Posts Tagged ‘science’

posted by | on , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Everything you think you know about shark conservation is wrong

By Leah Kaplan

As a child, I was terrified of traversing my room’s navy blue carpet in the dark to make it to the bathroom after watching the cinematic masterpiece Deep Blue Sea, a movie about genetically engineered sharks that go on a rampage. Many years later, I’m proud to say that I did safely make it to the bathroom and that I’ve since overcome my fear of sharks. While I’m still somewhat embarrassed about those childhood fears, I imagine that many of us have similar anecdotes about shark phobias.

On the other end of the spectrum, it seems like sharks have become quite trendy. Between Left Shark’s stellar Super Bowl performance a few years ago and the popularity of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, sharks have begun to seem like dolphins’ cool, edgy friend. 

I knew little about sharks and even less about effective methods for their conservation until the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, the science policy think tank where I work, hosted a talk by David Shiffman, an Arizona State University postdoctoral researcher, marine conservation biologist, and award-winning expert in public science engagement. During his seminar, Shiffman busted several myths about sharks and spurred me to reflect on how I think about my values and conservation efforts.

MYTH #1 – Sharks are a big threat

Movies have dramatically shaped public perception of sharks—most notably the quintessential shark film Jaws. Even decades after the film’s release, Shiffman explained: “There’s almost always someone in the audience at my public talks about shark research and conservation who cites Jaws as ‘proof’ that sharks are scary and bad.” But sharks are mostly not a threat to humans. Shiffman noted that in a typical year, more people are killed by falling flower pots, by collapsing vending machines, and by falling off a cliff while taking a selfie. (Please let us be better than that.)

Not only are sharks not a major threat, but humans are better off with a healthy shark population because of the important role they play in maintaining ocean food chains. 

COUNTER-MYTH: Public fear is the biggest threat to sharks

So maybe we feel bad about our distrust in sharks and want to mend this relationship. Shiffman emphasized that wildlife harassment is NOT the way to do this. Respectful appreciation of sharks via some types of ecotourism can be a positive way to combat public fear. Not all ecotourism endeavors are conducted in a manner that respects sharks and their habitats. (Don’t be a Darla.)

MYTH #2 – Ecotourism is the answer to conservation

Shark ecotourism can help local economies and promote conservation in some cases. However, a study by Shiffman and colleagues found that wildlife tourism of apex predators (sharks, crocodiles, big cats) can provide economic incentives for their conservation only under some conditions. The unique characteristics of the region and the predator will affect whether or not tourism actually helps achieve conservation goals. In many cases, the species of sharks that are most at risk are not the types that would typically be seen during your ocean Instagram photoshoot.

MYTH #3 – Finning is the biggest threat to sharks

The practice of finning in order to fulfill a global desire for shark fin soup has garnered a lot of attention. The legal definition of “finning” refers to catching a shark, cutting the fins of its body, discarding the body at sea where it will then bleed to death or drown, and then selling the fins on land. But if the shark’s body makes it to land, then it’s no longer considered finning. Most people don’t realize this. Finning has been illegal in the United States since 1993 yet online petitions calling for its ban frequently circulate the Internet. In addition to the finning ban, successful ad campaigns in China have led to a significant decline in this practice over the last 20 years. 

Instead of just talking about finning, Shiffman asserted that a bigger threat to sharks is unsustainable overfishing, including for fins and meat, and via bycatch. 

MYTH #4 – Sustainable shark fisheries do not exist

Within the scientific and fisheries management communities, there is a general consensus that sustainable fisheries can and do exist. Further, Shiffman and his colleague found that 1) the United States has some of the most sustainable shark fisheries in the world; and 2) a proposed U.S. ban on the sale of shark fins would harm these sustainable fisheries and have little effect on global killing of sharks.

MYTH #5 (My two-cents) – There is only one right way to protect sharks

There are many ways that we can protect sharks. A ban on the sale of shark fins is one option; sustainable shark fisheries is another; as are many other options. 

Science can show us some of the demonstrated and potential effects of different policy options but whether and how we protect sharks really comes down to our values. My work with the  Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes brings together members of the public to discuss these values questions underlying important sociotechnical issues. For more information, check out our website. I promise we don’t bite!

Leah Kaplan is a program specialist with the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes in DC. Her primary focus is supporting the Consortium’s work on Participatory Technology Assessment (pTA), aiming to incorporate public values and perspectives into critical science and technology decisions.

posted by | on , , , , , , | Comments Off on That’s a Wrap! A Film Review from the D.C. Environmental Film Festival

By Alix Kashdan

Of Ants and MenOne day after work, I entered the Portrait Gallery in Chinatown, headed downstairs to the museum’s theater space, and settled in to watch a film: “E.O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men.” Beautiful shots of the Alabama wilderness floated across the screen, while the biologist Edward Osborne Wilson described his career in biology, his passion for the natural world, and the early experiences that influenced his life and career.

This was one of dozens of screenings, receptions, and events that are part of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (also known as the D.C. Environmental Film Festival, or DCEFF).

The festival began in 1993 and is the nation’s largest environmental film festival, showing more than 100 films at locations across the city over the course of a week and a half each March. DCEFF includes a ton of events including screenings, premiers, local documentaries and international films, shorts and feature-length movies, and discussions with filmmakers, to name a few.

“E.O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men” is one of many films that were screened at this year’s DCEFF. It tells the story of biologist and Harvard professor Edward Osborne Wilson.

The film touches on many themes, including Wilson’s adolescence in Alabama, moving beyond his study of ants to sociobiology and the negative response from many in the scientific community, and finishes with a look at his work with conservation efforts in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.

Both the film’s story and style are captivating. The entire movie has a sense of lightness and calm while simultaneously delving deeply into complex ideas.

The cinematography is breathtaking, with lingering close-ups and wide-pan shots of forests, tree branches, marshes, and ferns. Even the close-up photography of ants is mesmerizing – even for someone who wouldn’t normally enjoy pictures of insects on a large screen.

Photo from the screening, depicting an abandoned ant colony filled with cement and then excavated.

Photo from the screening, depicting an abandoned ant colony filled with cement and then excavated.

The story and its themes are just as compelling as the film’s look and feel. One fascinating idea the film explores is the rise of sociobiology. It describes how Wilson has studied the cooperation, altruism, and complex social behavior exhibited by ants.

The film goes on to review the limited number of species that exhibit this type of behavior, called eusocial species, and reviews how Wilson expanded on this idea through writing about sociobiology in the 1970s. While today the evolution of social behavior is an accepted idea, at the time it caused a lot of controversy. The film depicts the backlash Wilson faced from scientists who disliked the idea of applying sociobiology to humans and our evolution.

The film “E.O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men” explores the intersection of biology, environmentalism, anthropology, psychology, and conservation science in an interesting and effective way. I highly recommend this movie, which can be watched online from PBS here: I would also recommend checking out, which includes an archive of festival films from the past few years, plus more information about this year’s festival.

Alix Kashdan works in digital media and communications at a non-profit. She’s passionate about climate policy, international relations, and digital media, including blogging, photography, and mapping. She grew up in the D.C. area and currently lives on Capitol Hill.

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By Sonia Abdulbaki

Science is often regarded in mainstream culture as cold and calculating, a subject unappealing to the majority because it is challenging and incomprehensible to the average Joe. On the contrary, science is far from being cold (and quite literally too, demonstrated from subjects like global warming.) Science holds meaningful equations to the many wonders of the world that are overlooked because of their complexities. It is also an essential tool to our everyday lives and effects our progression, health and safety.

Communicating science to the public is a difficult but imperative task. Every discipline has its jargon, but science is immersed in a technically complicated one that the general public cannot understand without further simplification. The key to communicating and improving the rapport between science and the public lies with journalists, scientists, education and entertainment.

World Science Festival

Forest Day Panel

Media Matters. One of the key players in helping the public understand science is the media. They are the most immediate and general source of information given on a largely public scale, be it local, national and global. Journalists’ job is to speak to the scientists for us and then break it down in simplified, every day English.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, journalists expressed four barriers in interviewing agency scientists:

  • Journalists need a required preapproval
  • Interviews are often denied
  • If interviews are allowed, they are closely monitored
  • Difficult questions are avoided, preventing journalists from obtaining a better understanding of the subject matter.

Another obstacle includes the oversimplification of certain topics, losing the details or bigger picture of the study in the process.

Let the Scientists Talk to Us. A difficulty of communication between scientists and the media can be tackled by the direct communication of scientists to the public. This can produce a doorway to important studies and give the masses and journalists a sense of inclusion that will help overcome the barrier. A facilitation of talks through forums, conferences, festivals and podcasts are always an effective way to reach out to the public, such as with The World Science Festival and The Green Festival. These types of events produce interactive and first hand experiences through simplified language.

Being a part of something means understanding it more and at these sessions, scientists are able to create a relationship with their audience, putting a face to important subject matters. This can also increase awareness, level of importance in the minds of the public and therefore increase the chances for funding projects.

World Science Festival

World Science Festival

Educate Me. Everything starts with education and there is a need for a stronger approach to science education. According to the Pew Research Center, “an overwhelming majority of scientists see the public’s limited scientific knowledge as a problem for science”. And although the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the public share views about the positive effects of science in America, there are conflicting differences in the views on scientific concepts.

Education means scientists can learn the basics of humanities and communication, and vice versa. Science is an important factor in making informed decisions, such as with fossil fuel emission or alternative energy sources yet the level of public attention and acceptance of science depends on communication.  According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, some techniques to help improve the process is to teach communication in basic science, apply coursework through real-world practice and train in oral communication.

The Enchantment of Entertainment. Psychological thrillers and natural disaster movies are always a public fascination, proving their worth with box office numbers. Other movie genres that take the stage include science fiction – classics like Star Wars and Star Trek among them, and the more recent epic, Interstellar. Notably popular science-related entertainment includes The Big Bang Theory and childhood favorites like Bill Nye the Science Guy, The Magic School Bus and the Osmosis Jones movie. The Newsroom did well on one episode by presenting environmental facts and giving it an entertainment value with the Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson’s glum disposition.

Although science fiction doesn’t prove to be scientifically accurate, further discussion of a film or show’s scientific value can pave the way for a greater distribution of information through the media. Additionally, celebrities are impactful and can be used for advocacy. A wonderful example of this is with the Nature is Speaking initiative organized by Conservation International with a series of short films voiced by A-list celebrities like Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford.

There is no easier way to learn the alphabet than through a tune and the same holds true for science and the public. If communicating certain concepts, even through fiction, can be understood in an enjoyable and personal way, audiences will be hooked.

Sonia Abdulbaki is a Freelance Writer and Communications Specialist with experience in the environmental and hospitality industries. She is currently a contributing writer for Business Traveler magazine, National Wetlands Newsletter and contributing editor for