The current habitat for communication between science and the public is dysfunctional. One need only look at the “debates” about climate change or disease prevention to see the problem.
Scientific findings are regularly misrepresented and sensationalized in the mass and social media. Even when well presented, those findings are ignored or distorted, attacked through faulty arguments, or tied to unsupported inferences. At its best, current science/public dialogue tends to be one-way, with the occasional enlightening article, book, or video, followed by public commentary. This rarely serves to deepen understanding, much less lead to enhanced inquiry.
State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference
The 10th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference held yesterday at the Wellfleet Elementary School represents an alternative to that typical dysfunctional science/public relationship. One refreshing note was an effort by scientists to explain not only the results, but also the assumptions, methods, and theories behind them. People asked about the selection of factors to study, or about habitat assessment in tidal river versus bay sites, not to discredit a finding, but to understand more about how results were achieved. The conference was itself a small data point for the case that ordinary citizens can engage in science-based discussions, given enough time and well-crafted presentations, displays, videos, and other materials.
You can see from the schedule that there was a wide variety of presentations and posters. There was talk about dolphin mass strandings, bathymetry, auditory evoked potential, sentinel species, estuaries, cross-shore sediment transport, salt marsh backup, turtle gardens, terrapin clutches, brumation, eutrophication, cultching, winter/spring blooms, quahog seed, anoxic shellfish, temperature-dependent sex determination, anthropogenic effects, and many other topics related to the diverse ecosystems of the Outer Cape.
There were some good videos from the Friends of Herring River and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Brian Sharp complemented the latter with a talk and a tour of the IFAW van used for marine mammal rescues. This was especially salient given the mass strandings of dolphins in Wellfleet Bay in the early part of the year.
These presentations emphasized the interconnectedness of ecosystems, with humans as an integral part. Mark Borrelli from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies talked about how groins and revetments prevent local beach erosion, e.g., to protect a house, but shift the erosion elsewhere. Thus, they are simply “erosion relocation structures.” Sarah Martinez from the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary presented a poster on the consequences for horseshoe crabs of their use as bait for conch and eels. Moreover, the revetments that relocate beach erosion also disturb the spawning, much of which occurs above the high tide mark.Vincent Malkoski from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries spoke about the data on horseshoe crab fisheries. These findings have led to harvesting closures for five days around the new and full moons in May and June to allow lunar spawning. Diane Murphy from the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant spoke on the relation between oyster and clam growth and the wide variety of habitats they find in Cape Cod Bay.
Avoiding Either/Or Thinking
One consequence of creating the forum in this way was that discussions avoided the either/or kind of thinking often expressed in mainstream media. For example, although most of the participants shared deep commitments to preserving natural environments and generally opposed rampant development, I heard statements such as “you can’t say that dredging is always bad or good; the decision is about choices and values.” There would then be productive dialogue that critiqued human-made alterations of the shoreline, estuaries, ponds, and so on, but acknowledged values others might hold for commerce, recreation, or housing. Zero-based planning is no longer an option in the Wellfleet area: Every change today, even one that seeks to undo earlier construction, interacts with a myriad of alterations over centuries and can have unintended consequences for the environment.
Through Q/A, posters, and ample time for informal discussion, the conference fostered one to many, many to one, and many to many conversations among participants including scientists in the same and other disciplines, students, and general public. There was an interactive map on which people could write their hopes and concerns and peg them to a geographic spot. The map activity will be continued at the library to solicit input from those who did not attend the conference. I saw numerous examples of scientists taking seriously the concerns or knowledge of the public.
This was perhaps enhanced by the fact that many of the projects involve direct citizen science participation , e.g., the river herring count, the horseshoe crab spawning assessment, terrapin sightings, and the dolphin rescues. Others involve coordination with local activist organizations, such as the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.
Some were of special relevance to those involved in commerce, such as oyster farmers. Jessica Smith and Barbara Brennessel from Wheaton College had an interesting poster on a study of genetic diversity among hatchery versus reef oysters, showing, as one might expect, a greater diversity for the reef oysters. This provides indirect support for seeding oyster beds with pelagic, rather than hatchery, veligers. Some oyster farmers still collect these wild larvae for seeing their beds, despite the method being considered slower, difficult, and old-fashioned. A quahog farmer of 30 years was able to add comments about changes over three decades that was missing from most of the shorter-term scientific studies.
Perhaps a meeting like this requires a supportive habitat such as Wellfleet in order to thrive, just as the terrapins, horseshoe crabs, eels, dolphins, ospreys, and other creatures do. Would it fail to survive elsewhere?
Richard Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix that no organism can survive without a supportive environment, but also that no living environment exists without organisms. In this case, the conference organism succeeds because of the town environment, but also shapes it to become more supportive of exactly the kind of discussion heard today.
The conference was well-organized with good snacks, including clam chowder. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the special beauty of Wellfleet, but also sadness about what we’ve done to destroy this, and so much else of the natural world. The fact that a conference such as this is so rare punctuates that sadness. How much did you hear from political candidates or mass media this year about protecting the environment we all live in and depend upon?
Small but good things are worth preserving. I hope to make the conference an annual event.