Monday, March 14, 2016

Skewed Logic Thrives in NY Times Article on Invasive Species

One expects quality from the NY Times, but for some reason it periodically weakens its standards to publish an oped or article attacking native plant advocates and biologists who study biological invasions. (See list and previous detailed critiques here.) The tactics are always the same: a blurring of important distinctions, a failure to explain to readers the basic concepts of invasive behavior in plants and animals, the creation and tearing apart of strawmen, an embedding of bias in word choice and sentence structure, and a lot of mean-spirited pejoratives. This curious, recurrent smearing of those who seek to understand and tend nature's garden is fueled, as best I can tell, by a never-ending stream of resentment emanating most stridently from a couple California-based websites, then given undeserved validation by journalists who lack training and field experience in biology and ecology.

The latest, by veteran science writer Erica Goode, is a polemic loosely disguised as an article in the Science section. Entitled "Invasive Species Aren’t Always Unwanted", it portrays invasion biology as a xenophobic, militaristic, quasi-religious cult that has invented a false enemy and caused people and governments to behave in violent ways. We are asked to accept this dark psychological portrait largely on faith.

Like attacks on climate science, the article claims to shake the foundations of a major area of scientific study
while offering barely enough cherry-picked evidence to nibble around the edges. 

Though readers are starved of information and distinctions basic to understanding the issue of invasive behavior, the article provides significant psychological payoffs. For the critics the article quotes, there's the pleasure of projecting onto others the negative qualities they themselves exemplify. Readers, in turn, are supplied a menacing "Other" to look down upon (invasion biologists), and the relief that comes from being told that a big problem our culture and global trade have created may not be so big after all. The vast unintentional damage we do to nature is viewed as largely inevitable, while the intentional efforts to mend the damage are attacked. 

Here is a point by point analysis of Erica Goode's article:
"Invasive species are bad news, or so goes the conventional wisdom, encouraged by persistent warnings from biologists about the dangers of foreign animals and plants moving into new territories. 
Conservation organizations bill alien species as the foremost threat to native wildlife. Cities rip out exotic trees and shrubs in favor of indigenous varieties. And governments spend millions on efforts to head off or eradicate biological invaders."
Right off the bat, there's a blurring of distinctions, a conflating of "alien" species, which refers to origin, with "invasive species" which refers to behavior exhibited by a small subset of alien species. In the first two paragraphs, a fundamental area of ecological research is brought into question. Biologists and conservation organizations may in fact be purveyors of a violent ideology, a supposed wisdom that may "persist" only through "convention", and has led large, nameless institutions to "rip out" trees and shrubs.
“I think the dominant paradigm in the field is still a ‘when in doubt, kill them’ sort of attitude,” said Dov Sax, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University.
Again, the violent "killing" is front and center. 
"But a growing number of scientists are challenging this view, arguing that not all invasive species are destructive; some, they contend, are even beneficial." 
Again, the various terms for nonnative ("alien", "exotic", "introduced", etc) are being confused with "invasive" behavior. Even if we take the "growing number" on faith, there is here a credulousness that contributes to the piece's false conflict. All plants have positive and negative qualities. Many species were originally imported because they had some positive trait. Some of those, like thorny multiflora rose, imported and bred by the government to serve as a "living fence", later proved more destructive than beneficial. One of the worst invaders of prairies, Chinese bushclover, is widely used for erosion control. Burmese pythons are probably darling when you buy a baby one at the pet store. The article repeatedly offers up one positive trait as if it magically compensates for all the negatives. The same credulousness, and inability to understand the intermixing of good and evil, is found among those who think that, because CO2 is a harmless constituent of our every breath, and serves as food for plants, its buildup in the atmosphere couldn't possibly be a danger to our planet's climate.
"The assumption that what hails from elsewhere is inherently bad, these researchers say, rests more on xenophobia than on science."
Who holds this assumption? Because the article offers no examples of people holding this assumption, we must, again, take on faith that they are out there, somewhere. This is the old trick of creating a strawman and then tearing him to pieces.

For aficionados of hypocrisy, note that the critics, calling for more tolerance of imported species, are themselves creating a menacing Other that we should worry about. "Xenophobia" is a word that describes the bias one human shows towards another human. It doesn't translate well to discussions that involve concern about new species being introduced. Health, agriculture, forestry--all are vulnerable to organisms that arrive from other continents. Is it xenophobic to want to guard against potential threats? In fact, the native plant movement has had to work against a historic bias among gardeners in favor of exotic species, which have long been viewed as more special because they come from far away. Through her choice of words and quotes, the writer Erica Goode, who is trained primarily in psychology, is essentially portraying many of us who care about America's ecology as bigots.
“It’s almost a religious kind of belief, that things were put where they are by God and that that’s where they damn well ought to stay,” said Ken Thompson, an ecologist and retired senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield in England, who wrote the 2014 book “Where Do Camels Belong: Why Invasive Species Aren’t All Bad.”
Clearly we have some anger issues here. Many of the quotes offer little more than pejoratives and resentment, emotion but no information. Stating that specialists in a field of science, be it invasion biology or climate science, are caught up in their own religion has been a recurrent strategy for rejecting their findings. Interestingly, both climate science and invasion biology threaten the profits of business--the fossil fuel industry on the one hand, and the nursery and exotic pet industries on the other. When you don't like a scientist's findings, attack the scientist.
“We’re actually moving plants and animals around the world all the time,” he said. “We have been for centuries.”
Another credulous statement. Because it's been happening for a long time, it must be okay? Imagine a similar argument being made about fossil carbon emissions, or about child abuse, or racism. Why, it's worth asking, is such feeble logic, laughable and even deplorable in other contexts, still surviving in these periodic opeds and articles about invasive species?

One add-on to the article is a short quiz to test readers' knowledge of where common species originated. It's meant to surprise readers with the fact that honey bees, house sparrows and many other ubiquitous species are actually not native to the U.S. This add-on shows that the article is aimed at beginners, but the article contains no introduction to the basics of invasions and skips straight to the polemic against invasion biologists. In fact, taking the quiz exposes you to more blurring of distinctions (all camel species are interchangeable, ecologically speaking?), more reckless use of the word "xenophobia", and directs you to the relentless polemics of a California-based website.

Though the piece seeks to cloud the distinction between native and nonnative, knowing whether a species was introduced in the past century or two or three can offer insights into the function or dysfunction of the world around us. One gets a richer, more nuanced understanding of the species we've known all our lives. Even with a species so clearly beneficial as the honeybee, there may have been fallout from its introduction to the continent. It may have contributed to the extinction of the Carolina parakeet, because honey bees competed for the same nesting sites in trees.
"Dr. Thompson and other scientists have called for a more nuanced approach to evaluating whether the presence of a species is harmful or beneficial."
Exhibit B for aficionados of hypocrisy. The call for nuance is interesting, because a common flaw in these critiques is a complete lack of nuance when it comes to understanding evolutionary time, ecological niche, the various services plants provide for wildlife, the toxicity of various herbicides, the rate of change, and the intermingling of good and evil.
"Eradicating most invasive species is virtually impossible in an era of globalization, they note."
No one contests this, so the critics are creating yet another strawman they can then tear apart.
"And as climate change pushes more species out of their home ranges and into new areas, the number of so-called invaders is likely to multiply exponentially."
Fatalism has its comforts. Climate change--a menace we have created inadvertently and have failed to collectively take action against--is being used as an excuse not to take action against another menace we've created inadvertently--invasive species.
"Yet the notion that a species should not be judged on its origins is highly controversial, as Mark Davis, a biology professor at Macalester College in Minnesota, discovered when he and 18 other researchers submitted an article in 2011 saying just that in the journal Nature. 
The response was immediate — and signed by 141 scientists, many of them specialists in the field known as invasion biology. Their approach, they said, was already sufficiently “nuanced,” thank you very much."
Finally, we find out who the xenophobic, religious cultists are: invasion biologists! The "thank you very much" suggests these people are stuffy, exclusionary jerks. This is oped writing in the guise of a newspaper article, its target treated like the objects of scorn I remember from William Safire's columns. His villains "sniffed" rather than spoke.
“Most conservation biologists and ecologists do not oppose nonnative species per se,” wrote Daniel Simberloff, a professor of environmental science at the University of Tennessee, who led the group that wrote the rebuttal. He added that Dr. Davis and his colleagues had vastly played down the severe harm that alien species caused."
After the article's buildup, you'd expect the quote of an actual invasion biologist would exhibit the menacing, rigid, violent ideology of invasive species control. But instead, Simberloff sounds mild mannered and thoughtful, calling for a more balanced presentation of relative harm and benefit. 
"But in the five years since that contentious exchange, the idea that invasive species should be assumed guilty until proven innocent has begun to wane, the shift prompted in part, Dr. Davis speculated, by concerns over the use of chemical pesticides and the disruption of landscapes caused by many eradication efforts."
Here, the article's author again blurs the distinction between alien and invasive. And chemical pesticides, whose toxicity is highly varied, are offered as another large, undifferentiated dark menace. This is exactly the sort of thinking the critics claim to oppose. A useful analogy is antibiotics. Herbicides used in invasive species control are analogous to medicines used against pathogens invading our bodies. In both cases, an invasion is disrupting healthy functioning, whether of an ecosystem or our bodies. Medicines and herbicides have varying degrees of toxicity and potential side effects, so the aim is to use them wisely. If the meat industry is indiscriminately using antibiotics in a dangerous way, should we condemn all medicine use by doctors? That's the logic used here, and also on the California-based website the article directs traffic to. 
"Some alien species are undeniably harmful, a fact that neither Dr. Davis nor others who share his view dispute. The fungus that causes chestnut blight, for example, decimated thousands of trees and changed the American landscape in the early 1900s. The Zika virus is invading new regions, carried by infected mosquitoes that some say are being driven northward by warmer temperatures. The vampirelike lamprey, sneaking into the Great Lakes in the 19th century, gradually champed its way through the fish population. 
Islands and mountaintops are especially vulnerable to damage from invaders because their native species often evolved in isolation and lack natural defenses against predators or immunity to exotic diseases. The brown tree snake, accidentally transported to Guam, has virtually eliminated the bird population there.
The fungus that causes chestnut blight decimated trees and changed the American landscape in the early 1900s." 
A nice, informative list of destructive introduced species--a mere smattering of the examples that could be offered.
"But, Dr. Davis noted, “all species have negative impacts on something,” and the danger, he said, is often exaggerated."
And all chemicals have negative impacts on something. Therefore, we should sit back and allow indiscriminate introduction of industrial chemicals into the environment? Again, weak and callous logic is being used when discussing invasive species, when that logic would seem laughable in other contexts.
"A study published Feb. 17 in the journal Biology Letters, for example, concluded that alien species “are the second most common threat associated with species that have gone completely extinct” since 1500 A.D. 
But the study, Dr. Davis and other experts said, relies on subjective judgments about extinction and does not distinguish between island species — which are far more vulnerable — and land or ocean species."
Here, finally, is an actual piece of evidence from the critics, as opposed to broad indictment. Interesting point. Islands vs. large land masses and oceans. I'm ready to learn something. Let's explore this, and hear Simberloff's response. But no, it's back to credulous assertions.
"In some instances, nonnatives offer clear benefits. In California, for example, monarch butterflies prefer to spend their winters in the branches of the eucalyptus, an exotic tree transplanted to the state more than 150 years ago and viewed by some as an invasive fire hazard. In Spain, non-native crayfish serve as prey for migratory wetland birds, including some endangered species."
Again some weak logic, suggesting that one positive trait is all that's needed to balance a host of negatives. Even that one positive, that monarchs "prefer" eucalyptus, appears in doubt according to some studies. And there's a recurrent lack of nuance. Structure is the most generic service a plant can provide an insect. The more generalist pollinators can also take advantage of the pollen and nectar nonnative species produce. But the leaves of each plant species vary in what chemical compounds they contain, and it so happens that wildlife have adapted to the taste and potential toxicity of plant species they've co-evolved with, and tend to reject the foliage of nonnative plants. Doesn't matter if the nonnative was introduced hundreds of years ago. Adaption in most cases appears to happen very slowly. That's one of the huge advantages nonnatives have in a new environment--nothing in their new locale has evolved to eat them. As nonnative invasive species take over, a habitat provides less and less foliage for wildlife to eat. Berries, yes. Nectar, yes. Leaves, no. And there's evidence that the berries of nonnatives are much less nutritious for wildlife in many cases. This is a central ecological, evolutionary reality that, to better feed the anger of critics and readers, goes unmentioned in the article.

For evidence of bias, I love the assertion that eucalyptus are only "viewed by some" as a fire hazard.
The National Park Servicefire departments in California, studies of the tree's high combustibility and history of intensifying destructive fires--by downplaying the flammability of eucalyptus, the NY Times joins in the aggressive, single-minded polemics of the Mount Sutro website it links to.
"And some notorious invaders can have positive effects. Western states have spent a fortune trying to eradicate the tamarisk tree, which many experts believe hogs more than its share of water and damages the habitat of native species. 
But Julian D. Olden, an associate professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, said tamarisks had been found to provide shelter for birds like the southwestern willow flycatcher. Some studies have also concluded that the tree’s water use is not significantly different from that of other tree species."
I checked with an inside source on this one--someone who has worked in natural resource management out west for thirty years. Turns out that native floodplain habitats have suffered a double whammy--altered hydrology, due to manipulations of water level in rivers, and invasions of the nonnative tamarisk, which exudes salt that kills other plant species and forms impenetrable thickets and monocultures. Where hydrology has been artificially altered, fighting tamarisk is a losing game, and the tamarisk probably doesn't use significantly more water than native tree species. Along those hydrologically altered corridors, tamarisk is now allowed to grow, to provide shelter for the southwestern willow flycatcher. But my source also tells of hundreds of "beautiful side drainages, washes and canyons"--tributaries where the original hydrology remains intact--where the aggressive, exclusionary tamarisk has been removed so that diverse, largely native habitats can continue to flourish. Such successful interventions to control invasive species go unmentioned in the article.
"The antipathy to foreign plants and wildlife is relatively recent. While the distinction between native and non-native species dates to the 18th century, the term “invasion” was first used in a 1958 book — “The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants,” by Charles Elton — that drew on the militaristic vocabulary of the post-World War II era. 
But the moniker did not achieve its full derogatory weight until the 1990s and early 2000s, when academic interest in the subject peaked and the number of papers on the subject generated by invasion biologists grew proportionately."
Note the word choice suggesting that invasion biologists are driven by emotion: "antipathy to" rather than the more neutral "concern about". I was thinking that the word "militaristic" was, like "xenophobic" being used pejoratively against invasion biology, and of course it is meant to add to the menacing portrayal of these invasion biologists. But when you think about it, a military exists because of a perceived threat. Its existence suggests that there's something worth defending.

Invasion biology and climate change science both research and identify planetary threats to our wellbeing and to nature in general. Their findings suggest that there's something worth defending, something worth fighting for, be it the marvelous interactions of co-evolved plant communities or the marvelous climate that has evolved over time to make this planet hospitable in an otherwise harsh universe. Critics of invasion biology contend that the enemy doesn't exist, and if it does exist, we're likely to lose anyway, so why bother.

It sounds like all love and peace, born of the relief of acquiescence and open-mindedness, but in reality it is a laundering of responsibility. The accumulating CO2 in the atmosphere, and the invasive species we unintentionally or with the best of intentions let loose upon the land, become our accidental legacy, our eternal "Oops!". They wreak the havoc while we congratulate ourselves on being kind people, pretending we're clueless as to our real impact. The pet owner who releases his overgrown pet python into the everglades thinks himself gentle and goodhearted, and doesn't stick around to see the python crush and consume victim after victim. As long as the violence remains hidden, unintentional, removed in space and time from our awareness, we can keep up our illusions. Critics of invasion science, and climate deniers, offer us a seductive freedom from responsibility to act.

And how satisfying it must be, to be able to look down on those who actually care enough to identify threats and take action against them, to label invasion biologists as xenophobic, obsessive (a pejorative, along with "reflexively hostile" and "hating", used by journalist Emma Marris, whose approach this NY Times article borrows from), and prone to religious cultism.
Photo caption: "Tamarisk trees have been blamed for damaging the habitat of native species in the West, but they have also been found to provide shelter for birds." 
For connoisseurs of bias, this photo caption is a marvelous example. "Blame" is a more emotionally charged word, evoking images of finger pointing, while "found" sounds more factual.
"To biologists like Dr. Simberloff, taking action to head off alien species early on makes sense, allowing governments to address threats before invaders take firm hold. Non-native species are far more likely to do harm than native plants and animals, he argued, adding that the debate was “a phony controversy.”
A good quote from Simberloff, but instead of explaining why nonnatives are more apt to do harm, the article tries to compound the "phony controversy" by questioning what it means to be native.
"Whether a species is viewed as native, however, often depends on when you arrived on the scene. Much of what Americans eat was originally imported: The horse, an icon of the American West, for example, was reintroduced by the Spanish thousands of years after the original North American horse became extinct. Several states list the honeybee as their state insect. But like many other state fish, insects and flowers, the bees are in fact immigrants."
Should we think of tigers as native to Princeton, NJ because it's the university's mascot? Hard to understand how group-think about this species or that has any relevance to biological realities.

The horse is an interesting case, and it does seem like some sort of mending if the horse made it back to North America via Europe. But it's misleading to suggest that a horse species that evolved and then bred in Europe is going to magically be a blessing for American habitats. Here again we see a lack of nuance displayed by the critics. Does the European horse have behavioral traits distinct from the extinct North American species it's supposedly replacing? And more importantly, were its natural predators in North America also eliminated, and if so, what is to keep wild horses from overpopulating and degrading their new habitat? If large predators are no longer around to keep the horses' population in balance, then it's our responsibility, and again that calls for intentional action.
"In at least one case, a species that was long extinct in its native range was treated as an interloper when it finally returned home. 
Beavers were common in Britain until they were hunted to extinction centuries ago. But when a group of the toothy dam builders took up residence along the River Tay in western Scotland several years ago, local farmers and fishermen greeted the animals with hostility, saying they posed a threat to farmland and salmon runs and were potential carriers of disease. 
Scottish Land and Estates, an organization representing landowners, insisted that the beavers’ centuries of absence from Britain nullified their resident status, the Independent reported in 2010. 
“It’s just silly,” Dr. Thompson said, of the reaction to the Tay beavers. “I don’t think we would have ended up in this ridiculous situation if we hadn’t been so bombarded by propaganda about invasive species.”
This beaver story is interesting. A beaver's presence or absence can greatly influence habitat. Take for example the introduction of North American beavers into Tierra del Fuego. But even reintroducing the same species that previously existed in a locale can have some subtle twists. When I lived in North Carolina, I heard that beavers had been wiped out there. They were later reintroduced, but the beaver stock came from remnant populations in New York state, and there was a suspicion that the northern beavers were more aggressive than the southern beavers they were meant to replace. That would suggest that, again, a more nuanced understanding is required, that not all beavers, even those on the same continent, have evolved with exactly the same traits, and are not necessarily interchangeable. The wikipedia writeup on Tay beavers in Scotland shows the new beavers' origins to have been a concern. It sounded like a good debate to have, but instead, we're told the concerns were "silly", and that we're all being "bombarded by propaganda about invasive species."

The article's choice of quotes repeatedly suggests that we should deeply resent, perhaps hate, those people who are concerned about invasive species. And in doing so, the article is guilty of the same damning of the "Other" it purports to criticize.
Often, he and others say, “invasion” is just another word for “change.” And the only thing that is certain is that more change is to come. Already, the flora and fauna of countries around the world are more homogeneous than they once were, as globalization has, accidentally or intentionally, moved exotic species from one place to another. 
“From birds to plants to fish to mammals, there’s strong evidence that things are becoming more similar,” Dr. Olden said, likening the phenomenon to “the popping up of big-box retailers and the loss of mom-and-pop shops.”
Imagine this sort of fatalistic thinking, this acquiescence to a dystopic future, in other contexts, for instance when talking about child abuse, racism or terrorism. Would any journalist publish a sentence like, "Increasing stress in people's lives will inevitably lead to more abusive treatment of children, and at some point we just have to accept that change is inevitable."

There is, again, a lack of nuance in the critics' viewpoint. As with climate change, ecological change is a given, but the rate of change will greatly affect whether species can adapt and survive, and the rate of change is something we can influence. Much of the work to control invasive species and minimize introduction of new ones is aimed at slowing the rate of change.
"As more species migrate, new quandaries are likely to arise. And as the human population increases, driving more animals and plants toward extinction, a species’ second home may be the only one it has. 
In a paper published last month in the journal Conservation Biology, two scientists in California, Michael P. Marchetti and Tag Engstrom, describe the “paradox” of species that are under threat in their native range but are viewed as invasive in other places they have settled. 
They include the Monterey pine, endangered in California and Mexico but treated as a pest in Australia and New Zealand, and the Barbary sheep, endangered in Morocco and other countries but running rampant in the Canary Islands and elsewhere. 
“This is a challenge,” Dr. Olden said. “If we identify a plant or animal that might not be able to respond to climate change, do we roll the dice and intentionally move that species northward, or up in elevation?” 
“We’re playing a little bit of ecological roulette here,” he added."
If anything, the end of the article shows 1) how complicated, labor-intensive and fraught with hazard it can be to save species once their original habitat has been destroyed, and thus how important it is to sustain native habitats, and 2) how careful we have to be about moving species from one continent to another. But it describes the "running rampant" of introduced species as a "paradox" rather than explaining that exported species can become highly invasive when they are suddenly freed from the predators that had limited their numbers in their native range.

There were, in this article, so many opportunities to teach readers something about how nature works, and instead we were served up false controversy and a false enemy. The journalist is not entirely to blame here. There is something in us that is drawn to a good fight, that wants to root for the underdog, and to upset the applecart. There's something in us that wants to create an "Other" to despise, and be told that we don't need to change anything about how we live.

There's something useful about creating controversy, as this article does. It brings people out of the woodwork to express their views. But by giving some semblance of validity to such a weak, ill-willed, and superficial critique of invasive species concerns, this NY Times article insults our intelligence and those who care enough to identify a threat and try to do something about it.

An analysis of a similarly ill-conceived piece, an oped by another former New York Times science editor, Verlyn Klinkenborg, can be found at this link.


Cindy Carlin said...

Wow, great post. I saw the NY Times article and I wondered about it. It was great to get your clarification.

Kathie said...

Thank you!! My instincts were that the article was biased, uniformed. But I didn't have the perspective. Now I am educated and informed. I loved the analogy to climate warming and the deniers of that science.
Kathie Jaskolski