December 14: Fieldnotes from the Edge of the Wild
Responsibility and Credibility in Communicating Conservation Science to the Public
Last week was typical of scientific fieldwork involving the capture and marking of large raptors in Rocky Mountain winters―long hours of setting traps before dawn and waiting quietly in cold, windy conditions, punctuated by brief moments of exhilaration, immediately followed by attempting near-surgical precision with frozen hands while we secured, weighed, measured, banded, and released unhappy predators brandishing 3 – 4-inch, needle-sharp, talons! Our primary objective was to place colored, uniquely-coded leg bands on resident eagles to help us determine nest ownership and turnover in our long-term study of golden eagle nesting ecology in relation to human activity in the Bighorn Basin. But we also wanted to band some non-resident raptors such as rough-legged hawks, to help determine the specific breeding origin of these winter visitors to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Those long hours of waiting last week allowed me time to think more about the important role of natural history museums in our society, and the responsibility of working scientists to make the process and product of our work accessible to the public. I’ve been on the lecture circuit in 2012 discussing these topics and continue to refine my ideas from audience feedback at each venue. When I returned from the field this week and began trying to catch up on recent scientific literature, I came across a provocative editorial in the journal Conservation Biology. Kent Redford and colleagues contributed a cautionary piece about the importance of relying on rigorous conservation science when we (i.e., conservation scientists and other professionals) relate conservation stories to the public. We should celebrate the increased public attention and scrutiny conservation stories are generating these days and work doubly hard to ensure that our stories accurately reflect the most current, most rigorous science available. It is too easy sometimes, especially when synthesizing and “packaging” complex information into sound bytes, to over-interpret or sensationalize scientific information. While this practice can be immediately attention-grabbing, it can undermine the long-term credibility of conservation practitioners and conservation science if the story doesn’t stand up to careful scrutiny. To be effective in countering typical anti-conservation dogma regarding such topics as wolf reintroduction and management, and climate change, we must make certain that we aren’t propagating our own preferred dogma.
All of this brings me to the role of natural history museums and other similar institutions engaged in informal science education for the public. I believe we are in a unique position to inspire curiosity and excitement about the natural world through scientific discovery and help create responsible stewards of the spectacular biological diversity of our planet through our daily contact with lay audiences of all ages. It is therefore critical that we take this responsibility seriously and make certain that the exhibits, programs, media interviews, and publications we present to the public are engaging, relevant, and stand up to the strongest scrutiny.
For further reading:
- Lomborg, B. 2001. The skeptical environmentalist: measuring the real state of the world. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
- Preston, C.R. 2012. “A new breed of museum for a new era of exploration: celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Draper Museum of Natural History.” Points West Fall 2012: 22 – 27.
- Redford, K.H., C. Groves, R.A. Medellin, and J.G. Robinson. 2012. “Conservation stories, conservation science, and the role of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.” Conservation Biology 26: 757 – 759.
- Vohland, K., M.C. Miambo, L.D. Horta, B. Jonsson, A. Paulsch, and S.I. Martinez. 2011. “How to ensure a credible and efficient Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.” Environmental Science and Policy 14: 1188 – 1194.