Who speaks for the trees?

Kapoor landscape Anish Kapoor sculpture in Kensington Gardens earlier this year.

I want to use this post to argue for the idea of the communication of science as a sort of public advocacy for natural objects.

That probably sounds more complex than it should. In many ways, all I mean is that I think we can think of people who share scientific ideas as telling stories about nature. I think hearing stories about nature is important. Science looks at things we wouldn’t otherwise see, and in ways we wouldn’t normally try; it shows us something new about the world. As some sociologists of science might put it, science’s networks of ideas, machines, methods and prior knowledge ‘transcribe’ new views of nature for us. Science uncovers stuff. That’s why we invest in it. These new views can also be politically important, or personally useful. Glaciers make for a good example. Or the impact of particular drugs on bits of our bodies.

Take glaciers: I’ve never touched or smelt one. I’ve seen them, but only ever mediated through photographs or film. I trust that they exist, though maybe that’s terribly credulous of me. I also trust things like the BBC’s Frozen Planet or Nature News’ special on the Arctic (though maybe less unquestioningly). I also appreciate them because I think it’s important to know about these big, cold, possibly-slightly-melty objects so many miles away from me because I also believe that I inhabit a world within which they also exist and am willing to believe that my actions may have an impact on them and they, one day, may impact upon me too. I like that reports like this keep me informed with information, but also because they remind me to think about objects like glaciers because, honestly, I’m a busy girl-about-town liable to get distracted by a passing pigeon/ NHS policy/ knitting patten. So, when Suzanne Goldenberg writes something like ‘It’s an odd sensation to watch a glacier die‘ she speaks up for the existence of the glacier and reminds me to think about it. Writers about more abstract science bring even less tangible natural objects to attention, as well as telling us about them: holes in the ozone layer, neurons, genes, quasicrystals. In a way, they bring them into public existence.

(People who communicate social science do similar work too, showing us stuff I suppose is there right in front of us, but without experts to take time, methods and sometimes even equipment to study, we wouldn’t necessarily notice. Isotype‘s visualizations of society en mass, as opposed to via individual perception, provide some good examples of this).

This might sound like a rather old fashioned view of science writing. Maybe it is. But it’s not born from a desire to go back to a golden age. The slightly clunky phrase ‘public advocacy of natural objects’ is deliberate, as I don’t come to this innocently assuming that science just tells you stuff to listen to. I am aware of the layers of belief involved here, and the degrees of uncertainty. I also think coping with a bit of belief and uncertainty is necessary to understand, predict and cope with life in the complex world we inhabit. I think science provides a point of view on the world which for all it’s faults aims to be the best which humans have, and can be a view worth sharing. As such, we might see some aspects of science communication as a form of public argument. It’s rhetoric (and that’s ok). I’d expect an advocate to go in ready to debate, ready to answer and provoke questions, not simply present a view, and to say a bit about how they know, as well as what. Maybe ‘advocate’ is the wrong word though: too political, more the role for campaigners? (Or maybe science communication should accept a campaigning role?).

I should probably say something as to why I’d bother even suggesting this idea in the first place. For a while, I’ve been a bit frustrated by rather dichotomous way many people tend to think about science communication: deficit or dialogue (read this ‘where now’ bit in this post if you want to know what that jargon means). I don’t want to argue against the critique of the deficit model or necessarily against public dialogue, much of which I see as A Good Thing. Neither do I want to retreat to an idea that before we have public engagement we must have public understanding (quite the opposite, if anything). I just think it’s limiting as a way of thinking. It also feels a bit like a 20th Century fight, and that we shouldn’t always be trying to foster debate about science.

(and yes, I have read Latour’s ‘From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern‘. I appreciate much of the above is not new)

Anyway, happy to admit this is a half-baked idea dreamt up on a bus ride to the pub which is probably totally wrong-headed. I’d love to hear what other people think though, I’m interested to know if I’m wrong in an interesting way.

33 thoughts on “Who speaks for the trees?

  1. Brigitte Nerlich

    Two things popped into my mind when reading this: (1) perhaps one could re-discuss the idea of scientific ‘connoisseurs’, put forward some years ago by Rayner and others http://bit.ly/pQzVI6. So, could one see scientists, science advocates, science writers, science communicators (including ‘lay peple’ conversing about science) as ‘connoisseurs of nature’?? (2) We speak for the trees but we also make the trees speak for us. On using nature as narrative device in science, see, e.g.: http://bit.ly/nV2INy

    1. alice Post author

      Yes, I think the idea “we also make the trees speak for us” is part of my thinking (as in not coming to sci realism innocently, but that being ok).

      Not a fan of the scientific connoisseurs diea though, never have been…

  2. Alan Burke

    I couldn’t resist responding with one of my favourite poems / pieces of music; I remember vividly listening to the “Sons of the Pioneers” singing this when as a young boy I frequently went for long walks through the forest.


    by: Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)

    THINK that I shall never see
    A poem lovely as a tree.

    A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
    Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

    A tree that looks at God all day,
    And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

    A tree that may in Summer wear
    A nest of robins in her hair;

    Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
    Who intimately lives with rain.

    Poems are made by fools like me,
    But only God can make a tree.

    Those early experiences close to nature as I grew up in wild northern Canada had a deep impact on my view of life and the real meaning of “ecology”. I fear that urbanization stole that option from most. It did shape, however, my desire to act as an ambassador helping scientists studying sustainability, energy efficiency and climate change to make their ideas come alive to “lay” readers, especially policy makers who can shape a better future.

    Now retired, I am putting most of my efforts into doing that via my website http://climateinsight.wordpress.com

    I’d be very pleased to continue discussion on this issue; it’s in many ways the most important one facing us now.

    With best wishes,

    1. Ogden nash

      I think that I shall never see
      A billboard lovely as a tree
      In fact, unless the billboards fall
      I’ll never see a tree at all.

  3. Rebekah Higgitt

    I find this a bit odd. I do like the idea of science communication as a form of public argument and, yes, of course science writers can be advocates, or environmentalists can use science communication tools to make their arguments. But I don’t see how science writing in general can be seen as advocacy for or “telling stories about” nature. This seems to presume that science is naturally biased to environmentalist concerns, or simply describes rather than seeking to manipulate nature (for good or ill). Your idea that “science provides a point of view on the world which for all it’s faults aims to be the best which humans have” seems naive. Best in what sense? Best for who?

    1. alice Post author

      I find it odd too, but that’s why I’m offering it – I want to think about why it’s odd, and if it’s odd in good or bad ways, so thanks for your comment.

      Maybe it is biased to environmentalist concerns (though equally maybe that is appropraite…?). I did try to work through a biomedical example, but it was more complex so would have been a longer blogpost. I’d also say that in recent years, there are lots of ways in which a scientific view of nature clashes with what (some aspects of) the environmental movement are arguing.

      The comment about science being best view isn’t niave. I’m slightly offended you’d think so. I think someone with an STS background (which I have) should be able to say that without people assuming they are cheerleading. Questions of best for who and in what sense are, I would hope, part of the political complexity built into a sense of public advocacy. I’m not trying to argue for something that’d be simple or clear cut, why on earth would you imagine so?

      Have you read the Latour piece I link to? I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but you might find it thoughtprovoking if you haven’t seen it before.

      1. Rebekah Higgitt

        I didn’t mean to offend, but it was precisely because of your STS background that I found that sentence so strange. Perhaps I have misunderstood. I will look again at the Latour piece, and yours, and think on’t.

        1. alice Post author

          I do think there are political (and epistemological?) issues with the note on natural objects… I suppose part of my thinking was to avoid the idea that sci com should be just campaigning for scientists.

          (although I do think you sort of end up speaking for people if you speak for sci-mediated nature… in fact there’s a chapter in my thesis devoted to arguing that in the context of the sublime…)

          Urgh… this is all just thinking out loud stuff. Really good to see how people react to it. I do want to stress it’s not naively done though.

  4. jonturney

    It’s an interesting (and as you say, kinda Latourian) formulation. But… I wonder why “advocacy”. Remarking on the existence of some feature of the world, drawing attention to it: do they imply speaking (up) on its behalf? Take glaciers. An interesting phenomenon. Understanding how they work, grow, move or decay, and their role in shaping landscape, might be interesting. But does that mean I should care if they all disappear one day? I don’t think I *necessarily* do, and arguing that I should takes one into genuine advocacy.
    Of course it may be that in practice most pieces of science communication collapse into advocacy, if only in virtue of what they select, but I’d like to separate it out…

    1. alice Post author

      I mean advocacy as in aware of their existence, but I guess you are right that this isn’t necessarily advocacy…

      Writing these notes up, I was tempted to delete it all and say it’s all just about accepting science writing as rhetoric, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate…

  5. Alan Burke

    Once when I was in my early twenties serving as an officer in the RCAF near James Bay, a friend and I took a canoe several miles away from the airbase to a lovely lake, at sunrise, which was around 5:00 AM. The lake was still, as flat as glass and covered in mist. We coasted quietly out, fishing with light line for the lake’s Speckled Trout. We were soon joined only about ten feet away by a pair of stunningly beautiful loons, probably checking us out and welcoming us to their home. ;-)

    I caught a 4 lb. Speckle (huge for that species!) and we made our way to shore, started a fire, put butter into a pan and sauteed the trout, accompanying it with a bottle of Clos Ste. Odile Alsation white wine, while the loons serenaded us with their warbling songs. It was idyllic.

    Memories of that event came back to me when I started commenting on the acid rain crisis which was destroying lakes like that one, a decade or two later, and my advocacy of curbing smokestack emissions was motivated in large part by wanting to preserve what I had known of the wild so that my children and later generations could also enjoy the beauty and calm.

  6. Steve Fuller

    How about science communication as advocacy for so-called human objects (i.e. humans as produced and reproduced by other humans)? A Martian looking at this post would suppose, ‘Oh, those humans have now got themselves sorted out, and so it’s time to turn to neglected nature’. Am I missing something here, or have ‘we’ just written off most of humanity as a dead loss to science advocacy and moved on to trees (perhaps including humans who can inspire the ‘concern’ that draws us to trees)?

    1. alice Post author

      Well, I guess a lot of this depends on where you choose to draw the line (or even place one) about where human concerns come into things. I would happily admit that I think any natural objects as understood by or discussed between humans is only ever a human understanding of them, and that any care for glaciers I have is entirely (selfishly, some might say?) rooted in concern for humanity.

      I really think I should have tried to work out a biomedical example rather than glaciers. Something within the human body… or maybe that would lead to other ontological issues.

  7. Alan Burke

    I don’t see discussion and advocacy concerning “Nature” to be a dichotomy between us (humans) and our ecology. Like it or not, we are part of “Nature”; we need urgently to drop the attitude that we should have “dominion” as advocated by the Bible, with the right and freedom to do whatever we want:

    “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

    There is no Planet B and God has not stepped in to right the wrongs of our misplaced “dominion”. We are close to having destroyed all of the “fish of the sea”, we have decimated the number of species of “fowl of the air”, etc., unsustainably.

    Exponential growth with fixed resources is a recipe for disaster. See “No Growth or Green Growth: Charting a sustainable economic future” at http://climateinsight.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/no-growth-or-green-growth-charting-a-sustainable-economic-future/ and then use the search box for other postings concerning “growth”.

  8. Peter Broks

    I like “half-baked” ideas. They are often challenging, refreshing, lead on to good ideas or are at least better than no ideas at all. No harm in being made to think about things.

    “Science communication” is such a common phrase that it usually leads to simple common sense understanding of what it is. This in turn leads to the often sterile (and frustrating) debates about deficit and dialogue. So I’m grateful for any attempt to think up a new term to help us think differently. I like the term “advocacy” because I think it helps highlight the idea of “communication” being a form of argument, though I do agree with Jon that it can give the wrong impression as to what some of the arguments might be. That’s the trouble with words, the more easily understood they are the more baggage they carry so the less understood they actually are.

    I do think we need some fresh way of framing “science communication” so that we get away from the old debates and get on with the rest of the century. My own attempt was to coin the term “demosophic society” so that we can think about the relationship between “experts” and lay public. Not understood = no baggage = nobody was interested! Oh well, maybe now that I have more time on my hands I can do more work on it.

    all the best

  9. Peter Broks

    Your title also reminded me of Barthes idea of the woodcutter “speaking the tree”, but I don’t know if that gets anyone anywhere.

  10. Alan Burke

    I also recommend “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication” http://www.cred.columbia.edu/guide/

    “The ultimate solutions to climate change are workable, cost-effective technologies which permit society to improve living standards while limiting and adapting to changes in the climate. Yet scientific, engineering, and organizational solutions are not enough. Societies must be motivated and empowered to adopt the needed changes.

    For that, the public must be able to interpret and respond to often bewildering scientific, technological, and economic information. Social psychologists are aware, through their painstaking scientific research, of the difficulties that individuals and groups have in processing and responding effectively to the information surrounding long-term and complex societal challenges.

    This guide powerfully details many of the biases and barriers to scientific communication and information processing. It offers a tool—in combination with rigorous science, innovative engineering, and effective policy design—to help our societies take the pivotal actions needed to respond with urgency and accuracy to one of the greatest challenges ever faced by humanity: global-scale, human-induced environmental threats, of which the most complex and far reaching is climate change.”

    —Jeffrey Sachs, Director, The Earth Institute, Columbia University

  11. Jenni Gaines (@aix_sponsa)

    I am not a scientist by any means, but recently I was the park naturalist for one of Georgia’s state parks, Laura S. Walker (I had to move after getting married). I considered myself a public advocate for nature. I tried to communicate responsibility and love of nature in each of the programs I conducted, whether in a guided hike, birdwatching trip, or nature scavenger hunts for children. I miss my job terribly and truly loved the moments when I taught children the importance of picking up trash or respecting even the tiniest of plants like the sundew. Public advocacy is needed and unfortunately in Georgia, many state parks have had to lay off their naturalists (I left just before I was going to be laid off!), who reach so many people and can teach so much.

    Your title alludes to the Lorax, I’m assuming? I would show that video for children at my park pretty often, children were fascinated by it and it taught such a good lesson. “I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees!” :)

    We should all aspire to be a little more like the Lorax, I suppose. I did my best to instill my love of nature in the children, families, and adults that came to my programs, but it always disappointed me when I would give a hike and the children would be rapt, clustered around me, soaking up every bit of nature lore I would give them, and some adults would be trailing behind, on their cell phones or chatting with each other, as though a hike through the woods was something only for their children. It was easier to teach the children to care than to reach the adults who had no real interest in nature. Now I feel as though I’m rambling a bit, but it is early and I’ve been up since 4 am, so I guess I should wrap this up. :)

    Enjoyed your post,

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  13. Simon Burall

    Alice, as I said in my tweet, I enjoyed your post.

    It highlights, from a very different angle, something that has been gnawing away at me for a while and came out in this post this morning. http://www.involve.org.uk/the-messenger-might-not-be-shot-but-will-they-be-heard/ Like you I was a bit worried about pushing out a halfbaked idea, particularly as I risk looking like I’m descending into some horrible post-modern hole of my own making.

    While my work is focused very much on the process of dialogue, I totally agree that the deficit/ dialogue duality is sterile; it assumes that people can only appreciate science, its beauty and the beauty of the natural world across one dimension when, as the comments above powerfully indicate, there are many other ways too.

    In the end, I think this is about finding ways to bring more emotion, and less rationality, into public discourse without – as Hilary Sutcliffe put it in a post earlier this week – being worried about being seen as nutters http://www.matterforall.org/blog/index.php/2011/10/12/nutters-cassandras-early-warnings/


    1. Hilary Sutcliffe (@hilarysutcliffe)

      Thanks Simon, yes I think perhaps it’s as much about all of us trying to embrace and be more tolerant of different forms of language, points of view, attitudes to life. Still not quite sure how you sort the wood from the trees in terms of decision making when that is the case tho. Considering emotional responses as equal to rational is one thing, but then someone has to decide what money to spend on what research project, product, investment etc, basing them on more emotion than logic might not go down too well. Perhaps it comes back to values underpinning decisions, as always, I suppose and values are emotionally grounded, not logically grounded I think.

  14. Hilary Sutcliffe (@hilarysutcliffe)

    When I did my tree huggers MBA (Anita Roddick’s Responsibility in Business Practice at Bath), there was much talk about speaking up for nature, acting on behalf of nature etc and lots of books, papers and hugging of trees, and anything else that moved, going on to make the point more forcefully.

    I think part of the problem I always have about ‘Science Communication’ is that silo bit – ‘arts’ communication, ‘business communication’, ‘economics communication’ etc etc and yet somehow Science is made out to be a very special case, which I am not sure it is, except that’s where you get the funding from. But isn’t it really about linking what is called Science Communication, and in fact Science itself with what matters to us all, to people and the planet and communicating authentically about the purpose, the process and the outcomes.

    Y’know, I’m making no sense, but I know what I mean!!!!

  15. Steve McGann

    Thought-provoking post and comments. Thank you!

    I personally love the phrase “public advocacy for natural objects”, as I feel it acknowledges the importance of narrative to science communication – or, as you put it, “telling stories about natural objects.” I would suggest that unless a science communicator is handing me a raw data set without comment, then the communication I’m receiving must be setting some kind of narrative context for the science communicated, and therefore it must be ‘advocating’ something – even if just painting a rhetorical background into which a message can be shared.

    If one can accept the centrality of narrative to sci comm, then I feel this entails other effects, such as trust and co-construction. Firstly, it’s a great observation about the mediated nature of our knowledge of scientific ‘objects,’ such as glaciers. As you point out, this requires us – the communicated – to trust in the narrative presentation of the unseen glacier as a scientific fact. But I believe we do this pro-actively, not passively – as a willing investment (or not) in the power of the narrative advocacy presented. We ‘opt-in’ to the narrative world constructed before us.

    Of course I’m not suggesting that a “story of natural objects” is a fiction. Narrative can be concerned entirely with questions of ‘truth.’ Yet the narrative vessel in which these truths travel is inevitably a rhetorical one. It advocates something.

    Secondly, I feel there’s a powerful element of co-construction in narrative science communication, involving both practitioners and publics. The ‘public’ part of public advocacy, if you like. This invokes a common – often anthropomorphic – focus that subjectivises the objects of nature in order for us to share a collective experience of them. However absurd the idea of ice dying, we wholly accept that our glacier can “die” as a compelling image with which to self-reference an important scientific idea. Perhaps this takes us beyond ‘deficit’ and ‘dialogue’, and into a more nuanced (problematic?) world of shared narrative realities.

    Finally, I would beg to differ with Steve’s idea that a Martian might think we’ve abandoned humans in our advocacy of science objects ;-) A race which can mourn the “death” of objects like glaciers – or indeed the planet – is one that has transposed itself onto the material world around it through story. We’re not neglecting humanity – we’re actually bestowing human traits onto those things that require our concern, animate or not. Advocacy for the human is at the narrative heart of all communicated science.

    1. alice Post author

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply Steve, much to chew on here – especially thanks for mentioning co-construction.

      Mmmm, maybe narrative is a better focus here? (or perhaps, as I say to Jon above, the looser rhetoric).

  16. Peter Broks

    Alice, ypu might not be surprised to know that your post and the comment thread has been stuck in my head all day so I hope you don’t mind giving another response. You asked for a biomedical example, so…

    I used to be active in a patients’ group and it was interesting to see the various forms that “science communication” would take. Often this would be doctor to patient as they tried to explain the diagnosis, but equally as often (within the group) was the patient explaining the condition to the doctor. Collectively and often individually the patient knew more than the doctor, often more than the GP and sometimes even more than the consultants involved. What was highlighted was two different forms of knowledge and two different forms of exerptise – doctors would only know about the condition through their patients (or the patients of other doctors), the patients would know about the condition through their own experience. There might be a parallel here with “local” knowledges but for the patient it was so “local” it was intimate and visceral. The end result was that medical expert and patient expert might have the same information but completely different (and sometimes diametrically opposed) understanding. And this was about a fundamental part of biology (and culture) – is it a boy or a girl?

    Yes, this meant there was a need for advocacy, a need to speak “for” the patient (especially since it was common for there to be treatment without informed consent – probably still is). But there was also a sense in which the patients could “speak the condition” (I think this is why Barthes came in my head earlier).

    What this shows is that there is more to science communication than the transfer of information, and more than co-construction of knowledge (though both of these were evident). What was crucial was how each party made sense of the condition, what meanings they created.

    I would love there to be a different flag we could all rally round rather than “science communication”, but perhaps we are stuck with it and have to learn the lesson that, like everything else, we need to make it mean what we want it to mean.

    PS. go to http://www.aissg.org to find out more about the group.

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  18. sarah r davies

    Alice – and everyone – thanks for this. It’s a really interesting discussion!

    I was reminded of Mark Brown’s work on representation in his book Science in Democracy (http://books.google.com/books/about/Science_in_democracy.html?id=dRv-c1XZtKQC), which I’ve just been reading. It’s a magisterial – though very US-focused – overview of the notion of representation in both science and politics, using Latour amongst others to complicate straightforward depictions of this process. His argument is that it is _scientists_ who speak for – represent – the natural world. Your argument, Alice, seems to be that sci comm represents these representations? In which case we come to questions about the way these narratives transmogrify as they move through the world – and indeed how they meet and intertwine with public narratives. I guess what I’m saying is: if sci comm brings these objects into (public) existence, what kind of existence is this?

    All the questions marks are because I’m thinking out loud, too.

    In any case, I’m totally with you on it being healthy to move away from the deficit / dialogue dichotomy. I personally think there’s something going on around pleasure – people enjoy this stuff, in a very real and often sensual way (miles away from the worthiness of both PUS and deliberation). Maybe this is to do with wanting to engage directly with the voices (narratives?) of trees, or glaciers, or particular medical conditions – but maybe there’s something else going on as well?

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