Australian Toads: A Tale of Two Dogmas

Cane toad

There’s a great quote-mining opportunity in this new story from PhysOrg: Everyone agreed: cane toads would be a winner for Australia. It says, with a bit of bold font added by us:

When cane toads were released in Australia in 1935, they were the latest innovation in pest control, backed by a level of consensus support that a scientist could only dream of. So what went wrong?

Hey — we just realized that the website we use for science news has changed its name. They used to be Physorg.com, but now they’re Phys.org. Shall we start calling them “Phys”? Your Curmudgeon is getting to the point where it’s foreseeable that he’ll start to become become set in his ways, so this name change is going to be difficult for us. Anyway, we wrote about Australia’s toads once before, in Australian Toads: Evidence of Creationism?

But the lesson to be learned from today’s story in Phys (or Phys dot org) is a new one, which is not readily apparent from merely reading it. It requires our special Curmudgeonly insight to see the deeper meaning. They say:

Cane toads built on successes in biological control, replaced pesticides like arsenic, pitch and copper, were supported by a published scientific paper, had international scientific peer review, were endorsed by Australia’s peak science body CSIR, championed by industry, promoted by the Queensland government and its premier, met quarantine regulations, were approved by the Commonwealth government and endorsed by the prime minister. With cane toads, Australia thought it was on to a winner.

Aha, consensus! Perhaps you’re beginning to sense where this is going. Let’s read on:

Modern insecticides were developed in the 1940s. Before then, farmers and gardeners used predatory and parasitic wasps and flies, insect-eating birds, mongoose and toads to tackle pests. … Toads had a pedigree. In 19th century France, toads were sold to gardeners at markets in Paris. French cane farmers carried giant toads from South America to control pests in their Caribbean sugar plantations.

We get the impression that plantation owners often carried toads around. That undoubtedly led to the line which was later borrowed and modified by Mae West: Is that a toad in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me? (Sorry, we couldn’t resist.) The story continues:

There were few opponents to the introduction of the toad in Australia, and only one made his views public: retired former New South Wales Chief Entomologist Walter Froggatt. He forecast that cane toads “may become as great a pest as the rabbit or [Prickly-pear] cactus.”

But Frogatt’s peers rebuked him. Eminent scientists branded his views “decidedly pessimistic”, “radical and biologically impossible apprehensions”, and accused him of holding “an incurable bias”. Today, some might label him a toad “denier”.

A toad denier! And no one listened to him. Unless you’re oblivious to the evolution controversy, you surely see where we’re going with this. Here’s more:

With the help of man, cane toads colonised some 138 territories and they now rank among the world’s most invasive species.

But the full extent of that impact in Australia only became obvious generations later. In 1975, 40 years after the toad’s release, the first survey of the awful impact of cane toads on Australian fauna was published by Mike Archer and Jeanette Covacevich of the Queensland Museum. And after 60 years, CSIRO first studied their interactions with northern Australian fauna.

If only the toad denier had been heeded! Moving along, we come to the stuff that will be pounced upon by the Discoveroids:

The catalyst was the consensus that restricted free enquiry. It led to oversimplification and misinformation. It prevented questioning of the suitability of cane toads. Information was to hand in the observations of Queensland’s own scientists, but it was ignored. And there was no understanding of the toxicity that became the main problem for native fauna trying to eat cane toads.

Consensus! That led to the stifling of dissent. And that led to disaster! Here’s the final paragraph, and it’s virtually certain to be quoted by the Discoveroids:

Some would argue that consensus among scientists is an unnatural state for minds programmed to question sacred orthodoxies. But one thing is certain: we should be opening the doors of consensus to scientific scrutiny and critical debate, no matter what the issue, if we are to learn anything from the well-intentioned devastation wrought by the cane toad.

So there you are. The Discoveroids have long presented themselves as scientific pioneers who are unfairly — and cruelly! — excluded from peer-reviewed journals, who are scorned as creationists and science deniers, and who have much to offer to a closed-minded world. So they’ll draw the lesson that dissent is good (which it often is) and they should be given the respect they think they deserve. This is an extension of our “vindication of all kooks” doctrine, which we introduced in Discovery Institute: The Mask Falls Away.

Unlike the lesson the Discoveroids are certain to draw from the Australian toad experience (that all dissenters are geniuses who are suppressed by an arrogant consensus of ignorant scientific establishmentarians), we suggest that there’s a different lesson to be learned, which is this: What really went wrong in Australia was a failure of intelligent design.

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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7 responses to “Australian Toads: A Tale of Two Dogmas

  1. So they should have let grade school science classes debate the toad issue and made the decision based on that?

  2. That’s a mighty fine portrait of Casey Luskin you have up there. The caption is wrong though …

    And now an irrelevant segue from toads to frogs.

  3. Cane toads. Ah, yes, I remember those. Bufo marinus as I recall. We had to dissect one of those in our freshman zoology class (U. of WA).

  4. Really, Tomato Addict, we expect better of you. This is a post about toads! Please don’t go off topic again. Frogs — harumph!

  5. gnome de net

    Retired former New South Wales Chief Entomologist Walter Froggatt was one of the few opponents to the introduction of the toad in Australia, so frogs really aren’t too very off topic.

    And it may help to explain his opposition.

  6. “Consensus! That led to the stifling of dissent. ” This is the IDers point of view. Our consensus is GAWD did it!!! And we will not allow any dissent!!!

  7. As for challenging consensus: someone please insert the quote from Carl Sagan: “they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
    — Diogenes