A recent study by social psychologists found that when facts conflict with deeply held beliefs, people tend to disbelieve the facts. If true, and I suspect it is, then that explains why conflicts over strongly held principals or beliefs never seem to get settled by a reasoned discussion of facts. Facts, it seems, are handy when they support one’s own beliefs, and just as easily dismissed when they are somebody else’s facts. I raise this philosophical point because it bears on how people negotiate when natural resources are in dispute.
As a scientist we receive requests for our expertise on situations that pertain to ecological changes. Recently an email came to me from a person who sits on the historical commission of a town on the east coast. In that town is a large, old tree, a tree famous locally. In fact, the tree is so famous it is depicted on the Official Seal of the town! Local residents who have been in the area for some time share stories about the origins and historical importance of the tree to visitors. As it happens, the historian, being an empirical scientist, is not so sure any of the stories are true, and has found some letters that seem to suggest that the tree may not be so old after all (not “hundreds of years old” but maybe 80 years old). So the tree may not have participated in the history of the town in the way some townspeople like to believe.
The problem is that the tree in question is not doing so well and people are wondering to what lengths the city should go to preserve it. The city arborist has to consider best practices and the safety of people who gather at the park where the tree is growing. So money is at stake, professional responsibility, liability, and people’s feelings too.
I hope the citizens of this town can find a solution that makes everyone happy, but I am not going to come in on one side or the other. In similar cases with other trees, people have decided to graft copies of the original tree onto new rootstocks. That way the “Grand old Lady” lives on, but is no longer a threat to people’s health. I also gently reminded the historian who wrote to me that people have a special feeling about some trees. The feeling is hard to describe, but certain old trees seem like companions, a quiet presence that reassures us that the past is with us and the future is going to be connected to who we are now. Trees like that mean a lot to people and to a town. The kind of facts I deal in when working with these trees—facts related to DNA and genetics—may not be the most important when management choices need to be made.