When it's right to be wrong

Let’s take a moment and be perfectly honest with ourselves. Let’s admit we sometimes mess up. Sometimes we make the wrong call. Sometimes we just get it wrong.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dig a bit deeper.

The line of work I’m in, conservation, is based on science. Science, by its nature, is an imperfect vehicle for gaining knowledge in the short term. You use the data you have available, develop a hypothesis, test it, and feed the results back into your knowledge base. Sometimes your hypothesis is completely wrong and that’s okay. That’s how you learn.

A dozen years ago I was hired by Des Moines County Conservation as the Natural Resource Manager. Tasked with improving wildlife habitat, I set about trying to diversify the prairie plantings we had throughout our park system. The accepted guidance at the time suggested that prescribed burning and strip-disking such plantings would help set back the thick grasses and promote growth of pollinator-friendly wildflowers and other broadleaves. So as a good scientist, I took two fields that were close together, burned them both then disked some strips in one of them to so I could compare the results.

I’ve regretted it ever since.

Everywhere I disked exploded in thick stands of teasel, a highly invasive species. I’m not a fan of using herbicide if I can avoid it and I believed at the time that such invasives could be controlled with fire so I didn’t immediately take to beating back the invasion with chemical like I probably should have. The plants got a foothold on the site and we’ve been fighting them ever since.

Lesson learned.

That lesson was learned rather quickly. Others, not so much. We spend a lot of time these days fighting invasions of bush honeysuckle, a fast-growing, fast-spreading bush that invades forests and pretty much anywhere it can grab some rays of sun. Like along the edges of trails. In one growing season, it can choke out a trail that was a full road-lane wide a year earlier. In forests, it grows in thick patches and shades out the soil underneath which keeps desirable trees, such as oaks, from sprouting. With no young generation of trees to replace the old ones, over a long enough time honeysuckle can literally change the species composition of a forest.

But conservationists didn’t know this three to five decades ago when they promoted planting honeysuckle as wildlife cover. I recently came across a letter from a state forester in the 1960’s recommending to our then-director that he plant honeysuckle at Luckenbill Woods, a property east of Mediapolis that was given to the conservation department as a wildlife sanctuary.


I suspect if those foresters had known then that some wildlife agencies would end up having to take the drastic measures of aerially applying herbicide to set back the plant fifty years later, they may have recommended something else.

But that’s the thing with management. You learn, you do, you learn some more and sometimes do something different based on what you learn. It’s adaptive. Things change. So must we.

This concept goes far beyond natural resource management. I remember as a kid having a particularly painful ear infection. I remember clearly my grandma, a lifelong smoker, blowing smoke in my ear as what I can only assume she believed was some holistic treatment.

This was the mid-1980’s. Smoking was still popular but the science knew it had pretty severe health implications. Unfortunately, public opinion isn’t so quick to accept scientific findings. And marketers aren’t always the best at communicating science. After all, the science isn’t always perfect. I’m sure my grandma had been marketed plenty of “science” about the benefits of smoking in the decades prior.

But we know where this story goes. It took another two decades before the cigarettes killed my grandma. By then the science, and marketing, was abundantly clear and society’s opinion of smoking had changed dramatically. I don’t suspect anyone today would attempt to smoke out an ear infection.

We all want to live in a world of absolutes. It’s either right or wrong. Yes or no. Black or white. But the world doesn’t work like that. In life, there are lots of maybes and a whole spectrum of gray. There’s lots we don’t know, lots of information we haven’t yet considered. We’re only truly wrong when we refuse to consider additional information or contrary points of view.

We don’t always get it right. But over time, we should at least try to get it better. With adaptive management, we always try to accelerate the pace of improvement. Imagine if we accelerated our pace of improvement with things like climate change, inequality, or politics.

I think that’s a world I could adapt to.

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.