Friday, November 28, 2014
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An academic conference to sort vegan wheat from chaff

You have to have a sense of humor to name your Ivy-League conference "iV" (you can guess what the capital V is for), and that Victor Galli certainly does. But the 2012 U. Penn graduate (and current researcher for Wharton's Lauder Institute) is not joking when he complains that veganism isn't taken seriously.

An academic conference to sort vegan wheat from chaff

Victor Galli (left) founded the Penn Vegan Society and launched the Ivy League Vegan Conference, now in its third year. Laura MacKinnon (right) is a board member of PVS and also helps with conference organizing. (Photo: LAIKA magazine)
Victor Galli (left) founded the Penn Vegan Society and launched the Ivy League Vegan Conference, now in its third year. Laura MacKinnon (right) is a board member of PVS and also helps with conference organizing. (Photo: LAIKA magazine)

You have to have a sense of humor to name your Ivy-League conference "iV" (you can guess what the capital V is for), and that Victor Galli certainly does. But the 2012 Penn graduate (and current researcher for Wharton's Lauder Institute) is not joking when he complains that veganism isn't taken seriously.

He told me there are "lots of individuals, especially scholars, who are incredibly skeptical" about claims made by vegans, and rightly so: Not all vegans stick to the data when touting their diet, which is still seen as a fringe-y, difficult and potentially risky endeavor, despite the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' statement that the eating pattern is "healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases" and appropriate for all ages.

So part of the 'weirdo' dynamic is built-in, but Galli finds problems of credibility exacerbated in some cases by vegans themselves. "There are questions of seriousness, questions of rigor" in vegans' claims, noting that all too often "we place burden of proof on nonvegans. But burden of proof is on the person making a new claim. For many scholars and others, we've failed to satisfy the demands of proof and rigorousness."

However, Galli knows that we can satisfy such demands if provided a rigorous space to do so, and that's what iV - The Ivy League Vegan Conference - aims to do. The third annual edition will take place Feb. 7-9 in Princeton, having been founded by Galli at Penn in 2012. While he still does much of the heavy lifting, the event is a collaboration among the Penn Vegan Society (which Galli also founded) and similar organizations at Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

The main audience, he said, is students, professors and professionals in related fields. "The academy always wants better dialogue -- it's skeptical of people handing out 'truth.'" But in a conference setting, he said, "we can use the 'social gravity' of the Ivy League to our advantage," covering and debating vegan-related topics with academic rigor.

That said, this is no ivory-tower navel-gazer establishing a literary critical theory to deconstruct sociological frameworks. Speakers (not all of whom are vegan or vegetarian) tend to be highly credentialed but with a popular edge. Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, recently had a widely-remarked op-ed in the New York Times on the question of consciousness and personhood in dogs - something most of us have thought about at one time or another, and which has implications for our relationships with all animals. In the nutrition realm, the conference welcomes Dr. Michael Greger, the editor of nutritionfacts.org. In addition to being an expert on the making of kale chips, Greger is a speaker who can keep an audience rolling in the aisles while at the same time conveying impeccably-sourced research data on eating and health.

People from the general community are encouraged to apply for a spot, though space is limited. Galli suggests would-be guest attendees fill out the guest application "explaining how attending would be important to their academic and professional development."

There are plenty of compelling, scientifically valid claims to be made surrounding veganism, though they sometimes have to compete for popular attention with faddish claims or plain wishful thinking. Events such as iV can help make vegans' overall argument stronger.

For his part, Galli hopes that "dynamic dialogue" can both educate and inspire vegans to "improve their understanding of the complexity of these topics and be able to communicate well to their own community."

About this blog
Vance is a longtime vegan and Philly resident. V for Vegan covers the Philly vegan scene and vegan lifestyle, supplementing Vance's Daily News column V for Veg. Find out what's going on vegan-wise and share your own vegan tips and events here.

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