If you’re not an activist you’re an inactivist

The sad truth is that most people are slactivists and sadly that also goes for registered voters.   I often see people wearing a shirt, or bracelet, that says I promote x cause, but I’ve always wondered if they really do?  These are the same people that like a cause on Facebook to make world think they actually care about humanity and the environment.  Clearly this type of behavior is just a false sense of self-importance; they are not activists – not even close.  All it says is that there good at copying and pasting and they give “support” because its vogue to do so.

Let me tell you what “support” really means.  If you actually have to sacrifice something to support a cause, that’s what support means: to bear the weight of something.  Tweeting requires essentially no investment whatever. Just because you discusses politics does not make you an activist so please don’t claim the label.  Of course, using social media to spread awareness is a wonderful thing, but if everyone is just sitting there updating their statuses rather than actually donating time or money, what is really being accomplished?

Scientists are often hesitant to make their science accessible and hopping on the outreach bandwagon because (depending on your level of cynicism) they want to maintain their “objectivity” and “integrity”, or just thought the public wasn’t smart enough to understand all those complex ideas that we scientists do.

We want to be scientists, but I think it is also our duty to engage in productive, reasoned discussions with our fellow citizens. Science really is only about as good as the audience that listens to it, and I think scientists have a responsibility to keep finding ways to share their knowledge – which is unique and often not easy to get – with the general public.

It’s a sad reality that people who reject, without due consideration, the conclusions of the scientific community, are having a larger and larger role in shaping public policy at all levels of government. Science is becoming equated with “mere opinion.”  If we stay silent, we run the risk of losing the policy debate. And if we lose the policy debate, we lose so much more. (No, I am NOT talking about research funding!).  Our main problem is that we are not particularly good at advocating our position. So, in a way, we had it coming and should quit whining about other people who are more effective in the public debate. We’re getting our butts kicked…. and for very good reason.  We often lose sight of the fact that if we don’t engage the public, they won’t embrace our views.

Jeremy Fox, from the University of Calgary, opines that if solving real-world ecological problems is your overriding goal, you should consider going into law, politics, or economics rather than field ecology.  His point was that the ultimate causes of anthropogenic impacts on the environment are not ecological and while ecological knowledge is essential for addressing those impacts, lack of knowledge is typically not among the biggest impediments to addressing those impacts.  Dr. Fox has a point, it’s not all about poor communication; it’s not like there is a dearth of knowledge on many global environmental issues– by any means.  Scientists have made the story clear enough to world leaders about the intergenerational injustice of present energy policies.  It becomes clear that needed actions will happen only if the public, somehow, becomes forcefully involved. Because the executive and legislative branches of our governments turn a deaf ear to the science, the judicial branch may provide the best opportunity to redress the situation. Our governments have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the rights of young people and future generations.

I understand that becoming involved in politics isn’t for everyone but anyone can lead-by-example and be the unsung hero type. Sacrifice convenience and reject the products of green washing by: riding your bicycle to work instead of buying a hybrid automobile, compost your organic waste with a worm factory, do research in local ecosystems instead of flying to foreign lands, wear organic cotton and hemp clothing instead of clothing made from reduced fossil fuels, promote local alternatives to those that shop at national chains, etc. ad infinitum.

We still need to figure out ways to get out of our comfort zone and outside the college walls. And, that’s not writing a book instead of an article if it’s going to be read by largely the same audience….. or creating web sites that believers will flock to. It’s talking to the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce or retirement homes and not giving that guest lecture at another university. Web pages with tricky widgets are cool, but that’s not as effective as sitting down with a single “honest” skeptic (and they do exist) and trying to talk to their reasonable side.

We need more Paul Watson’s, Julian Assange’s, Mahatma Ghandi’s, and Martin Luther King Jr’s. in the world and not lazy pseudo-activists.  Get off your high fructose corn syrup asses and do something you fat sheeple!  Go ahead and support causes that make you look uncool (ex. Men totting reusable plastic bags or Jim Carry’s Environmental Man) even if it puts you at odds with the boys in your Harley Davidson club, it might make you more of a man for not caring what others think of you.  Be persuasive. Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary). Take action. Take career risks.  A conservation biologist brings facts to the table making the advocacy campaign stronger and infinitely better thought out.  Lobby using the science behind an issue.  As long as you are willing to change to your stance based on the evidence at hand you will never have to worry about objectivity.

To the young people I say: stand up for your rights – demand that the government be honest and address the consequences of their policies. To the old people I say: fight on the side of young people for protection of the world they will inherit.


“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” – Robert F. Kennedy

A Word for Everything and Everything In Its place.

As a scientist I write a lot and effective communication is absolutely essential.  Whether I’m writing proposals, correspondences, emails, or papers for peer reviewed journals, the goal is communicate with brevity, clarity, and impersonality.   This means doing away with needless passive phrasing, and cutting out wordiness, for example: “a majority of” can be truncated by replacing it with “most” or “has been proved to be” replaced by “is”.  However, one thing I don’t agree with –for any type of writing- is using plain or colloquial language.

I understand that when writing science there is no need to be superfluous, layer double meanings, add flowery synonym.  God forbid you add rhyme and cadence – that can be left to authors, poets, or Naïve science journalists.

I had a bit of an argument with a supervisor in the past concerning the use of language.
My supervisor wanted me to substitute “plain” words in a paper that we submitted for publication in a peer reviewed journal.  Imagine my surprise when Trevor Quirks piece “Writers should not fear jargon” was published in Nature a couple weeks after the argument.

While I will recommend cutting out jargon when writing for non-scientists, I think to do so for scientists is simply unacceptable.  If you’re a scientist and don’t understand “paradigm” or “synergy” I’m seriously worried about you.

I don’t mean to be pessimist or a pejorist but there is an increasing trend of aversion to using jargon and substituting it with something more colloquial.  For example, a PhD student at the University of Innsbruck, Austria won a competition to explain the concept of a flame in words that a 11-year-old could understand.  However, the problem, as Mr. Quirk pointed out is that “specialized terms capture the complexity and specificity of scientific concepts” and “no other words in the English language encapsulate their meaning quite as well, and if they are dismissed as jargon, then that meaning is lost”.

Often times one may have a feeling that they are impoverished for words; a sense of onomatomomaina you may say.  Perhaps you felt you used “x” word too many times and take a look in a Thesaurus to spice things up a little.  The only problem is that language is imperfect; words are imperfect as symbols.

It’s true that Eskimos have at least 50 words for snow and Albanians have 27 words for eyebrows but that is because these cultures view differences between snow conditions or eyebrow shapes.  Words may have different semantic alliance but never different DEFINITIONS.  For example “crafty” and “skillful” are often used interchangeably, depending upon the context as their definitions are similar.  This is simply not correct as their meaning has diverged to a greater extent.  Skillful has positive connotations, whereas “crafty” carries mostly negative connotations.  The general public’s attitude toward erudite language is likely due to laziness in having to consult a dictionary; which is unacceptable in a day where definitions are just a click away.  The truth is that few word pairs (if any) are really 100% true synonyms; synonyms are situational and each one has some context or nuance of meaning that fits one and not the other.

The word synonym has “no synonym” and by that I mean a word that specifically is a synonym for “synonym”.  My thesaurus lists “equivalent”, but that is too generic, synonym refers specifically to words.  Quite humorously, the cinematographer David Watkin, wrote a biography titled “Why is there only one word for Thesaurus?”

The use of progress in place of adaptation is a perfectly cromulent word – picking the wrong word plain and simple.  Just because the English lexicon is sloppy does not mean that clarity should be abandoned, scholars should be politely but firmly insistent upon “proper usage”.

Use of the proper term is a necessity as well as the work done by the reader to understand it.  The only time synonyms should be misused correctly (for effect) is in the use of catachresis where there exists no actual name (a tables leg, for example) or for rhetorical effect as so cleverly demonstrated by Shakespeare’s Hamlet “To take arms against a sea of troubles”.

This reminds me of a story about Samuel Johnson, who was not perfect with respect to personal hygiene.  At a grand supper Lady Marmalade turned to him and said to him rather imperiously, “Sir your SMELL!” Johnson said, “Madam, YOU smell – I STINK!”

Perhaps I should stop this floccinaucinihilipilificatory post and get back to writing about science.