Battling ignorance in the media

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not represent the opinions of any other party

A critique of Paul Murray “Green Tape Fails Public Test” The West Australian 21/8/2016.

By Rob Davis

Sometimes something comes along that is so ludicrous and ill-informed that in the interests of battling ignorance, it requires a response. This article by Paul Murray in The West Australian is one such occasion. Although it is very disappointing that such a non-informed beat-up was published, it is passed off as an opinion piece which therefore precludes the need to be factually accurate. Scientists don’t have that luxury in our formal writings and although anyone can have an opinion, it can be contended that it’s not worth listening to if it isn’t based on evidence. Unfortunately many people in society form views based on the uneducated opinions of people who are given a populist platform, and not from scientists who can present rational and evidenced arguments. Scientists have to take some blame for this as we are often reticent to appear in the popular media.

What follows is a critique of the aforementioned article by Murray. My only objective in critiquing it is both to redress the mis-information presented therein and to hopefully also draw attention to the need to ask for the evidence when reading these sorts of opinionated articles in future. I hope it also leaves the reader asking why newspapers are giving any space to this sort of thing.

Murray starts off his piece in an assault against ground-water dwelling invertebrates and makes the following key points about them:

  • Stygofauna and Troglofauna have no beneficial human use and are only of academic interest
  • Do we know that the existence of a certain type of invisible fauna would be threatened with extinction by mining if we haven’t looked for its presence everywhere else?
  • And if we didn’t look for them, would they exist at all in our consciousness?
  • While greenies are happy to use the technicalities of the Environmental Protection Act to stop a uranium mine, others might question whether the law has become ridiculous in terms of overriding the public good.
  • Where’s the real social benefit in preserving an isolated colony of stygofauna which may well exist everywhere under unexplored desert areas?

Murray sets up a philosophical standpoint that he perceives these stygofauna species to be of no benefit to humans and therefore they should not exist or be interfering with the approval of a proposed uranium mine. This ancient resource-focussed rhetoric is unfortunately exactly what got us in to the biodiversity crisis in the first place. Ironically, it is also often native species most beneficial to humans that are the most threatened. Murray presumably has no experience in stygofauanal ecology and in writing this piece, has apparently not undertaken even a lazy google scholar search about his topic of choice. I did so (having no stygofaunal expertise) and my very first hit was no less than this Australian paper exploring the ecosystem benefits of stygofauna including their likely role in purifying the water that we drink, assisting its infiltration and in bioremediation from the exact sort of mining Murray is so in favour of. In fact Boulton et al. (2008) go as far as to state that the loss of these stygofaunal communities through human disturbance may lead to a collapse of the ecosystem services they provide and could actually lead to the loss of the entire aquifer for human use. Can we justify the loss of a perpetual resource for millions of people and industry for the short-term monetary gain of a single mining company? The fact that I so quickly found a counter to Murray’s argument further suggests why we should place so little value on opinion pieces when the authors spend no time at all researching their topic and are therefore speaking from a personal conviction rather than fact.

Ignoring the obvious technically incorrect use of the word “invisible”, Murray’s second argument is that old chestnut used by developers the world over – losing this stygofaunal population probably won’t be an issue as they are likely to be found elsewhere. There is a fundamental concept in ecology taught to first year undergraduates, called “the precautionary principle”. It surmises that until we can be sure that the outcomes of our actions will not have a negative impact, we should not undertake them. Would Murray have us lose these species and this potentially unique community on the off-chance that they may one day be found elsewhere? The argument also ignores the existing science around the extensive surveys that have been done throughout much of the Pilbara and Mid-west in recent years both as part of bio-regional surveys and by private consultants.

The most preposterous argument of all is next. If we don’t know about or look for stygofuana do they really exist? Murray holds this up as a trump card to further his argument on this perceived ludicrous situation of invertebrates stopping a mining development. The very argument advocates ignorance, imploring us to simply not explore the natural world for fear of discovering things that might one day interfere with a development or negatively affect our lives in some way. Fortunately, science is based on curious exploration and has subsequently allowed us to discover many things we can’t see but know are important including oxygen, understanding the emergence and existence of life on earth and the very nature of gravity and time to name a few.

After dismissing that anybody with a passing interest in the natural world is clearly a “greenie” including presumably all highly qualified ecologists, Murray sees the discovery of this rich, diverse and endemic stygofaunal community and it’s triggering of the relevant legislation (which ultimately resulted in advice to not proceed with the development) as a frivolous technicality. He also clearly feels that the extinction of this community would be in the public good and that society would much rather be mining and exporting uranium (which I’m sure if he researched he would find the weight of public opinion to not be on his side).

In response to his point “where’s the real social benefit in preserving an isolated colony of stygofauna which may well exist everywhere under unexplored desert areas?”, I have already addressed this. There would appear to be enormous social benefit in preserving this stygofaunal community, both for its ecosystem services in maintaining a usable water supply, for its uniqueness and evolutionary significance and because unlike a short-term mining windfall, it is gone for the rest of time once eliminated. Murray again uses his extensive ecological knowledge to suggest to us that the stygofauna likely exist elsewhere anyway. It’s interesting that Murray feels there must be a social benefit for something to be relevant or allowed to exist in this case.

Murray’s ramblings on land-clearing are equally if not more illogical and factually flawed. Murray contends that regulators are over-zealous in wanting to reduce or prevent land-clearing on farms. Murray again failed to do even the most basic of journalistic research in which he would have discovered the recent declaration by 500 scientists calling for an end to the out of control land-clearing by farmers and developers in Australia. Our recent zeal for habitat destruction has earned us the unenviable title of the only developed country amongst the world’s 11 largest deforestation offenders. We already hold the world record for mammal extinction with 30 species lost since European settlement. Although predation is a leading cause of mammal extinction in Australia, for all animal groups worldwide, research has shown unequivocally that habitat loss from logging, farming and urban development is still the major driver of extinction.

The saddest injustice in all of this is that most farmers that I have worked with, couldn’t be further from the view that Murray puts forward, with so many of them deeply engaged in revegetation and restoring species. The most staggering oversight of all is that Murray fails to understand that we are arguably the worst place affected by cropland salinity on earth. Again this is a very well documented and studied topic. Even aside from the biodiversity consequences, it is having a large impact on rural productivity and livelihoods. The primary cause of this problem – land-clearing! That is the precise answer to why farmers are denied the right to clear vegetation on their properties – because it’s an absolutely terrible and archaic idea that is thoroughly evidenced by science.

Murray invokes a third person narrative about a farmer who could not clear his land due to the presence of the endangered Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo. Murray fails to outline that this species is endangered and its listing under the federal EPBC Act automatically protects its critical feeding habitat and that this is assessed by expert ecologists and undergoes a rigorous review process. He also seems shocked that the cockatoos seem to have rights when farmers apparently do not. There is little point in further arguing this one as Murray clearly also is against endangered species or their habitat being protected and has no faith in the scientists who asses the feeding habitat. It seems that anything not supporting a development outcome is given short shrift. An unnamed “reliable witness” is invoked to put this point forward. The comment about 50% of the shire remaining uncleared is also not substantiated by evidence and the quick search I undertook revealed that only 13% of native vegetation remains on private properties in the shire.

In closing Murray quotes a pearler “The DER should not be able to deny property owners the right to clear native vegetation unless it can be shown, with substantive evidence, that specific environmental damage would result from such action,” Mr Blumann says.”. As we have comprehensively outlined, it would appear very well known to mostly every ecologist and environmental managers in the world that vegetation clearing has catastrophic effects. It is arguably the most documented single fact in modern ecology.

Lastly, Murray contends that the decision to halt the uranium mine is a “perverse mis-use of science”. An interesting argument when his whole article has been a perverse mis-use of logic and a failure to cite or consult any science! I am pleased that people like Murray are not involved in important decision-making and only regret that there is a soapbox provided to such ignorance and blustering opinion. I hope that next time, Murray will consider either consulting some actual scientists, researching the primary literature or best of all, stick to topics that he has some sort of expertise in.