Badgers and Cognitive Dissonance


Another badger cull debate

The UK government’s policy of culling badgers as part of tackling bovine tuberculosis (bTB) was debated in parliament for a second time on 27 March 2017 (Transcript/Video). What was striking about this debate, as well as its predecessor on 7 September 2016, was its ineffectiveness in informing or influencing. Much heartfelt opinion and many purported facts were aired, and there is some value in bringing the issue to the public attention again, but I doubt anyone changed their mind, certainly not the government.

“We cannot remove and eradicate TB without addressing the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population. I would not sanction a cull of badgers unless it were necessary. Apart from anything else, it is incredibly expensive but I am also not the sort of person who wants to kill wildlife for fun.” The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice)

While scientific research into bTB continues, the UK government is under time pressure to appease a farming lobby, and feels it can’t wait for a sufficiently fine resolution of data. “The latest government-funded study — which involved fitting GPS collars and radio collars to track the whereabouts of hundreds of cows and scores of badgers — suggests that bovine TB is probably not passed by direct contact between species, but rather indirectly through contaminated pasture.”

So, on one side, the progressives promoted the rights of animals.

“Some Government Members put forward a sort of Enid Blyton view of wildlife—that wild animals should abide by the ten commandments and not go out and eat other animals, or follow their natural life. That view is put forward sentimentally by some to defend what are barbaric acts against these dumb animals. …
The Government have outraged the majority of the public. It is not reasonable to mock those who sacrifice their time and safety to protest vigorously against unnecessary acts of cruelty that have no basis in science or what happens throughout the rest of the world. The worst mistake that politicians make is to say, ‘Something must be done. We can’t think of anything intelligent to do, we can’t think of any practical to do that will work, but we must do something.'”
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab)

Please stop the regressive and medieval practice of badger culling, which the public abhor, and which diminishes our collective humanity.” Dr Paul Monaghan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (SNP)

While, on the other side, the regressives maintained their dominion.

“Those who oppose the cull look at the badger as a friendly, lovable animal, which in effect it is not. Factually, the badger is responsible for destroying bee hives, hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, grey partridges and meadow pipits. … It is also responsible for the loss of wood warblers, nightingales and stone curlews. Those are facts. The badger is a danger, and like all wild animals that have no natural predator—just like deer and foxes—it should be culled, so that numbers are maintained.” Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)

If it were true, the argument would equally justify culling humans. But factually it is easily dismantled.

“Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)
I commend my hon. Friend for putting some of the facts about wildlife on the record. He is right about the reduction in some of our bird and mammal species, such as the hedgehog.

Dr Paul Monaghan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (SNP)
Will the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to cite the source of the evidence he just supported?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
Well, the source is evident to any countryman out there. There has been a rapid decline in hedgehogs, and we know perfectly well that badgers eat hedgehogs’ young, wild birds and birds’ nests. That, however, is not the subject of the debate, and I do not want to get drawn on that red herring.”

However, there is little point in parsing the statements of those with an opposing worldview. By picking over the detail we accept the premise of their perspective – “the dominionist, anthropocentric, speciesist, theocratic, and geocentric worldview of Western society.” For them, humans are superior to other life, while more and more of us see all living individuals and communities as equal with inherent rights. Is there any benefit from such debate?

“I have been through those debates and discussions and know very well that the outcome was what can only be described as conclusively inconclusive. People on both sides of the cull debate took from it what they wanted to prove their own cases.” Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)

Cognitive dissonance

When new information conflicts with our beliefs, what happens? We would like to consider ourselves open-minded, welcoming of challenge, accepting of change, considered but flexible in our understanding of the world. Actually, we find conflicting information psychologically uncomfortable and seek the easiest route to resolve it.

“Psychologists refer to this tension between beliefs and behaviour as ‘cognitive dissonance’. We want to reduce the discomfort of such dissonance, but human nature means we often seek the easiest ways of doing so. So rather than changing behaviour, we change our thinking, and develop strategies like minimising the harm of the offending behaviour (animals don’t have the capacity to suffer like we do; they do not matter; they have a good life); or denying one’s responsibility for it (I am doing what everyone does; it is necessary; I was made to eat meat – it is natural).”

Last year I asked my omnivorous sister, who found the smell of beans revolting, how she felt about current advice that we should cut down our meat intake. She replied, “the fear.” That’s cognitive dissonance: utter discomfort at the incompatibility of new information with your beliefs and behaviours. Last month I spotted her happily munching a bean salad. Unconsciously something had shifted; it just took time.

If natural forces hamper our crop monocultures, why must they be obliterated? Perhaps our agricultural practices are unnatural, inefficient and even wrong. Why always the combative approach to nature?

We frequently protest against the treatment of wildlife in other countries—orcas and dolphins in Japan, whales in Iceland, Elephants’ ivory in China, Pangolins in Indonesia, etc. What do other countries criticise us for? I would hope the badger cull.

The European way of life, or—more accurately—way of death has been to obliterate other animal populations in order to use their bodies for food, clothing, medicine, fuel, and when those reasons fall short we call it sport. We call this success. But more and more of us realise what we’ve really achieved – and lost.

Telling our story

This is not about the way we kill badgers. Any way communities are killed is genocide. We don’t shoot people who are unwell or who may be unwell to stop them infecting others. The problem is, and always has been, monoculture. Find another way.

The dairy industry’s days are numbered anyway. Forcefully impregnating animals in order to take milk away from the resulting offspring is monstrous. We had accepted this as ‘normal’ and even necessary, but more and more of us are challenging this conditioning.

“A good story, well told, is more memorable and more convincing than any amount of data.” For an excellent example, see Simon Amstell’s mockumentary Carnage.

Let’s stop waiting for everyone to interpret ‘the science’ the same way and start asserting our worldview.

This article is also published at Lifelogy.

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Writer, researcher and biophile in Kinross-shire, Scotland, reconnecting with nature through studying and practising ecopsychology –

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  1. 6th April 2017

    […] This article is also published at Wildlife Articles. […]

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