I apologize for the long delay between posts – the spring semester has been especially taxing on my schedule. Two recent articles, however, have prompted this post. The relationship between the two is most pertinent for our time.
The first article was published in 2018 by Pierre Legagneux and several colleagues, entitled “Our house is burning: Discrepancy in climate change vs. biodiversity coverage in the media as compared to scientific literature”. This appears in the January edition of Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. The second article appeared in Science also in 2018 by Rachael Winfree and colleagues, and was entitled “Species turnover promotes the importance of bee diversity for crop pollination at regional scales”.
As the title of the first article implies, there is a disconnect between the frequency of coverage of two essential environmental issues – species loss and climate change – in the scientific and mainstream media outlets. Since at least the 1990’s scientists have been raising serious concern these two related issues. While the number of scientific peer-reviewed publications increased for both topics over the period between 1991 and 2016, the coverage in main stream media of the topics was drastically different. In this same period, main stream media coverage of climate change outpaced that of the biodiversity crisis annually from a low of 3.3 times to a high of 8 times.
Why should we be concerned with this? After all, while the main stream media does not seem as interested, at least the torch has been carried adequately by the scientific community (although there is slightly more coverage by scientists of climate change than biodiversity). One only needs to consider the discourse our nation is having over the previous presidential election cycle and the potential role that misinformation played in the process. Increasingly our society looks towards the quick sound bites, the information that can be digested in 140 characters, to provide the “evidence” they need for decision ma
king. Even those that are more inclined to read serious news sources are not being apprised of the issues that should be of concern to all individuals. In short, unless you are a scientist, you are unlikely to read scientific journals or even publications that synthesize recent trends. In full disclosure, both of these articles were first brought to my attention through an online journal, Innovations in the Human Age: Anthropocene, which serves to highlight both positive and negative concerns about the environment in short article summary formats. Therefore the vast majority of citizens derive their evidence to support personal positions on extremely important topics from sources that provide shallow coverage and even may reflect personal biases rather than scientific data.
Scientists, and those that use scientific data to inform and educate the populous need to consider how the data and subsequent messages is being received. One strategy might be to reframe the issue in a context that resonates more powerfully with the masses. Of course, from my position at Oxbow Meadows and the College of Education and Health Professions, the long-term solution is developing a scientifically literate citizenry that would be able to digest more nuanced and complex messages.
The second article about species diversity loss, seems to link nicely to the first article. Ecologists have long understood the linkage between biodiversity and the maintenance of ecosystem functions. A balance that evolved over eons that is complex and highly interrelated. The honey bee, which is a non-native import from Europe, has long been offered in main stream media as the pollinator that drives the agricultural system of the United States. This has even led to estimations of the value of honey bees at over $14 billion dollars per year. Oxbow Meadow has honey bee hives that are maintained by the Chattahoochee Valley Bee Keepers Association and the annual harvest and sale of locally grown honey is a well-attended event.
While the honeybee does play a role in pollination, this recent large scale study finds that in reality pollination occurs by a number of species, and, when viewed in the largest context, as many as 79 different native bee species play a significant role in pollination. This supports the understanding of ecologists in a manner that hopefully conveys the importance of the topic to non-scientists. Bee biodiversity supports our agricultural system and a substantial amount of our economy to a much larger extent than previously assumed. The European honey bee is not the driver of pollination in our ecosystems – biodiversity is!
So perhaps now that we have reframed the issue in a manner that directly impacts humans, the message of biodiversity loss can reach the mainstream. There is, however, a potential downside. Tying science findings directly to public benefit risks marginalizing those findings that do not have a direct connection to our prosperity. Sometimes we need to use the data and act accordingly just because it seems like the right thing to do for other species
But for now, and for the sake of biodiversity, let’s link species loss and impacts to humans as closely together as possible to increase the chance that the message will be heard and headed. Let’s just avoid Twitter – okay?