Conservation science is sometimes used to subjugate people’s environmental values and opinions.
Some people say, for example, that they would rather that poisons, like 1080, were used less or not at all in their environment. For most people, those concerns come from genuinely held ethical and environmental values and beliefs. They place great importance in the humane treatment of animals and, understandably, distrust environmental toxins. They might prefer New Zealand to be cruelty or poison-free much more than predator free.
But those values and aspirations have been dismissed by some as not supported, or even discredited, by “the science“. Those concerned about poison use are framed as being emotional, irrational and ignorant by those who claim to be “scientific” – factual, informed and objective. This framing is prejudicial, and not fair or accurate. Both sides of this debate are, actually, all of those things.
Conservation scientists are also subjective and, yes, even emotional when developing and conducting research, and interpreting and applying information. Knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is the marriage of experience, values and information. Knowledge is never complete and seldom certain or unbiased. Scientists and science are also not wholly objective or factual in their opinions. They too can be irrational. And, lastly, science cannot tell us what personally held moral values or community ethics are better or worse.
I speak occasionally with community groups concerned about the use of environmental poisons for biodiversity conservation in New Zealand. The audiences express feeling disrespected and alienated by those in conservation NGOs and government. They complain that those in power and with influence use “the science” to trivialise their concerns. Science should not be used in this way. It exacerbates environmental conflicts and is divisive.
Instead, science might be done and used to empower and unite us towards mutually agreed solutions to environmental conflicts.
The cat controversy approached differently
I have been fortunate to work with colleagues on the challenge posed by domestic cats killing wildlife. It too is a controversial topic that has divided our nation into, so-called, cat-lovers and cat-haters. The controversy has been divisive and made less resolvable because some have claimed to have “the science” on their side. They describe those that disagree with them are uninformed and irrational, and even “Science Denialists”.
I prefer, instead and from the outset, a different approach. We considered the beliefs and values of cat owners to be as relevant to solutions as those of conservationists and scientists. It is a useful assumption because finding a solution to the problem and resolving the debate will need to involve cat owners.
We also didn’t assume that we already knew the problem and best solution for it. Instead, we surveyed cat owners and veterinarians to find out what they knew and cared most about. We also asked them what they might be prepared to support and do. In this way, we identified a way of reducing cats’ killing wildlife that is more likely to be supported by cat owners and veterinarians.
You can view the first of our published articles about this research here.*
Science and 1080
The conservation and conservation science community have been largely reluctant to engage with environmental groups who are concerned about the use of poisons. Instead, communities are told that 1080 is the only solution, that it has to be used and will be used, and that they just need to accept it. The science, then, has been used to try to shut-down debate and shut communities out of decision-making. It has forced those concerned to have to take-to-the-streets to be heard.
What would 1080-science, policy-making and implementation look like if it was less arrogant and more conciliatory to the diversity of perspectives among NZ communities?
First, science on pest control and poison-use would be guided by the values and vision of a more diverse cross-section of New Zealanders. Currently, that research is dominated by the values and opinions of scientists and policy-makers in, or funded by, conservation NGOs and government. Instead, the research questions prioritised, research design, the interpretation of data, and application of poison would be determined by a more representative group of stakeholders.
Second, the biological research on poisons’ use would be small compared to the social science conducted to facilitate the conflict’s resolution. Currently, the research is dominated by ecologists and biologists who have only a, at best, minor regard for the human, social and community dimensions of the topic.
The science would not be designed by one side to convince or prove any particular opinion. It aims to inform values-based compromise and decision-making among stakeholders with different views.
How the Kaimanawa Horse controversy got resolved
We have good examples in New Zealand of government departments operating in this way to resolve environmental conflicts. In the 1990s, the controversy over Kaimanawa Wild Horses was resolved. The Department of Conservation (DOC) established a working party of stakeholder groups from pro- and anti-horse sides of the debate. They contracted independent research.
The process and outcomes were not without their flaws and critics, but the resolution agreed on has stood the test of time. DOC did, what I would describe as, a better than usual job of negotiating and reconciling their way through the Kaimanawa controversy to an agreement.
It leads me to wonder aloud: why has the current leadership of DOC been unable yet to develop and complete a similar process in even one community in New Zealand where the use of 1080 is controversial?
Science: part of the solution, or problem?
It’s time scientists and government on the pro-1080 side of the debate asked themselves: are we going to be part of the solution or part of the problem? Then: how can we engage better with the large number of people who are concerned about poison-use in their environment?
We need a resolution to the controversy over 1080’s use that is acceptable to a larger number and greater diversity of New Zealanders. Scientists and science has a key role to play. For it to work, we scientists will need to be more open-minded and conciliatory to people with values and opinions that are different from ours. Open mindedness, surely, is something we prize in science. Frankly, we will need to be less arrogant.
* Ordinarily, I wouldn’t use my site on Sciblogs to promote my own work but I hope you’ll grant me the dispensation on this occasion to advance some thinking about scientists’ relationships with environmental conflicts.