False Dichotomies

Today’s post is a bit of a diversion from the normal run of things, but bear with me. The ability to think clearly, recognise false arguments and counter bad logic is valuable for anyone, in any circumstances.

My father, when we were kids, used to drive us nuts on a regular basis. A simple yes/no question invariably drew difficult answers.

Tea or coffee?   Yes.

Cake or ice-cream?   Yes.

Do you want badgers or hedgehogs?

I don’t believe we ever asked Dad that last one, but it’s the same principle and I’ve put it in for a reason.

I’m getting fed-up of the hysteria over badgers. The UK has badgers. Lots of badgers. 288,000 at least, probably more since that’s a 2011 figure and the badger population is rising all the time, despite 45,000 a year squashed on the roads. Dairy farmers aren’t that happy about the badger population density because badgers, like cows, can catch, carry and transmit tuberculosis. Whether cows give it to badgers or badgers give it to cows is probably irrelevant – though TB has long been known to be a cattle disease, arriving in the human population when we started keeping cattle as livestock, thousands of years ago, even though now most TB in humans (in the UK, at least) is caught from other humans.

Whichever way it goes, a farmer whose cows test positive for TB has to destroy the affected animal(s). So a farmer with TB infected badgers roaming about his farm runs the risk of losing his livelihood as his cows may pick up TB from the badgers. The argument there goes, there’s lots of cows and badgers are cute, so the cows (and farmers) should be sacrificed for the badgers.

I’ve had first-hand experience of badgers and livestock – some years ago we lost our small duck flock in the back garden overnight, together with some chickens. The culprit? We found the cheeky beggar sleeping in the henhouse, curled up in the nestbox with his dinner (one of the ducks) snuggled under his chin, ready for a late snack. It was a badger.

(Newsflash – real badgers are not “cute”, no matter what they look like on TV. They are amazingly smelly and can bite your leg to the bone when cornered.)

They’re strictly protected. You can’t disturb their setts (burrows) nor shoot, trap, snare, drive ’em out with terriers or otherwise persecute them. But there’s no law that says you have to give them board and lodging in your henhouse so young brock went down the drive at high speed with the prickly end of a brush chasing after his tail and we no longer keep ground-nesting birds like ducks. He was probably a young male on the roam for a new sett to move into – young males get moved on to fresh territories by their elders.

Now, I don’t particularly hold it against badgers that they act like the predators they are. They may mostly eat earthworms and beetles but they’re members of the weasel family and they’re carnivores. Show a carnivore a sitting duck (pun intended) and he’ll head in teeth-first. I don’t expect a badger (or a fox) to consider my property rights or the ethics of scoffing the livestock I’ve carefully nourished and cared for without due recompense for my loss. I expect a badger to eat unguarded poultry, just as I expect any predator to be a predator. That why we lock the hens up at night (foxes), that’s why the rabbit shed door isn’t left open (cats) and why I’m careful not to discuss the full extent of my prepping activities with anyone (humans).

Not all predators go on four legs.

Let’s get back to hedgehogs. The UK used to have lots of hedgepigs, or urchins. It was estimated there were upwards of 30 million in the 1950s, when badger numbers were lower, cities were smaller, there were less people and more hedges. Now there’s probably less than 1.5 million. Tiger populations are decreasing more slowly than this! Causes of the decline? Certainly habitat loss, to some extent – less hedges, bigger fields, more intensive agriculture, more pesticides (means less slugs/beetles for hedgepigs to eat). Urbanisation is probably irrelevant – back gardens and parks, provided they’re reasonably untidy, are superb hedgehog habitat. More people…. probably mostly irrelevant too, except more people means more road-traffic and hedgehogs famously have road-crossing problems. But badgers? Badgers eat hedgehogs. They’re the only animal in the UK (except people) which can get past the spiky wrapper to the meat on the inside.

Kew Gardens used to have lots of hedgehogs, apparently. Then in the 1980s, badgers moved in and now Kew, 300 acres of superb hedgehog habitat, has 60+ badgers and zero hedgehogs.

Obviously badgers and hedgehogs have both co-existed in the UK since the end of the Ice Age so it’s possible, under the right circumstances, for them to continue co-existing now. But with blanket protection for brock and an exploding badger population, maybe the time has come to ask, are we over-protecting badgers and what will we sacrifice to keep the badger-huggers happy? Hedgehogs? Farmers’ livelihoods? Poultry?

Are hedgehogs “cuter” than badgers?

Now, I called this post false dichotomies for a reason. Remember that question?

Do you want badgers or hedgehogs?

This is a false dichotomy because, as my father so delighted in pointing out with his frustrating one-word answer, it’s not an either/or choice. I’d like badgers AND hedgehogs, please. In a reasonable balance and, while we’re at it, I don’t mind foxes but only in moderation. I’d like ground-nesting birds not to be wiped out by exploding pine-marten numbers. I don’t see why anglers playing catch-and-release games with innocent fish complain when a hungry otter (shock horror) catches and doesn’t release some fish (and I’ve no time for anyone who spends their time ranting about social inequality and anti-austerity while taking home more money for less work than any other politician in the UK when there’s ex-servicemen living rough. When was the last time a politician showed willing to put their life on the line for the country?)

The relevant word in my answer is balance. Badgers presumably had some kind of natural check on their population during the millennia when they and hedgehogs lived in balance in Britain – maybe bears eat badgers, or lynx, or maybe wolves, or perhaps there were enough aurochs roaming the forests to squash 45,000 badgers a year. Something must have kept badger numbers down enough for hedgehogs to thrive alongside them, but it’s not here now. Whatever it was, it’s a fair bet that humans removed it (or them) because we’ve had such a massive impact on this island of ours since then. We wiped out all the big predators, we cut down a lot of the forests, we built towns and cities (there are urban badgers, if not so many as urban foxes!) and, admittedly, we also hunted badgers and tortured them in baiting rings. I’ve no time for anyone who’s deliberately cruel to any creature, whether it’s pulling the wings off flies or setting dogs on badgers, rats, each other or whatever. If you’re going to kill, it should be for a good reason (“fun” isn’t a good reason) and it should be quick and clean. Kill to eat, kill to protect yourself (I wonder how many of the ardent “animal-lovers” would willingly allow a tiger or a bear to bite them?), kill to prevent suffering, or kill to keep the balance, but I don’t kill for fun – and do, please, note there’s a distinction between killing for fun and taking a pride in killing something well. If you don’t take a pride in killing well, that means you don’t mind killing incompetently. (While we’re on the subject, please do stop and finish off your roadkill, don’t leave it lying in agony for hours while the crows take it apart piecemeal. Animals feel pain and fear just as humans do so show some decency and kill the poor beggars properly. Quickly.)

After all, if people didn’t kill wild rabbits, we’d have no cereal crops. If we didn’t shoot foxes that raid henhouses, we’d have no chickens or eggs. Pigeons and rooks damage cereal crops, badgers take poultry (and hedgehogs) and deer can devastate crops and young trees alike. We took away the things that kept their populations in balance before, so it’s up to us to provide that balance now – by culling the populations that are too strong, and encouraging the populations that are struggling.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirzig addresses this problem of false dichotomy though the metaphor of the horns of a bull. It’s a very appropriate metaphor, since another word for ‘dichotomy’ is ‘dilemma’, which means ‘two horns’. It’s been a while since I last read the book and I don’t remember exactly how many options he came up with for avoiding having to choose “left horn” or “right horn” of his dilemma, but it was about 13 or thereabouts, I think.

Hedgehogs on the left, versus badgers on the right. Now…. we could refuse to enter the arena. Give them both exactly the same treatment and refuse to face the problem. Unfortunately this will continue the current course and it’ll be curtains, urchins.

We could establish hedgehog reserves where badgers can’t go. Offshore islands, perhaps? Oh, wait, offshore islands are ideal ground-nesting-bird territory and Mrs Tiggywinkle, if you didn’t know, loves eggs. That’s why there’s hedgehog-removal schemes in the Western Isles.

We could re-introduce the big predators that used to keep badger numbers down. Oops, no, remember why we wiped them to begin with? Lynx and wolves take livestock and bears have been known to kill people. Probably not a starter for ten, that one!

We could fall back on culling badger numbers to protect farmers, cows and hedgehogs – we just need to find a reliable, humane and effective method, which was the major problem in the trial culls over the past couple of years. Live trap and then shoot at close range? Go back to gassing setts?

Any more suggestions?

False dichotomies like this show up all the time in real life. In climate change, one of the most common false dichotomies is “natural or man-made” causes. It’s not an either-or question because there are both natural and man-made causes – but the natural ones don’t cause such rapid change that we risk being unable to adapt.

Politics is another area where false dilemmas breed – do you vote Labour, or Tory? Though this, looking at the recent election, seems less of a dilemma now we also have UKIP and the SNP getting major support in some areas! In the States it’s even worse, since they only seem to have Republican and Democrat as flavours.

It’s worth learning how to spot these false dichotomies and find ways around them in any context – anything that helps with thinking in colour instead of black and white is good, as my father used to say!

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2 thoughts on “False Dichotomies

  1. There is a way to beat the TB but it’ll never be done.
    Inoculate all cattle.
    Know why it won’t be?
    It’s supposed to be too expensive, and the EU won’t touch inoculated meat for some B.S. reason.
    So this is all about the money. As always.

    Thing is, no one has answered the age old question yet.
    How come it hasn’t been as prevalent as it is now?
    I put it down to modern farming and megger herds.
    Large numbers of cows in close contact.
    One cow gets ill and TB spreads like it does in the human population, fast.

    Hedgehogs.
    Mink verses Hedgehog is usually a mink win.
    Cats, foxes, wild boar, and dogs all eat the heads off, the crows and rats cleaning up.
    Wanna know why the urban population of Hedgehog is declining?
    Try modern gardening techniques i.e. SLUG PELLETS.
    Slugs eat them, Hedgehog eat the slugs, they die.
    Not to mention cars verses Hedgehog is always a car win.

    Badger lover?
    Sure I like them.
    Even after I parked over a cub lamping. It’s “mum” showed her power by ripping the Suzuki 410’s off road tire off the rim in anger!

    • Which is why badger OR hedgehog is a false dilemma, though the fact that hedgehog populations apparently doubled in badger-cull areas does argue for something fairly direct being involved in their relationship, at least in some places! There are also places where badgers remain scarce and hedgehogs are still vanishing, so it’s not as simple as badger versus hedgehog. Slug pellets affect them both (badgers also eat slugs, though there are less urban badgers) but then again, the increase in maize farming has been suggested as a factor, since badgers will eat maize but hedgehogs won’t and there aren’t many slugs in a well-sprayed maize field. Kew Gardens, though, isn’t a hotbed of slug pellets and there it does seem to be a straight badger in = hedgehog out position.

      I’d agree with the Hedgehog Trust on cats, dogs and foxes, though – they may take advantage of a sick or young hedgie, but they can’t cope with an adult. None of my dogs have ever been able to cope with an urchin, even if they don’t bother rolling right up, and we’ve had some cunning terriers, collie-crosses and lurchers as well as the whippets, who just stand back and yap in frustration. Used to have a cat who regularly brought home stoats, but he couldn’t figure out urchins! He could roll them around, but he couldn’t get in.

      The TB vaccine is like the foot-and-mouth vaccine – it exists, it’s proven to work, yet it’s not allowed. Politics, greed, money….. snarl.

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