We all know the saying: ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. Science denial, though, seems to love an information vacuum and thrives in the absence of fact. Environment and science writer Dave Hansford saw what he thought was an information vacuum around the use of the controversial toxin 1080 to protect New Zealand’s native wildlife, and it motivated him to research and write a book: Protecting Paradise - 1080 and the fight to save New Zealand’s wildlife.
“I think somebody had to [write a book like this],” says Hansford. “There have been a great many books opposing 1080, and I think that’s why there are still a lot of people out there who are confused around 1080. They’re not quite sure who or what to believe.
“So I thought it might be helpful if I could assemble a body of evidence in respect of what the science is telling us about 1080, add a few first-hand accounts and just give them a different perspective.”
During research for the book, which included extensive interviews with scientists, 1080 users and opponents, Hansford kept coming across the phenomenon of science denial. Early on in the book he describes it as ‘an anti-intellectual insurrection in which more and more apparently sane people across Western cultures are repudiating what science – and simple observation - is demonstrating, digging in instead behind sandbags packed entirely with belief.’
Peter Griffin, Director of the Science Media Centre, is a strong believer in evidence-based science. It’s important, he says, that on “complex, controversial issues like 1080 that the science, the evidence base underpinning its use, is really well communicated and articulated.”
However, while New Zealanders have a high degree of trust in scientists and in scientific evidence, Griffin reckons that globally we are living in a world of ‘post-normal science.’
“The old model of gathering scientific evidence and then disseminating that evidence to the public isn’t working as well as it used to. There’s a lot more distrust now of evidence, and in the wake of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump in America, there’s talk of post-truth politics, that the facts don’t matter anymore.”
Hansford says about half a dozen characteristic traits and tactics define science denial. These include trying to discredit the science’s legitimacy, attacking the integrity of the scientists, making claims of government-funded conspiracies, cherry-picking data, and using ‘experts’ who produce critiques of existing data but don’t produce their own peer-reviewed evidence.
Griffin says that such tactics are common to other issues, including water fluoridation, vaccination, genetic modification and climate change.
“A lot of them come from the climate change denier’s handbook,” he says.
While some of those issues, such as water fluoridation, remain unresolved in the public’s mind, despite strong evidence supporting its effectiveness as a public health tool, Griffin now believes that we have “turned the corner” when it comes to 1080. He cites the turning point as 2011 when the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, put out a widely cited report endorsing the use of 1080.
“In the mainstream media – which most people listen and watch – [the report] led to a real change in how [they] cover this issue, with a much more responsible approach to it, I think.” As a result, Griffin thinks that what Hansford terms ‘the moral majority’ now endorse the use of 1080 to save native biodiversity.
Battle for our Birds
Graeme Elliott - a Department of Conservation scientist - is researching the effects of 1080 on wildlife as part of the Battle for our Birds. The second Battle for our Birds is underway, and involves the aerial use of 1080 baits, targeting rats, stoats and possums in over 800,000 of beech forest. Numbers of these introduced predators are high due to a mass seeding event of southern beech trees, putting native wildlife such as birds and bats at increased risk of predation.
Elliott often takes part in public meetings on the use of 1080, and although he has seen a change in attitude, he also says that there is a core of people who aren’t swayed by good scientific evidence. “There’s a bunch of people who come along that are the middle ground,” he says. “They listen carefully and try and understand the ideas you are putting forward. [Then] there’s always another bunch of people there [and] it doesn’t matter what anyone says, they just make the same arguments over and over again and it’s not evidence-based.”
To counter the information around controversial topics, Griffin believes that it is increasingly important that scientists be prepared to speak. He also believes that this kind of ‘engaging conversation’ needs to take place in forums such as social media, as they become increasingly important places for people to gather their news and talk about the issues that concern them.
Elliott, Griffin and Hansford all agree that 1080 will continue to be an important pest control tool in New Zealand for the foreseeable future, especially in light of the Government’s plan to make New Zealand predator-free by 2050.
In the meantime, they say, a new public science debate needs to begin around future technologies such as gene drives.
Gene technologies are likely to be the new silver bullet that will make Predator Free New Zealand 2050 a reality rather than just a lofty goal, and all three experts agree that the sooner an ‘engaging conversation’ begins around the science of techniques such as gene drives, the better.
The science of 1080
To hear more about 1080, what it is, how and why it is used in New Zealand conservation, check out an earlier Our Changing World feature: Science Behind 1080 Use in Conservation.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report on 1080 is Evaluating the use of 1080: Predators, poisons and silent forests.