It seemed like a simple enough question – “so you disgree with the badger cull – what would it take to change your mind…” But in fact it got me thinking about something pretty fundamental – and it seemed to be a theme that we’ve returned to over and over this week.
The starting point was looking at the current badger cull and asking why is it going ahead. According to the government it is pretty simple – it is a ‘science led’ decision which made perfect sense, until you looked at the science.
In fact the results of a ten year, controlled badger culling experiment can be fairly well summarised by:
- It won’t work
- It is not cost effective
- In the worst case it may actually make TB in cattle worse
But we have a badger cull going on as we speak – so what is going on. It would be easy to be cynical and simply conclude Tory government + farming clamour = badger cull… and if I am honest I think you wouldn’t go too far wrong with that conclusion. However it misses some very interesting debate. After all, if the farmers believed the scientists that it would cost them more than it saved them, and that it may make TB worse – they wouldn’t be calling for a cull.
The problem is a bit deeper and seems to revolve around a few key issues:
- What do you think the question is? How you frame the question, affects how you understand the answer. The questions, do badgers carry TB, can it be passed to cattle, is TB in cattle a problem – can all be fairly easily answered and lead to a similarly simple answer to the question, should badgers be culled. But you could alter the question and the focus with other questions like, “what is the cost Vs benefit of culling badgers”, or even more widely “how can we control TB” (rather than the subtly different but more normally focused on, how do we eradicate TB). What about, “Why do EU directives make cattle inoculation so difficult”. Of course if we are all asking different questions it is unlikely we will agree and very unlikely that one group’s methodology will be able to change another group’s mind.
- How do you see the world? As a scientist you may see a world which can be understood and analysed through controlled experiments. But will these controlled experiments allow you to make up your mind, let alone change someone else’s. Most scientists are extremely cautious to draw conclusions and the frustration between policy maker’s desire for a solution, a decision and action, and the scientist’s desire to fully understand, analyse and present facts are clear throughout even something as simple as the badger cull (simple at least when set against bigger issues like Carbon trading or climate change). Science is seen as all powerful in the modern world and yet it struggles to provide clear cut answers and to look at the badger cull as an example is to see how hard it is for science to change minds. Can it change the mind of a farmer – who sees the world through their own cultural, experience led knowledge of the natural world, the mind of a politician seeking consensus at best and votes or worst, or the mind of the wildlife lover who sees a moral imperative to protect wildlife – the evidence of the badger cull would suggest otherwise. Science by it’s nature acknowledges the unknowns, the remaining uncertainties, the weaknesses of the study. Into those gaps pours interpretation and criticism driven by political agendas, strongly held philosophies and different world views.
So should we instead resort to regulation and top down government to enforce change – a simple example from John Adam’s risk management suggests not. What happened when in the US they introduced new laws into 4 states to make texting whilst driving illegal? More accidents! Why – because people instead of texting relatively safely, with the phone against the steering wheel, took to texting on their laps.
“Change has to take root in people’s minds before it can be legislated” Michael Sandel
What about the all powerful businesses and the power of the market to change minds? Interesting insight for me came from another lecture this week, delivered by The Green Alliance. The topic was circular economies and the interesting work they have been involved in with major businesses and government looking at improvements in their use of resources. Here again a change of mind set is required and whilst it was clear progress was being made what struck me was how hard it was to change their behaviours, beyond what aided their business models. So some very interesting and useful work had been done on models for leasing goods, or designing products with dissembly and resource reuse in mind – but all this revolved around their desire to save money and have resource security. Money influences both businesses and consumers to change their behaviours, but generally seems to only work when there is a clear and time pressured reason to do so. We need to change more fundamental beliefs and challenge the consumer desire itself and the business model which focuses on obsellence and driving throw away culture – this change appears more difficult.
So I thought back to the original question, what would it take to change my mind – and I realised that I could think of very few fundamental and even very few incidental opinions, beliefs and ways of life which I have really been forced by science, philosophy, passion or money, to change. But the world needs a major rethink, a major change of the way we look at the world and see it’s fragility and that is not going to be easy.