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Bushfire, Logic & Ambrose Bierce

David Ward probes the application of philosophy to Australian bushfire.

Bushfire is Australia’s most lethal and costly natural hazard. Big, uncontrollable bushfires can kill millions of trees and wild animals, thousands of farm animals, and sometimes humans. Apart from deaths, bushfires incinerate property, such as bridges, farm fencing, homes, and even, a few years ago, an astronomical observatory. The cost to the economy can be ruinous. So bushfire management is no trivial matter for Australians.

While local volunteers provide most of the weary fire fighters, they are under the ultimate direction of salaried fire officers, who are public servants, wear white shirts, big hats, lots of medals, and appear on television, looking worried. Policy and budget are largely dictated by politicians, who usually appear by helicopter in the aftermath, dispensing sympathy.

It may seem to some that Australia has addressed the political chain well (especially the hats, medals and sympathy); yet there is ongoing dispute over the best way to prevent destructive bushfires. Some say that the answer is to return to something like traditional Aboriginal management, where the bush was deliberately lit at short intervals, so keeping fuel low and fires mild.

There are many historical accounts of this. For example, in the 1840s the German explorer Ludwig Leichardt described frequent mild bushfires in New South Wales, lit by Aborigines. Early European settlers imitated Aboriginal burning, to keep themselves safe. Others say that bushfire history is anecdote, or mythology, or even that such burning is impossible; or that frequent, mild fires destroy ‘biodiversity’ (however that slippery word may be defined). They say that history is unreliable, and only natural science can determine the truth about bushfire. One prominent Australian biologist, apparently dismissing history, wrote a letter to the journal Nature titled ‘Don’t Fight Fire with Fire’.

bushfire trees

Philosophers may be interested in bushfire epistemology, logic, and ethics. Is natural science the most reliable source of information on bushfire? If standards of refereeing in natural science journals are as unreliable as some say, particularly with regard to statistical analysis, is philosophy needed to oversee the matter? Even aesthetics come into the picture. Aborigines see recently burnt land as beautiful, because it is ‘cleaned up’, whereas many Australians of recent migrant descent see blackened ground as ugly.

Although Ambrose Bierce is not widely acclaimed as a philosopher, he did have some useful insights. In his Devil’s Dictionary (1911), the cunning old codger defined logic as “The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of human misunderstanding.” This may dismay learned, studious people like me, who are entranced by our own logic; but we should remember that Bierce also defined learning as “The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.” The perspicacious Bierce did not stop there. He gave a clear example of a suspect syllogism, in which the statement that sixty men can do a piece of work sixty times as quickly as one man (major premise) followed by the statement that one man can dig a post-hole in sixty seconds (minor premise), leads to the unavoidable conclusion that sixty men can dig a post-hole in one second. Those who have, at one time or another, actually had a shovel in their hands, may find this questionable. Similarly, those who have, at one time or another, actually had a fire hose in their hands, and breathed smoke up their nostrils, may be perturbed at statements by some studious ecologists apparently supported by statistical evidence, that deliberate, mild burning in cooler weather to mitigate uncontrollable holocaust bushfires in hot, windy weather, is ineffectual, and harmful to the bush.

Like Ambrose Bierce, some medieval Scottish lawyers who were not widely recognised as philosophers showed perspicacity with words, taking the Latin verb reptare – to crawl or creep – and forming the legal terms subreption and obreption, meaning, respectively, to crawl under the truth, and to crawl over it: in other words to mislead either by telling less than the whole truth, or by telling more than the whole truth. In bushfire debate, we need the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The post-hole syllogism is a clear example of subreption. Some papers in refereed journals of ecology may mislead public, and hence political opinion, through equally simplistic logic. They also misuse language. For instance, reports in refereed papers, and in the news media, use the word destroyed without a close definition. But although they may appear to be dead, many Australian plants are well adapted to bushfire, and resprout readily soon after it. They are no more destroyed by mild fire than a garden shrub is by being pruned. Other Australian plants need fire, or smoke, in order to flower or germinate from seed. Words can be misleading, as some philosophers have noted.

With regard to the political aspects of bushfire, Ambrose Bierce had it well covered. He defined politics as “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.” The interests in the bushfire debate include winning the votes of urban dwellers, who are rarely subject to bushfire yet may have passionate notions about its ecology. The principles are the ethical duty of care to both nature and human society.

As a former loyal public servant, I won’t give Ambrose’s succinct definition of the word ‘politician’, but it involves the word eel. We should remember that dictionaries can be wrong. Let’s hope that there are at least some worthy Australian politicians and public servants, who understand that bushfire is Australia’s most lethal, costly, and urgent natural hazard, and won’t use pseudo-science to wriggle out of their duty of care.

Should a basic grasp of philosophy be a requirement for political office? Perhaps governments should have a Department of Philosophy, to peer deeply into the claims of tendentious lobbyists, no matter what their academic qualifications or the length of their publication lists. There is a view that those who publish the most often have the least to say.

© Dr David Ward 2015

David Ward has a PhD in Landscape Ecology, was formerly a Senior Research Scientist with the West Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management, and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at Curtin University, Perth. His email is mumpnpop@iinet.net.au.

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