The Problem With ‘Carpageddon’
I think it’s fair to say that Australian politics can be guilty of a flair for the dramatic from time to time. From the recent spill crisis, to the name-calling that abounds in parliamentary displays, to Bob Katter announcing that he wasn’t wasting time on the marriage equality debate because “every three months a person is torn to pieces by a crocodile in Northern Queensland”, Auspol enjoys the sensational. So when they heard about plans to release a virus into Australian waterways to deal with Australia’s persistent carp problem, of course they named it ‘Carpageddon’. But is this in any way an appropriate title? And why is it such a problem that we use this sort of language to sell scientific endeavours?
Australia’s waterways have been afflicted by carp for the last half-century. If every carp in Australia was 30cm long, the entire population end to end would stretch to the moon. They breed quickly, outcompeting other fish species, and no-one in Australia really wants to eat them, making control programs the only hope of keeping populations sustainable. So it’s somewhat understandable that when the government heard that a new control method – the introduction of a herpes virus which specifically targets carp – was approaching readiness, they got excited.
But the use of a term as sensational as ‘Carpageddon’ foregoes the inherent uncertainty of the scientific process. It gives the impression of this (very much potential) solution as a foolproof endgame that will wipe out carp in next to no time. After all, we don’t think of Armageddon as a prolonged period of population decline, do we? But the reality is that an introduction of a virus like this won’t necessarily wipe out the entire population. At best it will bring carp down to manageable levels. We’ve seen this before, with the introduction of two separate diseases to control rabbit populations.
And there are also plenty of other factors to consider. It’s all very well killing a bunch of carp, but it’s not like their bodies just evaporate. The ecological effects of a mass carp grave in a waterway could be horrendous. And whilst the virus doesn’t seem to be able to jump from carp to other fish species, the consequences of this defying our expectations would also be severe.
Now I’m not saying that this means the release of the virus shouldn’t go ahead – in due time. It’s a good initiative, and having recently spent four days conversing with people who work on the problem, there seems to be a sense of optimism surrounding the project. But science is a cautious business, and it should be, particularly when it involves the release of a new player into a novel ecosystem. We’re still suffering from the hastiness that Australian researchers showed in introducing the cane toad in the 20th century.
But this caution contrasts directly with the term Carpageddon. People hear Carpageddon, they expect a quick, effective solution. Politicians presenting something with this many moving parts as a final solution misconstrues the cautious nature of science, and when the people behind the project then come forward and declare that they need another year to ensure its viability, faith in science wavers.
I can’t emphasise enough that science is a discipline in which uncertainty is inherent. Sure, there are some things we’re fairly positive on – at this stage 97% of scientists believe that climate change is happening and is a result of human activities. We’ve got mountains of proof for evolution. But these are cases in which we’ve built up theories over decades. For a new project like this, no self-respecting scientist would ever come out and tell you exactly what will happen upon the release of this virus. They can tell you what they expect, perhaps even quantify their confidence in the result. And that’s how science works.
I hope that in a year, Australian fish biologists will be confident enough to release the herpes virus into Australian waterways. But I also hope that in a year, our politicians are not selling projects like this to the public in such a sensational and dramatic manner. And above all, I hope that if the virus is released, anything but a total extermination of carp is not seen as ‘yet another’ failure of science to deliver on its promises.