Tag Archives: scientific

Misinformation in Ecotourism: An Example from the Great Barrier Reef

Miscommunication concerning ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef can be extremely harmful to their future. I recently encountered a frustrating example of such misinformation. (Image Credit: Workfortravel, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scientific communication is at the forefront of what we do here at Ecology for the Masses. We like to celebrate good examples of SciComm whenever we can. But every now and then it’s misused so overtly that you have to talk about it. So today I want to share a recent example of scientific communication that confused and worried me.

In the last month I’ve been lucky enough to travel around Australia with my partner and our son. We’ve seen rainforests, reefs and the outback, and we’ve had a great time. The Great Barrier Reef was a definite highlight; it was number one on my partner’s bucket list and I have great memories of it from when I was a kid. And it was on the reef that this misuse of scientific communication occurred.

We went out on the reef twice. The first time was with Ocean Safari, a group who I won’t hesitate to recommend. We saw a green sea turtle, stingrays, and more fish species than I could count. And when the tour ended, the guide spoke briefly about mass bleaching and why minimising our impact on the climate was so important to ensure the future of the reef. Perfect.

But on our second trip out, we used a different company. During the trip out to the reef, my partner was at a talk held by a marine biologist on the reef. I missed quite the show apparently, as my partner came back looking slightly confused. The biologist had told people that the temperatures on the reef for the last two years had been ‘perfect’, that the coral reefs would easily recover from bleaching, and that they would plant new ‘supercoral’ to restore the reefs.

Now I don’t want to spend too much time arguing that the guide was wrong. If you need convincing, please read my interview with Sean Connolly. In short, extreme warming events in 2016 and 2017 led to mass bleaching (in 2016 on a global scale). Temperatures were NOT ‘perfect’. Some coral does re-uptake algae after bleaching, but they often starve to death before they are able to do this, which happened on a massive scale over the last two years. And whilst coral restoration can work on a small scale, it is costly and time-consuming.

But why did this irritate me so much? In Australia we’re constantly faced with misinterpretation and downright lies about the reef from anti-conservation politicians all the time. Why is this worse?

It’s because the guide was someone posited as an ‘expert’, and asked to speak in front of people who were assumed to have little knowledge about the concept of coral bleaching. Most Australians are aware at least of the fact that the reef is in danger, but the group on the boat were mostly from overseas. So they hear a marine biologist speak, and assume that those words are fact. The take-away message from the talk becomes one of negligence; nothing to worry about here, nothing needs to be done to help. At worst, that attitude even spreads to people they talk to later on.

It also angered me because talks like the one given are excellent opportunities for scientific communication. You have a group of people who are obviously interested in seeing an ecosystem and are about to enter it, so it’s the perfect moment to engage them in the ecological and conservation issues surrounding that ecosystem. It’s a great way to spread ecological awareness. Unfortunately it was used here to spread misinformation. I can only get so angry at the biologist here though, as the message has clearly been condoned by the company, and they need to take responsibility. Confusing, seeing as there future livelihood depends on that of the reef.

The Great Barrier Reef, along with countless other ecosystems worldwide, are not doing well. But with a concerted effort from the scientific community and the public we hope to keep informed, they’re hopefully not beyond repair. But the damage done by misinformation in this sort of forum needs to be mitigated, as quickly as possible.

Fishers and Fish Science: The Australian Fish Scientist Perspective

Fishing is an important part of Australian society. So is communication between fish scientists and fishers strong enough?

Fishing is an important part of Australian society. So is communication between fish scientists and fishers strong enough? (Image Credit: State Library of Queensland, CC0)

Last Thursday, I posted an article on the need for more contact communication the fish scientist community and the fishing community, which you can find here. It gives a breakdown of why better communication between the two groups is mutually beneficial, and how it could be improved. The piece was written after talks with a number of prominent Australian fish biologists, whose thoughts I’ve shared in more detail below.

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The Problem With ‘Carpageddon’

The Australian government has been throwing around the term Carpageddon for a while now. So why is it a problem?

The Australian government has been throwing around the term Carpageddon for a while now. So why is it a problem? (Image Credit: Ed Dunens, CC BY 2.0)

I think it’s fair to say that Australian politics can be guilty of a flair for the dramatic from time to time. From the recent spill crisis, to the name-calling that abounds in parliamentary displays, to Bob Katter announcing that he wasn’t wasting time on the marriage equality debate because “every three months a person is torn to pieces by a crocodile in Northern Queensland”, Auspol enjoys the sensational. So when they heard about plans to release a virus into Australian waterways to deal with Australia’s persistent carp problem, of course they named it ‘Carpageddon’. But is this in any way an appropriate title? And why is it such a problem that we use this sort of language to sell scientific endeavours?

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Sean Connolly: The Future of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef has experienced mass mortality in recent years. But can we save it, and how do we impose the severity of its condition on the public?

The Great Barrier Reef has experienced mass mortality in recent years. But can we save it, and how do we impose the severity of its condition on the public? (Image Credit: Kyle Taylor, CC BY 2.0)

When I was a child, I was dragged around my home country of Australia on a family holiday. After days stuck in a back seat fighting with my sister we reached Cairns, and spent a day on the Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s premier tourist attractions and a biodiversity hotspot, home to a myriad of corals, fish and other marine life. It was incredible.

But nowadays, tourists are flocking to the reef to say goodbye. Extreme weather events in 2016 and 2017 left a massive portion of the reef (whose lagoon is the size of Italy) completely bleached, with coral dying at unprecedented rates.

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Madhur Anand: Finding Poetry in Global Change Ecology

Professor Madhur Anand is a global change ecologist and a poet. So how do the two combine? (Image Credit: Karen Whylie)

When I interview ecologists, there are two themes I always end up gravitating towards; how the earth is changing and how to improve scientific communication with the general public. So when my colleague Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley mentioned she’d recently spoken to a global change ecologist who also happened to be a poet, I jumped at the opportunity.

Professor Madhur Anand is the co-author of Climate Change Biology and the author of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, a collection of poems which bridge the gap between poetry and science. Along her way to picking up two Canada Research Chairs and the ICCC Female Professional of the Year award, she has worked with theoretical physicists, poets and mathematicians. I spoke to Madhur about interdisciplinarity, using poetry to connect with the general public, and the future of the planet.

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Ian Winfield: Advancing Scientific Communication Through Cultural Anthropology

Ian Winfield, a freshwater ecologist, has been using methods rooted in cultural anthropology to conserve freshwater ecosystems in northern England

Scientific methods of communication with the public have been evolving ever since the first Universities were opened in the 1200s. Recent times have seen communication evolve in step with the digital age. But given our lack of progress in key areas in which scientists have long known we face problems, such as climate change, biodiversity and ocean pollution, one wonders if we’re doing our job well enough.

Ian Winfield is a freshwater ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Lancaster, UK. Ian has spent years working in Northern England in an effort to conserve its populations of the Arctic charr, a common environmentally-demanding fish which has seen many of its populations in the polar regions come under increasing pressure. I took the chance to sit down with Ian at the recent International Charr Symposium in Duluth, Minnesota, and we discussed his experiences using cultural anthropology to encourage ecological action outside of the scientific community.

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