SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
18 May 2017
Volume 18 Issue 5
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To Talk or Not to Talk

Tamar Schlekat, SETAC Scientific Affairs Manager

I recently attended a TEDx-style talk by John Francis and found it quite thought provoking. If you do not know who John Francis is, like I didn’t, I encourage you to look him up. John Francis is an environmentalist that is sometimes referred to as the “planetwalker.” John did not use motorized vehicles for 22 years after he saw the devastation that occurred when two oil tankers collided, resulting in the 1971 San Francisco Bay Oil Spill. John voluntarily also stopped talking for 17 years. Yes, 17 years!

For the first and last two precious minutes of his talk, John chose not to talk but played a string instrument. His philosophy is that one can listen more intently if one doesn’t talk. I guess I agree with that to a point. We can always listen with more attentiveness; however, sometimes we miss great opportunities when we choose not to talk, not to engage.

Those of you who know me will be surprised to hear that there are instances when I have chosen not to speak up. There are a few instances in particular that I am not proud of. One occurred on a sunny afternoon in 1999 when I was chatting with the receptionist at a client’s farm where I had gone to make sure the plant protection products were being handled appropriately. She told me that she was glad I was there and continued on to tell me that she buys bottled water for her grandchildren because her municipality adds fluoride to the water. She had read on the internet that fluoride was a chemical waste product that is being touted as beneficial so that the chemical manufacturers can sell their waste for a profit. Fresh out of college, with the knowledge that drinking water standards are stricter than FDA standards, I did not engage. I still remember that afternoon. Fast forward to an evening in 2015 when I just barely engaged in a discussion with a mom who read all the labels on the snack packages brought in for a youth event to make sure that she and her son only ate from those labeled as containing GMO-free ingredients. Rather than take on the issue directly, I passed it to a friend from the USEPA by asking him what the USEPA’s position was on GMOs. He mumbled something. She was not impressed with either of us or our soft pitches. We changed the topic.

I still remember those interactions, and I feel guilty about missed opportunities. Let’s call it what it is. I was being condescending. I thought these people were not intelligent enough or too emotional to understand. I thought they would never change their opinion, so I shouldn’t waste my breath. I didn’t want to take the time to educate them on a topic I am very familiar with. That is a shame. If not I, if not us at SETAC, then who will take on science communication?

In a recent issue of the Globe, in SETAC’s Voices for Science, Charlie Menzie posed the question, “How do we find our voices amid the cacophony of loud policy statements that do not rely on empirical evidence but rather appeal emotionally?” He advised that our discussions need to be “credible, trustworthy and relevant,” they need to be introspective and humble, and most importantly, they need to adhere to the principle of scientific integrity embodied in the SETAC Code of Conduct. Taking it a step further, Jennifer Lynch, the SETAC publications manager, councils us not to shy away from acknowledging emotional aspects. We are well equipped; being scientists does not negate our humanity. After all, our emotional views are typically aligned with that of the general public; however, they are informed by our scientific knowledge. I totally understood the mom’s wishes to provide the best possible nutrition to her child and the grandmother’s reluctance to allow her grandchildren to drink what she had been told was waste. Jen taught me that acknowledging those wishes before discussing the science would have leant credibility to anything I could have offered.

Amidst the mass movement supporting science and the environment around the world, we should feel implored to speak up for these issues. Equipped with some useful tools for science communication, there are no more excuses for not speaking up. With some introspection to shift from critical scientists to humble communicators, we should be well on our way.  We at SETAC need to be a loud voice for environmental sciences in our homes, in our communities, on social media, in our countries and globally. Please join me and let’s start talking science everywhere!

Author’s contact information: tamar.schlekat@setac.org

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