How researchers get heard

Celebrities vs. Scientists

Science: It’s the buzzkill to reactive thinking and knee-jerk moralizing. Right?

For instance: There’s substantial evidence that well-regulated trophy hunting of endangered wildlife species (like elephants) can be an effective way to fund conservation of those endangered wildlife species, their habitats and all the other endangered species that might share their habitat.

Studies also show that, in places where such hunting has been banned in Africa, conservation efforts have declined — falling prey to the pressures of poaching and habitat conversion.

Unfortunately, some conservation scientists seem to have assumed that this body of evidence is all that’s needed to convince the public to support trophy hunting, as distasteful as many people find it and the people who hunt.

Those scientists have been rudely awakened, according to a Guardian article last week that opened with this bizarre sentence: “Leading scientists have warned that global conservation is being undermined by celebrity power after they suffered death threats and abuse in a hostile dispute over trophy hunting.”

The “celebrity power” has been marshaled by several anti-trophy-hunting groups, which are lobbying for US and UK bans on trophy hunting imports. These groups have enlisted celebrities (such as Dame Judi Dench, Liam Gallagher, Ricky Gervais, Eric Idle and Ed Sheeran) to help them in their efforts. Some of the celebrities (along with some British MPs) have signed an open letter calling for the bans; others have been outspoken in their criticism of the hunting practices and the science supporting hunting’s contributions to conservation. In response, dozens of African community leaders signed their own open letter criticizing the celebrities for undermining the hunting and their ability to sustainably use their own natural resources.

Celebrities in an organized campaign vs. peer-reviewed papers, an open letter from local folks and TMZ stories about Donald Trump Jr. grinning next to a leopard he just shot. Gee, who will win?

Of course the anti-hunting campaigns have been effective: The Guardian reports that more than 1 million people signed a petition last year presented to the British government to ban trophy hunting imports.

The scientists complained to the Guardian that the battle is between science and “myths driven by emotion and morality that ignore critical facts.”

No one deserves to be verbally attacked. (Well, almost no one.) But given the hauteur on display above, such attacks aren’t surprising.

Amy Dickman, a lion conservationist at Oxford who was lead author on a 2019 letter to Science titled ”Trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity,” went even further, telling the Guardian: “I find it strange that people listen more to actors and comedians than to trained conservation scientists, or more importantly, to local stakeholders.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

  • That science is above emotion and morality and doesn’t have to mobilize those forces in order to win both hearts and minds.
  • That people would of course listen to scientists or local stakeholders rather than their own instincts or people (e.g., celebrities) they trust.
  • That the world should be a “fair” playing field on which science can make its case without having to compete against other powerful forces.

Now, Dickman and her colleagues aren’t above engaging with the media. They published a letter last year in the journal Conservation Biology warning conservation scientists that “despite the volume of misinformation, the temptation to disengage with a media that prioritizes simplistic narratives and falsehoods over complexity and uncertainty must be resisted. Engaging with the media to present evidence and communicate uncertainty is essential to counter the effect of conservation misinformation, the increasingly toxic influence of which should be of great concern well beyond the topic of TH (trophy hunting).”

All well and fine. But just presenting evidence and communicating uncertainty aren’t nearly enough to counteract misinformation. Obviously.

Dickman tells the Guardian:

I can completely sympathise with how those images of grinning hunters turn peoples’ stomachs – they do the same to me – but the kinds of killings we see in areas where wildlife has no economic value are even worse.

And in that sentence we have a glimmer of hope for these scientists — that they might be able to connect with the emotions, morality and aspirations of millions by telling the full story of how conservation fails and might succeed. Not simply by presenting evidence and communicating uncertainty and publishing open letters. Through a campaign that tells stories, shares aspirations with its audiences and (wait for it) even uses celebrities as its ambassadors.

When will science’s failure to succeed on its own terms finally be the buzzkill to its disdain for emotion, marketing campaigns and celebrity?