Invasive species denialism: what is it, and what can we do about it?

Even when there is agreement on the impacts of invasive species on ecosystems, some stakeholders nevertheless deny the need for, or benefit of managing invasive species.

Guest blog post by Noelle G. Stratton, Nicholas E. Mandrak, and Nicole Klenk

Invasive species denialism (ISD) is a hot topic in recent invasion ecology discourse. Many of us are familiar with the concept of science denialism, particularly during recent discussions about climate change and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Essentially, a person who exhibits science denialism is skeptical of, or refuses to believe, the scientific facts about a topic. Much of the discussion about ISD has focused on characterising it as a form of science denialism. However, while science denialism may be one form of ISD, it is not the only one.

Understanding the different forms of ISD is an important step in learning more about what drives ISD positions, and how those positions can be overcome to improve invasive species management. Recently, researchers at the University of Toronto outlined these ISD forms in a new paper in NeoBiota. While these framings are not the only ways to characterize invasive species denialism, they demonstrate that there are multiple framings to the ways that people deny the imperative to manage all invasive species as prescribed by early detection and rapid response.

So, what are the forms of ISD?

Venn diagram of the three forms of invasive species based on interviews and focus groups with invasive species community members in the Great Lakes region, including interested publics and decision-makers: 1) Invasive species denialism; 2) invasive species cynicism; and 3) invasive species nihilism. Each has different motivations and ways of talking about invasive species. Notably, all forms include an opposition to invasive species engagement or management efforts.

Invasive species denialism is the form that will typically come to mind when you picture a “science denialist”. Someone who does not believe in invasive species, or says that the existing scientific literature is all wrong, would fall within this framing. However, it is more complex than that. Invasive species practitioners also identified some of those who believed in invasive species and supported their management under this framing.

For example, folks who wanted management to happen immediately, be 100% effective, or have no risks to them or the environment whatsoever, were considered another form of denialist. This is because while these people supported invasive species management, they were still opposed to certain management efforts due to a lack of understanding of the science behind that management. Similarly, people who agree invasive species are a problem but say “this isn’t my problem, and I shouldn’t have to do anything about it” when shown evidence otherwise were also framed as denialists, as it again indicated a denial, or at least a lack of understanding of the scientific facts.

Invasive species cynicism is the form where someone may well understand what invasive species are and the science behind their management. However, they may still oppose management because they believe it will harm them in some way.

For example, someone who does not want to have to check and clean their boat to prevent an invasive species spread because it takes too much time would be categorized as an invasive species cynic. As well, someone who does not want to cooperate with management efforts because they personally like a particular invasive species and would like it to persist, despite knowing its potential for harms to the ecosystem or economy, is also an invasive species cynic. From these examples, it should be clear that this form of ISD is quite different from what we would think of as a “science denialist”. They understand the science, but it just does not motivate their beliefs or behaviour on this topic.

This research was also recently presented at the International Conference on Aquatic Invasive Species by co-author Noelle G. Stratton. Invasive species nihilism, in particular, prompted discussion both in-person and on social media.

Invasive species nihilism is the form that does not appear to take into account the science behind invasive species or their management at all. Rather, it revolves around the idea that invasive species research, management, or engagement are essentially a waste of time. The efforts were pointless and the results useless. This framing also differed from the other two forms in that the folks who expressed these beliefs often directly approached invasive species practitioners during the course of their work to inform them that their job was meaningless and to ask them why they bothered. This type of framing has the greatest potential to impact invasive species researchers and practitioners personally, and it is potentially the most difficult form of denialism to surmount during engagement and management efforts.

How can invasive species denialism impact management efforts?

ISD has the potential to hinder management efforts in a few different ways. Invasive species denialists may slow down decision-making by stalling or halting discussions with other stakeholders. In some cases, invasive species cynics have taken direct action to interfere with the implementation of policies that would aid with management efforts. Invasive species nihilism could make some stakeholders less likely to engage with managers because they have come to believe that management is pointless, and managers themselves may endure the stress of hearing that their work is not of value to people with this perspective. The effects that ISD may have on management are varied and depend largely on the type of framing of ISD being used. Similarly, the way that we respond to someone that we believe to be an invasive species denialist should be informed by the framing of ISD they are using.



“An understanding of these framings is also vital to respond to instances of ISD appropriately. Whether we are being confronted with anti-science contrarianism, environmental cynicism, or outbursts of nihilism, should inform our responses and our strategies to counter these positions.” (Stratton et al. 2022)

The framings of ISD explored in this research suggest that a diversity of interpretations of species movements, and value judgments about their impacts and the need for management, exist. This has the potential to problematize reductionist claims that all critiques of invasive species management are simply a denial of scientific facts. These results provide evidence that even when there is agreement on the impacts of invasive species on ecosystems, some stakeholders nevertheless deny the need for, or benefit of managing invasive species. This study further contributes to ongoing scholarly and practitioner conversations about the normative assumptions of invasive species biology and their implications for invasive species management and governance.

Research article:

Stratton NG, Mandrak NE, Klenk N (2022) From anti-science to environmental nihilism: the Fata Morgana of invasive species denialism. NeoBiota 75: 39-56. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.75.90631

Image credits: diagram by NG Stratton; comic panels by NG Stratton, via material from Flickr (ChrisA1995, CC BY 2.0; Mike, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; the-difference CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) and Studio Alternativi (Esetefania Quevedo).

Leave a Reply