Accusations of "Invasive Species Denialism" Are Flawed

Researchers accused of denying the effects of invasives aren't really doing so.

Posted Feb 18, 2019

"In New Zealand there are a few introduced predators that hunt native wildlife and put them at risk of extinction. Most New Zealanders would like to protect those native species. However, rather than focus on the myriad of ways in which native wildlife might be protected and persist, New Zealand has adopted a narrowly focused policy of exterminating the predators that eat them." 

A hot topic among conservation scientists, specifically researchers called invasion biologists, centers on the presence of invasive species, typically referred to as species that are non-native to a particular ecosystem, individuals of which often cause harm to native species or the ecosystem, or which have negative effects on the economy of a given region or on human health. Numerous introduced species wind up in a particular locale because humans have brought them there either intentionally or inadvertently, a point that often is overlooked in programs designed to get rid of them. An excellent case is New Zealand's widespread and rather brutal war on invasive wildlife, the goal of which is to rid the country of invasive species by 2050. Not only are adults involved in this war, but so too are youngsters who are inhumanely educated to kill invasive animals in school sanctioned activities. (For more details click here and here.) Not everyone agrees that invasive species are doing all the damage for which they're accused, and surely, even if individuals of non-native species are removed, ecosystems are not going to go back to what they were before the invasives were there, because ecosystems are dynamic entities that evolve according to who is there. 

It's also interesting to note that although New Zealand has officially recognized nonhuman animals (animals) as sentient beings, the methods that are used surely will cause deep and enduring pain and suffering leading to the death of millions upon millions of sentient beings. There's no way that the vast majority of animals who are killed are going to be killed in any way that resembles "humane." Some people have gone as far as to call it a cop-out, because it's difficult to imagine that anyone who claims that the victims will be killed humanely can truly believe this given what we know about the horrific ways in which these individuals are harmed and killed. There's no way that even a fraction of the animals who are killed using 1080 and other brutal methods will die humanely with compassion and empathy. And, of course, do they really care about the humans' kind thoughts? (See "Is Killing Introduced Predators 'Absolutely Necessary?'" and links therein.) As Dr. Jamie Steer notes, "We can't just throw them under the bus and say 'We did like you back in the 1800s, but now it turns out you're not useful to us any more and you contradict things that we find useful. So we're just going to kill you all. But don't worry - we're going to do it nicely'."

The rapidly growing and strongly transdisciplinary field of compassionate conservation (for more information click here) surely could help reduce the killing that is currently going on and will continue in the years to come in New Zealand and other places. (See "Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation" and "Promoting predators and compassionate conservation.") Interestingly, a self-serving and uninformed essay by Dr. Peter Fleming, a self-proclaimed "lower case compassionate conservationist (i.e. a conservationist with compassion)" with the catchy title "Compassionate conservation or misplaced compassion?" published by Australia's Invasive Species Council, thoroughly misrepresents the field of compassionate conservation. (See "Compassionate Conservation Isn't Veiled Animal Liberation.") The entire tone of his piece reeks of unbridled anthropocentrism because according to him, while nonhuman animals shouldn't be killing individuals of other animal species, it's perfectly okay for humans to do this. He doesn't argue this view, but rather, he simply states it as if it's doctrine. While progress will only be made when all voices are heard, it's not asking too much to expect them to be informed about what they're arguing for or against. Dr. Fleming is not.

Research shows claims of "invasive species denialism" are unfounded 

Needless to say, researchers disagree on the effects of invasive species and many get pretty "hot under the collar" especially when other scientists or informed non-scientists disagree with them about the role that invasive species play in harming individuals of other species or in influencing the integrity of different ecosystems. Often, the naysayers are accused of denying the impact that invasive species have on other species or on various ecosystems. I've always felt uneasy about these accusations, so I was very pleased to learn of a new essay by New Zealand researchers David Munro, Jamie Steer, and Wayne Linklater titled "On allegations of invasive species denialism" that is in press in the prestigious journal Conservation Biology. In the abstract of this seminal piece Mr. Munro and his colleagues write, "Recently, 67 scholars, scientists and science writers were accused of ‘invasive species denialism’ (ISD) – the rejection of well‐supported facts about invasive species, particularly the global scientific consensus about their negative impacts. We re‐evaluated the ISD literature but could find no examples where scientific facts were refuted and just five articles with text perhaps consistent with one of the five characteristics of science denialism." Having been accused of "‘invasive species denialism," I wanted to learn more about what these researchers did, so I asked if they could answer a few questions about their essay. Gladly, they said "Yes," and our interview went as follows.

I was so pleased to read your essay in Conservation Biology titled "On allegations of invasive species denialism." Why did you write it? Can you also briefly introduce readers to the field called Invasion biology and the current situation about New Zealand's war on invasive species? 

"We think recent articles claiming science denialism with regards to invasive species fall into the same pattern of ‘them and us’ rhetoric and practice in science. They turn the conservationists’ ‘war’ against some species into a war-like debate between invasion biologists and other people. We think this kind of debate is intolerant and counter to good scientific practice."

David: We were surprised to read in 2017 of a growing debate around the concept of ‘invasive species denialism’. This concept seemed a counter-productive development in the professional and public debate about invasive species. And we were shocked to see that this debate had degenerated into name-and-shame style publications. We felt that the idea and practice therefore needed to be challenged. For scientists and a science journal to publish a name-and-shame list of alleged science deniers seemed unethical to us. And knowing some of the work labelled as science denialism, we immediately suspected that some works and people being accused were anything but science denialists.

Invasion biology is one of several scientific disciplines contributing to the conservation of natural systems and biodiversity. It has grown in importance because the movement of other species by people around the world has increased how often a small subset of those species cause problems. It is a discipline that could draw deeply from other natural sciences, especially ecology, but also increasingly the social sciences because conservation depends on, and addresses, the positive and negative relationships between people and natural systems and their plants and animals.

Wikipedia creative commons/wollombi
Invasive common brushtail possum
Source: Wikipedia creative commons/wollombi

A big part of conservation in New Zealand is concerned with controlling or eliminating introduced ‘invasive’ species. Conservation in the country is frequently presented in war-like terms employing ‘them and us’ dichotomies and in and out groups to unify people behind a common purpose. Our concern is that this rhetoric is also being adopted by some scientists in invasion biology. We think recent articles claiming science denialism with regards to invasive species fall into the same pattern of ‘them and us’ rhetoric and practice in science. They turn the conservationists’ ‘war’ against some species into a war-like debate between invasion biologists and other people. We think this kind of debate is intolerant and counter to good scientific practice.

I know that many researchers consider it a 'fact' that invasive species cause harm, however, you conclude that you found no evidence of "invasive species denialism‟(ISD) in your review of pertinent literature. How and why do the accusers come to their conclusion, and why is it perpetuated among researchers who supposedly know how to summarize available data. Non-researchers surely expect that researchers would agree about what data show when analyzing the same data set and that researchers would freely share data sets among them. However, you found this wasn't the case and that there is some sort of taboo – silence – among researchers.

Jamie: The alleged denialists are contesting invasion biology’s values-consensus, not its science consensus. This has happened because invasion biology as a science has fashioned and defined itself, more than many other applied sciences, using normative beliefs rather than values-neutral and scientifically defendable criteria. This has opened the discipline up to legitimate critique from many directions. Some invasion biologists have not been able to recognise or acknowledge this. And so when their discipline has been criticised they have misinterpreted it as a criticism of science. Instead it is generally a criticism of the values that define the discipline and the values that the discipline imposes on others by stipulating how they should value particular species of plants and animals (i.e., by describing them as universally ‘harmful’). Values are integral to science. Appreciating and being transparent about that is key to better science. But when scientists are opaque or intransigent about their values – like invasion biologists can sometimes be – further criticism will naturally follow. The issue over data sharing – or rather not sharing in this case – is characteristic of the oppositional approach that some are taking (i.e., I’ll share my data with you, but only if I can trust that you’ll interpret it the ‘right’ way).    

Related to the above question, you also write that there is apparent censorship by some researchers when others propose ideas that aren't consistent with their own. You write, "Bold new ideas are often forced to publish outside the scrutiny of scientific peer review as they may be considered too different to established knowledge to pass through the often conservative lens of established science." Some colleagues and I experienced this when I began writing about the emotional lives of animals, and it took some time for things to change. 

Wayne: I think all researchers, especially if they are working at the limits of knowledge and understanding, will inevitably run into the conservatism of science and struggle to get their work published. New ideas – even good and important ones – take time to be accepted. The first times those new and unconventional ideas are written and submitted for publication to peer-reviewed journals they are more likely to receive negative reports from reviewers and less likely to be supported by editors. And so, very often, the ideas that advance our knowledge and understanding end up appearing in print for the first time outside the realms of scientific peer-review. As scientists we have to appreciate that and respect the important roles of unconventional and unacceptable discovery expressed in less reviewed literature alongside, and as a complement to, conservative peer-review publishing. When scientists denigrate the work of scholars in formats that are not peer-reviewed they forget how knowledge develops and is advanced.

I find it surprising that some scientists consider researchers who take the opposite view from theirs to be anti-science. My non-researcher friends often tell me that they believe science is value-neutral and trust that there is some "truth" to how data are interpreted. Why do facts and values conflict in general, and more specifically in the case of what's happening in New Zealand? 

David: Wayne’s response to your second question covers some of this answer. Please refer to it too. In addition to this, values have always been and always will have a part in science. In fact, it seems that values influence science at least as much as science influences values, if not more so. It is not possible for science to be values-free. And we wouldn’t want it to be because very much science is motivated by scientists’ desire to help others. That said, invasion biology has been extraordinary in its relationship with values in two ways:

1.      Invasive species are defined by cultural value-judgements, much more so than other species definitions in conservation.

2.      Invasion biologists habitually do not recognize or debate those value judgements.

This is why they can make the mistake of interpreting critique of their value judgements as a critique of their science when it is not. Thus, invasion biology is naïve about its values whereas many other similar sciences are fully engaged with their values, transparent about them, and readily debate them as such.

In New Zealand there are a few introduced predators that hunt native wildlife and put them at risk of extinction. Most New Zealanders would like to protect those native species. However, rather than focus on the myriad of ways in which native wildlife might be protected and persist, New Zealand has adopted a narrowly focused policy of exterminating the predators that eat them. This has occurred partly because the science of invasion biology, its values-based consensus, and the ‘them and us’ politics that it encourages, has had a stronger influence in conservation than more moderate and nuanced solutions. As a consequence, solutions to the challenge posed by introduced predators have not drawn as deeply as they should from the natural and social sciences and run headlong into ethically questionable strategies, like nationwide species eradication.

You also mention that it's important to have input from non-scientists, something with which I strongly agree. Why is this so?

"In my experience, there is a certain arrogance among those of this latter stripe. I think sometimes scientists become so accustomed to seeing themselves as the impartial gatekeepers of knowledge – so used to pointing to the errors in others logic – that they struggle to function when tested on their own value assumptions. After all, how could they, the masters of knowledge, get it wrong?"

Jamie: Because science is values-driven it benefits from constant dialogue with the disciplines that specialize in the interface between values and knowledge. Most scientists recognize this of course. It’s one of the reasons why they increasingly seek popular avenues like magazines, newspapers and blogs to present their research – to reach out to that wider audience. That’s not just an opportunity to tell people about the facts either. It’s a way of testing the clarity and resonance of their work. Not all see it this way though and, truth be told, a few still see interactions with non-scientists as a chore. 

In my experience, there is a certain arrogance among those of this latter stripe. I think sometimes scientists become so accustomed to seeing themselves as the impartial gatekeepers of knowledge – so used to pointing to the errors in others logic – that they struggle to function when tested on their own value assumptions. After all, how could they, the masters of knowledge, get it wrong? It contradicts their personal narrative. This can be particularly confronting when the assumptions in question are integral to their science. The response from this set is often to erect walls around their facts: these facts are important and those aren’t. And those who contest this are simply in ‘denial’. 

I think a better approach is to be open to differences in values and priorities. As a scientist, the only way to do that is to be up front about what you hold dear and transparent about how you deal with your personal biases. In truth, it’s not as straightforward as that though is it, because when everyone shares the same kind of bias it’s often seen not as bias but as virtue. When you sincerely believe your prejudice to be virtuous you may lose the ability to recognize it at all.      

In your essay you write, "Tolerance of different perspectives is a quality widely valued in open societies, including scientific communities. In science we accept that a diversity of perspectives is an advantage, not a problem. It is also an ethical imperative because including minority views in our scientific institutions is an expectation of modern science (White et al. 2018). The intolerance by some invasion biologists of different perspectives, made manifest in fallacious accusations of science denialism, is problematic." I couldn't agree more. Do you have faith that the "name and shame" way of criticizing so-called "denialists" will change any time soon? 

Wayne: I hope that ours and other published responses to this name-and-shame style of discourse discourage more of it. Unfortunately, we see other colleagues making use of the allegation of invasive species science denialism in other conservation topics, such as the controversy over domestic cats. Some have called the people and groups who advocate for cats and cat owners ‘invasive species denialists’ too. This will not help them reach a solution to the conservation challenge posed by domestic cats. They should instead be prepared to engage with a values-based discussion with cat advocates in ways that are conciliatory and respectful of others values and beliefs.

My impression is that the antagonistic behaviour of some invasion biologists calling others ‘science denialists’ is symptomatic of deep flaws in the science of invasion biology. More than other applied sciences, invasion biology is based on a cultural framework that some of its practitioners are unable or unwilling to acknowledge, examine and debate. And so they misinterpret critique of their values as science denial. Some introspection by invasion biologists about their values and culture, and reflection on others’ values and cultures, would be helpful and revealing I think. I also suspect that invasion biology would do well to deepen its relationship with the science of ecology, and with the social sciences that are more transparent about their values-frameworks, but also more guided by open-minded discovery. 

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

"In New Zealand, flawed policies to exterminate entire species from our nation are revealing just how important it is that psychology, sociology, history and ethics, as a few examples, take a greater role in environmental debate and policy."

David: I hope that through our paper people will become more aware of, and able to identify, when arguments are founded in values rather than science. Illuminating so-called ‘denialists’ is only useful when the accused are in-fact denying objective evidence. In these post-truth times it is important to remain vigilant in the face of orchestrated science denial, but we should not let this extend into the suppression of alternative values as has unfortunately been occurring in invasion biology.

Wayne: In conservation science we are increasingly appreciating the importance of the social sciences and humanities in providing solutions to long-standing, pressing and growing environmental challenges. In New Zealand, flawed policies to exterminate entire species from our nation are revealing just how important it is that psychology, sociology, history and ethics, as a few examples, take a greater role in environmental debate and policy. But it is also revealing how poor the relationships between even the natural sciences, like ecology, and government policy-making are. It’s really very important that we scientists take a greater role in informing government policy.

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. I hope your essay receives a wide readership, not only by people interested in invasion biology, but also by researchers in other disciplines. What you write in your piece captures the essence and importance of your study, namely, "A key recommendation is that invasion biology could avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and conflicts by being more accepting of perspectives originating from other disciplines, and more open to values‐based critique from other scholars and scientists. This recommendation applies to all conservation sciences, especially those addressing global challenges, because they must serve and be relevant to communities with an extraordinary diversity of cultures and values." Another case in point that also focuses on the diversity of cultures and values is what is happening in Southern Africa in different conservation's throughout the region and what people call "The Nature/Culture Cocktail." (See "Sentience and Conservation: Lessons from Southern Africa.") I look forward to future discussions of the many points you make in your seminal piece.