Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Science increasingly must make its most important cases to nonscientists"

I wrote earlier that I was tired of seeing so many tags on just about every animal in the sea.

Grant Johnson wrote:
"...Regarding the tags, just recently, the Great Hammerhead missed being protected under the Endangered Species Act in large part because data on the species is "severely lacking." Objectively speaking, what is more likely to result in better protections for this species, thorough data on their life history, habitat usage, and migrations, or beautiful photographs and videos of unmarked individuals? I think it is the former.

"No disrespect intended, I just find this divide between researchers and divers to be very bizarre when the ultimate goal of both groups is often so similar.  "

His complete comment is in the original blog post, below.
I, too, find the "divide between researchers and divers" to be bizarre.  But it's not all the public's fault.   Scientists know that they are terrible at publicizing science, but I've been involved in Pew meetings where the researchers sit around and complain endlessly about being misquoted by the popular press; and then complained that they did not have the time to talk to the media.  Many scientists who talk to the media are indeed misquoted, their explanations simplified -- but that's part of getting the message out.  Their peers often vilify scientists who try to get the word out to the popular media.

Mr. Johnson's attitude, that research studies are more important than images and video of animals, is undoubtedly shared by most scientists.  I tend to disagree with his attitude, but I have no doubt that the vast majority of researchers believe that their work and research is far more important than getting the word out to the popular media.

In fact, I vehemently disagree.  I'm a member of that popular media -- and the "general public" -- and believe that the films and photographs that wildlife photographers, filmmakers, and writers have produced have been vastly important to the movement to save the marine environment and marine species.  Ideally scientists and the media can work together, but given the disdain that scientists have for the media and general public, I don't see that scientists can complain when their work is misinterpreted.

As a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, one of the things that I wanted to photograph was shrimp farms.  It was just me, a single and lowly photographer.  I went to Thailand and other places in Asia and finally got some folks to show me around; most of the folks involved in the business did not want to help me since they did not want to be portrayed in a negative light.  It was depressing work, and I asked for help from folks in the Pew program.  The impression I got after attending a couple of meetings of these eminent scientists was that the talk was mostly about who was boning who -- just like high school.  The last straw was when I learned that there was a field trip to head out to some shrimp farms -- and the Pew person in charge of connecting scientists to the media had not thought to invite me -- even though I had asked her for help several times.  She was far more interested in whispering with another female scientist about her love life, which seemed to be blossoming during one of these meetings, with a famous male scientist who was a popular media darling at the time.  

When my fellowship ended, I wrote the program the letter below.

Sometime in 2004:
Dear Pew Fellows:

I am writing this to a few of you who seem to have an interest in working with the popular media to get marine conservation messages out. 

The overwhelming messages that I heard at the recent Pew Fellows meeting were:
1.  Things are getting worse, not better. 
2.  Scientists need to get their message out. 
3.  Scientists are terrible about getting their messsage out.  They need help. 

If the Pew Fellows program is serious about solving marine conservation problems and recognizes that the popular media is an important part of the solution, then it needs to enlist the help of the popular media in a fundamental and integral way.  It needs to marshal the expertise of the few Pew Fellows that have experience or interest in working with the popular media.  It needs to enlist the participation of freelance filmmakers,  photographers, writers, film producers, directors, and programming executives.  It has to extend its effort well beyond the selection of scientists who are understandably absorbed in their culture and their areas of expertise and cannot direct their attention and energy to effective communication in the media.

The Pew program and its Fellows need to develop a mutual working respect for those in the popular media.  Perhaps most importantly, it needs to recognize that getting stories in the popular media takes a professional, committed, time-consuming approach.  Getting the message out will not be effective if  delegated to "afternoons after I've finished my morning writing."  The Pew program needs to fund and support those Fellows who can tell or present media stories, and the Pew Program should make "getting the message out" a top priority.

Here's an example.  A recent article in Time magazine discusses how the hit CBS drama, CSI, has dramatized and popularized forensic science.  Forensic scientists are rolling their eyes about the dramatic license taken in the series, but this show has increased awareness of forensic science.  Forensic science schools report a dramatic increase in interest and enrollment.  This is part of what we need: a new series about the oceans, with compelling characters.  The series will certainly will hype and over-dramatize science. 

Any scientist watching such a series will roll their eyes and cringe in embarassment, as DNA is analyzed in minutes rather than weeks, and the characters encounter adventure after adventure and make definitive statements like "the bluefin tuna fishery is crashing!" rather than "if we look at the attached reports and graphs, there is a 90% probability that tuna stocks are in serious decline.  We recommend further study."

There needs to be a push to get marine science into all aspects of the popular media.  There should a computer simulation game called "SIM Coral Reef," just as there is a "SIM City."  There should be several television series on marine science, featuring buff women and men who would otherwise be on Baywatch, and having plots that are only a small cut above Baywatch (which was the world's most-watched series in its day).  We need to continue to preach to the converted, continue to hook up scientists with the media, but we need to take a far more proactive approach to getting our stories out in far more outlets.  We need to realize that we have compelling stories to tell and sell to the popular media.  The Pew program is ideally situated to help marine conservationists do this.  In my opinion, however, it has failed miserably and spectacularly so far in getting any kind of message out to the masses. 

I could say a lot more, but this is sufficient for an initial communication.  I am happy to discuss these issues and ideas with anyone.

As a final note:  At the end of my Pew project, I anticipate having a library of still images (probably 700 "prime" images) and 60 hours of high-definition television footage depicting good and bad marine scenes.  I am seeking funding or some way to administer this library of images.  If any of you know of entities that might be interested in working with me to obtain funding to administer this library, I'd like to hear about them.  I and Larry Minden at Minden Pictures (the world's best natural history picture agency, representing photographers like Frans Lanting, Jim Brandenburg, Flip Nicklin, Mark Moffett, and others) agree on the need to develop an infrastructure to post and administer high quality images on the web for use by nonprofits and other entities.  We have experience running photo licensing businesses and know the amount of work and the intricacies of running such a business.  We are the people to make this sort of thing happen.  We just need the funding in order to make a library of images available to nonprofits, among other things. 


Norbert Wu
Norbert Wu Productions

A web gallery of some of the images that resulted from my Pew fellowship can be seen at:

Lastly, the June 2010 issue of WIRED magazine had a great commentary on this issue:

“Scientists hate the word spin. They get bent out of shape by the concept that they should frame their message,” says Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences program that helps connect the entertainment industry with technical consultants. “They feel that the facts should speak for themselves. They’re not wrong; they’re just not realistic.” By and large, Dash says, “scientists have withdrawn from the sphere of public culture. They have contempt for the lighthearted fun of communication.”

It didn’t even occur to the AAAS panelists that someone might find that here’s-the-data-we’re-right attitude patronizing—and worthy of skepticism. “Until scientists realize they need us, we can’t help them,” Bush says. “They have to wake up and say: ‘I recognize it’s not working, and I’m willing to listen to you.’ It’s got to start there.” Science increasingly must make its most important cases to nonscientists—not just about climate but also evolution, health care, and vaccine safety. And in all of those fields, the science has proven to be incapable of speaking for itself. It’s time for those with true passion to get over the stigma, stand up, and start telling their stories.


Grant Johnson said...

Hi Norbert,

I 110% agree that conservation photography and film work is incredibly important, and I don't think that I implied differently, or at least I didn't mean to.

My point was that most of the tangible protections for wildlife ultimately come from governments, and they are most often basing their decisions on the available data from relevant researchers.

When talking about research, film, photography, and tourism, I think it is absurd to pit these things against each other, and I don't think they are realistically at odds with each other when looked at objectively.

I also think it's absurd to base opinions about such a diverse group of people, such as "scientists", "researchers," or "film makers", on the worst examples you can find from those fields. There are idiots & assholes in every field and trade, but the actions or behavior of those people shouldn't influence the perception of anyone other than those people themselves.


Sean said...

Hi Norbert,

To second Grant's point of view in his last comment...what if we based our view of all wildlife filmmakers and photographers on some of those fake shows we see on Shark Week? Thankfully there are actually a lot of great people out there and a lot of great shows.

I think with social media, scientist are making an attempt to better inform the general public of their projects and results, on the types and functions of their tags, etc. But yes I couldn't agree with you more, it definitely needs to improve. However, sometimes social media gets in the way when for example things like massive bite marks on sharks are "blamed" on the researchers. I also tag the oceanics in Cat Island. I have heard what started out to be "6 tags" on the animals. This past year some people decided to up it to "8 tags". Every time I challenged them to produce a picture showing 8 (or even 6) tags. They couldn't, because it is straight up nonsense. I think that is my biggest pet peeve with social media, the rate at which completely false information spreads. I might not agree with you, but it is OK to not like the tags, but please do some research before taking to social media to blast the researchers or the tagging.

BTW, for those interested in learning more about the Cat Island oceanic study, the main dive boats going to Cat Island (JA, Epic and SC) have all been sent nice photobooks detailing our project goals, tags used, list of animals caught, tracking maps, etc. All in an attempt to better inform the diving community. Copies will also be given to Greenwood Beach and Hawks Nest at some point this year as well.