Part 3 of 3 in the series “Get to know your fry-entists”
Many scientists believe that advocacy is not our proper role. They claim that scientists should instead focus on gathering data and solving scientific problems, and should leave advocacy to others. According to some, publicly advocating a position runs the risk of discrediting a scientist, discrediting a discovery and possibly even discrediting science itself. While I respect the opinions and concerns of my peers, I strongly disagree with them. At least with respect to my discipline of shark conservation biology, our worthy goals are doomed to failure without scientist-advocates.
According to a science-purist, discoveries should be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and discussed at scientific conferences with peers, and this is the extent of the role of a scientist. If the work is “important”, the media will cover it, conservation organizations will advocate for it, and politicians will make relevant policy. Such an attitude is well intentioned, but old-fashioned and potentially catastrophic to the cause of conservation.
Let’s consider the scientific discipline of shark conservation biology. The public, who all scientists ultimately work for and on behalf of, are not predisposed to believe that sharks are important and worthy of conservation. Many believe that sharks represent a threat to human beings, and that “the only good shark is a dead shark”. The reality is that sharks do not represent a threat to people, and that due to some sharks’ role as ecosystem regulators, sharks are economically and ecologically very important. Though many aren’t aware of it yet, the average American is better off with sharks than without sharks.
How shall we let this message disseminate to the public? Should we merely publish it in peer-reviewed scientific journals and discuss it with colleagues at scientific conferences, all the while hoping that the media will report on it, conservation NGO’s will advocate for it, and politicians will make relevant policy? If the fact that after decades of scientific papers on the subject, the general public has no idea doesn’t convince you, allow me to explain in detail why this view of science simply doesn’t work.
1) The Media. With all due respect to the hard-working and bright members of the American media, most simply don’t understand science very well (there are exceptions, such as John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal). In fact, the general lack of science knowledge among the media is one reason why some scientists are leery of being interviewed by journalists at all- their research is often completely misconstrued. This is true of science in general, and it’s particularly true of shark science. There is an enormous bias in today’s media towards selling newspapers. “Shark attacks person” sells newspapers, while “sharks really aren’t that dangerous statistically, and they’re actually pretty important” does not. Examine this case study of damaging shark media coverage. Even on the rare occasions when the author says something shark-friendly like “sharks may be more afraid of us than we are of them”, they follow it with something like “sharks have been observed spitting out human flesh after biting it off”. Even media outlets that are supposedly pro-conservation such as the Discovery Channel aren’t immune to the “shark attacks sell, conservation doesn’t” trend, as evidenced by this year’s Shark Week. We simply cannot trust the media to accurately report scientifically discoveries in this field.
2) Conservation organizations. There are some excellent conservation organizations out there that benefit sharks, such as WildAid, Oceana, the Save Our Seas Foundation, and Iemanya Oceanica. These organizations read scientific papers, educate the public, and lobby lawmakers just as the science purists believe should happen, and they have had some successes. There are also extremist conservation organizations out there that read scientific papers and decide that the only way to make things right is through violence. In addition to not helping animals at all, these extremist organizations undermine the public’s trust in conservation (and sometimes even in science). The only thing that such organizations are good at is generating headlines (which, I suppose, is another problem with the media). There have been many times when I’ve spoken to members of the general public about the need to save sharks and someone has said something like “Are you one of those people who attacks poor fisherman just trying to make a living for the sake of saving an animal?” Violent extremism in the name of protecting the environment is unacceptable both morally and because it makes it harder for legitimate conservation organizations to do their job. While I will continue to support the work of legitimate conservation organizations, I fear that after the actions of a few bad apples, many members of the general public will never trust environmental groups of any kind again. Conservation organizations are an important piece of the puzzle but they will never be the entire solution.
3) Politicians. I shouldn’t really have to explain why scientists shouldn’t rely on politicians to make scientifically valid decisions. Few have any training in science, and most (in both parties) are so indebted to special interest groups that they really don’t care what the truth is if it conflicts with their chances of getting re-elected. Even our much-celebrated new President hasn’t impressed me much in this regard (see this old but still largely accurate review of his policies). Ultimately, politicians are useful because only they can make the important policy changes required to make the conservation movement’s goals a reality. However, they won’t do this unless there is overwhelming support from the public- the kind of support that merely publishing papers and speaking at conferences cannot possibly generate.
What should we do? I hope I’ve convinced you that at least in my little corner of science, the viewpoint of the science-purist simply doesn’t work. I believe that in order to accomplish the goals of shark conservation, scientists need to take an active role in educating the public, controlling the message the media distributes, and advising politicians.
Personally, I speak to the public both at formal speaking engagements and in informal settings. I’ve already given a lecture on this subject to undergraduates at two top universities (Duke and Yale), and plans are in the works to speak at several more this year. I am also negotiating with local schools, community centers, and churches with the goal of reaching as many people as possible. I also talk to people about sharks whenever possible, and I can attest that my family, my barber, and everyone I’ve sat next to on an airplane is now a committed shark conservationist. The overwhelming majority of these people would never read a scientific journal or attend a scientific conference, and we absolutely need their support to get any kind of meaningful policy passed.
Shark scientists such as Dr. George Burgess of the International Shark Attack File have long been ahead of the curve with respect to scientists interacting with the media- almost every time I see a national news story about a shark attack, it includes an interview with him explaining that shark attacks are relatively rare. Still, we need to do more. I was recently interviewed for the College of Charleston newspaper about shark conservation, and both people who read the article probably learned something about the importance of sharks. Other shark scientists need to do the same thing (though ideally in more widely-read publications). We need to get the word out there to the general public, and while nothing is as effective as face-to-face conversations, the media can reach more people.
As for my colleagues concerns about how advocacy can discredit science… they are absolutely correct. That’s why science advocates need to be very careful that absolutely everything they say represents the best scientific evidence available. Recently, I asked people if I should change an incorrect shark conservation fact that I had previously written in blog posts, and after some discussion, I decided to do just that. I take my responsibility as a representative of science very seriously and I work hard to ensure that everything I tell the public represents the most accurate information that the scientific community has. When the public hears from a scientist-advocate, they need to know that they are hearing the capital-t Truth and not the bias sometimes associated with conservation organizations.
If scientist-advocates are careful to ensure that they provide the best information available to the scientific community and that they don’t let their own biases interfere, scientist-advocates can accomplish much more than science-purists.
While I have used my own scientific discipline as an example, I really believe that these principles apply to any field within conservation biology, environmental science, and fisheries.
As always, friends, I welcome a lively discussion of the issues I have raised.