Opinionista Gail Potgieter 24 November 2019

Activists shoot down scientists — and we all lose

Respectful, evidence-driven debate is absent from popular activist movements. While international conservation scientists were holding a considered debate on trophy hunting – with all the pros and cons – rabid activists were digging up imaginary dirt on them.

A group of scientists wrote a letter to the highly respected journal Science warning that banning imports of wildlife hunting trophies from African countries may have unintended negative consequences for people and wildlife. I was among the signatories of the letter, which included 128 conservation scientists and practitioners besides the five lead authors.

I supported it because I believe that conservation scientists have an obligation to warn decision-makers when their proposed major policy changes are likely to have negative consequences.

Scientists are trained to think critically about anything we read, so it is not surprising that a number of other scientists wrote several responses that were critical of our letter. This is a valid part of the scientific process – it is how we separate the wheat of sound concepts from the chaff of personal biases.

The lead authors of our original article duly responded to these critiques with their own views. When taken together, all of the letters provide food for thought and an excellent example of scientific debate.

A key aspect of this example is that none of the letters questioned the motives or character of those they disagreed with, even though these disagreements were clearly based on their respective closely held values.

Science is an extremely professional platform for debate, which ensures that all the key points are clearly articulated and backed up with scientific evidence. Consequently, regardless of how strongly you hold your views, you must engage with the issue at hand on this platform rather than resort to personal attacks on the opposition.

Some of the authors on opposite sides of the debate actually work for the same institution – the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at Oxford University – and most of the others would have encountered one another at conferences. The conservation science community is rather small, so there are very few degrees of separation among us. This feature of conservation science means we all have a reasonable idea of who the other scientists work for and what views they hold. Furthermore, any charlatan that presents biased views based on shoddy science would be quickly spotted and discredited in this small community of professionals.

Unfortunately, these important features of conservation science that ensure respectful, evidence-driven debate are absent from the popular activist movements. While the scientists were holding a respectful debate on the key issue of trophy hunting, the activists were digging up as much imaginary dirt as possible on the authors of the original letter.

The Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting (CBTH) led an “investigation” into the funding sources of these scientists, which could not have been particularly difficult since they were not hiding their funding sources in the first place.

To their delight, no doubt, CBTH found that a project run by the lead author, Dr Amy Dickman, that works with communities in Tanzania to help them coexist with lions was once granted small amounts of money (<1% of project costs) from the hunting organisations Dallas Safari Club and Safari Club International.

Almost as “scandalous”, two of the other lead authors, Dr Rosie Cooney and Dr Dilys Roe, are associated with an International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) working group called Sustainable Use and Livelihoods (SULi). This group receives no core funding from hunting groups, but was given small amounts of money by hunting organisations that covered <5% of the costs of SULi meetings.

That these funds amounted to tiny contributions for specific projects or meetings and did not contribute at all to the salaries of any of these scientists was an inconvenient truth that CBTH clearly did not think important enough to consider before launching a smear campaign.

They even wrote a complaint to Science about allowing these scientists to “hide” their funding sources that were already in the public domain. Science had apparently never found it necessary to publish funding sources in the letters section of the journal (the original research section requires it), considering the professional nature of scientific debate outlined above.

The public pressure exerted by CBTH making a mountain out of a mole-hill, however, led to Science changing their policy to require letter authors to declare all possible competing interests.

The authors of the original letter readily complied with these new requirements in the interest of full transparency, as did the authors writing response letters on this topic. In spite of the media furore created by CBTH, the scientists continued their debate in the same respectful manner by focusing on the issues at hand rather than getting personal.

Note that none of the scientists who wrote the original letter assumed or claimed that there was a consensus on this issue because the whole point of their letter was to stimulate the rational debate that followed on the Science platform.

Furthermore, the timing of the letter was indeed meant to coincide with some serious policy debates on the topic at the moment, like the UK consultation regarding trophy imports and the US CECIL Act. Scientists should provide their input on policy matters before decisions are made to ensure that the policy-makers are properly informed.

In their rush to discredit scientists who hold different views to their own, CBTH and others who have jumped on the scientist-shaming bandwagon missed a couple of important points relating to competing interests.

First, they overlooked all of the declarations made by scientists in the anti-hunting camp revealing funding from anti-hunting organisations like the Born Free Foundation. Considering that Born Free closely associate anti-hunting statements with “donate” buttons on their website, surely scientists who receive financial support from Born Free should come under just as much scrutiny for their anti-hunting stance as those who oppose them?

Another point they miss is that authors on both sides of the debate work for WildCRU, a university department that shot to fame (and experienced a windfall) when their research subject, Cecil the lion, was shot. The donations that poured in after this event were all from people who detested hunting. If Dickman or Dr Paul Johnson (another lead author from WildCRU) were really just writing scientific articles to make money, as CBTH implies, then they knew from experience that an anti-hunting stance is much more lucrative than the alternative view they hold.

Now that all the dirty financial laundry is out for all to see, does that change the debate in any way? As one of the signatories of the original letter, would I discredit the scientists who receive funds from Born Free? Not in the slightest. I knew about their links to this anti-hunting organisation long before the Science debate. However, unlike the activists, I respect the scientists on the opposite side of the debate enough to understand that their opinions are their own.

It is quite natural that scientists and donors with similar views land up working together. Scientists publicly expressing a particular view are likely to develop relationships with donors who identify with those views, which is how competing interests happen in the first place. This does not necessarily mean that the donations received then influence the science that is produced. The conservation scientists involved in this debate are respected because they produce good science, which means they base their conclusions on the evidence they collect, not on their preconceived ideas or sources of funding.

Despite the activists’ best efforts, which included an inaccurate article in The Times newspaper, the scientists in this debate have retained their respect for each other. In collegial discussions on social media (we are a close-knit community after all), the opposing authors agreed that the public smear campaign against Dickman and colleagues was appalling.

Indeed, it is a threat to science itself. If scientists do not feel at liberty to express their views, however unpopular they may be, they cannot fulfil their key function of sounding the alarm and thus guiding society to make better, evidence-based decisions. DM

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