Preaching to Deniers

Back in college, I had a friend that would believe pretty much anything nature-related I told him. I was the biologist-in-training, after all (I didn’t abuse that trust.  Honest).  When he asked if male white-tailed deer grew a new tine on their antlers every year, I explained how the bone of antlers is covered in fine fur and vascularized, growing from nubbins to full size in the space of half a year.  At that point, the soft tissue dries and is rubbed off, leaving the hard bone.  The antlers don’t grow any more, but stay on the deer’s head until well into winter, when they fall off.  Then the cycle starts anew, and the buck, now a year older, may well grow a larger set of antlers.

Fast forward a decade or so.  I was a biologist at some expo or another; the table was decked with bones, tortoise shells, snake skins, and other bits of natural detritus with which to engage the public in conversations about how cool nature is. A woman came by, looking with mild distaste at my display.  At last, she pointed at the shed antler I’d picked up in the woods.  “Did you kill that deer?” she demanded.  I launched into my spiel on the antler growth cycle with the enthusiasm of a young professional naturalist.  I ended my micro lecture with a verbal coda indicating how interesting I found the whole process.

“Uh-huh.”  Not the reaction I was expecting.  She clearly didn’t buy a word that I said, because I was certainly lying to cover up evidence of my Bambicide.  Nonplused, I showed her the burr, running my finger over the rough transitional surface where the antler detached from the pedicle on the buck’s head; it was obviously not sawn off a dead deer.  Still didn’t matter.  I felt the weight of her judging gaze as she proceeded to visit another table featuring less unsavory characters than government biologists like me.

Earlier this week, I was talking with someone about one aspect of my job: advocating for certain suites of native plant species, a process that often involves removing non-natives as well as native species of a different seral community.  I went on to say that forest thinning and regular regimes of prescribed burning are standard management tools in the southeastern US. Foresters and wildlife biologists are trying to create openings in forests to bring back endangered animals, but ironically those plans are halted by lawsuits from well-intentioned “nature lovers” who think all forests should be climax forests, and that any tree cutting was only for the profit of the timber industry.

My correspondent suggested, “Maybe the scientists could do some educational outreach and turn the nature lovers into volunteers. When folks understand the science, they become great advocates.”

Oh, one would believe so.  And don’t think we don’t do outreach.  Here’s a secret about biologists: we are often very knowledgeable introverts.  One of the things that draws us to a career in the outdoors is limited contact with people.  Further, a biologist often knows that a casual question from a visitor at a booth will have an answer that encompasses an hour’s lecture of foundational background, examples, and counter-examples.  They must mentally distill this into a 20-second soundbite that still sounds convincing to the layman. 

And even if we were all ecological advocates with the eloquence of Carl Sagan, delivery of the message is only half the battle.  The receiver still must accept it, and there are several barriers to overcome.

Let’s start with the power of emotion.  Emotion is immediate and viscerally satisfying, while one must be patient and discerning with facts.  I can point to a browse line and explain why humans must cull a deer herd, but weighed against a photo of a hunter-killed deer I may well lose the argument.  My coworkers can list the plant and animal species endemic to a longleaf savanna ecosystem, but can that compete with the image of the charred, barren forest floor that is periodically  necessary to preserve those species?

The next hurdle is the cognitive bias. Certain members of the public dismiss our voices, particularly in the last couple of decades.  Is it because they’ve been lied to by dishonest authorities? Because they’ve been trained by fringe news sources to assume anyone coming out of a university has a hidden agenda?  We can’t be certain of the reason, but the result – skepticism veering into denial – is evident.

Finally, there is the willingness to change.  This seems to be the highest hurdle.  The ability to change one’s opinion when presented with new facts seems as rare and as valuable as any superpower.  The shed-denier at the beginning of this essay is but one of many I’ve encountered in person or via social media. “I’m entitled to my opinion” is acceptable in matters of personal taste, but too many in today’s society take it to mean, “My ignorance is as valid as your specialized knowledge.”

If you are reading this, likely you are part of the choir I’m preaching to; you’re nodding because you’ve probably had run-ins with the arrogantly ignorant folks who believe their emotional opinion overrules your fact-based assertion. But if I am fortunate enough to capture a pair of fresh eyes linked to an open mind, please believe that I am not getting paid under the table by Big Timber.  My interest in nature began with reading about dinosaurs as a toddler and has never waned.  If I tell you something about the natural world, it’s what I believe to be true.

I have been around long enough to know there are no simple solutions.  Improving habitat for one species may be detrimental for another. One of the more difficult parts of a biologist’s job is to condense this knowledge into an elevator pitch that will enlighten someone who may be happier in the dark.

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