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Most people are woefully ignorant about science. They do not understand what science is or how it differs from other ways of knowing such as faith or tradition. The roots of the problem in some countries of South Asia go back to poor science education in primary and secondary schools, but we in the academic community do not do a very good job of communicating about science either. It is disheartening enough to try to teach scientific inference to incoming university students; to find that an understanding of science has increased little if at all in graduates is terribly depressing. What should conservation biologists or plant ecologists do? We all need to be comfortable talking about how science works, how it is self-correcting, its lack of certainty, and the differences between goals, hypotheses, and theories. We need to stress that science can reduce but not eliminate uncertainty and that decisions often have to be made in the absence of complete certainty. We also must try to ensure that management decisions are based on the current state of our scientific understanding and that scientific results are not ignored if they happen to be inconvenient for people in power. This can be a major challenge; for example, the George W. Bush administration has been accused of routinely bending scientific data to fit its political agenda, although it has been supportive of science in other ways. The factors that lead people to pro-environmental behavior are complex, but level of education is generally considered an important factor. Logically, increasing scientific knowledge might be a reasonable objective for promoting greater public interest in conserving natural resources. A recent study of public acceptance of evolution is a good indicator of scientific knowledge and understanding. Among the 34 countries examined, the top 10 on the list were all European with the exception of Japan, and each of these countries had a >75% acceptance rate of evolution. The United States was second only to Turkey at the bottom of the list, with only a 40% acceptance rate, a drop of 5% from 20 years previously. If you think you need more information on how to advocate for science, join the National Center for Science Education ( Although largely focused on the evolution-creation conflict, its Reports, published bimonthly, is a rich source of information on the use and misuse of scientific inference.

Three concepts are also almost completely foreign to people who are not ecologists: (1) natural ecosystems provide services on which our economic, social, cultural, and political systems depend; (2) when these processes are altered our quality of life declines; and (3) when the processes fail life becomes very difficult or impossible. As a result of this ignorance, conservation is seen by many as a minor amenity benefiting a small cadre of birdwatchers or backpackers that stands in the way of “progress” that benefits all. It is necessary for all conservation biologists to arm themselves with information on ecosystem services and the economics of ecosystem and biodiversity conservation and be willing to talk about it in public. There are good books on the topic, and several recent papers have come out on the economic value of ecosystem services. Costanza et al. (1997) estimated the average global value of ecosystem services to be US$33 trillion per year. Four ecosystem services provided by insects–dung burial, pest control, pollination, and food for many vertebrate wildlife species—have an estimated annual value in the United States of at least US$57 billion. Cleveland et al. (2006) describe the impact of Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) on the cotton bollworm (Heliocoverpa armigera), a major pest of cotton in Texas. In an 80-county area the bats have an annual value of US$741,000, or about 12% of the cotton crop per year. Similar evaluations of ecosystem services have been done in China and Indonesia. These and similar stories are good to know and retell to the right audiences.

There are some who believe that nature has an intrinsic value that makes it priceless, and they emphasize the primacy of ethics and aesthetics in conservation. Although we do not disagree in principle, we believe that in our largely economically centered global society, communicating the economic value of ecosystem services can add an important dimension to conservation.

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May 2020
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