Nature is cooler than the Joneses


Have you noticed the wild flowers are becoming scarcer every year? It may be that their wise men have told them to depart till man becomes more human.

~ Okakura Kakuzō (1906) The Book of Tea

Nature doesn’t depend on Technology. There is not a single natural process or ecosystem that needs artificial technology to function or exist. But much of human society does rely on technology. It is surprising how much ‘artificial’ technologies are increasingly seen to be central to scientific research, by both scientists and non-scientists. This view is particularly mystifying in ecological science, which is arguably the least technological of the sciences.

In a 2010 critical review of using GPS telemetry in field biology/ecology research, Hebblewhite & Haydon ask “what insights into ecology and conservation has all this extra technology really provided us with?” The disadvantages they list outnumber the advantages and they reckon the strongest advantage is being able to collect data that aren’t biased by the human observer’s ability or presence – things like nocturnal animal behaviour, or migratory patterns. Fair enough…but we did collect information like that before the advent of technology. It just required much more patience, and therefore time, than we think we have now. It also often relied on traditional knowledge gathered from indigenous people or past civilisations, most of whom were much more connected to Nature than we are now.

Observational studies, once the heroine of the natural sciences, are now considered very much out of fashion in some circles. Sometimes, the ‘latest technology’ part of new research gets more coverage or credence (or funding) than the real applications, or implications, of the study. Which is ironic considering that decisions based on research data influence communities and environments far beyond the reach of technology. Much of the Majority World doesn’t have access to ‘new’ technology and many non-western cultures still place more importance on face-to-face communication than they do on emails.

Are these changing attitudes to research merely a reflection of the technological society we live in? Or maybe it comes from Academia’s (and the Media’s) prioritisation of “novel” research? Often, developing or using a ‘new’ technology in the study is the easiest way to meet the ‘novelty’ criterion.

But Göran Arnqvist recently argued that because very little in science is truly novel, creating a system that prioritises novelty simply promotes “poor scientific practice”. Scientific research is meant to replicate, build on, and relate to, the previous knowledge and research on that topic. By demanding “novelty” to get published, and talked about, potential authors may feel more pressured to inflate the importance of their findings, or skirt around the edges of the existing literature.

Cloud DNA
Cloud DNA
In taking this approach to research, are we unwittingly widening the gap between Science and the public’s understanding of (and trust in) scientific research?

Retractions of published studies have increased tenfold since the start of the 21st century, although it’s unclear why – are scientists more honest now, or are more ‘flawed’ studies being published in hast, to tick the novelty box? ‘Mistakes’ happen in Science – even experienced scientists make errors of judgement in experiment, observation, analysis or communication, and (hopefully) they, or someone else, will subsequently try and improve on this. It’s been happening for centuries and this is what Science is all about. But ‘mistakes’ are now made more visible, and more accountable, to the non-scientific public through the reach of the collective Media.

At the same time scientific literacy has declined and general misunderstanding, mistrust and disrespect for the scientific profession has increased. Students in the US are more aware of Marlboro and Disneyland now than they were in 1980, but less knowledgeable on science, geography or history. In Australia, a recent science literacy survey found that 27% (of 1515 people) thought that early humans were alive at the same time as dinosaurs.

We are often told that addressing public engagement and literacy in science is pointless. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. But what if the problem wasn’t that a lot of people just didn’t really care about Science? What if they did care, but they had a misconception about Science based on the world they lived in? What if they had never learnt that Science was much more than lab coats, technology and the Big Bang Theory?

As Carol Kaesuk Yoon puts it so eloquently, our Umwelt (our sense or perception of the world around us) has changed. For thousands of years, our Umwelt was driven by our intimate connection to the natural world that we lived in. Now, it is defined by our existence “as consumers in a landscape of merchandise”. We can take ‘merchandise’ to mean not just “purchasable items”, but also the metaphorical merchandise (images, texts, software, ideas) that we receive from our technological society.

But Science is explained by Nature, not Manufacture. So if we are more connected to Manufacture than to Nature, how can we understand Science?

Let’s face it. We love Nature. Secretly, we are all desperate for a “long term relationship” with her. We can’t survive without her. Addressing scientific literacy and engaging with the “non-scientific public” is more than just embracing the latest technologies. It’s about getting Science back together with Nature, and teaching the next generation to keep up with the ‘old’ too.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere,

They’re in each other all along.

~ Rumi

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© Manu Saunders 2013

11 thoughts on “Nature is cooler than the Joneses

  1. Alison Jobling August 19, 2013 / 1:38 PM

    Love this one, Manu – I could go on for hours about our conversion to ‘consumers in a landscape of merchandise’, as it’s one of my personal hobbyhorses. 🙂

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    • manuelinor August 19, 2013 / 2:08 PM

      Thanks, me too! It is tragic!

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  2. livingsimplyfree August 19, 2013 / 1:50 PM

    I believe science is misunderstood because of the way it is taught in schools to the young. My boys loved nature, but hated science classes. It was only when we began to home school that they found science could be fun and incorporated it as a huge component of their everyday lives again.

    When it comes to shopping and consumerism, I would rather be in my garden, a store/mall or even the computer is not nearly as enjoyable.

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    • manuelinor August 19, 2013 / 2:13 PM

      Thanks! I completely agree – the education system is responsible for a lot of the disinterest and misunderstanding of science in the younger generation. If you think about how nearly every child is fascinated with science and nature when they’re little – but then suddenly they’re not interested when it’s time to go to university. Obviously whatever they’re exposed to (education, consumer culture and an increasing dependence on technology) as they develop is turning them off. Glad that you’ve kept your kids interested in it! Hopefully they’ll stay that way 🙂

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      • livingsimplyfree August 19, 2013 / 2:15 PM

        They have, they are both married now and in their mid and late 20s. They prefer nature and are sharing it with their children, who prefer the outdoors and exploring nature to TV and being stuck inside.

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        • manuelinor August 19, 2013 / 6:18 PM

          I’m so glad to hear it 🙂

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  3. Rachel August 19, 2013 / 6:26 PM

    A great post – all the science and technology in the world will never beat observation in the field, dedication and patience.

    We can never hope to group everything together relevant to the requirements of science – Habitat Suitability Index for ponds to support great crested newts for example; there are so many factors involved, all at different levels of impact, that you cannot determine that a pond is ‘suitable’ or ‘not suitable’ for them based on 10 categories that are given decimal numbers/points based on the varying states of said 10 categories. HSI’s are one of my pet hates 😛

    Likewise, observations from my last two dormouse checks allowed me to come to the conclusion that I was bitten last month because the female I handled was heavily pregnant (although I did not know this at the time), as this month she had four babies with her and tried biting me again. She was being defensive of her young. What technology could bring me to that conclusion if the event had never been observed??

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  4. manuelinor August 19, 2013 / 7:24 PM

    I read your dormouse post – they are so cute! I completely agree – observation is invaluable to ecology, and science in general. Most of the major scientific discoveries that shaped our modern knowledge of the world came from someone observing a natural event or process and then thinking about it or doing an experiment to test their theory. This is too often forgotten! 🙂

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