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Stupidity nearly always wins

With the formal closure of VicForests on Sunday (30 June) symbolising the final destruction of Victoria’s native forest industry, thoughts turn to an essay by a revered Australian forester, Dr Alf Leslie: Stupidity Nearly Always Wins. Source: Phillip Hopkins, Latrobe Valley Express

Issues surrounding forestry are proof of that proposition.

Dr Leslie, who died aged 88 in 2009, had an outstanding career in Australian forestry before soaring to new heights internationally. A sceptic and teacher who urged critical and independent thought, he combined his knowledge of ecology with economics and business management.

He was variously a director of the forestry division of the of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a project officer at the University of Nigeria during the Nigerian civil war, the Forest Economist with the FAO in Rome, and later Director of Forest Industries with the FAO.

In his essay, published in September 1999, Dr Leslie said Man, we are told, is a rational animal.

“But rationalism does more than imply that man has and uses this capacity; it accepts, without question, that he does. Yet the evidence hardly supports that belief.”

Dr Leslie said the historian Barbara Tuchman used the word “folly” to describe a major war, but that was really just a harsher way of saying “stupidity”. “The idea of stupidity more than reason ruling man’s decisions and actions has a long history,” he said.

However, as a contender for the title of the most outstanding example of the invincibility of stupidity, “the environmental conflict affecting forestry over the last two to three decades must be a firm favourite”.

“For stupidity is the most consistent and repeated common attribute found on both sides of the argument. Neither side has shown much respect for the facts of for rational argument from them, although this failing is much less marked on the forestry side,” he said.

“Forestry’s credibility was fatally undone by its initial denial of the indisputable evidence of the damage done by conventional logging, the problem which lies at the core of the dispute, and then by its justification of the damage as an unavoidable economic necessity before finally recognising there was a need for some (relatively modest and not too costly) modification.”

However, on the environmental side, Dr Leslie said the damage done by logging was exaggerated, misrepresented and blamed for all forms of deforestation so as to make a visually dramatic and appalling case. “No exceptions were allowed, although there were more than a few, while scientific evidence of beneficial environmental effects of logging, of which there were some, was denigrated and denied,” he said.

“Both sides thus forced themselves into extreme positions from which they were unable to withdraw, even slightly, without loss of face, so they did not.”

Dr Leslie said that forests can be conserved while simultaneously being used for multiple purposes including timber production and conservation.

“The evidence for this, although not numerically great, is enough to be scientifically irrefutable. That they rarely are under conventional logging has been allowed to dominate the conflict so that the real possibilities have not even been explored,” he said.

“And since to recognise this would breach the edicts of political correctness (incidentally another monumental load of stupidity) they are likely to stay that way. Society, as usually happens when stupidity prevails, is the loser, but this hardly matters.”

Dr Leslie said another example was the way the environmental movements had been allowed to transform the term “clear felling”.

“A technical term for an ecologically correct type of treatment for regeneration, it has become a public term of abuse and for shame. However, instead of educating the public as to its true ecological meaning, the responses have tended to emphasise its economic necessity and thus applying areas of clear cut much greater than the ecologically necessary minimum. Anything less likely to win public support would be hard to imagine.”

Dr Leslie said the fact that stupidity nearly always wins out against rationality was a very important one for forestry and especially for forestry education.

“One stupidity is the myth that a forestry education is not needed to practice forestry. Anybody, it seems, who has a modicum of practical experience, or of biology or of ecology or of sociology or of almost anything is apparently as well, if not better qualified,” he said.

“It is nonsense, but it is widely propagated and accepted, nonsense. And foresters have played along with it. To recognise that other disciplines have a place in forestry is sensible enough. To accept they are substitutes for it is stupid, unless the idea of forestry is a separate discipline is itself a myth.”

Dr Leslie said to some extent, both misinformation and disinformation originated in stupid decisions reached either within forestry or coming from outside affecting it.

“Rather than becoming an expert in information technology and the techniques and mathematics of rational decision theory what is, therefore, first needed is a theory of stupid decision making,” he said.

“Not so that foresters can learn how to make stupid decisions – the record shows that they are already fairly capable of that – but, in order to anticipate the sort of stupid decisions which are likely to be reached in the governing political and social environmental outside and thus to recognise the nonsense, masquerading as information, with which they will, as a result, be fed.

“Only then will they be in a position to counterattack with their own rationally-based decisions before they are defeated or constrained by the stupidities imposed on them.”

Dr Leslie said the trouble is that the fiction of man as a rational animal was so ingrained in education, research and thinking, that no theory of stupid decision making had yet emerged from which to learn or even the elements of one.

“Yet foresters are so exposed by the long-term nature of the forestry production process that they probably have a more urgent need for one than most. By default, therefore, they will have to start the development by themselves and virtually unaided,” he said.