Last week, the SPCA, an organisation focused on the prevention of cruelty to animals, announced it would like to see more effort directed towards alternatives to 1080 and other conservation poisons widely known to be inhumane – a seemingly worthy and uncontroversial aim for such an organisation.  

But the SPCA’s position was rapidly denounced by Forest & Bird, which described it as full of “fundamental errors in fact and logic” and showing a “naïve failure” to understand how nature works. Most media reports have tacitly sided with Forest & Bird’s stance, re-rehearsing well-established scientific arguments for 1080’s veracity at killing invasive species over large areas, while being relatively cheap to boot. Forest & Bird suggested the SPCA’s stance on the poison was therefore a “blow to their credibility”.  

But was it? Hardly. Rather, the SPCA’s position is entirely in line with its mission. As noted in part elsewhere, the prevention of human-induced suffering is its primary objective, after all. Forest & Bird’s emphasis on preventing extinctions, on the other hand, means it will accept more suffering if it results in more saving.  

Neither organisation is “wrong” here. They both pursue worthy ends and seek to employ the best science to help them do so. Their clash is almost entirely one over legitimate, genuine and deeply held values, not facts or science. 

On invasive species denialism   

Forest & Bird’s confrontational approach to the SPCA mirrors that of a few conservation scientists who recently accused 67 other scholars, scientists and science writers of “invasive species science denialism” – disputing the science that invasive species cause harm. A very serious allegation. 

But the accusers confused legitimate differences over values with science denial, just as Forest & Bird has misinterpreted the SPCA’s values-based position as a denial of logic, facts and scientific knowledge. That some scientists (and a reputable science journal) would produce a “name and shame” publication also shocked us and many others in the conservation science community.   

This led two of us to ask a student of conservation biology to re-analyse the supposed instances of invasive species denial. His results were damning. Of the 75 articles and books re-evaluated, none were found to deny scientific facts. Further, only six of the 75 articles contained arguments that might be consistent with the criteria for science denialism. The small number of lapses are not evidence of intentional and orchestrated science denial. 

Invasive species are a focus of our conservation efforts in New Zealand – more so than in most other countries. So debates about invasive species among scientists and others are important to us. A conservation culture in which some of those scientists might think it acceptable to level false accusations of science denial at colleagues is therefore of great concern. It reflects poorly on the motives and methods of the conservation community in general.  

Inclusion and dialogue needed 

In recent years, it has become clear that better science, and enhanced public trust in scientists, is achieved when diverse perspectives are considered evidentially and in ways that represent and encourage the participation of the wider community. 

Much like the traditional conservation values advocated by Forest & Bird, the scientific consensus often described by invasion biologists is necessarily a consensus over shared values more than it is about scientific facts. Conservation itself is grounded in these contestable value judgements. We should not be surprised then when differences generate robust critique and debate.  

Considering that one side of these debates seems to think its science is being “denied”, while the other is simply trying to contest the prioritisation of values, it is also easy to see why these debates persist. It is this fundamental mismatch in the arguments and intentions of the two sides that makes such debates seem unresolvable.  

However, we think there is a way to bring them closer to a resolution. And it requires that conservation scientists and practitioners are inclusive, not disparaging, of others, especially those like the SPCA, who practise at the interface between knowledge and values. 

The Department of Conservation has recently recognised this. Responding to robust criticism, including from two of us, it increasingly emphasises the value of many voices in determining the direction of its Predator Free 2050 vision.  

We suggest other conservation scientists and advocates need to stop levelling accusations of science denial or “errors of fact and logic” at those with different perspectives. Instead they should take the opportunity to reflect on their own values, alongside those held by those they oppose. Instead of attacking people and organisations with different values, they should engage with them with a view to finding commonalities.  

We think determining solutions to our most pressing but often controversial environmental and social challenges is as much about understanding and cooperation among people as it is about conservation to save species. 

The results of the authors’ study, and recommendations for a more fruitful future dialogue, are in the international journal Conservation Biology.      

David Munro is a recent graduate of Victoria University of Wellington' Master of Conservation Biology programme and is currently involved with a local backyard conservation community.

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