Fortunately, we have some curmudgeonly types who are prepared to subject officialdom to critical scrutiny. The term ‘sceptic’ has been attributed to the fox questioners. Regrettably the ‘sceptic’ is used as a universal putdown pejorative for the critic, rather than a badge of honour for any one worth their salt!

Over the years public servants and government scientists sought to liken those who questioned the prevailing view on foxes to virtual Holocaust deniers. What accusation could be worse than that! [And yet many of the logically argued questions and suggestions of the fox sceptics have grudgingly been appropriated.]

Scepticism is a charge that is frequently levelled against dissenters, but rarely levelled against those supporting the prevailing consensus. Yet public decisions have been made based on simplifications, exaggerations, adjustments to data, constructions, and untested assumptions.

The author [Obendorf] has largely confined himself to questioning the science-based risk assessment and the forensic evidence to validate fox establishment on the island state. Tasmania’s main protagonist of the government fox policy is DPIW wildlife biologist, Nick Mooney.  Mooney’s expertise seems to know no bounds - he has commented not only on the ways foxes entered Tasmania and their impacts, but has personally vouched for the authenticity of the evidence and even the effectiveness of the broadscale 1080-poisoning campaign.

Mr Mooney has received a ‘free pass’ because he says the Right Stuff; Obendorf, on the contrary, is labelled the sceptic because he says the Wrong Stuff.

The Invasive Animals CRC - the interstate group testing the fox scats obtained in Tasmania - relies on scats manually recovered and collated by one local authority- the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry & Water - the only Tasmanian source of forensic fox material. The CEO of the Invasive Animals CRC, Dr Tony Peacock has said that this material evidence IS a direct measure of the presence of free-living foxes in the Tasmanian environment and yet it depends solely upon the assurances of third-parties.

Even at the most fundamental level, forensic & diagnostic science requires that in the first instance assumptions and constructions must be tested.  After nearly a decade of assumptions and constructions, the available physical evidence has not be ground-truthed; two words - ‘ground’ and ‘truth’

The adage: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” was never so relevant. 

Or as I would rephrase it: “Two heterosexually-active foxes in the bush are worth a dead fox on the road!”

Site-specific data from highly relevant incidents must be assessed critically to truthfully establish causal relationships and the consequent deductive constructions.

The fox saga, of course, has form. It was the confidential briefing note - triggered by a reliable sighting of a live fox in early May -  presented to the Minister for Primary Industry in mid-2001 which initiated the current storyline construction. Before this presentation, the fox threat had not been on the political agenda, even after the escape of a fox from a Melbourne freight ferry at Burnie 1998! The briefing note was explicit and sensational. It is instructive to review how the subsequent political effect was then achieved.

The basis of the confidential briefing note was to inform the Minister (David Llewellyn) of the hearsay allegation that a conspiracy amongst Samba deer shooters (named) had already taken place to smuggle in, hold captive and then release up to 19 young foxes, over several years, at four locations across Tasmania. The still unsubstantiated allegation was publicly described by public servants and government biologists as ‘eco-terrorism’ and ‘environmental vandalism’. Based on the contents of the confidential briefing note, a covert police investigation was instigated by Minister Llewellyn. The power of this hearsay testimony - presented to the Minister responsible for both Police and Biosecurity - was enhanced by oral presentations from departmental staff who had drafted the briefing note.

There is a saying that ‘you make you own luck’, and that turned out to be the case.

Within a matter of weeks of the establishment of the covert police investigation into these hearsay allegations, The Examiner newspaper published an image sent anonymously showing two hunters (one with a rifle) holding a dead fox beside a northern Tasmanian road sign. If that sensation was not worrying enough, even more disconcerting was the fact that, once it was officially acknowledged as a hoaxing incident, the media has continued to use it, so that the sensation is reiterated.

Any organization can develop ‘groupthink’. There’s an old joke among engineers about the stages of any project that goes from good to bad: ‘Praise for the Uninvolved’ is followed by the ‘Search for the Guilty’. Such searches for the guilty tend to show that whilst reliance on science per se was good, the existence of a healthy sceptical culture needed for good quality assurance was lacking. The Right Stuff had become the Wrong Stuff.

The problem is an example of what the Professor Aynsley Kellow, head of the School of Government at the University of Tasmania calls virtuous corruption, or what in policing circles is known as ‘noble cause’ corruption. It is sometimes defended because it is seen in retrospect as: “all in a good cause” or “the end justifies the means”, but it is still wrong!

The problem is scientists are only human and we can have strong beliefs, but beliefs are not scientific. One erroneous belief many have is that they adhere to what Roger Pielke Jr has called a linear relationship between science and policy - that science will compel a preferred set of actions. The virtual science of “a plus b” sequentia models, so common in extrapolative scenario biology, is seen as particularly valuable in this quest, because it gives the appearance of objectivity. It gives the generic decision-makers the imprimatur that they must do as the science (and true-believer scientist) compels them to do. But we know, of course, that constructions are only as good as the assumptions and data fed into them: Garbage in produces Garbage out.

Without healthy scepticism, open disclosure of data and strong contestation of ideas, science can still get it wrong. And even getting it wrong by a matter of degree still makes for bad policy. It leads to wrong priorities and poor choices and a wasteful sense of urgency in negotiations over activities & funding.

The development of effective feral animal preventative strategies tells us that they are best built from the bottom up, with the evolution of shared understandings of causes, consequences and solutions, AND respect for differences of opinion between parties. By rushing to so-called ‘eradication’ based on virtual science, using an untested eradication option, Tasmania has so far wasted many millions of dollars and nearly a decade during which, arguably, a different fox mitigation approach could have been deployed. By blaming & shaming tactics directed at critics and sceptics, other ideas and views have been summarily ridiculed or appropriated without attribution!

I will predict here and now that Parliamentary Accounts Committee hearings will not resolve these issues and we are likely continue with the status quo, thinking wrongly that misconstrued and extrapolated science serves as the basis for good policy.

The feral peril Tasmania continues to face has been a reactive area of public resourcing. Sadly there is a sense of inevitability in the globalised spread of opportunistic species and unwanted weeds, pests and disease agents.

Much pro-active planning relies on truthful science backed up by sound political leadership. Rigorous risk assessment, effective risk management and comprehensive risk communications to prevent entry, establishment & spread are the backbone of such biosecurity science & policy. Misrepresenting the problem is not productive in the long run.

Where scepticism is at the heart of science, belief is its enemy.

Psychologist Leon Festinger developed his theory of cognitive dissonance to explain our ability to deflect information that might challenge our dearly held beliefs. Festinger with Riecken and Schachter in their 1956 essay When Prophecy Fails, 1956 made these observations on a societal movement when confronted by evidence that their forecasts of apocalyptic have not been met:

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief.

Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervour about convincing and converting other people to his view.
When Prophecy Fails, 1956

Disclaimer: This article is based on the occasional paper presented by Aynsley Kellow Head of the School of Government at the University of Tasmania. Professor Kellow addressed the Institute of Public affairs for the 2008 Harold Clough Lecture: ‘The Politics and Science of Climate Change: The Wrong Stuff’.

David Obendorf TheThe $1000 Fox Reward   comments thread is over 400 contributions. If you want to comment on foxes continue on this thread …
TO QUESTION the attribution for the presence of foxes in Tasmania to ‘ecological terrorists’ who deliberately introduced foxes, rather than to failures in quarantine and mismanagement is not to deny any thing, but - responsibly - to speak truth to power.