Ever wondered how you get sucked into clicking on topical headlines (here are some great tips for creating those headlines)? Do you question how you know so much about Miley’s personal life, when you don’t even like her music? This is how journalists and entertainment media work – whether classy or tabloid, they know how to tap into human psyche and emotional values to get their story out.
This is a useful tool rarely taught in traditional science education: the key to effective public engagement and communication of research and evidence is in understanding what the public values and how they interpret things. (This can also help when doing research.)
It all boils down to the fact that humans still communicate through signs and symbols. Like all animals, we recognise patterns and processes in the world around us and associate meaning with them. Red means ‘stop’, green means ‘go’, and a threatening grey cloud mass moving in off the horizon means ‘find shelter’. We can recognise a river in a flat landscape by a meandering line of trees, and we know how to find a public toilet by looking for a stick-figure symbol.
Advertising and popular culture follow this principle, by presenting images and sounds via myths, signifiers and symbols that we all recognise and connote meaning from. This is the language that convinces young men that smothering themselves with Lynx will make them desirable to impossibly hot women. In general, most of these meanings are interpreted fairly similarly across people and place, but cultural, demographic and personal influences can create contextual variations. For example, 1D connotes ‘OMG!!!!!’ to teenage girls and ‘Bleh’ to older generations, while this symbol…
… will mean nothing to you unless you think Robert Plant was the greatest vocalist of the 20th century.
Science straddles the border between this world of mass communication and a world of exactness, precision and detail that often doesn’t allow for generalist or cultural connotations. Communicators want snappy stories with interesting narratives, appealing characters and intriguing metaphors. Scientists want to make sure that their research is presented within the precise limits of their study system, without allowing for ambiguity or misrepresentation. Sometimes these two goals can’t be achieved simultaneously and compromises have to be made.
To throw another spanner in the works, society’s values and connotations can change over time. So the public’s understanding of a concept may diverge from the path it once shared with science. Take ‘ecosystem services’ (ES). Much has been made in recent years, both in the scientific literature and popular media, over the negative connotations arising from placing an economic value on nature. Also, some think the word ‘service’ connotes an image of an enslaved nature, existing only to sweep the path for industrialism and feed our gluttonous mouths with hand-peeled grapes. This is definitely not the ideal outcome for ES proponents.
But the main goal of the ES concept was to simply help people (particularly policy-makers) understand that the natural world is vital to supporting human society and well-being. Money talks, after all…so quantifying ecosystems and their parts as a value, especially dollars, is something that everyone, from any demographic or interest group, can understand and relate to. It’s simply a useful ranking tool – if keeping ecosystems happy and healthy is worth an average of US$33 trillion/year (however rough the estimate), we know that Nature is therefore more valuable than the Bieber (US$200 million) and a Gucci bamboo leather backpack (US$2590).
In 1977, ecologist Walter Westman published a piece in Science highlighting the difficulties involved in accounting nature’s services. He prefaces his article with a line from Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality to show how many ‘unanswerable’ questions arise from such attempts: how do we place a value on the cultural, intellectual and emotional heritage that evolved from Wordsworth’s simple interaction with a flower more than 200 years ago? Yet, he continues, this approach is necessary because policy-makers from Western societies are increasingly trying to identify a monetary value for things normally considered priceless (clean air and water, wilderness) in an “inexorable quest to rationalise the activities of the civilisation”.
So if the scientists who supported and developed the ES concept recognised this ecological quantification as a metaphor, not a market index, what’s changed? Are today’s scientists more capitalist than previous ones? Is it the media’s fault for not translating clearly? Or maybe society’s connotation of the word ‘service’ has changed over time?
Once upon a time, a service was more akin to a charitable act. Service organisations were often state-run and provided assistance, benefits or support to individuals or society as needed, either for free or a small fee. You joined the armed services to protect King and Country, the postal service delivered mail to your loved ones for you, the emergency services were there to save your life. Utilities (gas, water and electricity) necessary for living were delivered to your house for a reasonable fee. Services were associated with basic needs and survival, just like nature. They differed from goods, which were mostly purchased by choice.
Since then, many ‘services’ have been privatised and commercialised. Services have become businesses, and their focus has shifted from serving a guaranteed client base, to making profits at the expense of human compassion and client needs. No wonder people take ES the wrong way.
Healthy debates over the differences between the instrumental and intrinsic values of nature are necessary – they remind us that representing ecosystems with dollar values is just marriage counselling, not divorce papers, for our relationship with Nature.
But looking at history also reminds us that currency is not the only way to ‘value’ – people valued Nature as essential long before ES became a ‘thing’. Once upon a time, we lived in Nature – we had to respect her or we wouldn’t survive. David Starr Jordan, Stanford University’s founding president, published this rambling piece in Science in 1896, explaining how crucial ‘nature study’ in education courses was to developing moral culture. And this wonderful piece (from 1880) on Homer Dodge Martin’s beautiful landscape paintings sums up how we appreciate nature through art: ‘Nature, dear friends, is charming and perfect. But Art is not Nature. Nor is it her slave. It is her ally, if you please, in stirring man’s soul with the sense of beauty.’ Sounds so much better than ‘cultural ecosystem services’, doesn’t it?
Metaphors, myths and analogies are not frivolous poetics for the ‘arty’ crowd, and nor do they compromise the accuracy of science communication. If used pragmatically, they can be extremely useful for teaching science and nature’s ‘value’ (both physical and emotional).
© Manu Saunders 2014