Post-Truthing Conservation

Interview with Carina Wyborn, Research Advisor at the Luc Hoffmann Institute, by Victoria Pilbeam, Masters student in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford.

One of the biggest conservation challenges is how to translate what we know about the environment into meaningful action. In conservation circles, this is often discussed in terms of the ‘science-policy interface’, the ways that conservation science connects and relates to decision-making. In an era in which some political leaders claim that the general public are “tired of experts” and draw their evidence from “alternative facts”, critical thinking around the science-policy interface is perhaps more relevant now than ever before. As conservation scientists and practitioners, we all have to do some soul-searching about the role of science in a ‘post-truth’ world, says Wyborn.

Can you tell me about the Luc Hoffmann Institute (LHI) and the work that you do?

We have a very inspiring mission to connect the global research community with WWF’s conservation programmes and other conservation organisations, but in practical terms this is challenging. My main role is to help LHI understand what it means to implement that vision. My research is about the role of science in conservation decision-making at local, national and regional scales. Conservation has always had a mantra of ‘using science to make the world a better place’ but a lot of social science literature on the role of science in decision-making is not making it into the conservation space.

We also have a capacity development programme, currently, mainly focussed on post-doctorates but we’ve just started working with a Master’s programme in the US. The goal is to provide ‘non traditional’ skills for conservation scientists to help them think about, and do, science differently to improve its impact.

How do you see your role as a social scientist working on conservation science?

LHI’s role is to help address some of the critical conservation challenges of the 21st century So many of conservation’s challenges revolve around how we can engage with people differently, with different types of knowledge, and the role that science has in complex, messy decisions that are much more about values than they are about facts.

Science is a really powerful ‘institution’ but it’s also an identity for people, often for people who are trying to save the world and feel very passionately about their knowledge. I strongly believe in the value of science but we need to think about its appropriate place. This involves instances in which we need to take science down from its pedestal, in a way that situates it with other ways of knowing and making decisions. Sometimes that’s threatening to people. But how can we re-evaluate the role of science if we can’t have an honest conversation about it?
Badlands National Park went rogue on twitter, posting a series of climate change facts.

What do we do in this current climate where things are so politically polarised – there is a whole conversation about ‘post-truth’ and how science fits within it? Do we even have scope for conversations about a science-policy interface when people don’t seem to think that science is a valuable source of insight?

It’s an interesting time. I think the science wars are back but in a different form. We are seeing people resisting the rhetoric of Brexit and Trump. Some of Trump’s policies could seriously damage scientific endeavour. But as a critical social scientist, I see some rhetoric from the scientific community about protecting the facts in ways that play back to how we got into this situation in the first place. Addressing the science-policy interface with a critical lens can become so polarised, particularly in relation to climate science.

I think a conversation needs to be had about post-truth and the role of science in decision-making. Post-truth is much more about some politicians being able to lie to the public and not being held to account.  Saying that scientific facts will solve that problem is missing the point. The point is that we don’t have a societal discourse which is critical and reflective. We can have this at the local scale but at the national or international scale, it is more difficult. But I don’t think that shouting the facts louder is going to help.

When you consider the language that scientists sometimes use to talk about people who reject science, well no wonder they reject science! There are many different, complicated reasons why Brexit and Trump have come about and denigrating the people who voted for them, really doesn’t help.

The research community needs to take a hard look at how it is embedded in the establishment that is being rebelled against. This is hard for scientists because it involves getting into conversations about politics and values and that’s not what scientists do, right? So we’ve got to go back to the beginning and think about how we train scientists to understand more about the basic philosophy of science. I fall victim to my own linear model sometimes, thinking that if scientists read what the leading thinkers in science and technology studies write, it will all be ok, but obviously it is more complicated than that.

Do you have any advice for young conservationists or people coming from another field into conservation about critical and constructive ways of thinking about knowledge and the science-policy interface?

One of my bug bears is conservation courses that aren’t even teaching the basics of how to work across disciplines; it seems like everybody wants to learn how to be a social scientist rather than how to talk to one. Go and talk to a social scientist! The same goes for social scientists. Figure out where your capacity lies, figure out how your mind works. If you’re good at numbers go with it. If you’re good at words, go with it. If you want to study frogs, then go with it. But learn how to talk to other people and how to work with them. Understand and appreciate the value of different types of knowledge whether it’s social science or that of the rancher who lives on the property that you’re working on.

Don’t assume a uniform science-policy interface, it’s different in different places. These amorphous ‘decision-makers’ that we talk about have faces and names and identities and will do different things under different circumstances.

Be open, aware and reflect on what you’re doing.

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