False Beliefs

The other day I was scanning the news headlines when one in particular peaked my interest. “Humane Society, others to pay Feld, Ringling Bros. $15 million in Asian elephant lawsuit.” The article reported on the conclusion of the 14-year lawsuit between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other animal rights groups and Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, over the care of its elephants.

The HSUS originally sued Feld in 2000, citing cruel treatment to the circus’ Asian elephants under the Endangered Species Act. Later, Feld filed a suit against the HSUS under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), after learning that the animal rights groups and their lawyers had paid $190,000 to an elephant handler to be a paid plaintiff, and that the handler lied under oath.

In 2012, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals paid a $9.3 million settlement for its connection to false claims against Feld. The total settlements paid to Feld surpass $25 million. A May 15 Feld press release stated: “HSUS and animal rights groups the Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Born Free USA (formerly the Animal Protection Institute), the Wildlife Advocacy Project, the law firm of Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal, and several current and former attorneys of that firm, paid the settlement for their involvement in the case brought under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that the U.S. District Court ruled was ‘frivolous,’ ‘vexatious,’ and ‘groundless and unreasonable from its inception.’”

None of it surprises me. I haven’t liked the HSUS since I learned that they don’t actually operate any pet shelters and, in fact, give just one percent of the money they raise to pet shelters. In fact, more money goes into HSUS pension funds than to animal care. I especially take issue with their primary agenda, which includes shutting down any and all animal agriculture – including the horse industry. Their existence threatens not only our livelihoods, but our way of life. If you want straightforward facts about HSUS business practices, including detailed financial records, and beliefs, visit www.humanewatch.org.

What did surprise me, however, was the reaction of people who should, quite honestly, know better. I wondered, how can people who make their living in the equine industry, or choose to breed, ride or show horses as a hobby, still support the HSUS?

Then I saw another article. This one, titled, “I don’t want to be right,” was posted by Maria Konnikova on The New Yorker’s website under the link, “Why do people persist in believing things that just aren’t true?” That was my question exactly. There is hard evidence that the HSUS lies and deceives people for its own gain. So why do people still trust their information? Why do people blindly believe their lies?

Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth, embarked upon a three-year research project to find some answers about false beliefs. What he learned was that not all false information turns into a false belief, and not all false beliefs are difficult to correct. Konnikova explained it like this: “When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur. In those scenarios, attempts at correction can indeed be tricky.”

Many of the people who support groups like the HSUS and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are staunch advocates for animal welfare. It’s an issue they have long held as important. Nyhan’s research tells us that correcting the false beliefs of those people will be difficult.

When researchers tried to modify false beliefs by presenting the facts, they found that, “the only people who had changed their views were those who were ideologically predisposed to disbelieve the fact in question. If someone held a contrary attitude, the correction not only didn’t work – it made the subject more distrustful of the source.”

That’s the exact reaction I’ve seen from people over the Ringling Bros. elephant case. Despite the evidence that proves the HSUS paid a witness who then lied under oath, some people are more convinced than ever that circuses abuse elephants.

False beliefs, Nyhan theorizes, actually have little to do with facts and evidence. Instead, they are wrapped up in our own sense of self. If you see yourself as an advocate for animals (don’t we all?), you are more likely to keep your false beliefs, even with a supposedly conscious awareness of the truth.

This is a slippery slope for those of us in the horse industry. The thing that draws us to this industry in the first place – a love of animals – predisposes us to want to believe groups that claim to be helping animals. If we can donate and feel good about being a part of that effort, all the better.

The HSUS settlement isn’t about being pro- or anti-circus. It’s about the lying and bribery used by animal rights groups like the HSUS and PETA to get people to support their cause. I don’t care what you believe – everyone has a right to their opinion – but I do care when people base their beliefs on lies and misinformation. Do your own research. Talk to people on both sides. Go see for yourself. Then be as anti- or as pro- as you want. But don’t blindly follow the so-called “truth” presented by animals rights groups.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote: “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

Don’t perpetuate the myths by holding on to false beliefs.