Name-calling as a substitute for scientific evidence

In the 20-plus years we have advocated for the preservation of our urban forest, my collaborators and I have been accused of many nefarious motivations and deeds.  Here is a small sample of what we have been accused of:

Discrediting one’s opponents is a standard debating tactic and we are neither surprised nor dissuaded by such name-calling.  So, why are we raising the issue today?  Because this name-calling has migrated into the realm of academic science.  We find that shocking because academia is a place where we expect reason to prevail and debates to be based on evidence, rather than ad hominem attacks.

Academic scientists in New Zealand resort to name-calling

We have published several articles about the projects that are dumping rodenticides on islands all over the world to kill animals believed to be the predators of birds.  The most aggressive projects are found in New Zealand where rodenticides have been aerial bombed on small islands for over 60 years.  Recently New Zealand has made a commitment to expand that program to the mainland of New Zealand to kill all wild mammals that have been introduced by humans for over 700 years. 

New Zealand intends to be “predator free” by 2050.  As you might expect, many people in New Zealand object to this program because rodenticides are an indiscriminate killer of animals, such as the native species of parrot, the kea, and many domestic animals such as dogs.  There are other concerns as well, such as the feasibility of such an undertaking and the toxicity of rodenticides to the environment and to humans.

Defending New Zealand’s native parrot, the kea

One of the authors of that aggressive program is an academic at University of Auckland in New Zealand, James C. Russell.  His defense of his program and the academic discipline of invasion biology on which the project was based was published by an academic journal(1)  It is an unusual defense, one that we wouldn’t expect to find in an academic journal, because it does not use scientific evidence to defend the annihilation of non-native animals.  Rather it accuses those who question those projects of having ulterior motives:   “Where evidence is disregarded, or motivations are disingenuous, arguments against [the negative impacts of] invasive alien species take the form of science denialism,” which Russell defines as “the rejection of undisputed scientific facts” such as the causes of climate change or the risks of smoking tobacco.

Russell then tells us what he believes motivates critics of invasion biology:

  • “Science denialism typically originates from groups with a vested interest in opposition to the scientific consensus…” In other words, the profit motive explains the criticism of invasion biology, in Russell’s opinion.
  • “…there is a strong correlation with support of free-market ideologies such as laissez-faire. ” Russell paints critics of invasion biology into a right-wing corner.

Finally, Russell advises invasion biologists how to respond to “denialism” of their projects:  “engage the criticisms but shift the debate from questions of scientific fact to questions of policy response.”  And THAT is at the heart of the matter.  Russell advises his colleagues to emphasize the policy goals, such as exterminating all wild mammals from New Zealand, rather than debate the scientific justification for that project.  Since there is little scientific justification for this project, that seems like good advice.  So, what is this advice doing in a scientific journal?  That is the final question.

Academic scientists respond to Professor Russell

A few months after Russell’s ad hominem attack on academic critics of invasion biology, the same scientific journal published four rebuttals to Russell and Blackburn, written by 11 academic scientists.

  • “We disagree that there is scientific consensus around invasive species, and propose that much debate in this field stems from legitimate disagreement and not from disingenuous rhetoric.” (2)
  • “Constructing an ostensible category of ‘denialists’ reflects invasion biology’s traditional reliance on inflammatory exaggeration to impose and enforce a dichotomous doctrine.” (3)
  • “…society’s spectrum of diverse perspectives, aspirations, and personal trade-offs, which effectively constitute what Russell and Blackburn impugn as ‘vested interests,’ could and should influence society’s debates rather than be discredited.” (4)
  • The organizations and individuals that continue to bemoan biodiversity loss are misleading the public and are directing conservation support away from the foremost problem, the precarious existence of species with remnant populations that are the result of habitat destruction and overexploitation.” (5)
Threats to mammal species. Source: International Union for Conservation of Nature

Another academic publication also published a response to Russell and Blackburn:  “Superficial understanding of the relationships between evidence and values creates exactly the dichotomization between science ‘believers’ and ‘denialists’ that Russell and Blackburn ostensibly seek to avoid.  Rather than ‘standing up for science’ such dichotomization undermines it, rendering aspects of scientific enterprise ‘off limits’ to the kind of rigorous critical (self) examination fostered by science at its best.”  (6)

Update:  James Russell has come to the attention of the US military, according to a press report published on December 4, 2017.  Russell says of his collaboration with the US military, “’And obviously we’re in the business of eradicating entire populations of animals from an island and so they have cocked their ear towards me once or twice.  You don’t have to be a genius to see that there’s potential military application in that.’  In this instance, Russell’s work was being measured for suitability against a US$100 million research pot made available by the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).”

As psychologists have informed us for decades, it is a short step from animal abuse to human abuse.  The child who kills animals often becomes a killer of humans as an adult. 

Professor Russell seems to be proud of his collaboration with the US military.  In any case, he stands to profit from that collaboration.  That’s ironic, given that one of his criticisms of the critics of invasion biology is that they have “vested interests” in their criticism.  It seems that a grant from the US Military should be viewed as a “vested interest” in his advocacy for killing animals.  And, as he says, he is “in the business of eradicating” animals.

Little scientific basis for invasion biology

Invasion biology as presently defined by academic science originated in the late 1950s.  It began as a collection of hypotheses about the harm that non-native plants and animals were doing to native plants and animals.  Like all hypotheses, it was based on speculation that had to be tested in the real world.  In the past 25 years, many studies have been conducted that were designed to prove that non-native species are harmful to native species.  With few exceptions, these studies came up empty. More often than not, studies found pros and cons to introduced species, just as we would expect of similar studies of native species.  There is little evidence that invasion biology is an accurate description of how ecosystems operate. 

When academic scientists are forced to resort to name-calling to defend invasion biology it no longer deserves the status of scientific hypothesis.  And when it is discredited as a scientific discipline, it must be just a matter of time before the public realizes that there is no legitimate reason to kill non-native plants and animals.

We don’t see any sign of that paradigm shift, but we are hopeful that public policy will eventually be revised to reflect the reality that has been revealed by scientific studies.  In the absence of scientific justification for eradication projects, they must be treated as public policy decisions.  In a democracy, public policy decisions must reflect the public’s wishes.  In the absence of public support, these projects will continue to cause conflict.

  1. James C Russell and Tim Blackburn, “The Rise of Invasive Species Denialism,” Ecology & Evolution, January 2017
  2. Sarah Crowley, Steve Hinchliffe, Steve Redpath, Robbie McDonald, “Disagreement About Invasive Species Does not Equate to Denialism: A Response to Russell and Blackburn,” Ecology & Evolution, April 2017
  3. Mark Davis and Matthew Chew, “’The Denialists Are Coming!’ Well, Not Exactly: A Response to Russell and Blackburn,” Ecology & Evolution, April 2017
  4. Jacques Tassin, Ken Thompson, Scott Carroll, Chris Thomas, “Determining Whether the Impacts of Introduced Species are Negative Cannot be Based Solely on Science: A Response to Russell and Blackburn,”  Ecology & Evolution, April 2017
  5. John Briggs, “Rise of Invasive Species Denialism” A Response to Russell and Blackburn,” Ecology & Evolution, April 2017
  6. Susanna Lindstrom, “An Interdisciplinary Perspective on Invasive Alien Species,” PLoS Ecology Blog, October 2017