When you close your eyes and think of some creature in nature that embodies ‘strength’, what do you see?
I see a solitary oak tree, towering and ancient with countless gnarled branches, in the middle of a soft green meadow. This oak stands tall and proud, but bows respectfully to the sun whose rays filter through its dancing leaves. I in turn bow before this tree as to a wise elder, a seer of past and future; a monument to time.
If I was borne of a culture that had totems, a culture whose roots were as ancient as this timeless tree, I would like to think that my totem would be the mighty oak. Its outstretched branches pull the heavens toward earth, trapping spirits in its fortress trunk wrinkled with the memories of long-forgotten souls. Its roots, the tendril-anchors wrapped in life and death, are stabilizers ever changing and seeking. Its life-giving veins pulse with invisible strength, silent equanimity.
Ah, if only I could know what it is to be an oak tree. To shelter fluttering feathered creatures and nourish furry chattering beasts. To be singular but never lonely. To be energized by warm glowing energy and the outflow of animal breaths. Are trees the embodiment of enlightened souls? The Buddha reached his nirvana beneath the solemn watch of a sacred fig tree. But the Buddha was still only a man. Trees are something different still, regal in their mystery.
Why am I drawn to the feet of a towering oak? Perhaps because I grew up surrounded by these oaks, played amongst their roots and shadows, and used their acorns in childhood games. They are familiar, a link to my past and perhaps a beckoning of my future.
Although I can never fully know the oak, I feel kin to it. My tendency to silently observe the world from the sidelines, allows me to imagine what it would be like to be a tree. A human-tree anyway, as that is all I know. I enjoy giving to others, but I am often limited in my ability to reach out to them—they must come to me. But if they do, I will do what I can to nurture. Maybe I am more like a paper-bark tree, my fragile outer layers constantly peeling to reveal new layers underneath. But I still aspire to know the sturdy oak, as if it holds the key to my Self. Maybe it is itself the key. The oak is, after all, my symbol of strength.
A troubling Facebook post popped onto my feed the other day:
It’s a National Geographic post sponsored by Land O’Lakes, a large American agribusiness and food company.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Arguably, news media and private businesses have always been in bed together. ‘Sponsored’ or ‘branded’ content, more recently called ‘native advertising’, is certainly not a new thing. But in today’s era of endless streams of online media, the line between organic content and sponsored messages is more blurred than ever. And when an entity like National Geographic—perceived by many as a trusted source for stories about nature, science, and exploration—starts sharing content sponsored by corporate special interests it begins to violate that trust.
Dairy’s Modern Life
If you click on the post link, you’re taken to a 360-camera tour of a dairy farm (at least, three very short video segments of one particular farm). You can click on various icons throughout the page to read short (very short) blurbs about the milking process. While this visual story-telling approach is in itself interesting, the sponsored content is obviously tailored to give an impression that dairy farms are clean, friendly, and innocuous environments. Some small, ethically minded dairy farms may indeed fit this description, at least to the extent possible when the intensive use of living creatures is involved.
But the typical modern American dairy farm does not fit this description in the least. Most of America’s milk is produced in largescale facilities where dairy cows are separated from their calves soon after giving birth and continually injected with hormones to keep them producing milk. They spend most of their time indoors or in crowded pens, are fed unnatural feed (lots of soy, corn, and canola instead of grass), and are sent to slaughter after approximately 4 years (the natural lifespan of a cow is 15-20 years or more). In addition, large dairy facilities can lead to local air and water quality issues due to excess manure and other waste. Then there’s the many allegations and documentation of brutal animal abuse in industrial dairies over the years (like this one, or this, and here’s another).
None of this is mentioned in the NatGeo post, of course. They only provide a few short sentences praising how well the cows are cared for (including how comfortable they are), how well they are fed (without explaining their feed is not what cows evolved to digest), and how streamlined the process is. #ThanksLandOLakes.
My point is not to point fingers at any particular dairy farmer. But the industry as a whole is problematic on many levels, and this is no secret. US Dairy sales are in decline, and the industry is scrambling to compete with the plethora of alternative ‘milks’ now on the market. Why couldn’t NatGeo discuss this challenge, and point to some of the innovative dairy farmers that are adopting meaningful sustainability and animal rights standards? My guess is because that wasn’t what Land O’Lakes paid for.
Can’t Pull the Wool Over Our Eyes
Ironically, NatGeo’s sponsored post seems to have backfired, at least initially. Roughly 95% of post comments were from angry or disappointed readers who couldn’t believe NatGeo would publish corporate agribusiness propaganda. Here’s just a spattering of typical responses:
A few commenters did express support for farmers, but not a single comment last I checked supported either Land O’Lakes or the fact that this was sponsored content. Seeing this strong negative response, I have to wonder: what were NatGeo marketers thinking when they posted such controversial sponsored content? Do they just not care as long as they get funding from sponsors? Or do any clicks and comments, regardless of the reason or type of response, count as a win for NatGeo analytics? Did they just really misjudge how their target audience would respond?
I don’t have an answer to these questions. Perhaps some of you, savvy readers, know more about this than I do and have hypotheses or insights? The frustrating thing is that most large companies never seem to respond to commenters, either to answer their questions or challenge their negative responses, so we may never know what the NatGeo folks behind the magic curtain actually intended with this campaign. I’ve seen the same sort of audience backlash to posts from companies like Starbucks as well as media outlets like NowThis, and the same silence in response. Do these companies ever have to do damage control in the wake of such incidents?
There is no Santa Claus
After I saw this post, I actually ‘unliked’ the NatGeo page. I did so with a tinge of regret, thinking of the future wildlife and nature stories I’d miss. But it felt like the only thing I could do to show my disappointment in a company, a ‘brand’, I had put my trust in since childhood.
When the Murdoch Fox media empire bought out National Geographic’s magazine and TV network a few years back, NatGeo was transformed into a for-profit company. While this may have helped save an entity facing slacking magazine sales and a changing cable TV landscape, the reality is that the acquisition forever changed the ethics and culture of the company (side note: The National Geographic Society is itself still a non-profit entity; but the NatGeo magazine, TV channel, and other media are now owned by Fox).
Realizing that National Geographic is just another company with a bottom line was as sucky as learning that Santa Claus isn’t real. Maybe I was just naïve. But I don’t think I’m alone in my disillusionment. Many wildlife scientists, writers, videographers and photographers have dreamt for much of their lives of working for National Geographic—myself included. It was the ultimate goal, the standard with which we compared all other jobs—the equivalent for scientists of getting a paper published in Science or Nature.
Transparency: It Does a Body (and a Company) Good
It seems only natural that seeing corporate-sponsored content would leave a bitter taste in many of our mouths. I don’t think that National Geographic is evil because of its affiliations, or that the Society doesn’t serve a good purpose by providing stories about the planet and its wonders, and funding great scientific research around the world. No company, organization, or person can ever be completely ethically pure. To complicate things, ethics are an ever-evolving subject that are often very specific to the time and place within which they are embedded. However, certain ethical boundaries are fairly obvious based on public reaction when they are crossed.
NatGeo’s sponsored post certainly seemed to cross one such boundary, resulting in public backlash and perhaps even some very real (however small) consequences in the form of lost viewers and subscribers. While the growth of ‘native content’ is disconcerting, I find comfort in the fact that viewers aren’t so easily fooled. Nor are they afraid to raise their voices in protest when they feel integrity has been compromised or truths distorted. I can only hope that continued pushback by wary audiences will help guide corporate ethics toward greater transparency and responsibility.
What do YOU think about organizations sharing sponsored content? What examples have you seen that have made you raise an eyebrow? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”
-Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
In March, researchers announced the discovery of a ‘super colony’ of Adélie penguins hidden amongst the remote Danger Islands off the northernmost tip of Antarctica. The colony’s existence was confirmed using satellite imagery, and scientists estimated its size using the latest drone technology and neural network software.
Finding roughly 1.5 million penguins thriving in this region—especially since their kin in the western Antarctic Peninsula are suffering population declines—should be a good news story, right?
The discovery certainly received a great deal of media coverage. The news that Adélie penguins as a species are in better shape than researchers previously thought should give us renewed hope and inspire greater support for two planned marine protected areas in the Danger Islands, which would help safeguard this newly found penguin colony from human encroachment.
Yet, although this discovery has raised morale for many wildlife biologists and environmental conservationists, it has also sparked vitriol from science scoffers and professional trolls.
A scroll through the comments section in The Independent’s coverage of the story shows just how wide the gap is between what scientists do, and what people think scientists do. Many of the comments revolved around scientists being incompetent and stubborn, such as this one:
The comment highlights one of the most common ways people misinterpret science. The commenter seems to imply that science is a farce because scientists thought they knew how many penguins existed. This new discovery shows that they did not. Therefore, science cannot be trusted. The thing that haters don’t seem to understand is that science is built on a foundation of continually evolving ideas based on introduction of new evidence. Science is not static, it seeks to hone theories and improve our understanding incrementally as we gather more and more information to support or refute ideas.
Science is not a religion that scientists proselytize (at least, not for most of us); it is a framework for continually improving our understanding of the world. Scientists had a prior estimate of penguins based on evidence at the time. That estimate has now been updated based on the introduction of new evidence. That’s exactly how science is supposed to work. Discovering that the Adélie penguin population is larger than previously thought in no way negates the thousands of lines of evidence documenting climate change impacts. Neither does it imply that Adélie populations elsewhere aren’t suffering declines. It simply increases our baseline knowledge and allows for more accurate population modeling.
Another comment illustrates another common misplaced complaint about science—that because scientists didn’t know about this penguin colony, they obviously don’t know what they are talking about with anything else, including climate change; their research can’t be trusted:
First of all, I don’t think the commenter understands just how remote and rugged the Danger Islands are, located in a turbulent, difficult to reach part of the Southern Ocean. They aren’t called Danger Islands for nothing. Even if researchers had been able to locate the colony via satellite imagery long before now, they would have struggled to estimate the population size without the drone and software technologies that have only recently become widely available (and affordable).
Second, the commenter falls into the all too common trap of false equivalence: slick scientists tell us climate change causes ice to melt, but this penguin colony is surrounded by ice. Therefore, climate change must not be happening, so Ha! This argument fails to acknowledge the many known intricacies of global climate change, including the fact that while some areas of the planet are steadily warming (and ice is melting at worrisome rates), other areas are still fairly stable or even experiencing more extreme cold weather patterns. The point that seems to get buried beneath layers of ideology is that climate change is creating a more volatile climate system across the planet, and this is well documented.
The equipment to measure greenhouse gas quantities and origins has existed for decades, and climate models are becoming more and more accurate every year. We know, for example, that the Arctic sea ice minimum, which occurs around September each year, is declining at a rate of about 13% per decade. Arctic winters are also warming steadily at an alarming rate—just last month researchers documented an unprecedented heat wave in the region. As this heat invades the Arctic (due to rising ocean temperatures and sea rise), cool air is pushed south causing extreme cold-snaps in northern temperate latitudes.
And it’s not just the Arctic. A NASA study using innovative data analysis techniques to interpret satellite data has provided the clearest picture yet of changes in Antarctic ice flow. The study found that ice loss is accelerating on the West Antarctic ice sheet, while remaining steady in the east. This evidence actually helps explain why ice-dependent Adélie penguins seem to be doing so much better in the Danger Islands than their Western Peninsula counterparts.
Where all the rich climate scientists at?
Of course, one could argue that all of these thousands of climate scientists (who are a completely different group of people than the marine biologists that discovered the penguin colony, by the way) are just in cahoots to keep the grant money flowing in and their pockets overflowing. Except that they aren’t. But the argument keeps getting made, often with the implication that academic researchers are all part of one big conspiracy to ruin the world for everyone else:
I hate to break it to you, but neither I nor any of the scientists I know sought an academic research career because of the promise of dollar signs or job security (less than one third of faculty at public universities are tenured, e.g.). Most climate scientists work at academic institutions, government agencies, or NGOs and earn less (sometimes a lot less) than $100,000 per year. Even U.S. college professors only earn on average $75,000 per year. Sure, that’s nothing to scoff at. But it’s hardly even worth comparing to the millions of dollars these folks would be pocketing each year if they had opted to work for, say, a multinational oil company instead of a government agency or university.
Besides, when you add in the average combined undergraduate and graduate student loan debt of around $70,000, and the six to ten years of courses and research it takes to earn a PhD, it becomes harder and harder to argue that climate scientists are in it for the money. And it doesn’t get much better once you graduate—nearly half of U.S. PhD recipients don’t have a job lined up at graduation. Those that do often accept post-doc positions that pay an average annual salary of $40,000. The number of tenure-track positions is shrinking every year, and competition is painstakingly stiff for those that remain (one of my good friends recently applied for an academic position and learned that nearly ONE THOUSAND other similarly qualified people also applied).
What’s more, U.S. grant money for climate change research has remained relatively flat for the last twenty years, hovering around a total of about $2 billion coming from 13 different agencies and spread out among thousands of individual research grants. Compare that to the annual budget of the NIH at more than $30 billion, or the yearly profit of Exxon at $16 billion. Research science is not a career you choose to be rich and famous. It’s a career you choose because you are innately curious or passionate about solving problems (or maybe you have a masochistic bent). For more on what really happens to grant money awarded to climate scientists, check out this video by climate scientist and Evangelical Christian Kathryn Hayhoe.
Climate scientists may have deep pockets, but they’re filled with crumbled sticky notes and candy wrappers, not hundred-dollar bills.
How do we build a bridge between science and society?
Russian trolls and paid nay-sayers aside, scientists obviously have some work to do to more clearly communicate how they do science, what processes they use, and why their work is relevant to society. The field of science communication is rapidly growing and maturing to help on this front, but we still have a long way to go. It’s not just about doing away with jargon and simplifying complex concepts. It’s about connecting with people who have different values and worldviews. As Lisa Saffran writes in Scientific American:
“No matter how clear the findings and how scientifically literate the audience, if the information poses a threat to one’s identity then the scientist might as well be speaking, well, Greek.”
Scientists and science communicators must therefore hone their ability not only to translate scientific language, but also to listen to others and hear their concerns, and to engage them in discussions about what matters to all of us—such as the health of our families and communities.
As tKatharine Hayhoe puts it, “We live in a situation now where the fear of solutions is greater than the fear of impacts.” People are driven by fear, particularly the fear of losing their freedom of choice, and respond negatively to issues that might best be addressed at large government scales.
Fortunately, science storytelling is becoming recognized as an important way for scientists to connect with non-scientists and lay bare their own fears, hopes, and motivations. Dozens of training workshops, such as Story Collider, help train scientists to tell stories about their work that are accessible and interesting to public audiences.
Science education also needs to become a greater priority in schools and universities, with a particular focus on engaging students from diverse backgrounds and reducing barriers to obtaining a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. As important will be teaching students to ‘think’ scientifically—i.e., to train people to “be their own science referees—that is, to understand how science works, and to identify baloney when it’s slung at them,” as Mike Klymkowskly writes in a blog about science education.
Klymkowskly argues that a lot of the public misunderstanding around science comes down to the way that science is taught and popularized. Teachers, books, shows, and movies about science tend to de-emphasize the process and instead focus on schnazzy facts and outcomes. I don’t think programs like Nova or Planet Earth are doing a disservice to science just because they focus on ‘wow’ factors, as Klymkowskly seems to imply. But I do think we have a responsibility to de-mystify scientific processes (because there are many), teach the history of science, and emphasize the importance of critical thinking in all fields of learning.
The Moral of the Science Story
What can we take away from all this? One, there are way more penguins in Antarctica than we previously thought (yay!). Two, climate change is still happening (Boo!). Three, scientists need to do a better job of communicating to non-scientists not only about scientific research, but about how the scientific process itself works.
We are all born curious, with a desire to understand the world around us and find our place in it. Most of us are also driven by an innate desire to make the world (or at least our immediate surroundings) a positive, safe space for ourselves and loved ones. Science is one framework through which we can gather evidence and refine ideas to do both of these things, but it must be made more accessible to diverse groups. We as scientists (and communicators) must work to depoliticize and clarify issues like climate change so that we can work with society to find common solutions, as well as common ground.