Myths and ideas from nature conservation
Researchers want their findings used to make good decisions and take action. Yet, often their efforts don’t work as well as they hoped. New research identifies myths and solutions to effective science communications and impact for researchers.
In 2007, Dr Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, who specialises in renewable energy and energy efficiency, was asked by the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to review the state’s renewable energy plans.
Dr Kammen’s report found that California’s plans were overly optimistic and that the state would not be able to meet its renewable energy goals without significant changes to its policies.
Governor Schwarzenegger was not pleased.
He reportedly called the scientist to express his dissatisfaction.
However, Dr Kammen was able to convince the Governor to take a closer look at his research, and to his surprise, Schwarzenegger changed his position and began to push for more aggressive policies to promote renewable energy.
Researchers want their findings used to make good decisions and take action.
Yet, often their efforts don’t work as well as they hoped.
This is because they don’t always use the best ways to share their research and get people to take action.
To fix this, researchers should learn from other fields of study, like how our brain processes information, how and why people make decisions, and how ideas spread in groups.
In a new journal article published by Biological Conservation Journal, Anne Toomey from Pace University, New York, points to four myths about the link between evidence and decision-making.
First is the myth that facts change minds.
Scientists who study how to protect nature, for example, believe that giving people more information will change the way they think and act on environmental issues.
But other fields of study show that this is not always true.
People’s brains can only process a small amount of information and often use shortcuts or guesses called “heuristics” to make decisions.
This is especially true for complex and stressful information.
This can make it hard for people to make good decisions based on the best information available.
It’s important for scientists to understand this so they can make sure their research is shared in a way that makes it easy for people to understand and use.
A second myth is a belief that scientific literacy is the answer.
Many believe that if people know more about science and the environment, they will make better decisions to protect it.
But studies show that this is not always true.
People’s attitudes and beliefs about science, like their political beliefs or religion, can be more important than how much they know about it.
Sometimes, when people are presented with information that goes against what they already believe, they might reject it instead of accepting it.
This is called the “boomerang effect.”
Also, experts, like conservation workers, can make decisions based on their own biases and beliefs, just like anyone else.
So, simply giving people more information about science and the environment may not change their actions.
It’s important to also understand the social, cultural and political reasons why people might not act on the information they are given.
A third myth is a belief that changing social behaviour requires changing individual minds.
Studies show that providing more information about the environment does not necessarily lead to better decisions to protect it.
In fact, it can sometimes discourage action.
In the past, campaigns focused on small individual changes like recycling or buying organic products, but these are not always effective.
Behaviours are influenced by social norms, economic systems, and cultural beliefs.
To make a greater impact on the environment, it is important to focus on changing these systems and norms.
For example, designing cities to make recycling easier, rather than just telling people to recycle, and making organic products more accessible by changing food production and distribution.
Conservation scientists should focus on understanding and addressing these larger systems and norms to make a greater impact on the environment.
A fourth myth Anne Toomey points to is the thinking that a big, broad impact is best.
Many think that the more widely research is shared and the faster it spreads, the more impact it will have.
This often leads researchers to focus on big media outlets and social media.
However, new research suggests this may not be the best approach.
Simply sharing information does not necessarily lead to changing minds and behavior.
In fact, sharing information too widely and quickly can lead to resistance to new ideas.
People’s beliefs and behavior are heavily influenced by those around them and their social networks.
Researchers should consider who they want to reach and how to best share their research with that specific group.
For example, instead of focusing on big media outlets, working with smaller, local news sources that have a closer connection to the community may be more effective.
Solutions to effective science communication and impact
Toomey suggests four ways to support effective science communication.
One is to engage the social mind for better decision-making by working in diverse groups and avoiding groupthink.
Our brains are wired to work well in groups, and we are good at arguing our point of view.
In groups, people are more likely to find the right solution and reduce biases and polarization.
This is especially effective when the group has diverse perspectives and ideas.
Another is to understand the power of values, emotions, and experience in swaying minds, using storytelling and emotional messages.
In conservation, using storytelling and emotional messages can be more effective in changing people’s attitudes and actions than just giving them facts.
Stories can be more memorable and enjoyable to listen to than just information.
Another way Toomey suggest is that you need to change behaviour to change minds.
The way people think and make decisions is influenced by their environment, including social and cultural factors.
It’s more effective to change the environment to make it easier for people to make good choices.
For example, programs that automatically enroll customers in renewable energy sources have been more successful than just providing information about the benefits of these programs.
It is important to focus on the experience and impact of a project and frame research findings in a way that appeals to social cues and cultural values.
Finally, tap into social connectivity for the biggest impact by targeting specific groups and focusing on how information can be used in their specific area.
Research has shown that change happens in small groups and then spreads to larger groups, so it’s important to understand which groups are likely to support conservation efforts.
For example, instead of trying to share information about a conservation study with a lot of different protected areas, it might be more effective to focus on how the information can be used in one specific protected area and share it with the people who work and make decisions there.
This is because people are more likely to accept new ideas if the people around them are also accepting them.
So, understanding which groups of people are likely to support conservation efforts is important for making change happen.
Anne H. Toomey, 2023, Why facts don’t change minds: Insights from cognitive science for the communications of conservation research, Biological Conservation, Vol. 278, February