[Ed. Note: Action Alert: Stop Supporting 2012 Canadian Seal Hunt and read 2012 Demonstrations Against Canadian Harp Seal Slaughter.]
By Barry K. McKay,
Seal Expert Asked Dumb and Dumber Questions on Valentine’s Day
The topic before the Senate committee was the proposed massive cull of gray seals in Atlantic Canada...
Dumb and dumber describes a large portion of questions Dr. David Lavigne was asked Feb. 14, which was disconcerting to me, a loyal Canadian, because the questions were asked by members of the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.
And it might have been funny had it not been so sad, because it occurred so soon after a study by Gordon Hodson and Michael A. Busseri (published on Jan. 5) called “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact.” It was in Psychological Science. Put simply, research demonstrated that people on the political right tend not to be as intelligent as those in the middle or on the left. I’ve long intuitively thought that to be true as a result of direct observation. Politicians denying anthropogenic causation of climate change, or thinking “creationism” is a science that should be taught on an equal footing with evolution, tend to be on the political far right. Such unwitting displays of dumbness are depressingly commonplace among ultra-conservatives.
The Canadian Senate, I should explain, is unlike the U.S. Senate and more like the British House of Lords. The 105 members are appointed by the Governor General (representing the Crown — Canada clings to its colonial heritage) as directed by the prime minister. In practice it is an Old Boy’s Club wherein party faithful are rewarded with pomp, prestige and cash, but in theory it is supposed to be a body of sober second thought able to veto or support legislation produced in the elected House of Commons.
Many Canadians want the Senate abolished, and the extreme right-wing party now in power, the Conservatives, ran on a platform that included Senate abolition. However, when elected (with less than 40 percent of the vote, the majority of votes being split among other parties and independents) Prime Minister Stephen Harper proceeded to stack the Senate with devout Conservative supporters. Whether they will be asked by Harper to agree to eventual dismantling of the Senate remains to be seen.
Sorry for the lesson on Canadian politics, but the bottom line is that there was still some naïve corner of my mind that hoped that whatever their political affiliation, the Senate was inhabited by bright minds. And maybe among its 105 members overall that is the case (you see how I cling to my illusions) but you’d never know it from the event of which I speak.
The topic before the Senate committee was the proposed massive cull of gray seals in Atlantic Canada. Lavigne has spent decades studying seals and has published numerous peer-reviewed scientific papers in collaboration with a “who’s who” of seal biologists from academia. His initial presentation was documented with references to the peer-reviewed literature, a point lost on several committee members. They could not understand the difference between a personal opinion (“You say that …”) and a conclusion derived at by carefully conducted and reviewed research by collaborating scientists.
(Watch Lavigne's presentation here by selecting "View this Clip" then, on the subsequent pulldown menu, "English Video 150 kbps." Then drag the counter to 20:20 and wait for the video to load and begin play.)
Long before the inevitable food question arose, it was obvious to me, watching the debate on my computer screen, that this was mostly a pretty dumb group, even before the “food question” got asked. The “food question” isn’t inevitable, but it usually arises. Lavigne was asked if he’s a vegetarian. Those who are IQ challenged, because they unwittingly base their own views upon subjectively emotive criteria as opposed to best evidence, assume everyone else does the same. Not able to simply analyze a spectrum of interrelated data, they draw upon bias. If you’re a vegetarian, you’re one of those extreme animal rights people whose every opinion must therefore derive from that fact, and not from the information presented or facts represented in the documentation presented.
The detail that Lavigne is not a vegetarian did not deter them; they went after him for being employed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Decades ago IFAW discovered something. Founded to oppose the commercial East Coast seal hunt, the organization discovered that facts derived from impartial science did not hurt, and often supported, their cause.
To this day, as a professional animal protectionist I find that the bulk of my own job is simply correcting errors and misinformation promulgated to rationalize the culling or other abuse of wild animals. And while I often succeed, failure usually results from decisions made by people who can’t, as a result of intellectual limitations, exercise cause-and-effect reasoning. And so they evaluate who I am, not what I say or write. And I am a vegetarian and I am not a scientist, and so I try to stay in the background and hope that what I write will be, can be, independently judged by decision-makers on merit.
Lavigne, however, is a scientist, for years a university professor some of whose students ironically went on to work for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He is now science adviser to IFAW, which simply means that he, usually in association with scientists from a range of institutions, works to discern and present facts, building on knowledge to learn still more about the real world. IFAW or anyone else can use the data or not, challenge it or not, but as it is peer reviewed it cannot be effectively challenged without facts, not opinion.
But sadly most committee members didn’t get that, and if they couldn’t judge him by what he ate, they could judge him by who pays his salary.
Sen. Donald Oliver
(Photo by Jim Ross, Globe and Mail)
What do you make of Sen. Donald Oliver, from Nova Scotia, who said he believed that overfishing was not the cause of the collapse in northern cod stocks. (That was extra idiotic even by this committee’s standards; to its credit another member understood that fact, and also blamed factory fishing boats from other countries, which I well recall seeing in the 1960s, myself, and realizing they were destroying the fishery. If it matters, I ate meat at the time.) But as Lavigne said, any attempt to stop overfishing when there was still time to save the northern cod would have been laughed at. I agree. If we couldn’t stop the commercial seal hunt, which was internationally condemned and which most Canadians objected to, we had no chance with the fish … and still don’t. I’m currently struggling with several efforts to reduce overfishing of commercially valued fish species who are in danger of population collapse, and ridiculed for my effort by folks like these committee members of whom I speak.
At least equally as dumb as Oliver’s denial was the weird line of questioning from Sen. Ethel Cochrane, a Conservative from Newfoundland and Labrador, who, as one reporter put it “implied that Lavigne’s group, IFAW, was in some way responsible” for the fact that muskrats in Holland were being shot because they were causing damage to infrastructure.
Huh? The muskrats are not native to Europe and are there because of the fur industry, having escaped or been released from fur farms, and they burrow into the dykes that hold back the sea, a serious problem for a country largely below sea level. But blame the same industry that promotes the commercial seal hunt — the fur industry, not animal protectionists.
But what’s the use? These people are just too limited in their ability to think, in their education. It’s not their fault, but it is unfortunate. Sen. Michael MacDonald, for example, another Nova Scotian Conservative, while acknowledging the problem of overfishing, stated that Lavigne, a scientist, had not given any “empirical evidence.” Huh? Lavigne was painstaking. His opinions were clearly based on a wide body of empirical knowledge contained in the footnotes of his presentation.
Some got, some did not, that there is essentially no market for gray seal products. But what most didn’t get was that predators play important roles in ecosystems, that gray seals don’t eat only one species, but are part of a complexity that defies simplistic management initiatives based on the idea that there are two species food chains, and that any scientific study that does not support the view that a cull is needed should be ignored. The committee overall didn’t get that in places of gray seal abundance, there also have been nascent recovery of cod stocks, even if that has yet to happen everywhere that gray seals are common.
Understanding basic ecological principles and following scientific argument are just not what members of this committee, overall, can do. It is not really their fault, it is just the way it is, and bodes ill for seals and cod and Canadian taxpayers alike.