By Anna Garleff, Communications Specialist
Sometimes I think watershed work is a lot like the story of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’. In the original story, the little boy pretends he is in danger so often that when the wolf really does come, and actual danger is present, no one believes him. Only here, it’s the scientists who are crying ‘wolf’, claiming that disaster is coming to get us in the form of – not a wolf – but everything from climate change to dried-up rivers.
Deadened by decades of wolf-crying by madmen, and paid shills on both sides of the equation, the public plugs its ears against these dire warnings and continues to grow potatoes, raise beef and children, and get on with the business of farming. After all, isn’t that the stuff Albertans are made of? Hard work and determination to make it against incredible odds? Alberta is the greatest place on Earth, and we are blessed with an abundance of fresh air, a backcountry of unparalleled splendour, and plenty of clean, clear water.
Back in the ‘50’s, scientists were experts we could trust – largely men in starched white lab coats, confidently puffing pipes in hallowed halls of blue smoke, operating computers that needed entire buildings to house them, and jabbing irrefutably at charts and algorithms that the general public had no hope of understanding – or the desire to do so. After all, experts were experts and a university education was a rare thing to come by. They convinced women to smoke Camels; men that household appliances were appropriate gifts for their wives; and children that Coca Cola would make them grow big and strong.
We step ahead, ‘back to the future’. Nearly 27 per cent of working-age Canadians are university educated; the average Canadian spends 41.3 hours per month online, and our households now use an average of seven connected devices every day – and children are taught to use them from the time they are born as a form of play. Smoking is bad for your health, banned from all public areas, household appliances are gender-neutral, and fighting juvenile diabetes is a full-time job.
What happened to the science we can trust? Have we simply made advances in knowledge or were the scientists behind Camel, GE and Coke simply corrupt? How can the public, especially with the plethora of knowledge available via the worldwide web, actually ‘know’ anything for sure? If you look hard enough, you can find scientific confirmation for literally every point of view that exists. Clearly, scientists are no longer to be trusted. Better to believe what you can see with your own two eyes.
Unfortunately, Canadians spend 90% of their time indoors and don’t see any nature ‘with their own two eyes’; and what is looked for online is: gaming, social media, general browsing, banking and entertainment (in that order); and then there is that something called ‘confirmation bias’. This is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, ‘like’ and recall information in a way that confirms one's pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.
In other words, even if viewers DO search online for ‘the truth’, they will likely discover what they had thought all along and can reward themselves with a gigantic, self-congratulatory pat on the back, with the additional option of simultaneously dissing whichever scientific theory currently holds their contempt. So much for believing our ‘own two eyes’.
Yet, no matter how shifty science seems to be, we do, in fact, not only send astronauts to the moon, but we complete successful missions to Mars, drive automobiles capable of 200 km/h, regularly jet around the planet, and broadcast videos of world events to everyone, instantly, everywhere. So – somehow – science works.
Clearly, it’s a matter of trust. The public is no longer an innocent boy about to be devoured by a wolf, but an overweight, overworked, game-addicted, diabetic, cancerous Old Man who doesn’t know what hit him. He’s heaving for fresh air as fine particulate matter clogs Alberta skies; his vast public lands are scarred by an unregulated trail system and the abuse of those who neither understand nor appreciate it; and the Oldman water – nowhere – is potable.
In 1969, the American Psychological Association made a decision that would change the way the world felt about experts forever. In his presidential address, Harvard psychologist George Miller radically proposed to “emancipate science” and “give psychology away to those who need it the most – the public”. What he meant was this: Scientists have the responsibility to distil and disseminate research findings to educate the general public. He also said: “I am keenly aware that giving psychology away will be no simple task. In our society, there are depths of resistance to (scientific) innovations that have to be experienced to be believed.”
Combine this with the internet, and you have precisely 35.16 million ‘scientific experts’ in Canada. In fact, Miller’s suggestion was hotly contested at the time, and fur flew for years (although it is now one of the most-quoted lines in psychology). Many opposing scientists felt that the decision would neutralize the power of science at the very least - and at worst -case scenario, they feared that every Tom, Dick and Harry would consider themselves on par with the former ‘experts’.
Nonetheless, the push to educate the public prevailed, and jargon formerly the parlance of the university elite have become everyday terms, batted about like badminton birdies in cafes and barnyards everywhere.
And therein lies the rub. Anyone who has attended a conference knows that half the work of getting anything done is agreeing on the terms used: ‘What do YOU mean by ______?’. It’s also why we employ lawyers by the pocketful and why our courtrooms are jammed. It takes years of training to be initiated into the scientific discourse within each and every scientific discipline. Otherwise, any one of us would be sending missions to Mars and building our own jet planes.
So how to cure our dejected Albertan, now fading into his/her recliner, not knowing who to trust – or furthermore – what to do? The answer lies not in less information, but more. It lies in teaching him the science to understand what he is seeing ‘with his own two eyes’ so he can use his own two hands to do something about it. First we need to get him on his own two feet – and outside, unafraid of the call of the wild.
As we go into 2017, let us go in better informed, better prepared – and as better scientists. Let us be excited about building collaborative relationships with each other and become eager pupils of the land, air and water that we think we know and understand. Because Alberta IS the greatest place on Earth and the Oldman watershed is a magical place. And just maybe – the boy will come to understand that the wolf is not his foe and that water is the very stuff of life.