Science and Conservation Media Literacy 101

Author’s note: This blog post is part of a multi-week assignment for students taking my introduction to marine biology course at Arizona State University, and also part of an exercise in my professional development training workshops on communicating science to the popular press. I am sharing the background information publicly because I believe it’s a topic that is of broad interest.

The internet in general and social media specifically have made it easier than ever before in human history for experts to share information relevant to their area of expertise with the interested public, with journalists, and with policymakers. Unfortunately, these same communications tools have also made it easier than ever before in human history for misinformation to be widely shared. When wrong information goes viral, it can lead to the destruction of democracy and civilization as we know it people believing factually incorrect things about fish.

Therefore, it’s important for anyone and everyone who cares about the future of democracy and civilization as we know it my marine biology students and media training workshop participants to be aware of how to find reliable and accurate news, and how to spot misleading or inaccurate news. If you can do this effectively, you may well save democracy and civilization as we know it do well in my course.

Something need not be actual “fake news,” a term we should consider using less because it’s become politically charged to the point that it’s nearly meaningless and people don’t hear what you actually mean to say, to be inaccurate and problematic. There are many different ways that a news article can be biased, misleading, and/or wrong.

First, I’ll go through some elements of a reliable, accurate science or environment news story. Then I’ll go through red flags of inaccurate, problematic news stories. Throughout, I’ll highlight representative examples. (Students, after reading this you’ll be assigned some articles to look for these elements and red flags in).

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What the hell is the DC Metro’s “climate change will increase shark bites” ad talking about? An investigation

Ever since I moved to Washington, DC last summer, I’ve been fascinated by an ad campaign for the DC Metro. The premise of the campaign is simple: taking public transit reduces your carbon footprint compared with driving yourself. It highlights various negative consequences of climate change, and points out how riding the Metro can help fight them.

Many of these ads highlight well-known consequences of climate change:

Photos by David Shiffman

Others highlight less well-known consequences of climate change, but are still on solid scientific ground:

But one ad in particular has been perplexing me for months:

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Shark Week 2019 reviews and thoughts

I wasn’t able to watch live this year, but I DVR-ed all 18 specials and watched them eventually! Here are my reviews, ratings, and thoughts. I did not watch the feature-length movie, which they claim is the first fictional entertainment content they’ve ever produced… causing me to stare in megalodon. Overall, this was not a strong year for science, facts, or diversity (of either sharks or shark researchers).

As a reminder, I grade on the following aspects of a show: is there actual science or natural history educational content / is there made up nonsense, are actual credentialed experts with relevant expertise featured or are they self-proclaimed “shark experts” who say wrong nonsense all the time, what species are featured (with bonus points for species we rarely or never see), and do they feature diverse experts or just the same white men (reminder: my field is more than 50% women)? It’s not a perfect rubric, but it’s better than this actual system for ranking shark news introduced this year in “sharks gone wild 2:”

Rankings appear in no particular order, if you care about the order the shows actually aired in please see this Discovery press release.

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10 sharks that mattered in the 2010’s

Just when you thought it was safe to read another decade-in-review listicle…

You can buy this on a tshirt

As the 2010’s come to an end, it’s a time to reflect on the often-problematic decade that was as we plan for a hopeful future. I am a sucker for year-in-review and decade-in-review listicles, and was devastated to learn that no one had yet written a decade-in-review listicle for sharks! Please enjoy my official, scientific list of the most important science, conservation, and pop culture sharks from the past decade.

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Repairing the world: How my Jewish faith informs my conservation philosophy

It’s easy to get discouraged or demoralized as an environmentalist in today’s world. It seems like every day brings more devastating news. Half of the world’s wildlife has died in my parents’ lifetime, and current rates of extinction may be up to 10,000 times higher than the natural background rate. We’re losing a terrifying number of birds and insects, and a million species are considered threatened or endangered. Things are bad enough that “eco anxiety” is now a recognized mental health condition.

It is said that in the environmental movement, all of our victories are temporary, and all of our defeats are permanent. Much of the current focus of environmental advocacy has been described as “playing against the slaughter rule,” hoping not to win but to avoid getting totally wiped out in our inevitable loss.

In the face of all this, I’m often asked how I can remain so optimistic, and so motivated to keep working. Some people are surprised to learn that a large part of my answer comes from my Jewish faith.

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Announcing the #BestShark contest for David’s birthday: make sandbar shark memes and art, win prizes!

My 35th birthday is next week, and I am calling upon the forces of the Internetz to help make it an amusing one. As you all know, sandbar shark is #BestShark. This spectacular shark is even the logo of my new consultancy!

David Shiffman Scientific and Environmental Consulting Logo: Original commissioned artwork by Ethan Kocak

I want you to help me celebrate my birthday by creating sandbar shark #BestShark memes and/or artwork! And my favorites will win prizes! Here’s how it works:

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Book review: “Shark Research: Emerging Technologies and Applications for the Field and Laboratory”

Editors: Jeffrey C. Carrier, Michael R. Heithaus, Colin A. Simpfendorfer. CRC Press, available here.

I can’t imagine a more useful introductory reference guide for new or prospective graduate students starting their career in marine biology than “Shark Research: Emerging Technologies and Applications for the Field And Laboratory”. This book is designed for people who have little to no familiarity with a research discipline but are about to start working in that discipline, a large and important audience that is often ignored by books and review papers geared towards people who are already experts. So many graduate students are told to learn a new research method by reading technical literature that assumes they already know this stuff, resulting in stress and frustration.

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Research expedition: what ever happened to the world’s first certified sustainable shark fishery?

My Postdoctoral research has focused on understanding the causes and consequences of public misunderstanding about shark fisheries management. While scientists overwhelmingly support sustainable fisheries management as a solution to shark overfishing, many concerned citizens and conservation activists prefer total bans on all shark fishing and trade. Some go so far as to (wrongly) claim that sustainable shark fisheries cannot exist even in theory and do not exist in practice anywhere in the world, and that bans are the only possible solution.

There’s an important piece of data that very rarely makes it into these discussions. Amidst the ongoing discussions about whether or not sustainable shark fisheries are even possible, one right in my backyard became the first shark fishery anywhere in the world to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

However, a few years after BC’s spiny dogfish fishery got certified, the certification was quietly withdrawn. I couldn’t find any information in the MSC reports, or in associated scientific literature or government reports, that explained what happened to this fishery, which was thriving until recently. No scientists, managers, or conservation advocates who I asked about this knew exactly what happened to BC’s spiny dogfish fishery.

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New paper: feeding ecology of South Florida sharks

We have a new paper out today in the journal Aquatic Ecology! Read it here, open access copy here. This is the last paper from my Ph.D. dissertation, and coauthors include my Ph.D. advisor Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, Ph.D. committee member Dr. Mike Heithaus, and colleague Dr. Les Kaufman. It’s called “Intraspecific Differences in Relative Isotopic Niche Area and Overlap of Co-occurring Sharks,” which I think rolls right off the tongue and would make a pretty sweet band name. This research was crowdfunded by the SciFund challenge a few years ago, so thanks again for your support! I want to tell you a little bit about what we did and what we found!

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Orca protection and vanishing Arctic lakes: Thursday Afternoon Dredging, December 20th, 2018

Cuttings (short and sweet):

Spoils (long reads and deep dives):

Please add your own cuttings and spoils in the comments!

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