strategy. Your audience may be eating out of your hand or they may be alienated¹.

It’s commonly used in the places you’d expect: politics and business negotiations. Bill Clinton once told a reporter that “there is not a sexual relationship” between him and Monica Lewinsky (emphasis mine). By sneakily using the present tense, Clinton had made a technically true, but deeply misleading statement. Similarly, paltering is often used to offload damaged goods to unwitting buyers (e.g. “I drove the car just last week and it was running fine!” when the transmission blew yesterday)¹.

Humans are social creatures. We are inclined to trust that the spirit of what is being said is just as accurate as its narrow content. We make sense of the world by making logical inferences. Usually, this process is invisible and works well. Consider the phrases “not the best” or “not the worst,” as in “I’m not the best poker player.” Taken literally, this statement is almost meaningless. The speaker’s poker skill might exist on a spectrum anywhere from second best to worst. Still, we can usually intuit that this statement is implying a below average skill level. It isn’t necessary to interrogate the utterance “I’m not the best at poker,” that is, unless you think you’re being hustled.

How can we avoid falling for paltering? Be more of a lawyer in scrutinizing language. Unpack the difference between a statement’s literal truth claim and its natural implications.

Paltering is applied to veganism in myriad ways, but here are two shop-worn examples from a recent Daily Mail article². The bullet point summary from the top of the the article is as follows:

  • Vegans who don’t get enough vitamin B12 and protein can have a nutritional deficiency which causes them to feel tired, depressed and develop acne
  • Protein is essential for muscle mass as well as skin, hair and nails and is found in many animal products
  • Vitamin B12  is a nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and is found in eggs, fish, poultry and cheese ²

These statements are unassailable from a scientific point of view. However, these points frame vegan nutrition as something scary and difficult. The unfounded implication is that B12 and protein represent significant nutritional hurdles that vegans must worry about.

The B12 issue: AKA “vegan diets lack an essential nutrient,” or “vegans may risk [fill in your favorite symptom of B12 deficiency here].”

It’s true that vegans should supplement with B12, unless they are eating a variety of fortified foods each day (and even those should be approached with caution). Furthermore, B12 deficiency is indeed a terrible ailment with potentially permanent side effects like nerve damage. What’s often left out of this discussion is that supplementing with B12 is extraordinarily easy. It’s cheap, plentiful and only necessary a few times a week. I take 1,000 mcg of cyanocobalamin twice a week, as per recommendations of Jack Norris³. This advice is widespread. There are so many resources for new vegans online and “pick up a B12 supplement” is usually their first counsel.

The Protein issue: AKA “Vegans may become protein deficient,” or “Vegan food provides no single source of complete protein”

Protein does not need to occupy the headspace of most vegans unless they are averse to nuts, beans, soy foods and legumes. If you meet your calorie needs and eat a varied diet featuring some of the food groups listed above, you’re highly unlikely to be protein deficient. A brief practical overview by a Registered Dietician can be found here 4. The myth that plant protein is incomplete or of lesser quality is discussed in detail by Dr. John McDougall 5.

In these cases, paltering is used to advance the two most common anti-vegan arguments, but its use is varied and widespread. See if you can identify the use of paltering in your everyday life, whether that be in person, on social media, or from biased news sources. Spotting paltering requires vigilance and practice. This will not only make you a better vegan advocate, but also a more informed citizen. In this age of “fake news,” filter bubbles and weaponized information, identifying deception is a much-needed skill.

¹ Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/10/theres-a-word-for-using-truthful-facts-to-deceive-paltering

² Brantley, Kayla. “Dangers of a vegan diet: Why a plant-based diet can crush your energy, skin and make you depressed.” Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-5168823/Dangers-vegan-diet.html

³ Norris, Jack. Vegan Health.org. http://www.veganhealth.org/b12/rec

4 Mangels, Reed. “Protein in the Vegan Diet.” The Vegetarian Resource Group http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/protein.php

5 McDougall, John. “When Friends Ask: Where Do You Get Your Protein?” McDougall Newsletter. https://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2007nl/apr/protein.htm

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