The Badger Cull: Backfire Effect and Self Esteem



There’s palpable desperation from those good people who know that the badger cull is wrong in every sense. People who want to protect badgers need the best arguments to save them from imminent death. Many campaigners against the cull are claiming to be fully objective in their considerations because they are quoting the science. In doing so, the aim is to persuade the ‘opposition’ to simply accept they are in the wrong and change their minds. I’ve done this myself in the past, but I’m afraid it won’t work.

If you want to talk about the science, let’s talk about psychology.

As social animals, dependent on groups with a common interest, the more threatened humans feel (by economic uncertainty, aggression or negativity), the more they circle the wagons of opinion to keep the ‘tribe’ together, bonded and ‘safe’. They grow increasingly inflexible and defensive regardless of the facts. Psychologists call it the Backfire Effect. In the case of the pro-culling lobby, this includes many farmers, NFU and rural politicians who rely on their votes. No matter how many facts you throw at people who are already prejudiced against an action, angry or scared, you will not likely change their minds. Indignation may even increase.

By contrast, studies show the less threatened humans feel, the more flexible opinions are likely to be, and so the more likely minds will change. If a group feel valued, with increased feelings of self-esteem, and an inner confidence about the good things they have achieved, they are far more likely to concede ground, accept new facts, compromise and change their minds.

So, as much as we might want to hurl rocks (or facts), we may be far more successful in convincing the dairy industry to change if we hired community halls and invited all to come celebrate the products to be bought for a decent price. With humans, mostly, facts come second to values.

At such events, healing could occur, empathy established for both sides and facts exchanged in a more caring environment. Each side might realise that, as producer and consumer (unless vegan), it is in both our interests to get things right. Maybe reciprocal events could also be arranged such as farm open days and badger watching/ecology lectures.

Anti-cull campaigners claim objectivity in contrast with the vested interests of the farmers. Some are actively signalling that showing emotion somehow weakens the cause. Many have stopped claiming they are the voice of the badgers in a socio-political system that does not directly represent non-human interests. Many have curtailed arguing that the cull is inhumane. Some have stopped arguing that they love these wild lives and want to protect from blatant, unecessary cruelty and death. Sympathy for the cows has waned and, more still, for the farmers and their families. It’s not surprising. The cull has been, and will be, brutal and pointless. It may even make things worse.

I’ll say this now. I strongly contest the assumption that emotions are weak. Emotions cannot be discounted because they are, and scientifically proven to be, part of our moral evolutionary frameworks for decision making. Of course we are all biased, with a fabric of values woven throughout our lives. Those of us who wish the badger culls to cease have taken sides, of course we have! It is the scientific findings that are unbiased and these assertions of fact are what we ought to be using in ethical decisions discerning wrong from right. Key, opponents will see through any bias-denial, and consequently find it easy to throw all arguments out with the bath water, including the valuable conclusions of the unbiased RBCT (see below).

So what do we do? We look at VALUES.

After years of being underpaid for their products and hard work, since the disbanding of the milk marketing board, increased power of the supermarkets over price and demand, the expectation of increased yields, and other factors impacting costs and price, farmers, mostly with a love of their land and the physical lifestyle, feel mentally cornered, undervalued and financially threatened. The National Herd suffers further because of the intensification required to simply earn a crust. Bovine biology has not evolved to cope with such pressures and animal immunity has weakened (e.g. rates of mastitis are also high). Vets bills have increased. Farmers are angry that bTB has impacted their lives on top of a failing market system with ever decreasing margins. EU laws forbid vaccinated meat and products for export.

Sadly, the rationale for attacking badgers is massively poor and they hurt themselves in pursuing actions that may make the situation worse in the long run. Worst of all, evidentially, are the markets for distributing animals sold across the nation when cow to cow infection is most prevalent. Badger vaccination can assist in localised reservoirs of disease in the wild.

Yes, empirical science ought to be foundational in making the moral choices. We need certain facts in order to make coherent assessments. The Randomised Badger Culling Trial report, authored by Krebs, et al (I have read in its entirety), is broad and deep in its scientific rigour. It has been subject to attack, regardless, with data and conclusions often misquoted or edited out of context. Read it yourselves for the minutae. But whilst overseeing the killing of around 11,000 badgers in the process of crystalisation (one cannot argue that the authors were biased by sanctifying life in their empirical work), the key conclusion was that, at best, killing local badgers over a 9 year period would yield a 16% drop in the increase of cattle infection rates of bTB.

The Conservative Party’s decision to largely extirpate a native species from large areas of terrestrial England is, no doubt, to preserve the farming ‘tribe’ vote, because they are reciprocating action for votes in expectation they will maintain power in these rural strongholds. Good science has been ignored, deliberately muddled and misconstrued. This is a stategy, but also a tragedy, for the sake of the National Herd, farmers, badgers, whole ecosystems and all concerned citizens.

Complicating things further, there are still deep prejudices against badgers, largely through ecological and biological ignorance and the perception of badgers as an ‘out of control’ population of pests and vermin. These prejudices are sometimes passed down from father to son. Badger baiting and the blocking of sett entrances are still prevalent, with the culling providing some false sense of legitimacy to continuing persecution. It only takes a handful of men, on the sly, with a spade and a few breeze blocks (or terriers) to do great damage in a large area of badger territory. But it is not all farmers or members of the NFU, and the culprits are sometimes not even from the local area. In Radnorshire, I’ve personally stumbled across badger hunters, trying to block setts and using terriers, that have driven over the Beacons from the South Wales mining towns. They claimed they were rabbit hunting but that was a pathetic excuse. I could see exactly what they were doing! It wasn’t a pleasant experience and I was threatened when I asked if they had the farmer’s permission to be on the land. I left quickly and felt grateful to get back to the safety of my car.

When two different value sets clash, yes, absolutely, peer reviewed empirical science ought to help us make the right choices. But look out for the Backfire Effect. It’s more common than you think. When we reduce the arguments to just ‘science’, it is no panacea. Science has some uncertainty, and there are those who will try to take advantage of the uncertainty. There is good and bad science and scientists, perhaps, paid by biased organisations or governments, rather than fully independent funders, who’s work may not be as rangy, enduring, or may not be communicated well via non-science spin-doctors. Science too often needs scientifically literate people to understand it. For example, Hansard revealed a major problem after the main debate in parliament about probable outcomes. As mentioned above, the RBCT concluded that in a period of ‘reactive’ culling (upon outbreak of infection in a herd) lasting nine years, there was only a 16% reduction in the rate of increase of bTB infection in cattle and sometimes infection rates became worse, in time. Some politicians took that to mean a clear 16% decrease in infection. Lord Krebs tried to correct them, but the “misunderstanding” obviously became stuck in some minds and has been repeated since. This is all very frustrating, and I was left reeling that 11,000 badgers died to discover this “truth”. Proactive culling means extirpation. If we wish to stamp out bTB now endemic in the wild because of imported, infected cattle, we’ll need to consider wiping out all infectable mammals, as the potential is vast. Who can consent to such an outrage? Better still, and environmentally sustainable too, is to encourage local markets for both livestock and produce, assist in farm biosecurity and pay a decent price for dairy produce.

Back to values. The farmers are passionate and are emotive in their lobbying. We must also be unafraid to express our passion and emotion because to deny we are biased is an untruth. But if you really want people to accept the findings of the RBCT and stop this cull, I think we need to be kinder in our delivery of the facts, give to the dairy lobby an all round boost of self esteem, establishing caring connections through values. For this too is objective science, it appears – the science of psychology.


For further insight, please read Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in The New Yorker ~ Why facts don’t change our minds.

And for the Backfire Effect and the benefits of increasing self esteem in accepting new facts, please read Maria Konnikova’s article ~ I don’t want to be right.



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