Nothing But The Truth
It has been an extraordinary year for the concept of veracity. The Greek elections, Brexit and Trump have tested the boundaries of truth and facts. I also think there are parallels to be found with the politicisation of the management of the eel. The facts have taken second place to emotion and feeling. And what about truth? It seems like fewer and fewer people, whether conservationists, politicians or fishermen have much interest in what is true anymore. Are we really no longer interested in the truth or are environmental programs driven by toxic ideological agendas which cloud our ability to agree on what the facts are?
“The eel is critically endangered, near to extinction and the population has fallen by 90%” is a fantastic strapline” but is it really true? Who propagated this myth? Something has changed in this new world of post truths. Conservationists and fishermen have some difficulty in deciding what the truth is. Greenpeace and WWF are saying that the facts do not matter anymore, just as long as you strongly believe the concept and it is supported by a smidgeon of academic authenticity; it must be true.
When you consider that the eel is a panmictic species consisting of a population of millions if not billions spread over hundreds of thousands of kilometres compare this to 1500 pandas found in about 30,000 sq kilometres and distributed across five isolated regional areas you just wonder why the predicament of the eel has been spun and sexed up to be greater than the Panda.
These facts have been distributed by people with an ideology and have now created an expectation that the eel is critically endangered and highly likely to become extinct.
It has been a massive deception bearing in mind that the EU program to determine the eel populations has yet to be implemented.
What are people’s relationships with the truth? We know it is incredibly difficult to change people’s views that run contrary to their ideology in spite of the facts. It has been demonstrated by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College US for those ideological groups that had invested heavily in their beliefs they not only resisted the facts that contradicted their beliefs but became even more convinced of their particular ideology.
When people are challenged by facts, which are counter to their beliefs, they think of arguments to support their beliefs and this in actual fact reinforces their ideology. People will confabulate or sorts of rational argument and retrospective arguments to support their beliefs to make the facts fit as to how they see the world. This is the backfire effect. People put their feelings first to make the facts fit to support their arguments. The problem is that people think that they are reasoning but in actual fact they are rationalising. We need to be aware that it is not a problem that someone else has. We are all vulnerable to this process. In fact the people that are more educated are able to filter more information and consequently have more evidence to selectively select to support their point of view.
The environmental issue for the eel is about politics and when politics are involved facts become secondary issue as was clearly demonstrated in Brexit referendum and the American election.
What is the difference between facts and truth? Where does this impact on the story about the eel. There are some elementary facts about the eel. Glass eel recruitment has fallen dramatically, however a reasoned explanation why this is the case is a little more complicated, there are a multitude of explanations, some true, some not true, some conflicting and the final conclusion is based on opinions and values rather than facts, the actual outcome depends on the bias of a monopoly of conservationists and experts of a shared mind-set who wish to produce a single truth.
Organisations such as IUCN are distant, unaccountable and elitists. There is no stakeholder involvement because stakeholders cannot be trusted to reach the desired single outcome. The supposition of IUCN is that stakeholders need to be educated into the reasonability of conservation. It could take another decade before IUCN thinks that stakeholders will be educated enough to be trusted to break this monopoly. The sector does need facts but when it comes to expressing opinion and values this should not just be the domain of expert scientists or self-appointed conservation organisations. Nobody knows better what is happening than those people living and working in the sector.
You cannot relinquish the responsibility of the livelihoods of the fishing sector to conservationists.
The sector needs to take control of its future. It should be about democracy and persuasion.
The Greenpeace and WWF campaign though not factually correct was successful because consumers felt that they were being spoken to at a deeper level of truth. These NGOs managed to align their truth with how the world is changing and the general message of need to protect species. If you can echo people feelings then the facts are no longer important, not dissimilar to Trump’s success.
So what has changed on the communication front which has polarised opinions and has made these conservation agendas so successful? At one stage the formation of beliefs was the domain of independent radio, TV, and newsprint. Attitudes were developed from a range of opinions, debates and information which may have not been consistent with one’s ideological views.
Now the trend is for people to get information from social media Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The people in your social group all receive the same information. So you only receive opinions that reflect your beliefs. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that these social media groups use algorithms designed to give us things that we like to hear and look at so you get more of the same in order to provide a service to you that is as interesting as possible. The feeds you have from these sources tend to support your ideas and as consequence echo and reinforce your original beliefs. You end up in an echo chamber. This is very different from reading news print.
A further problem is that people are stockpiled into certain ideological lines in organisations such as EA, CITES, ICES, JNNCC. People within these organisations are very unlikely to meet others with differing views. If people are unable to change their social media algorithms then people need to think more carefully about the content they are receiving. It is not just your own bubble where you think you have all the understanding and answers. We are all unfortunately susceptible to these bubbles or echoes. They exist everywhere. We are just beginning to understand the problem how these bubbles impact on outcomes (the Westminster bubble, the Brexit bubble, the Republican bubble).
How will it be possible to burst these bubbles with ideological lines? Somehow an element of doubt needs to be fed into the ideology so people start to think about the alternatives, without this doubt there in no debate and the democratic process does not work.
The problem with SEG is that its position has moved. It no longer challenges the conservation bubble. It no longer has the interest to put some doubt in the minds of the intellectual elite of conservation. The groups of Science, Conservation and Industry have now become separated.
We cannot change people’s minds by just telling the truth or retracting the falsehoods. Unfortunately people will continue to believe the original falsehoods. What is important is to create a coherent competing alternative narrative, that people will find convincing. Cynically I think in this case it would be best if facts actually fit the narrative. Trying to draw a link between the illegal ivory trade and glass eel exports to Asia is not helpful.
On the positive side it has been observed that in the long term the position of the people who have given the false narrative eventually lose credibility. Facts are still important in the ideological battle, however what is more important is the trust and where the facts come from.
Perhaps the conservationists inside SEG should try this little exercise
- Ask an opinion of somebody you disagree with and do not interrupt them.
- Do not assume they are stupid.
- Resist forwarding that article that confirms how right you are to your echo chamber colleagues.
- Bear in mind that if you like the story it does not mean it is true.
- And trust yourself a little less.
2nd February 2017