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Look beyond common sense on wildlife, biological issues
Kevin J. Cook

John Snow defied common sense, not because he could explain cause-and-effect, but because he was convinced that common sense of the day was wrong and was killing people.

History provides a substantial list of discrete events all linked by a single theme: common sense held people, ergo culture and civilization, back. The Earth is flat and the sun revolves around the Earth are undoubtedly the two most famous cases where common sense was dead wrong, but medicine provides the most telling examples of how ridiculous common sense can be.

In John Snow?s 1849 England, everyone knew by common sense that foul air caused cholera and knew equally well that believing tainted water caused cholera was preposterous.

And yet Snow was correct; bad water, not foul air, was the culprit.

I highlight this subject because common sense is the last fallback position, the final rampart of argument, in our society?s growing list of wildlife issues.

A wildlife issue is any conflict between people and wildlife that spawns disagreement as how to resolve the conflict. When wildlife interferes with human ambition, conflict follows.

In the academic discipline of environmental ethics, wildlife can be viewed as conferring value or disvalue to people; and in the spirit of one person?s trash being another person?s treasure, a wildlife interaction that confers value on one person may simultaneously confer disvalue on another person. This disparity causes conflict that eventually demands resolution.

Issues spring from disagreement, and disagreement originates in opinion ? an intellectual or emotional attitude regarding an issue. In our free-speech society everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But opinions are not all equal.

When you seek to correct periodontal disease, when you need your car fixed, when you invest money for retirement, when you entrust a pilot to fly you across the country, you don?t want just a common-sense opinion. You expect and demand competent expertise.

But as a society, when wildlife issues are involved, we simply do not want plants or animals to interfere with our expectations of gaining personal value. And so everyone has his or her opinion about any given wildlife issue and expects that opinion to count.

An opinion regarding a wildlife issue may be based on biological literacy or biological illiteracy. This difference should matter when resolution of an issue is debated, but seldom does.

For example, common sense insists that the way to prevent West Nile fever is to spray chemicals into the air to kill the adult mosquitoes that bite. Biological literacy argues differently.

We do have a Colorado Wildlife Commission that theoretically oversees our state?s wildlife; but strangely enough, state law dictates how Republicans and Democrats will be represented on the commission but is silent about biological qualifications. In fact, no biological literacy is required of commissioners appointed at the pleasure of the governor. Think about it: How many biologists have you elected to any public office at any level?

School boards decide how much biology will be studied in schools. City councils and county commissions routinely decide wildlife issues through decisions about land use. State and federal legislative bodies and executive bureaus arbitrate wildlife issues daily.

Are you confident that their decisions are based on biological literacy? Or could those decisions be made based on good old common sense?

Intelligently resolving wildlife issues ultimately requires the fortitude of John Snow. Despite the hue and cry of an emotional public, someone must eventually defy ?common sense? and allegorically remove the handle from the town pump.

Spend the year with me, right here, and we?ll explore together some wildlife issues that will challenge our cultural perceptions of common sense.

Kevin J. Cook is a nature writer who lives in Fort Collins. Write to him c/o the Coloradoan, P.O. Box 1577, Fort Collins, 80522; fax: 224-7899.


Originally published January 8, 2006
 
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