Recent quarrels on social media have highlighted something that's bothered me for a while now: there's an apparent incompatibility between popularising ecology and being a seasoned practitioner or scholar of it. The ecological sphere - the entire scientific one for that matter - has always suffered from an image problem, and crucially, a communication problem when it comes to engaging and connecting with the general public. The average person's ecological understanding, I believe, is often held back by so much ecological study being esoteric and abstruse; often not presented in an accessible, digestible, easy to understand way. Because of this, it rarely makes its way into mainstream media: and if it does, much of the detail, substance and nuance has been removed. Ecological study has been marinating in its own academic juices for so long now that to take it out of that realm and repackage it for general consumption is a tricky, surgical operation.
The natural world's complexity rarely conforms to deliver the simple messaging most people are accustomed to, and which the media likes to disseminate. The academic world is strangely traditional and resistant to new thinking and approaches. Accuracy, veracity and field-driven results quite rightly need to be heard above unproven theory or cherry-picked facts. We don't want a 'dumbing down' of the science, but we do need more engagement with it. So what's the solution: how do you popularise without diminishing the scientific rigour, and ultimately improve people's ecological interest and education?
There's a delicate balance to be struck; an interplay between empirical fact and the story created around it to present it in such a way that it educates and inspires. An academic paper rarely manages to do the latter. Should the scientific community embrace the power of storytelling to win hearts and minds? I think a lot of good can come from it in terms of extending the reach of a specific paper and communicating complex theory, processes and methodology, for example. Why affect just a few minds when you can affect thousands? As we upscale our efforts to protect and enhance our environment like never before, environmental communication could do with the same treatment. Make it less about niche and more about mass appeal.
I think there is a middle ground to be found, but I'm conflicted by it. Often when I see someone getting 'shot down' for trying to popularise something ecological, because what they say is perhaps not 100% factually correct or simplistic, my first instinct is to side with the populariser, not the debunker; primarily because the nature of the debunk is often condescending and rather personal in tone - and I want to see ecological education for the masses. But at the same time, as a journalist, I want that 100% factual accuracy. Surely we can have both? Don't force the story, but also, don't be held hostage by the academic minutiae.
It's encouraging to see more and more scientific papers being distilled into threads or posts on social media, or condensed into shorter articles elsewhere. Some are good, some are bad. The bad ones are missing an element of storytelling, the good ones hold your attention. The great ones unfold like your favourite book. They ignite some really interesting discussions, where the layperson interacts with the scientist. That takes us down a promising road, where an ecological education for the masses can be developed. Once again, I don't wish this to come across as 'academia bad, dumbing down good'. On the contrary, I want to see more ecologists, zoologists and conservation biologists telling us everything they know throughout all kinds of media - I just don't think that scientific papers in their current form are the best vehicle for doing this.
To popularise is to cultivate an army of ecological advocates, armed with a new, deeper sense of understanding and purpose. And let's not forget, the more widespread and effective the popularising, the greater the benefit to Nature - and to us. Let us not mock those who have yet to discover an ecological education, but see it as a wonderful opportunity to open their eyes, heart and soul to the fascinating, enrapturing, thought-provoking complexity of the ecological world. Ecology does not exist to disparage, patronise or ridicule. It's not there to inflate ego, or try and catch someone out - it's there for all of us to learn from. The learning is lifelong.