Disagreement or denialism? “Invasive species denialism” and ethical disagreement in science

Abstract

Recently, invasion biologists have argued that some of the skepticism expressed in the scientific and lay literatures about the risks of invasive species and other aspects of the consensus within invasion biology is a kind of science denialism. This paper presents an argument that, while some claims made by skeptics of invasion biology share important features with paradigm cases of science denialism, others express legitimate ethical concerns that, even if one disagrees, should not be dismissed as denialist. Further, this case illustrates a more general point about ethical disagreement within sciences like invasion biology that constitutively pursue non-epistemic goals and values. While philosophers of science have argued that epistemic disagreement within science can be productive as heterogeneous epistemic communities “hedge their bets,” the case of invasion biology shows how non-epistemic or ethical disagreement within sciences, while carrying significant risks, can also be epistemically and non-epistemically valuable.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In this paper I use “value-laden” to mean “non-epistemically value-laden.” While I tend to agree with the philosophers of science who argue that the distinction between epistemic values related to knowledge and its production, and non-epistemic values, i.e. ethical, political, aesthetic, and other values, is difficult to strictly maintain (Longino 1996), I use the distinction here in the way identified by Douglas (2000), namely to “serve to remind us which goals the values primarily serve within a particular context.” (560)

  2. 2.

    The literature on disagreement in analytic epistemology usually distinguishes disagreement about belief from disagreement about action, focusing on the former (Frances and Matheson 2018). Here the distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic disagreement is put in terms of belief disagreement, recognizing that both are clearly relevant to action disagreement.

  3. 3.

    Sometimes native species that are weeds are pests are colloquially labeled ‘invasive,’ but the scientific literature generally does not follow this usage.

  4. 4.

    An analysis of the source and recipient ecosystems of over 13,000 plants that have been introduced showed that “patterns of naturalization have largely followed historical colonial links between continents (van Kleunen et al. 2015).” (Buckley and Catford 2016, p. 5)

  5. 5.

    In her exploration of “bullshit at the interface of science and policy,” Douglas (2006) discusses some of these tactics, particularly cherry-picking, or the “bullshit of the isolated fact,” where denialists rely on the complexities of scientific evidence to present individual facts that mislead non-experts about the consensus but are not strictly false; and the “bullshit of universal standards,” where denialists claim that the consensus does not meet a (non-existent) “universal” standard of proof for scientific claims.

  6. 6.

    Ecologist critics Davis and Chew (2017) go further, claiming that “[c]onstructing an ostensible category of ‘denialists’ reflects invasion biology’s traditional reliance on inflammatory exaggeration to impose and enforce a dichotomous doctrine,” (229) and invasion biologists claiming denialism may be “trying to shore up their dwindling authority over an obsolescent endeavor.” (230)

  7. 7.

    Heneghan is responding to environmental journalist Fred Pearce’s (2015) recent book The New Wild, which argues on the basis of possible benefits of introduced species that rather than harming nature, these species “may be nature’s salvation.” His evidence includes the fact that many invasive plants, e.g. knotweed (Fallopia japonica), which is considered a destructive invasive plant by Britain’s Environment Agency and an invasive plant in several US states, thrive in areas disturbed by human activity, especially urban settings. Indeed, it is known to invade urban, but also rural and riparian, sites, forming dense colonies that exclude other vegetation (Simberloff 2015). Even if one believed that quickly invading disturbed sites (or the plant’s edibility) are possible benefits, these should be placed in a broader context of other impacts, including damage to infrastructure and crowding out other plants.

  8. 8.

    These concerns have arisen in popular culture; for example, the relationship between cultural perceptions of so-called “Africanized bees” (invasive hybrids of European and African honeybee species that have spread in the southeastern US and killed over 1000 humans) and anti-black racism in the United States is briefly explored in Michael Moore’s 2002 film Bowling for Columbine. The fact that these aggressive bees were labeled “Africanized,” as opposed to some other possible label (e.g. “invasive hybrid honeybees”), is obviously concerning for opponents of anti-black racism in the US.

  9. 9.

    Jensen wrote, “The gardens that I created myself shall…be in harmony with their landscape environment and the racial characteristics of its inhabitants. They shall express the spirit of America and therefore shall be free of foreign character as far as possible. The Latin and the Oriental crept and creeps more and more over our land, coming from the South, which is settled by Latin people, and also from other centers of mixed masses of immigrants. The Germanic character of our cities and settlements was overgrown…Latin spirit has spoiled a lot and still spoils things every day.” (Quoted by Gould 1998, p. 4)

  10. 10.

    For example, Davis and Chew (2017): “Perhaps they take others improving on their science as a personal affront, and feel compelled to respond with name-calling.” (230)

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Acknowledgements

Special thanks to ecologists Dan Simberloff and Christy Leppanen for the opportunity to participate in research on invasive species, for many lively conversations, and comments on the manuscript. Thanks also to Dale Jamieson, Jennifer Jacquet, members of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Tennessee, and two anonymous referees for constructive comments and criticisms.

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Frank, D.M. Disagreement or denialism? “Invasive species denialism” and ethical disagreement in science. Synthese (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02259-w

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Keywords

  • Invasion biology
  • Invasive species
  • Science denialism
  • Value-laden science
  • Ethical disagreement