Landmarks editorial

science and trust in the public arena picked up a bottle of echinacea, an herbal remedy purported tocure upper respiratory infections.
For several days I religiously swallowed the recommended dosage. By the fifth day, I felt worse. As I struggled to concentrateon work, I took a break by Googling echinacea to look for reportsof its effectiveness. I discovered echinacea has been studied manytimes by medical researchers, and their conclusions have beenremarkably consistent: echinacea does little to cure upper respira-tory infections! Of course, I had to challenge my colleague withthis new information. At the next opportunity, I summarized forhim all the studies reporting the ineffectiveness of echinacea.
Upon hearing my summary, he shrugged and said, “I don’t carewhat science says; I’ve used it and it works.” The common use of deer whistles further confirms the ten- dency for people to make decisions counter to reliable informa-tion. If a graduate student somewhere ever wishes to researchstrategies to market useless products, deer whistles would makean excellent case study. Deer whistles—little plastic devices thatcan be mounted to the front of an automobile and supposedly emit By Ben C. West
a high-pitched whistle to frighten deer away from oncoming traf- Associate Extension Professor, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries fic—are quite simply a sham. Scientists unanimously report they National Outreach Coordinator, the Berryman Institute Regardless, one can easily find vehicles with deer whistles “We must educate the public.” Few mantras have been used as in most parking lots. What’s more, some reputable organizations, often in the wildlife management profession. In an era where like insurance companies, police departments, and rental car com- people increasingly are separated from the natural world, many panies, actually promote their use. I once visited an insurance have noted a lack of basic understanding about ecological sys- agent with deer whistles installed on his car. When I suggested tems among the public. In response, the wildlife profession has how ineffective such devices are, he shrugged much like my echi- created a plethora of educational programs, and yet continues to nacea-hooked colleague and responded “My brother has had them for 10 years, and he’s never hit a deer.” My observation that Amid the calls for education are regular trips to the altar of his reasoning was a bit like me saying “I have a green truck, and science. The wildlife profession is full of people who understand I’ve never hit one either” didn’t resonate with him.
science, and we believe everyone else should be as committed to These simple stories of echinacea and deer whistles have the scientific process as we are. If people would only listen to sci- profound implications for scientists. If the public doesn’t trust entists, all would be right with the world.
wildlife professionals about the efficacy of deer whistles, how can The truth of the matter, though, is that a person’s decision we expect them to listen to us about bigger, more significant making is influenced by many factors, only a portion of which issues? Public relations and education will continue to play an involve scientific “facts.” In reality, our thinking is shaped by important role in our work, and we need to understand the diffi- things like prior experience, social pressure, intuition, genetics, expediency, and others. Robert Cialdini, in his landmark book Our first and perhaps most difficult task is to understand Influence, describes the complex tapestry that is human behavior; that the public, by and large, will not accept our expertise without in short, people make judgments in complex ways that belie the question. To manage this reality, we must begin engaging our assumption that simply providing science-based information will publics in ways that create long-term relationships based on trust, acceptance and collaboration. Indeed, as resource management Scientists are not immune to this phenomenon. A few years issues become more complex, we will need better and better lines ago, a colleague dropped by my office to chat and noticed that I of communication with the public. Plastic whistles bolted to your was sniffling and obviously had a cold. “You should get some local sheriff’s cars to serve as a first line of defense may only be echinacea,” he mentioned, “it works great.” This colleague—who, silly and a bit amusing, but future problems are likely to be far by the way, is an accomplished scientist—has been trustworthy in more serious. When those serious issues arise, a trusting relation- the past, so I stopped by the local pharmacy later that day and ship with our publics will be essential to our success.


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