My belief that conservation biologists ought to be advocates is based on two key points. Firstly: the assertion that scientific advocacy would lead to public distrust is baseless, or at the very least exaggerated, and secondly: conservation biology differs from other fields of science on a fundamental level which justifies or even requires advocacy.
While many of the arguments presented in our debate were strong, very few of them were based on empirical research, which is something of an irony considering that our debate was concerned in large part with the scientific process. Denise Lach and her team also noticed this discrepancy in many prominent advocacy debates, and in 2003 published a combined review-paper and study on the topic. The study consisted of a random interview process and follow-up survey conducted on four groups: scientists, resource program managers, public interest groups and the general public, in order to gauge their opinion of scientists being advocates. Their responses were coded on a five-tier spectrum, tier-one being those individuals who believed scientists ought only to report findings, and tier-five being those individuals who thought scientists ought to make policy decisions.
What Lach et al. found was that the vast majority of all four groups fell on tier-three: scientists ought to work closely with managers and other public officials in order to better integrate scientific findings with policy. Of note, they found that “interest group representatives and the attentive public were not enamored of a minimalist role in which scientists just report scientific results; they were more likely than the other two groups of respondents to support an advocacy role for scientists,” comprising tier-four (Lach et al., pg. 174).
There are obviously problems with this study: generalization difficulties stemming from a small sample-size, possible bias inherent in the testing procedures. Nevertheless, it comprises an interesting counter to the idea that the public distrusts scientists to get involved in the political process, and functions as a solid piece of data in a debate that is mostly theory.
For all that, however, my second point is mostly theoretical, even philosophical in origin. It stems from the fact that even amongst crisis disciplines, conservation biology is unique in that it deals directly with living organisms. The very name—conservation biology—implies a bias in that it assumes that living creatures have some sort of worth. Furthermore, because many of the species conservation biology deals with have no inherent monetary worth, it assumes this worth to be associated with an intangible aspect—whether we are talking about future evolutionary potential, or possible benefits to humankind and to biodiversity, we are speaking first and foremost of something that does not, and perhaps never will, exist, and therefore cannot be tested or proven.
Scientists enter conservation biology in order to conserve species—that is a given—and it is not something that can be said for any other scientific discipline. Nobody goes into environmental studies because they believe thunderstorms have an inherent value. Rather, most of conservation biology is concerned not with testing whether or not species have worth, but in determining relative amounts of worth, and therefore what resources should be allocated to serve which species, and in what way. Because the relative worths of organisms cannot be determined—there is no model to predict worth, or scale to measure it—then what we are dealing with is, fundamentally, the conflict between purely imaginary and therefore political points. Conservation biology not only ought to be associated with advocacy—it is entirely founded on the advocacy of unprovable assertions.
Lach, D., List, P., Steel, B., and Schindler, B., (2003). Advocacy and Credibility of Ecological Scientists in Resource Decisionmaking: A Regional Study. BioScience, 53(2), 170-178.