Singer's Campaign to Protect Waiawi Seen as Case Study in Social Manipulation

posted in: July 2011 | 0

The man who sued to stop the mangrove eradication project on the Big Island, Sydney Singer, has developed a reputation for activism on behalf of non-native species that are targeted for control by mainstream conservation groups. In addition to his crusade against mangrove eradication, he has also championed coqui, strawberry guava (or waiawi), feral pigs, feral cats, and wild sheep. 

One of Singer’s most ambitious campaigns was launched against the plan of state and federal agencies to introduce a scale insect, Tectococcus ovatus, intended to slow down the spread of strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum), generally considered one of the greatest threats to tropical and subtropical islands worldwide. Singer’s efforts to stymie the release of the biocontrol agent, thoroughly tested to ensure little likelihood of it jumping to another host plant, found fertile ground in the minds of many members of the public and, more significantly, that of county legislators as well.

That campaign has recently been written up in a scholarly journal. Authors Keith Warner, assistant director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University and Frances Kinslow, a graduate student at Chaminade University, analyze Singer’s efforts to rally support for his claims as a case study in how risk communication can be communicated. (The article, “Manipulating risk communication: value predispositions shape public understandings of invasive species science in Hawai`i,” appears in the May 25 edition of Public Understanding of Science.) The case, they write, “illustrates the obstacles to invasive species risk communication to the public, and its vulnerability to manipulation by an activist opponent.”

The authors describe a situation on the island of Hawai`i where more than a decade ago, relations between conservationists, on the one hand, and pig hunters and their supporters, on the other, became almost hopelessly broken. A “common theme … emerged: resentment by the local people toward the advice brought by mostly white, mainland-born scientists whom they considered ‘outsiders.’ Hunters maintained that the conservation scientists’ assertion that pigs harmed forests was speculative.” The so-called pig wars of the ’90s thus put in place an “established, popular narrative that conservation science is used by ‘outsider’ government agencies to justify decisions that directly conflict with how rural Hawaiians use forests,” Warner and Kinslow write.

It is against this backdrop that Singer’s opposition to the release of T. ovatus played out. The authors note that Singer and his wife, Soma Grismaijer, had already run up against mainstream science with a book arguing that bras cause breast cancer. “Their argument has been rejected by cancer researchers and the mainstream medical community, but was popular among some advocates for alternative medicine,” the article states. Their critique of “consensus science,” it goes on to state, then turned “to invasive species control efforts, specifically of the noisy Puerto Rican coqui frog (Eleutherodactylus coqui).”

“Through websites dedicated to these issues and extensive advocacy via petitions, participation in public events, and postings on the internet and local bulletin boards, Singer constructed a public identity as a contrarian scientist who articulated local values and criticized government scientists. Singer drew on this local credibility in his campaign against the T. ovatus introduction.”

Singer’s “rhetorical strategy had two thrusts,” they write. First, he raised doubts about the “trustworthiness of conservation scientists.” Second, they say, he linked efforts to suppress strawberry guava through biocontrol “with the established narrative of government agency indifference to rural livelihoods.” They note how, through the selective use of phrases from a government researcher’s reports, Singer made it appear as though the researcher was endorsing opinions diametrically opposed to those he actually held. “Singer thus selected from [U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Tracy] Johnson’s risk communication to regulatory scientists and then constructed his own narrative – using scientific terms – to appeal to some local values.”

“Singer drew from the same lexical field used by those who objected to pig fences,” the article goes on to say. “He claimed that free, wild food was under attack….

“It was not that Singer was himself a credible messenger, but rather that he was able to discursively appeal to established narratives about government agencies and science.”

“Several critical questions about the public understanding of invasive species science are cast into sharp relief by this case study,” the authors write. Might “credible local authorities” – they suggest a pig hunter or native Hawaiian cultural leader who uses native forest plants for cultural practices — be called on to speak in favor of invasive species control? On the other hand, “skeptical members of the public could reasonably ask for greater transparency on the part of government agencies and more responsiveness to community concerns.”

They conclude: “When a gap exists between invasive species scientists and a network of opponents, in the absence of public engagement, the potential for a perverse outcome exists: augmented public mistrust of science institutions.” Singer’s “knowledge of the local values predisposition” gave him “a form of social power that can hold off government efforts to pursue conservation goals…. [The case] illustrates how routine risk communication can be manipulated by reframing deliberation about scientific management practices into a debate about the credibility of government scientists.”

Singer Responds

Singer commented on the article in a posting made to an online user group for people concerned with invasive species in Hawai`i. The article, he wrote, “was poorly written and I believe inaccurately described the strawberry guava biocontrol project’s public reaction and my personal reason for opposing this project…..”

“I think, in general, the environmental managers are wanting to get the public behind their agenda, rather than adapting the managers’ agenda to the public’s values,” he continued. 

Also, “species being targeted are vilified….,” he wrote. “The species becomes the ‘enemy’ as war is declared. As a scientist I find this extremely objectionable, and my personal crusades to protect the coqui, strawberry guava, and mangrove began when I read propaganda coming from the government and saw it was not objective, honest science.” Among other things, to achieve “improved risk communication,” he suggested that resource managers “admit the benefits of target species and be more holistic in seeing the complex interrelationship between species and the environment.”

Although describing himself in this post as a scientist, at other times, Singer has specifically stated he is not one. On the same online user group, in a comment just a few weeks earlier on another invasive species, Singer wrote, “Admittedly, I am not a scientist.”

On many occasions, Singer has described himself as a medical anthropologist and a biochemist. A resume he provided to the court says he received a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Utah. He also informed the court that he received a master of arts degree (in anthropology) from Duke University, “where I spent two years in the Ph.D. program in biochemistry and an additional two years in the Ph.D. program in anthropology.” Following that, Singer claims to have been enrolled in the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Texas medical branch at Galveston, “where I spent two years in the medical school program and an additional year in the medical humanities program.” 

Patricia Tummons

Volume 22, Number 1 —
July 2011

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