Why Doubt Invasive Species Impacts?

Invasive alien species are now found on every corner of the planet and rank higher than climate change as a current threat to endangered species. So then why, despite all the scientific evidence of negative impacts from invasive species, would people be resistant to taking action against them? In two scientific papers released this week myself and colleagues have tried to understand why invasive species have such a low public profile compared to climate change, and furthermore why some elements of society would even try to deny that there is even a problem.

A white-tailed tropic bird killed by a feral cat on its nest at Fernando de Noronha
A white-tailed tropic bird killed by a feral cat on its nest at Fernando de Noronha (Photo by James Russell)

Professor Tim Blackburn and myself undertook some research on science denialism, and found that some of the articles that have been written in the past year, e.g. in New Scientist, The New York Times and The Economist, indeed appeared to conform to a special case of science denialism – invasive species denialism. Much like with climate change denial (or tobacco, or immunisation), some people try to manufacture scientific uncertainty where there is none, as a mask for differences in values, or perhaps other motivations for wanting to obstruct policy action on invasive species. This is concerning, as of all global biodiversity threats, invasive species are the one which requires the most immediate action to prevent new invasions establishing, or where solutions such as complete eradication are achievable.

Difficulties and proposed solutions for advancing invasion biology (Source: TREE)

But invasive species denialism is not the only issue invasion biology faces today. With Dr Franck Courchamp and other colleagues we identified a total of 24 specific problems faced by invasion biology as a discipline, and propose solutions to help move the field forward and achieve better action on responding to the global threat of invasive species. Some of these problems include a lack of clarity on the nature of the threat, reluctance to kill animals, constraining people’s liberties, and a lack of robust legal frameworks. One of the major problems, we believe, is that scientists have tended to focus on communicating only the facts. If scientists better recognised the role that values and motivations play in invasive species management and policy, they could engage in a stronger consensus dialogue model.

Deficit and dialogue models of science communication
Deficit and dialogue models of science communication (Source: TREE)

For reprints of either article please e-mail me

Read All Posts by James Russell

Changing Planet

Conservation biologist Dr. James Russell works throughout the world on remote islands and other sites to provide conservation solutions by applying a combination of scientific methods. Follow James on National Geographic voices for regular updates on his own work or other exciting developments in island conservation.