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“Simon Says” – Trust me, I’m a doctor

February 3, 2017

twt_mywildlife_dorsetposters_tomfinnIt is said that we have now entered a ‘post-truth age’.  Many have taken this to mean that we cannot expect our leaders, politicians and public advisors to necessarily speak the truth.  Therefore we must be constantly vigilant to watch out for what is true and what is not.

I don’t think that is what the phrase means.  We are now, as far as I am aware, in a time in which truth, facts and expertise are less important than intentions and feelings.  In other words don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean.  It is not that what is being said is untrue, it is more that the details of truth are unimportant to many people.  In a world where we are inundated with information in any format we wish, we seldom have time to study the detail behind the rhetoric.

Of course the classic example of post-truth is Trump’s promise to build a wall with Mexico.  Few of the less extremists believed that bricks would actually be laid.  Most of his followers appreciated the sentiment, and others believed it to be a metaphorical wall, but a wall nevertheless.fence-on-the-international-bridge-near-mcallen-texas-john-sullivan

(Above – Fence on the international bridge near McAllen, Texas. © John Sullivan)

This has a lot to do with us working in wildlife and environment.  Often what we propose is either a different way of doing something (e.g. basing the economy on natural resources rather than road infrastructure) or downright counter-intuitive (such as not culling badgers to reduce bTB).  Most of us in this business are scientists – we value a logical, reasoned argument backed up by facts and preferably data.  The problem is that not all of the world, not even much of it, seems to think that way.  Numerous behavioural studies and experience in arenas from marketing to risk management have shown that people frequently make decisions based on their heart rather than their head – even scientists.

Those of us who work to influence people to support nature and the environment need to work with this rather than fight against it.  I am writing this blog travelling back from a marine conference that was full of people bemoaning the fact that the government is not making evidence-based decisions.  Fishing quotas aren’t based on scientific advice; enough Marine Protected Areas aren’t being designated to form a coherent network; environment plays second fiddle to industry.  The list goes on.


(Above – Fishing boat at Kimmeridge © Emma Rance)

I believe the post-truth era gives environmentalists more opportunities than challenges, but we have to learn to take it in two steps.  We have to first win the heart and then the mind.  Once Nigel Farage got people to believe he shared their values and aims, those supporters were happy to leave him to work out the details of Brexit.  Using this philosophy the first step is to convince the audience, whether they be the general public, businesses, or MPs, to believe that we hold the same values as them and thus that we understand their hopes, fears and aspirations.  This has to be truthful or we lose credibility.  Post-truth does not mean lying, it means focussing on what people think is important rather than necessarily the data that proves it.

This works at a large or a small scale.  To convince the public that they should support the natural environment, or become members of DWT we have to make some broad messages about the value of the environment to their everyday lives, be that health, wealth or happiness.  Whilst, thank goodness, some people are motivated by the knowledge that an owl population has declined by 29% in 3 years, many are not.

We have to engage with the hearts of that majority with something other than technical evidence.  We are learning to do that.  The Wildlife Trust’s My Wild Life campaign was the first dip of our toe into that pool.  It showed that almost no matter what your priorities in life, a healthy nature would be good for you and yours.  It also showed that we in DWT are on your side to help with that. The next step is to give the facts once we have been trusted.

Another good example is our work through the Local Nature Partnership to influence economic development in the county funded by the Local Enterprise Partnership.  Our first step with the LEP was to generically show that we are not against the right kind of economic development and to agree common goals.  Once we have that understanding we can follow-up with specific facts such as the report on the value of environment to the Dorset economy.

If there is a backlash against political or intellectual ‘elite’, which we are seeing in the US and Britain, then even fact and science led organisations such as DWT need to work on showing we have society’s interests at heart, which we certainly do.  Logical, evidence-based arguments alone just aren’t cutting it.  This is no bad thing because fundamental to our view is that society is entirely dependent on a healthy nature with all the resources and services from food to wellbeing that it provides.  Post-truth forces us to be less elitist about the arguments we use and more fundamental in our approach.  Trust me, I know this, I’m a doctor.

By DWT Chief Executive, Simon Cripps

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