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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 15th September 2011

I’m not looking for a fight. Really, I’m not. But, it seems, my local newspaper follows the lead given by so much of the media and thinks the only way subjects can be debated is by two people shouting their completely opposite views without listening to the other’s point of view. As a result, it has made me look like a fanatical plant hugger.

Last week, the Berwickshire News published a piece about Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, that contained many of the usual fallacies about how it is illegal to allow it to grow, how it kills lots and lots of horses every year, how it is spreading out of control and so forth.

It’s all been said many times before and it’s all been proved wrong many times before. In this blog I’ve written about common ragwort several times like here, here or here and, to be honest, I’ve stopped responding to every piece of misinformation because if people still say what they say it can only mean they don’t want to be given facts. But, this was on my home turf so I didn’t feel I could leave it unchallenged.

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

My letter, pointed out that the article was remarkably short of facts and gave a brief exposition of the true situation. Just to add some credence I gave one brief quotation from ‘The Scottish Government Guidance on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort’, which is the equivalent of DEFRA’s code of practice that applies elsewhere in the UK.

And that is where I made my mistake. I quoted only two sentences and the second one was ‘Ragwort, as a native plant is very important for wildlife in the UK’. I did this to make the point that ragwort is a native. Many people portray Jacobaea vulgaris as a foreign invader in the hope of generating a degree of xenophobia to help their cause.

Unfortunately, the sub-editor at the Berwickshire News chose this sentence to get the title for the letter ‘Ragwort important plant for wildlife’. Now it is, of course, but the problem is that this is the way the argument gets polarised. On the one hand, as characterised by the other side, you have selfish horse owners who want the countryside to be bent to their will and on the other you have the biodiversity fanatics who don’t care about the deaths of expensive animals.

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

I am most certainly not a biodiversity fanatic. As my letter says, ‘Ragwort is potentially dangerous and proper action needs to be taken to minimise that danger’. My concern is that the people who need to understand ragwort better may not read beyond the title of the letter because they’ve ‘heard it all before’.

I suppose I could be very wrong but I just have the feeling that there was a time when ‘argument’ meant two people politely putting forward their views on a topic based on the facts at their disposal and being willing to learn from the other protagonist’s facts. Now, every argument, it seems, has to be a row between two people with deeply entrenched views who will never accept anything being said to them.

I’m very inclined to blame the media for this because they do favour this confrontational style. For example, if the transportation of farm animals is being debated, they will bring in an evangelical vegetarian to argue that the animals are being harmed rather than someone who wants their food animals to be treated as well as possible.

As communication increasingly moves away from formal publications into the more direct world of blogs and forums and Twitter it would be nice to think that there could be a return to rational argument capable of producing a positive outcome. So far, however, I think it is going to take quite some time for people to realise that the electronic equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and going ‘la, la, la – not listening’ is not a productive use of the medium.