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Speaking in Catchphrases

Entry 1949, on 2018-11-25 at 22:15:29 (Rating 4, Skepticism)

Recently I was doing some work for a client in her office near the middle of town. While I was there I heard a terrible noise - like some sort of uncultured rabble rioting - and wondered what was going on. It turned out it was an anti-1080 protest about half a block away.

If you don't live in New Zealand you may not know what 1080 is. If you do live here you will almost certainly know! It is a poison (sodium fluoroacetate) which is especially toxic to mammals. In New Zealand we have a problem with introduced species of mammals, such as rats, possums, and stoats, but we have only two native mammal species: two types of bats. So 1080 is useful because it rarely harms the native birds but is effective against the introduced mammal pests.

The problem is that there is a very vocal (and occasionally violent) group of people who are against the use of 1080. Why? Well, the reasons vary, but they are similar to the reasons people are against various other things, such as fluoridation, vaccines, and GMOs. These reasons can basically be summarised as fear based on ignorance.

To be fair, there are a few people with more nuanced views about 1080 (as well as the other issues I listed above), but they are only a small fraction of the total, and are only slightly more rational anyway.

So, now back to the original story. After dealing with the computer setup issues I returned to my car to drive home - a path which just happened to lead me past the protestors! I do have a reputation for taking on anyone in a debate, and this was no exception, except it really didn't turn into much of a debate.

So I found some of the less "shouty" people there and asked them a few questions about their protest.

First, I said that I recognised there are a few issues with 1080 (the possibility of valuable domestic animals being harmed, the chance of it getting into water, the rather grim death of its victims, the small by-kill of the birds which are supposed to be protected) but that there is no reasonable alternative and what would they suggest we do instead.

The answer was that traps were set on Bluff Hill and this had eliminated the rats, so why not do that for the whole country.

Well fair enough, except according to the information I could find, the traps have only just been set and there is no report yet of how successful this is likely to be. Also, Bluff Hill is a relatively small, isolated area and the extra expense might be practical there, but wouldn't be for New Zealand as a whole.

I did mention some of this at the time but the person involved was doing some more shouting at that point so I had to approach someone else instead.

I asked the next person why they thought the Department of Conservation (DOC, the NZ government agency tasked with native wildlife protection and other conservation matters) was using 1080 if it was dangerous and ineffective? She said: "follow the money".

I think it was significant that that phrase is mostly associated with the JFK conspiracy theories, because it revealed a tendency towards conspiratorial thinking by these people as well.

I pointed out that the people making the decisions, which I presume is DOC (I must admit I don't know for sure), had nothing obvious to gain financially from using 1080 any more than anything else, but again the discussion seemed to be over for this person.

So I left it there, because the rest of the people at the protest (there was only about 10 of them) looked less rational and approachable than the two I had already talked to, and the anti-1080 movement does have a reputation for aggression and even violence on occasions.

And that made this one of my less worthwhile discussions, mainly because instead of listening to what I asked and actually responding to my points, all I got was some stock answers or catchphrases from my opponents. I mean "follow the money" is perhaps the best sign imaginable that the person has lost touch with reality and reverted to an extreme conspiracy theory. It could be used (and has been) to defend suspicion of almost anything.

But, as I said above, I have heard more interesting reasons for being against the use of 1080. One person I debated on Facebook said she objected because humans don't have the right to kill a species they introduced so that another species can be saved.

There is some validity in questioning the moral right of humans to kill animals in a horrible way because they have become a problem as a result of an earlier human error: that is introducing them here in the first place. But it seems to me that this intervention is better for two reasons: first, it is done with good intentions (to try to save native species); and second, it is based on properly researched science, and the methods used have been continually improved over the years they have been in use.

I usually enjoy debating people on the street, as well as on-line as I do far more often. In this case though, I was a bit uncomfortable because those protestors sure looked angry. In fact, I felt far safer when I was debating a group of Muslims when I was in Sydney a few years back.

And that's my final point: why were they so angry? I did ask what their personal grievance against 1080 was, but I didn't get an answer. I could imagine that they might object to poison being spread on their own land, or affecting them directly in some other way, but that never seems to be the motivation for most objectors.

But there are other reasons people might want to follow a conspiracy like this, and this reason applies to those who think JFK was assassinated by the FBI, or that the Moon landings were fake, or that the 9/11 attacks were organised by the US government, or that aircraft contrails are actually chemicals used to control the people, and any of dozens (maybe hundreds) of other conspiracies. That is, it gives the person a feeling of superiority and control.

Many conspiracy theorists aren't exactly the most successful and well-balanced people in our communities. They probably don't feel like they have a lot of control over their own lives, and might be told what to do by others with more knowledge and power than them. But if they are one of the few who can see through the nefarious motivations of those in power they do have one small area where they can feel that they do have an advantage.

And conspiracies have an important characteristic which tends to increase their long-term viability. That is that the belief that people who are controlling the conspiracy are always going to do everything they can to hide it from the masses. So any evidence that the conspiracy isn't true is evidence that it is. It's brilliant, because there is literally no way anyone can be persuaded that the conspiracy doesn't really exist.

This is a characteristic of all grand conspiracy theories. When I say that photos from the Moon's surface show a landing occurred I am told they are fake photos showing how desperate NASA is to hide the fact that the landings never happened. When I show a report by professional engineers that the WTC collapse was caused by the fires after the aircraft collisions I am told that is a fake report used to disguise the truth.

And the ultimate conspiracy is perhaps religion, because when I show all the evidence that many of the Christian myths aren't true I am reminded that the devil is always out to try to deceive us. All of that evidence that he world is billions of years old, all of those fossils showing evolving life forms, all of that astronomical evidence for the Big Bang. That's the devil. It's all fake, I tell you!

I guess "that's the work of the devil" is the ultimate catchphrase!

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Comment 1 (4963) by OJB on 2018-11-26 at 10:58:18:

I just researched the phrase "follow the money" and it actually comes primarily from the Watergate scandal, not the JFK conspiracy. So it is related to one of those rare conspiracies which turned out to be true! Of course, it is much older than that and the latin phrase "cui bono" is related. How this affects its relevance to the 1080 debate, I will leave you to decide! :)

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