Saturday, November 06, 2021

Formulas for Spreading Misinformation About Nature

This coming week, on Nov. 9, I've been invited to make a presentation about books, articles, and opinion pieces that have sought over the years to deny the danger of invasive species. There's lots of denial out there: denial of problems like climate change, and more recently denial of solutions like vaccines. It was a surprise, though, as someone who has long witnessed how human impacts have thrown nature out of balance, to discover a whole genre of literature that not only denied the problem of invasive species but also attacked people like me who were working to mend nature. 

Through detailed critiques of many of the books, articles and opinion pieces, I was able to uncover the manipulations and skewed logic that made these readings so compelling for an uninformed audience. They all provided readers an applecart to spill and an "Other" to dislike. They portrayed the despised "Other"--mainstream scientists, conservationists, habitat restorationists, i.e. people like me--as narrow-minded, emotional, sentimental, even xenophobic, as we haplessly sought to counter a tidal wave of nonnative species that the writers claimed were actually doing good. By exaggerating our goals, they were able to dismiss those goals as unattainable. They flattered readers by making them feel smarter than the deluded "Other", and reassured readers that a big problem wasn't a problem at all, and that therefor nothing need be done to solve it. Letting people off the hook--promising freedom without responsibility--is one of the most appealing aspects of denial, whether it be of invasive species, climate change, a pandemic, or any other collectively created problem. 

It was therefore with a sense of recognition that I watched a recent John Oliver episode entitled "Misinformation," about how vulnerable people are to misinformation that propagates on social media sites. Oftentimes, the victims, who are also victimizers as they unwittingly pass along misinformation to their friends, are people who speak other languages for which there are few fact-checking sites to counter the misinformation. 

Like the formula for invasive species denial (provide an applecart to spill, an "Other" to dislike, etc) the video offers a recipe for making misinformation appealing:
  • claim that a "Harvard scientist helped confirm ancient wisdom"
  • "mention some chemicals"
  • insult western medicine and culture
  • cite your sources
The bit about "cite your sources" could offer hope, but oftentimes it is just another piece of the facade that lends a false sense of legitimacy to the misinformation.

2 comments:

C said...

have not read all the justifications of the deniers, but I will stick my neck out here and say that sometimes, personally, I think that trying to eradicate the invasives is such a sisyphean task that I get discouraged- they do have bigger toxic root systems and/or no natural pests and/or deer do not eat them and/or they propagate by immense numbers of seeds and underground. the natives were driven from the landscape once- can we ever really restore them? not saying it is not a valuable undertaking but...

Stephen Hiltner said...

Yours is a common sentiment, though you're ahead of the game in that you understand more about the problem than most. Do we ever seek to fully eradicate any problem, e.g. racism, inequality, or making democracy work?

To reduce the harmful impact of invasive species, one picks one's spots. It's more rewarding to cut invasive shrubs if there are native shrubs mixed in that are then released to claim the space. It helps to catch invasions early, before the aggressive species has a chance to overwhelm.

It's also important not to categorically reject all herbicides. There are many kinds, of varying toxicities, and it's possible to use them in highly targeted, minimalist ways. Most people don't reject western medicine. With medicine, we manage risk, and minimize toxicity by using recommended doses needed to counter whatever pathogen is invading our bodies. Are we going to deprive nature of similarly enlightened and pragmatic care? People demonize chemicals until they actually need one to recover from illness.

Some of my most positive and rewarding projects have required first dealing with rampant invasive species, so that we could create special places for the community to enjoy. It takes persistence, but the effort pays off.