Newspapers love conflict. In some ways it’s what they’re all about. War in Iraq, Heather divorcing Paul, Alex Ferguson slagging Arsene Wenger, dare I say it Big Brother. Which of course means we the general public get a bit of a kick out of it too. I’m of the opinion that, fundamentally, people now are the same as people who lived 100 or 1000 years ago. The Romans LOVED conflict, at least in an amphitheatre. There really is nothing like two blokes trying to slit each other’s throats to stir you up in the morning. Today things might seem to be a little tamer. But the kick we get out of conflict is still there, and I don’t find it too hard to imagine lots of things in modern life as being watered down versions of a 1st Century blood bath.
Recently I’ve noticed a few newspaper articles reporting on the efforts of organisations like PETA to get angling banned. This morning I read another one, this time in The Independant. What struck me was it’s location: right smack bang on page 3. This, I’m lead to believe, is a pretty prominent place in a newspaper. Readers of The Sun may well attest to this. Clearly someone at the Independant sees a pretty juicy conflict in the offing. In fact, it could turn out to be very, very mouth-wateringly juicy because it involves an effort by a (relatively) small organisation to ban something that plays a big part in the lives of 2.6 million people in the UK alone. One of the key ‘arguments’ used by these groups is the apparently scientific evidence that tells us that fish feel ‘pain’.
What riles me about reporting like this is that it thrusts issues into the public consciousness which are little more than opinions perpetrated by a real minority of people. In this case it’s not that difficult to see why: animal rights extremists are responsible for some shocking acts of violence in this country. (I’m not specifically accusing PETA here, but given the way the media seems to work most of these organisations tend to be talked of under the same breath.) Nobody loves violence more than the newspapers. The fact that there are millions of law-abiding citizens that either love to angle, or who have no problem with it, doesn’t come into play with this kind of reporting.
The thing that I find most disturbing about groups like PETA is that they have absolutely no interest in taking part in a reasoned, open debate. They have an opinion, and they’re going to damn well try as hard as possible to make everyone else share this opinion, whether they like it or not. (Sound a little like any other kind of organisation?) There is never any sense in the publications of such groups that there may be two sides to the story, and that the ‘truth’ they are perpetrating is actually nothing more than an OPINION. What makes this doubly disturbing is the fact that many people have little concept of the way in which ‘science’, which is often the perpetrated backing argument, tends to work.
I am a scientist (of sorts). I work in a University and my job description is to do science. Science rarely works in the way groups like PETA try to suggest. What makes good science is reasoned argument followed by reasoned debate. It is a continuous exchange of findings and ideas, suggestions and theories. Some of these findings and theories are better than others, but what is ALWAYS common is the fact that a proper process of reasoning and debate has to back anything up that is to stand the test of time. Some studies suggest fish respond to some stimuli as in a manner that suggests they are experiencing ‘pain’. Other studies tell us fish are biologically incapable of perceiving anything like this.
PETA really don’t give a shit about any of this discussion. They have an opinion, and they’re damn well going to distort the evidence as much as possible for their own aims. Anyone who wishes to do or understand science in any kind of context properly needs to realise this fact.
Anthropomorphism is perhaps the greatest weapon of groups like PETA. Briefly, this is the means by which the thoughts, feelings and emotions of humans are pasted onto the fabric of the animal kingdom. Something like when you see a monkey pull its mouth back and you imagine he’s smiling and happy. The reason it is so powerful and effective is simple: everyone knows what it’s like to be a person, but nobody knows what it’s like to be a giraffe.
I guess it might be argued that anthropomorphism is the quintessential human trait: we are creatures that are able to reason and put ourselves in the place of other people. Where this gets dangerous is when people try to apply the same principles to animals. One of the most interesting publications on this subject is by Thomas Nagel, and is called “What is it like to be a bat?” It’s well worth reading, though if you’re short of time have a look here for a summary.
What it comes down, at least in part, is that we cannot properly place ourselves in the shoes of other people, let alone animals. This is particularly important when it comes to interpreting animal behaviour in terms of human emotions. The question of whether fish feel pain, and the possible consequences of this such as suffering and sadness, is not something that can be addressed in the propaganda of groups like PETA. Indeed, there are many very good scientists that know a lot more about animal biology than I who have debated and argued over this question. I don’t provide a link to this paper as something that provides us with definitive proof of anything, but hopefully it does go some way towards demonstrating the proper way in which these sort of matters should be dealt with: argued, reasoned debate.
Angling is a fantastic hobby, past time and livelihood for millions of people all around the world. It’s particularly great because it encourages people to understand how the ecosystem around them works, and to be active in looking after it.
In the UK alone there are a number fantastic organisations, like the Wild Trout Trust and the Anglers’ Conservation Association, working to restore and improve fishery habitat and prevent damage from pollution. If you look further afield the list is endless, with the North Atlantic Salmon Fund immediately comming to mind. The objective of such groups is often to improve the angling by helping fish to become more numerous and more healthy. The people working for such aims are real, everyday folks, who care for the environment and are seeking to do something tangible to look after it. This kind of work is of substance. It is possible for anyone to look for and experience the rewards.
The fish certainly benefit. They have better rivers to live in where the water is cleaner and food more plentiful. Some of the fish may well be caught by the same anglers that helped to improve their habitat. I wonder if they would appreciate the effort? I rather doubt it. Fish are fish, and people are people. More relevant perhaps is the fact that groups like PETA don’t appear to care about such work. Their battle is an ideological one. People in these organisations are members of the ‘ban it’ brigade who wish to one day have a law against farting in the morning because it disturbs the dust mites.
How much real world work do organisations like PETA do? Well, when it comes to looking after our freshwater fisheries I’d say just about sweet bugger all. These people are all about promoting their own opinions and have little to do with working in the real world. It’s very easy to write press releases and sign petitions, but when there are proper things to be done like dredging river gravels clean you will find such people would rather hear the sound of their own voice than make a positive contribution to the effort. The phrase “style over substance” seems rather fitting.
I think it’s worth remembering that campaigns like this most recent one thrive off the knee-jerk type reactions that their literature tries to provoke. Perhaps the strongest argument against such things is, well, just that: argument. If we are willing to engage in an open and unsentimental process of discussion and argument it will not be long before many of the claims of these groups are undermined. Of course they will try to prevent this as much as they can, because careful debate encourages open mindedness and that’s certainly not what they’re interested in.
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