By - Wayne Linklater 10/04/2019

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.

0 Responses to “Science to resolve environmental conflicts”

  • This seems like spurious reasoning to me, Wayne. What’s the difference between your argument and accepting the views of , say, antivaxxers who have ‘genuinely held ethical beliefs’ about the safety and efficacy of vaccines? What if genuinely held opposition to 1080 is based on faulty knowledge?

  • The issue I have with the approach suggested is that by the time we have tried to make everyone “feel” listened to, their opinion “valued” and “included” in the decision making the endangered natives will be extinct in the wild. No thank you. Department of Conservation are here to conserve our native flora and fauna not embrace pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and self serving agenda. They have a mandate from our democratically elected government. Trying to make pest control some kind of democratic exercise will result in too many cooks spoiling the broth.

    • Warwick’s point is worth greater discussion. Others also make it below.
      The argument is that we don’t have time to do the right thing by other people, enter into respectful negotiations towards a compromise and solution, because we are trying to save species from extinction. The negotiations will take too long and the compromise itself might mean that some species are still lost.

      The argument and those who make it rely on two propositions:
      1. the situation is so dire that we must act now to avoid catastrophe: i.e., its alarmist.
      2. my views and values are right and more important than other peoples’ and so I don’t need to reach a compromise with them: i.e., it is arrogant.

      Neither of these is true. Species, mostly, go extinct gradually over the course of many human generations. We have time to get conservation actions right in ways that serve our wider community not just the opinions of a few. And, conservationists will have greater impact and success in the longer-term if they work with other people who share this great country. Sustained, successful conservation is more likely if it has ‘buy-in’ from a greater diversity of New Zealanders.

      The current thinking by Warwick and others below just drives greater disagreement and conflict and opinion polarisation, instead of solutions.

  • This article points towards the need for better communication on this whole issue between everyone – that includes listening to different points of view. Certainly so. There is also a strong ivory tower element – fiddling while Rome burns, so to say. It is an indisputable FACT that our unique endemic species of flora and fauna ARE being eaten to extinction. Another fact is the vast size of the conservation estates, and the rugged topography, in terms of management and access. Also that the mammal predators have reached plague numbers since we humans brought them here, despite a century of shooting & trapping efforts. We have already lost forever more than 40 species due to our human activity and pests.
    Over 60 years trial and lots of error, one method has been developed that gives a window of opportunity for birds to finally succeed in raising a brood to fledge, and for trees to regrow enough foliage to survive the season. Yes it is toxic to mammals, that is the point. It is all we have to keep the vast areas alive, the places hunting & trapping to control the pests is not possible. There simply isnt time to wait. That would be akin to discussing whether flood water is actually coming in to your car in the creek before you rescue the baby inside it.

  • “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?”

    I’ll field that one: it would look like Ban 1080 Party manifesto – devoid of evidence base, awash in conspiracy jibberish and scripted to throw our native biodiversity under a bus. Trying to conflate delirious Facebook memes and conservation science is completely misguided.

    • Dear Dave,
      Your response is consistent with my experience of your other commentary and feedback on the 1080 issue. It is antagonistic and polarising, and stands in the way of promoting conflict resolution and progress.

      Your response is antagonistic and polarising because you misrepresent and demonise your opponents, ignore evidence, and fail to see opportunities for a reconciliation:

      1. You continue to only draw attention to a few with the most extreme views and behaviours as if they are representative of all people who are concerned about 1080s use. Actually, most concerned about 1080’s use are moderate and reasonable people.

      Recall that Dr. James Russell, U. of Auckland (a proponent for 1080’s use) surveyed New Zealanders in 2012 to find that 40% of them would prefer that poisons like 1080 were not used [] (18% were undecided). That number was 9 percentage points higher than the previous survey in 1994.
      The fact is that there are a very large number of moderate and reasonable New Zealanders who align with the value of reducing the use of toxins in the environment.

      2. You misrepresent the people who are concerned about 1080’s use and you mount a “strawman” argument when you write that they want to “throw our native biodiversity under the bus”.

      Many of the anti-1080 people also value biodiversity. They would just prefer that the biodiversity you value be protected without using poisons or by using them less. By falsely casting those people as anti-biodiversity you are missing an opportunity to find the common ground that you share and that would allow this issue to progress.

      In sum, Dave, you are exacerbating the problem, not fixing it. It is you that is behaving extremely. There is ample evidence from your writing and responses that you too are an extremist, like the people you criticise.

      I think that you don’t like my conciliatory approach to this issue and conservation science because, by seeking a moderate compromise on this issue, it “sucks the oxygen” away from extremely inflammatory approaches and writings like yours.

      I wish you well Dave, but I really-really think you need to reflect on and moderate your behaviour on this issue.

      Best wishes,

  • There’s so much else to disagree with here, now I read it again. For example: you can’t divide people into cat-lovers and cat-haters. In our household, we love cats, but we didn’t replace our elderly cat when he died because we also value urban birdlife, and we think it’s the responsible choice. I don’t see it as a sacrifice at all. I hope you’re not framing your research in line with your crude assumptions.

    • Thank you Carol,
      I didn’t divide people into “cat-haters and -lovers. I was making the observation that the debate became divisive. It was portrayed by the media and conveyed by the more extreme commentators as between cat haters and cat lovers. I’d rather that didn’t occur, but it does.

      More usefully, lets take your personal example of cats in your household and apply it to the 1080 issue.
      Don’t you think that there might be household of people who would like to conserve New Zealand’s native biodiversity very much. They have strong conservation and environmental ethics, beliefs and values. However, they would also like to see poison/toxin use in the environment to be more cautiously conducted, more regulated, and reduced over time. They also have strong animal ethics principles. Together, they rank reducing poison use and treating animals humanely as a greater priority, at this moment, than killing predators in the beech forest mast. They are conflicted but, in the end, reach a compromise, like you did with your cat. They support all other biodiversity conservation programmes, except those that use poisons. They think they are making a responsible choice too.
      Can you find any sympathy or empathy for their perspective and choice, in the same way that I can have sympathy and empathy for you retaining your cat until it died instead of having it euthanised earlier?
      Finding solutions to these conflicts requires that we put ourselves in others’ shoes. Can you do that too?

  • For once, a balanced and non-arrogant blog from a scientist. It is a pity we did not have more scientists like Wayne. And what if later down the track 1080 is proven to be the dangerous toxin that some people are warning about, have we not learned from previous mistakes, of which there has been many.

  • Thank you Wayne for commenting on the fact that “science” also has cultural values and biases, and that communities have been shut out of consultation and dismissed as “anti-science”. Thomas Kuhn in his “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” explains the process of paradigm shift and one model moves to another as new evidence comes in. There is resistance from the established scientific community and bitter disputes, but eventually the model changes. Likewise with current models of conservation in New Zealand, the arguments as you point out, come from different ethics. eg, Some believe that the means, even if it involves animal suffering, justifies the end, while others believe that we can be kinder – and smarter – in our conservation practices. I am tired of the hate- speech and dismissive stereotyping from the pro-1080 lobby.

  • I’m interested in hearing how we can be “kinder” – given the currently-available pest control tools we have – and ensure that our remaining native taonga don’t go the way of the moa.

  • Hi Wayne. Too much here to comment on all of it, but I will engage with this bit:

    “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?”

    Concern about poison use in the environment is generally based on a poor understanding or, imo more commonly, a denial of the facts. To engage with those who are anti1080 (or anti vaxx, or anti radio signals, or anti fluoride…) requires a common acknowledgement that the facts remain regardless of a point of view.

    Yes, it would be fantastic if we could find a way to share a common acceptance of factual evidence. The reality is that we are as far from that ideal as we are from finding a viable, ecologically inert, “kind” alternative to 1080.

    Meanwhile, introduced species eat native species faster than the natives can reproduce. There is, quite literally, not the time to politely wait for the anti- team to catch up on their year 10 statistics, biological science and geography.

  • Thank you Wayne for your thoughtful principled anaysis. Since the 1980 in NZ we have been en ouraged to leave it to so calles “experts” in fielfs such as economics and more recently science. Important conversations about values and ethics have been completely overlooked. As a result human, animal and environmental rights have been made subservient to politi al whim propped up by poorly designed science with unsound assumptions. Vested interests are further protected by our ACC laws which prevent claims for personal injury. We need to change the conversation to focus on values, the public interest and what type of place we want for our future. We also need to educate on the weakness of science as a tool for risk assessment so decision makers and tge public are better equiped to see though the assertions of vested interests and paid lobbyists and spin doctors. Thank you for sharing your excellent work.

  • Hi Sue. An example of the “poorly designed science with unsound assumptions” would be useful. While you are at it, examples of the vested interest etc would be useful.

    I’m assuming that you are as vexxed by the science of climate change. If not, why not? What fundamental differences exist in its underlying scientific principles?

  • Thank you Wayne Linklater for your analysis and logic in this blog and your patience with the pro poisoning trolls.
    There have now been eleven books written by New Zealand authors explaining why 1080 and similar poisons should be outlawed. There are dozen’s of critiques explaining the deficiencies of the “Science” which attempts to justify the use of aerial and ground laid poisons. The fact that the promoters of poisoning refuse to engage professionally with those opposed is clear evidence that values other than science are at play. I’ve studied this subject well, my qualifications are as good as anybody else in the poisoning business. It is clear that a poison industrial complex now drives environmental poisoning in New Zealand. It is supported by a slick corporate marketing campaign similar to that which tries to keep the tobacco industry alive. Is this a conspiracy? Yes, the collective wisdom of 66 years of investigation into aerial poisoning demonstrate an “orchestrated litany of lies” thank you Justice Mahon. The main players are named in the books and the minor players are well known to anybody who has been a victim of environmental poisoning. It’s a police matter now. It is shameful that Government have not banned the poisoning of public lands to set an example to those who poison their own properties. Sorry, I’m not going to debate the collective wisdom summarised in the books below in the comments section of any blog, post or article. I’ve been there done that. Do your own homework. Books in order of year published.
    “Scenic Gem or Silent Nightmare” by Kate Winters published 2009 307 pages
    “The Third Wave – Poisoning the Land” published 2011 by W F Benfield 180 pages
    “Moa – The Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Birds” by Quinn Berentson published 2012 300 pages.
    “First They Came for the Goats” by Reihana Robinson  published 2015 80 pages  
    “At War with Nature – Corporate Conservation and the Industry of Extinction” by W F (Bill) Benfield published 2015 178 pages.
    “Save Our Wild Pigs” by Reihana Robinson published 2016 125 pages    
    “Don’t Fence Us In” by Reihana Robinson published 2016 117 pages
    “Voices of the Coromandel – Poison Peninsula” by Reihana Robinson published 2016 285 pages
    “The Quiet Forest – The case against aerial 1080.” by Fiona M F McQueen published 2017 231 pages.
    “The Killing Nation – New Zealand’s State-Sponsored Addiction To Poison 1080” by Reihana Robinson 2017 193 pages
    “New Zealand’s Changing Biodiversity – Nature Under Pressure by Jim Hilton and Roger Childs 2018 95 pages

  • “Recall that Dr. James Russell, U. of Auckland (a proponent for 1080’s use) surveyed New Zealanders in 2012 to find that 40% of them would prefer that poisons like 1080 were not used ”

    So, I suspect, would most of those who are using it. The fact that a person would prefer that something didn’t happen doesn’t mean they reject that thing completely. I, for example, hate needles and injections, but I accept the need for vaccinations and so I tolerate the jab. I fervently hope for an alternative that changes the delivery mechanism or removes the need for vaccination entirely, but I am not waiting in blind hope.

    I agree that most of the people I might class as “anti-1080” honestly feel that they value biodiversity. This valuing has little or no real credibility however if they then obstruct the use of a tool that ensures the survival of threatened native species without putting up a credible and realistic alternative.

    A diversity of opinion is a wonderful thing where there is no objective truth. You prefer Brahms, I prefer Beastie Boys and we are both making valid choices. A diversity of opinion around the half-life of 1080 in the environment or the ability of trappers to control the number of mustelids across the entire Fiordland Park area is not so valid.

    And that is the key issue. The control of rats, possums and stoats in New Zealand presents a specific mix of challenges that, to date, only a mix of approaches that include poisoning can meet. Of the available poisons, none are pretty in action and none is 100% ecologically inert – thats the nature of poisons. However, 1080, on balance, is the best of a bad bunch.

    That is the story that needs to be got across.

  • Hi Wayne.

    I think it’d be fab if people would actually talk more about the values they want, but it’s not much use unless there’s a clear and objective factual base for comparing and understanding where values collide and contradict each other.

    In 1080 land that frequently doesn’t happen, and it doesn’t help that there are certain people involved who seem to be happy to outright lie about stuff. Discussions get hyperbolic to the extent that people’s values are often shaped by complete misunderstandings of what’s factually realistic.

    I could respond directly but rather than repeat myself I wonder if you could comment on what I wrote to Jamie Steer back in December? (Jamie didn’t respond and for some reason deleted my comment a couple of weeks after I posted it, but it was helpfully restored by the SciBlogs editors.)

    In short, how can this argument be guided to encourage people to talk more clearly about what they really want instead of trying to tactically undermine the credibility of what other people want? How do we get a fair exchange of moral views that ensures a participant who mightn’t have things going their way cannot simply vandalise the forum with rubbish information to mislead others?

  • It is simply not possible to get to grips with this issue without mentioning the “elephant in the room”, i.e. the “uncomfortable truth” that this issue is being driven by funding opportunities for DoC, universities and CRIs. For example, the current chair of the board of Landcare Research (Jane Taylor) is also the current chair of the board of PredatorFree2050 Ltd.: the whole environmental sector in NZ has been set up over a number of years to secure massive ongoing funding from predator eradication. There has been a huge campaign over the last few years to convince the NZ public that the environment is facing some sort of catastrophe from introduced predators unless $billions of public money is diverted to saving it, but this is simply not true (or at least is a massive exaggeration!) Currently, 1080 is the only way that predator eradication can proceed, and so without it, the money don’t start flowing!

  • The 1080 debate fascinates me. Thanks Wayne for giving a considered view. Despite the strong reactions it tends to trigger I think it is still a useful exchange to have. I can’t help thinking the comments show that one side of the debate in particular is uncomfortable with views that suggest a middle or common ground?