Touchy-feely ecologists

18 04 2013

happy scientistOne of the many reasons I started this blog nearly five years ago was to engage both minds and hearts that my (and my colleagues’) scientific journal papers were failing to do. Of course we have emotional attachment to our areas of expertise (I’ve never met a good scientist who wasn’t passionate about what they studied) – but as Alejandro Frid encourages – we just have to transmit that emotional component better to our fellow human beings.

The title is not a joke about sensitive, New Age guys. I am quite serious about it. Though no academic superstar, I have been publishing in ecological and conservation journals for almost twenty years. I love the discipline. I’d hate to see it fail.

What I am talking about is this: ecologists read and write about ‘extinction’, ‘over-exploitation’, ‘climate change’ and so forth as a matter of routine. Yet at the same time, science journals are full of examples of how resources can be used more sustainably, of human behaviours that reduce the greenhouse gases that alter the climate and acidify the oceans, and of alternative economic models that value a healthy biosphere. So why do consumer apathy and political inertia still run the same old show?

I know, I know. Social scientists are working hard on this question (check out, for instance, just about any issue of Nature Climate Change). But what matters is not the rigorous answer that they might produce (we already know that it is 42 – Douglas Adams couldn’t be wrong); it is instead that most non-scientists probably don’t even care about the question.

So let me rephrase my title. If enough of the science needed to transition from the current economic system to one that values the atmosphere and ecosystems that sustain humanity already exists, ‘what would it take to generate the critical mass required for change?’ One can argue that we can always use more science, and I don’t disagree. But will more straight science change minds?

Dwelling on that question, I’ve come to believe that scientists are failing to influence a shift in the world because most of us live mainly in our heads. We usually appeal to other people’s intellect, which is a sure way to disengage most non-scientists. At the same time, we cannot take science out of the picture; we would risk having only beliefs, and these could be dismissed all too easily. Shifting society in any meaningful way, therefore, might require science and more. Science and emotion. Science and connection to the essence of the Earth.

Now that I have given you my version, let me be perfectly clear. The science that scientists do is exactly that. Where I believe that there is a lot more wiggle-room to go beyond science is in the human context that we might create when communicating the bigger picture to non-scientists. Of course, I am not the first to say this (see, for instance, Don’t Be Such A Scientist, by Randy Olson). And I invite the community to expand on this discussion.

Oh, one more thing. I recently went out on a limb and initiated my own ‘science and emotion’ project. I invite you to check it out here. This is a work in progress, so it would be great if you can drop me a line and tell me what you think.

Alejandro Frid

(see also Alejandro’s previous posts on Who’s responsible for climate change? Not ecologists, right? and Conservation value of paddy wagon currency: civil disobedience by scientists)



13 responses

25 11 2014
Why engaging in civil disobedience was my obligation as a scientist, parent and citizen |

[…] daughter‘. See Alejandro’s previous posts on here, here, here, here, here and […]


23 05 2013

I really appreciate the intent of this post. Conservation scientists as a whole are an extremely passionate lot who tend to wholeheartedly believe that the things they value matter the most! However, I think what we often forget, is that everybody values something, probably just as strongly as we value conservation. Getting others to care isn’t as easy as just convincing them that we care. It also involves convincing them that what we care about should be as important to them as what they care about. Is it?


19 04 2013

I loved this post! How about starting a new addition to scientific reports on TV, radio, whatever, with at least two things people can do to help, given what ever the topic has been? Two things that people can do everyday that will really help. If we non scientists hear it often enough what would clearly help, I think it would manifest in more people doing something or urging governments to do something as well.


18 04 2013

Alejandro, what a truly wonderful post! Similar ideas have been swirling around in my head for some time as well.

Last night my five-year old son said this to me “Dad, the world is missing amazing animals. I wish extinction wasn’t forever”. Granted both my wife and I are biologists, so perhaps he is more aware than your average kid, but I assure you these are his words, not mine. Why should a five-year old have to be suffering the consequences of our stupidity and greed already? This is what drives me, and no doubt many others.

I think there’s at least three things scientists need to do if they are truly serious about fixing problems, not just advancing their careers/profiles:

1. Admit that more papers does not equal saving the planet any faster. After all, papers in many disciplines are increasing at near positive exponential rates, but the environment tracks in the opposite direction for the most part. So why do we do what we do then? Yes, I know the answer, at least in part. But, is our approach working?

2. I think most scientists have no idea how to sell the message. Most scientists are not trained to communicate effectively to the public, particularly with the aim of persuading others. We could learn a huge amount from marketing companies. We are trained to be objective and dispassionate. Where has this got us. I think we need to express emotion (joy, sadness and anger – where any of these is appropriate) wherever possible, and advocate (yes, I know some will cringe), but always based on scientific evidence.

3. In reference to my son above, children really are THE KEY, even if some will say this is such a cliche concept. Your book is a wonderful idea in this respect and I hope it takes off.

I for one grow angrier, and often sadder, at the way we our treating our planet. But I am not defeated, I’m too stubborn for that.

I wonder whether we could make use of your wonderful post Alejandro and discussions from others above to put together a collective piece on the need for a big rethink in our approach to conservation.

Thoughts anyone?

Euan Ritchie


18 04 2013
Falko Buschke

I think a collective piece is a fantastic idea and I’d love to get involved. I tend to oscillate between thinking that we need more passion and thinking that too much passion is ultimately a bad thing.

I agree that passion (and compassion) is needed to liven up the bland approach of science-driven conservation. But I also think the perception of conservation biology as a passion-driven career choice will be detrimental to the conservation cause in the long run. As long as young people see conservation biologists as under-paid and under-appreciated, they will continue to pursue other career choices that aren’t fuelled by personal “sacrifice”.

Like you said Euan, children are the key; but we can’t just focus on making them appreciate nature. We have to create a system that allows them to act on their own appreciation.

My classmates and I arrived at university with the idealistic ambition to save the planet. Now, 9 years later, most of my classmates have left the natural sciences. Not because they stopped caring. Not because they were scared of hard work. They left simply because the real-world pressures of student loans, unemployment and poor job prospects forced them to do something else.

We need to somehow bridge the gap between passion-driven industry and a good, pragmatic career choice.

Here is a nice paper that states my argument much more effectively than I can:
Whitaker, D.M. (2003) The use of full-time volunteers and interns by natural-resource professionals. Conservation Biology, 17, 330-333.


19 04 2013
Alejandro Frid

Euan, having a direct connection with those who will live with the consequences of our inaction is key to mobilizing in the way that I hope might happen. I like the idea of the collective piece. Now we just need someone to lead it (hint, hint…)

And by the way, thanks to all others commenting. If I do not respond directly to your comment it is only in the spirit of leaving room for a diverse conversation. Great to see that this got some people going!


18 04 2013
Into the Eremozoic

An interesting and thought-provoking post. I agree with the premise of the post….any meaningful shift towards a future where biodiversity is not constantly on the back foot will require rigorous science, massive political will, and (perhaps most elusively) a step-change in the way we see, and feel, our own place in the biosphere and relation with it’s other components. In other (less scientific!) words we’ve got, collectively, to feel the connection with nature, acknowledge the pain of it’s demise, and feel driven to do something effective about it.


18 04 2013
Rosie Cooney

Dear Alejandro,
Is emotion really what’s needed? Its an appealing idea, but I don’t agree.
For instance, this decision today – under pressure from mining companies the Aceh government appears to be converting a vast tract of forest to mining/palm oil/logging. It is the brute realities of political and economic power that often dictate conservation outcomes-typically I suspect science has only a fairly marginal role to play.
best, Roie


19 04 2013
Alejandro Frid

Rosie, emotion by itself is not going to do it, but I believe it can help in many cases by mobilizing voters/consumers towards less destructive lifestyles/policies. Emotion is only part of the mix along with science and savvy political campaigns. Witness the momentum that organizations that use all of this, (like are generating towards a better set of possibilities. Witness the abolition of institutionalized slavery, as unthinkable at the time as a decarbonized economy appears to be today, but which actually happened thanks to a mix of emotion/ethics and savvy politics.


18 04 2013
Falko Buschke

I really enjoyed this post. And I agree with Cagan’s comment above that we, as ecologists, don’t value to on-the-ground impact enough and, instead, focus on convenient metrics like grants and papers to measure our success.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. In fields like Engineering and Computer Science there is a focus on application; proof-of-concept is not enough to get a good paper: they have to show that it works in the “real” world too. I think that many conservation biologist are starting to understand this and many of the newest conservation studies are more than just pointing out a problem- they offer pragmatic solutions as well.

However, I am of the opinion that this ecological apathy comes from fundamental researchers who have to masquerade as applied ecologists in order to get funding. It’s easy to spot: they will have a tiny paragraph in the discussion about the “potential” consequences of their findings with a vague link to climate change, habitat fragmentation or over-exploitation.

I’m don’t want to criticise fundamental researchers and I certainly don’t want to imply that their work isn’t valuable. Nevertheless, it reminds my of a excerpt from Richard Feynman’s biography (Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman):

“For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing–and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.”


18 04 2013
Cagan H. Sekercioglu

As a university professor, I also run my own conservation organization, . We achieved some major conservation firsts, including creating Turkey’s first wildlife corridor:

Getting actual conservation done rather than just writing about it has been immensely rewarding but it has a huge opportunity cost. It takes up about half my time and reduced my publication output by about the same. How many scientists are willing to pay this price to achieve real-world conservation?

Yes, scientists do live in their heads but many like to relate to people and to communicate their passion. But there is very limited time, ruthless competition, and practically little value given by universities & funding agencies to achieving real world conservation, which is immensely time consuming. If you cannot publish many papers and get grants, you lose your job, even if you manage to get the whole Congo Basin protected (well maybe they’d cut you slack there). So given the opportunity cost of time and given the fact that most people naturally need to watch for themselves first, most people go the safe route of publishing papers and applying for grants while doing just enough outreach to check the “broader impacts” box of the NSF proposal. Until universities truly value non-paper and non-grant achievements, most conservation biologists will continue to publish heaps of papers documenting species’ losses or proposing solutions that they hope someone else will read and turn into action. Or they will write theses and papers about different peoples’ ideas of ‘a better world’, but will not spend much time to educate and convince others why a world with intact ecosystems and biodiversity is truly ‘a better world’.


19 04 2013
Alejandro Frid

Cagan, I hear you. Academics can run themselves ragged trying to meet expectations of research, teaching and service, and unhealthy academics cannot create a healthy shift in the world. So what I suggest needs to change is the scope of what is considered to be ‘service’ to include what my post suggests.

It really comes down to this: the fast change that we need to avoid runaway climate change etc might have a better chance of happening if we mobilize the general public into action via a synergy of science and more fundamental aspects of our humanity. If granting/tenure committees do not see value in that yet, then it is up to discussions like this to start changing the system.


18 04 2013

Dear Alejandro – I think you couldn’t be more right. I have recently entered the world of leadership theory and one of the major things we are learning about are some steps to creating an ‘intervention’ (actions to adapt, anticipate and initiate change in a rapidly changing world):
1) get people’s attention; 2) propose an intervention/action/idea; 3) reach out to people’s hearts; 4) observe, interpret, go back to 1).
I manage a program that works closely with boat owners and recreational fishers about the prevention and reporting of marine pests. We have discovered over the last few years that the doom and gloom message about marine pests is nowhere near as effective as a new message we have developed about ‘healthy fish habitats’ – this message has captured the hearts of fishers because they care deeply about fish and they understand that ‘healthy fish habitats’ are necessary if they want to continue fishing. Using this phrase regularly has created significant leverage in the boating and fishing communities and is starting to see an outcome in behaviour change, particularly with boat owners who want to do the right thing to prevent the spread of marine pests.
This is just one small example but you are right. If we don’t capture people’s hearts, positive change won’t happen.
I had an interesting discussion recently about creating ‘a better world’ and asked the question ‘why wouldn’t you want to create a better world?’ but of course the underlying assumption in this question is that all our ideas of ‘a better world’ are the same. Turns out someone I know is doing a PhD into this very idea – are all our ideas of a better world the same, similar or very divergent. Seem it’s a bit early for formal results but she seems to think that they are surprisingly similar but I would be interested to know if it differs from a cultural perspective (i.e. first world vs third world), or if it comes out to be something akin to Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. We will have to wait and see.
Thanks for raising this interesting topic. I think it’s something we could all learn from.


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