Today’s post falls under my Conservation & Environment Series. And no, it doesn’t refer to chipmunks that need hearing aids or a Canada Goose couple that just don’t seem to understand each other. I’m referring to the impacts, on nature and the environment, of perpetuating mis-information.
It’s an issue that’s been gnawing at me for a while and so I finally had to write about it – get it off my chest and toss it out there for discussion.
At the real heart of the issue is how we, as scientists, are not very good at communicating science to the general public and as a result, the public ends up mis-informed. That mis-information can hurt the environment. That’s the crux of it.
My angst about the issue began when I attended a photography presentation this past winter by a local photographer, Michelle Vallberg. She had made several trips to the Canadian arctic, photographing its stunning landscapes and wildlife. She was exhibiting some of her images and also gave a fabulous presentation, showcasing many of her images. She stated up front that she was not a biologist and that these were simply her observations and experiences. But it was clear she had a decent grasp of the basic biology of arctic ecosystems and some of the environmental issues facing our arctic regions. Her photos were stunning and I would have been happy to have walked a mile in her shoes.
After the presentation, she entertained questions and comments. Someone in the audience asked her about polar bears. He wanted to know if she had encountered lots of polar bears during her trips. The short answer was yes. And in fact, Michelle elaborated by saying that the locals (primarily Inuit people) in some of the areas she visited had actually noticed that they were seeing and encountering considerably more polar bears in and around their communities in recent years.
I don’t doubt that observation for a second. The Inuit, as people who live off the land, know their land intimately. They know about the plants and animals and what is happening to them as global climate change occurs. They are very connected with their surrounding environment. That locals in these northern regions are encountering more bears is not something that I would question.
What bothered me was the comment that ensued. In response to the statement about local Inuit encountering more bears, someone from the audience responded that maybe polar bears are not threatened by climate change. Maybe polar bear numbers are increasing. Hey, if Inuit are seeing more bears, there must be more bears out there than there were before. As a biologist, alarm bells sounded for me immediately.
Just because the locals are encountering more bears does not mean that polar bear populations are increasing. In science, the reason why we do experiments is to try to understand what is causing some pattern – what is the explanation for the observations we have recorded because an observation on its own does not tell you anything about its cause. I’m not for a minute saying that we need to start experimenting on polar bear populations. Not only would that be completely inappropriate, but it also is utterly infeasible! My point here is that just because locals are seeing more bears doesn’t mean that bear populations are increasing.
The comment that maybe polar bears are increasing in numbers alarmed me enough that I just had to speak up. And so I made a comment in response – that more sightings and encounters around the local villages does not mean polar bear populations are increasing. It simply means that bears are being observed and encountered more frequently by the people in the area. We can’t say anything about the cause of the increased sightings.
I just couldn’t let the audience believe that more sightings meant polar bear populations are increasing and that this whole issue of population declines of bears due to climate change is bunk. I didn’t want a roomful of people going home and thinking, Hey, tonight I found out that global climate change isn’t killing polar bears and that in fact, maybe it’s helping them. There was no way I could let people leave thinking that.
So, I offered up an alternative explanation. Maybe locals are seeing and encountering more bears because of the effects of global climate change on their environment. Maybe local bear populations are declining, but that local Inuit are seeing more bears because bears are on the move, looking for food. Sadly, we already know from the many years that the garbage dump existed in Churchill, Manitoba, that polar bears will gladly munch on human garbage. Tour operators in Churchill used to take their clients to the local dump, just so that they could see polar bears.
Let’s just entertain the following hypothesis: what if local polar bear populations are in fact declining because climate change is affecting availability of sea ice (which polar bears need for hunting), making it harder for bears to hunt seals(their main food source)? If this were true, then maybe bears are venturing into local villages more frequently, in search of food because they are hungry, because they are having problems getting enough food in the wild. This is just an hypothesis; I’m not saying conclusively that this is the case. What I’m pointing out is that we could have a completely opposite explanation for the same observation.
After I made my comment one fellow in the audience said (to paraphrase) that what I was saying was crap and that environmentalists were trying to pull the wool over our eyes and that scientists had no clue what’s happening to polar bears in the wild. He wasn’t timid in sharing his opinion.
That worries me. Its’ true that we need more data to better understand what’s happening to wild polar bears. I’m not an expert on polar bears. But I am a biologist and I used to teach population biology. I know that we need more data to get a clearer picture of what’s happening to wild polar bears. But I also know that we have to be careful about the conclusions we draw based on observations. All the scientific literature I have read (field studies investigating changes in the amount of arctic sea ice, polar bear survival and birth rates and population sizes as well as modelling studies predicting bear population sizes at the end of the century) indicate that there is a general trend toward decreased sea ice in the arctic and that many polar bear populations are in decline. Polar bears need sea ice for hunting seals and for resting. My point is that yes, we are still learning about how climate change is affecting polar bears. But when people jump to conclusions and pass it on to others as if it was fact, I think it has big potential do damage.
Mis-information can be dangerous. I wonder how many people went home from the presentation that night, thinking that polar bear populations are not in peril? How many went home thinking that the concern over global climate change is overblown? Listening to people mingle and discuss, after the presentation, I surprised by how many echoed that polar bears must be doing just fine if the Inuit are encountering more of them. After all, they just saw a lot of gorgeous images of polar bears. There must be tons of them up there!
I wished I had asked some of them, what if you’re wrong. What if you think polar bears are fine, global climate change is bunk and so we do nothing about it? And what if we end up with conclusive evidence that shows that bears are declining due to climate change. What then? We should have acted, but we didn’t. That’s a high cost to pay.
This brings me back to my initial point, my general concern that as scientists, we need to do a much better job of informing the public about the results of our research. We need to make that information both accessible and palatable, putting it in a form that the general public can understand. If we leave it up to the media to get the word out, we know the mis-information will continue. That’s not a pot-shot at the media. What I’m getting at is that when we play the ‘telephone game’ (remember that from grade school? Where your teacher whispered something into the ear of the first student in the line and each student had to convey that information to the person next to them, on down the line. We all know what happens. The version of the message that the last student got is vastly different from the message told to the first student), we risk conveying mis-information. I think we have the same problem in science. Because we too often rely on non-scientists to interpret information and package it for consumption by the general public, we risk creating mis-information. I see it all the time in the media and it makes me cringe.
In the past I think we, as scientists, have collectively done a really lousy job of conveying science to the public. But I do think it’s getting better. We still have a long way to go. We need more scientists with excellent communication skills talking to the public. We need more scientists working directly with communication specialists to put the results of research into a form that the average person can understand. We need to ensure that information gets conveyed to the public in a way that they can understand it, but at the same time, ensure that the information is accurate. We need to avoid the ‘telephone game’. And this doesn’t just apply to environmental issues. It’s rampant in the medical field too. How many of us have heard on the news that drinking red wine is bad for our health. But then a few years later, we hear about a study that says drinking red wine is actually good for our health! No wonder people are confused…
A while ago I came across a new programme at Sir Sandford Flemming College here in Ontario. The programme is called Environmental Visual Communication and its focus it to teach students with a science background how to use the tools of communication (photography, video, graphic design, etc) and how to develop communication skills and use them to convey conservation and environmental issues to the public. That’s brilliant, in my books! And long, long overdue. The students in this programme bring me hope.
A big focus of my photographic work is visual storytelling. Using images to tell people about nature, conservation and the environment. Combining words with images to inform people, in the hopes of getting them to care about nature and environmental issues. If we can get people to care, then we can get people to act. It’s getting them to care that’s difficult. Or maybe they do care, but they can’t see how their daily actions have ramifications for our entire planet. I mean hey, I’m only one person on a huge planet with billions of other people, right? Just a drop in the bucket, so to speak. What I do doesn’t matter, does it? WRONG! What each of us does, matters.
Our actions are based on our understanding of the world around us. This means it’s critical for people to understand the world around them. Mis-information can cause us to behave in ways that harm the environment, not help it. This quote that I found recently sums it all up for me:
In the end we will conserve only what we love.
We will love only what we understand.
We will understand only what we are taught
- Baba Dioum
So I hope we do a better job at getting people to think more critically of the information they glean from the media. I hope we do a better job of communicating science to the general public. And I hope we ensure that information gets conveyed accurately, so that people can scrutinize it and make up their own minds about an issue.
My thanks go to my good friend and polar storyteller, France Rivet at Polar Horizons, for allowing me to use some of her fabulous polar bear images for this post. Be sure to check out her website and her latest project.