Scientific papers, important as they are, are really just the tips of icebergs. Under the waterline lie the things that inspired scientists to ask the questions they did, the obstacles and failures on their way to something they could publish, and the often arduous quest for funding. PLOS Biology decided to bring a little of that to the surface, putting out a call for scientists to reveal these in narrative form, and have published them in a collection, “Conservation Stories from the Front Lines,” while still getting the facts checked.
In 2015 many non-scientists got an unusual insight into the challenged of being a scientist when the hashtag #fieldworkfail trended. A group of mostly biologists told the world about the dangerous, hilarious, and embarrassing things that went wrong outside the lab, now collected and illustrated as a book of cartoons.
That of course only covers one side of the story. PLOS Biology says it “Deliberately sought stories of triumphs and tragedies, successes and failures, and invited a diverse group of scientists to submit contributions written in their own voices.”
With a focus on conservation biology, there was always going to be plenty of tragedy. A scientific paper might describe the sudden disappearance of multiple species of frogs from an area on the Panama/Costa Rica border in clinical terms recording the falling numbers and lack of explanation. Professor Karen Lips of the University of Maryland has published many on the topic, but for this series gives voice to the processes of denial and grief she went through as a scientist who had studied the local amphibians for years before disaster struck, and loved them deeply.
Lips’ work more than 20 years ago eventually contributed to the identification of the chytrid fungus as the primary cause of frog decline worldwide. “First-hand experiences always make a greater impact, and I have found it hard to communicate just how bad the situation at my sites is to those who haven’t been there,” she writes.
Lips’ data helped inspire efforts that saved some of the frog species that would otherwise have gone extinct, but her papers do not convey the anguish that comes with devoting your life to a rich collection of animals, only to see most of them gone in the space of a few years. Conservation Stories from the Front Lines provided her with a chance to do just that.
In contrast, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s Sergio Avila-Villegas writes about the way the accidental death of a jaguar he was studying during his PhD led him to rethink the way he was conducting his research and to promote less invasive methods to learn about the species he was trying to protect. What started as a tragedy ended in the development of new methods to engage local residents with science and protecting the animals that live near them.
Dr Elizabeth Hardy of Stanford University contrasts her experience as a teenager reading about the impact of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer, and the government action in response to that evidence, with reactions to her own research on climate change and Yellowstone Park. “The irony is hard to miss – the mantra these days is ‘to make America great again,’” Hardy writes. “But a key feature of those bygone days was listening to the lessons that science taught and acting upon them to make a better planet. Today, it is the trepidation that even though we know, we might not act. And that makes me very worried.”
The scientific community has often distrusted stories, preferring to rely on numbers and calculations. “Simple, appealing, but terribly misleading narratives can result in the rejection of empirical reality, as we see in climate change and vaccine safety discussions. Stories can be seductive, even among technical experts,” the stories’ editors note. To address this, PLOS Biology had each one peer-reviewed to ensure that, while they appeal to the emotions in a way most science papers do not, their “empirical footing” is secure.
“Scientists are increasingly recognizing the need to find new ways to effectively engage with a diversity of audiences,” the editors point out. In a world where the enemies of science will use every tool they can to make people doubt evidence, scientists need to find ways to push back that reach those who would not read an ordinary paper, and wouldn’t believe it if they did. Whether this idea of combining narrative, emotional intensity, and rigorous fact-checking will be successful remains to be seen. It’s an experiment, which is what scientists do best.