The Cooler: Celebrity Species and the Science Deficit Model

June 14, 2013

WWF endangered species stamps. Image credit: Scorpions and Centaurs/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Welcome to The Cooler, where we note interesting links and developments in conservation, science and conservation science. Suggestions welcome.

Bob Lalasz is The Nature Conservancy’s director of science communications. 

About 16,000 species are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN. More than 1,100 of those are mammals.

So why does the public know so few of them? Why do conservation NGOs obsessively show us just a handful of celebrity species — tigers, elephants, rhinos, pandas, polar bears, clown fish — over and over? And where does that leave all the others?

Pretty much screwed, write David Salt and Hugh Possingham in the May issue of Decision Point, an Australian conservation monthly.

Salt and Possingham argue that this NGO marketing and fundraising preoccupation with about 80 charismatic species has created a winner-take-all conservation system — bounty for the Kims, Kates and Brangelinas, fatal resource deficits for the others.

(Admittedly, the celebrity number could be expanded a bit; one study (Smith et al. 2012) found that these 80 species all shared large size and forward-facing eyes, and about 183 other species — dubbed “Cinderella species,” for being “aesthetically appealing but overlooked” — also fit this description and could probably be happily adopted as icons. Which would still leave the others orphaned…)

But don’t these NGOs just use charismatic megafauna as a way to get funds in the door, then spread that wealth among all their conservation efforts? Nope, according to the Smith et. al (2012) study: 61% of celebrity species fundraising goes to conserve those species.

So even if each of the Kims and Kates and Brangelinas were umbrella species, that approach won’t even begin to rescue most of the rest.

Salt and Possingham’s solution is science-based triage: Model the cost of saving each endangered species, and then go down the list and make decisions.

The modeling has already been done in New Zealand, where the authors say the national department of conservation now has a plan of how much it would cost to save each of the country’s 660 threatened species as well as any given percentage of them.

Bravo, New Zealand. But Salt and Possingham aren’t happy with just prioritizing government actions; they want saving the greatest number to be the explicit basis for broad-based conservation NGO support.

“Imagine what the conservation world might look like if it was possible to raise funds by focusing on the task of securing large numbers of threatened species rather than a single flagship species?” they ask.

But it’s not possible, and this is where Salt and Possingham lose their footing. These orgs use icons — species and landscapes — precisely because they work so well to attract attention. In a noisy world that’s getting only noisier, it’s emotion and identification that break through, not overt calculation.

For instance, The Nature Conservancy is remarkably good — scientific, one can fairly say — at rigorously testing and identifying precisely those elements that will make for the most effective direct mail fundraising appeals, from the species depicted to the story told about that species to the language and tone of that story to the font that language is rendered in.

This testing has discovered — to no one’s surprise — that certain species are much better than others at opening the door for those appeals, at prompting that flickering chain of decisions to open an envelope, to continue reading the appeal letter, and finally to find the checkbook or credit card and make the donation.

Salt and Possingham seem to assume that whatever emotions drive philanthropic giving to conservation can be transferred to supporting a kind of conservation utilitarianism. That might be true for certain rationalists who value biodiversity in the abstract, or for governments making conservation budgeting decisions. But for large groups of people? Once you remove the emotional catalyst for action, you’ve removed most of the catalyst, period.

Another way of saying this is that Salt and Possingham have fallen victim to the science deficit model. That is, the premise that putting data and information in front of people — in this case, that there are thousands of species at risk, and did you know this NGO only wants you to save this one rhino? — is enough to convince them to change their minds and their behavior.

The model drives campaigns against obesity, carbon emissions, kids spending too much time in front of screens, you name it — and it seldom works.

The science of science communications tells us that prompting actions and shifting priorities is almost never accomplished by scientific authority, data or just one more study. It has to be done niche audience by niche audience, with appeals tailored to what specifically drives those groups, in language that speaks to them, and delivered by trusted members of their communities. It’s moist, hand-to-hand combat.

There are several reasons why the science deficit model persists. It’s the coin of the realm in science, after all. It also preserves the illusion of the scientist as ultimate authority, delivering the last word from on high that will silence all debate.

And it also defends both scientists and science communicators against the messiness of real-world effective communications — which includes tactics many dismiss as mere “marketing.”

There is still a deep strain of contempt among many conservation scientists for the ways in which conservation is marketed…or, to be blunt, that conservation needs to be marketed at all, notwithstanding the dire straits much biodiversity is in.

So Salt and Possingham don’t call for big conservation NGOs to redistribute the money they raise to benefit more species. They also don’t call for investments in better understanding of how to communicate with the public about the importance of conservation.

Instead, they attack conservation marketing, and give us a kind of anti-marketing marketing plan as an alternative, a spreadsheet instead of a face.

If the public were primed to support conservation anyway, this tactic might well shift their conservation priorities. But, at least in the United States (and in many other places as well), that support is probably never one we should take for granted.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

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1 comment

  1. Thanks Bob for your reflection on our editorial in Decision Point (May 2013) on choosing which species to conserve. On the whole we agree with most of your commentary though we feel your portrayal of our editorial as ‘an attack on conservation marketing’ to be a bit misplaced. Our basic point was that most threatened species are not getting any attention (or funding) and that organisations and governments that say they are doing something about declining biodiversity need to acknowledge that there are choices to be made.

    In many ways, rather than attacking conservation marketing, our editorial was more of a defence of triage, accountability and transparency in conservation decision making. Too often the scientists promoting a triage approach are accused of being heartless rationalists who are quite happy to ‘give up’ on species because there are more efficient ways of using resources. Nothing could be further from the truth. No conservation scientist who has devoted most of his or her life to saving nature wants to give up on any species. However, denying that there are choices to be made (and that many species are simply left out of the picture) is also a form of ‘giving up’ and this is never acknowledged by the opponents of triage.

    In attempting to keep the story as simple as possible, maybe we conflated conservation NGOs and governments, discussing them as one when in fact they serve different functions and behave in different ways. Maybe this question of choice is more relevant to governments who are supposed to protect a nation’s biodiversity and be there as a safety net to market failure. Maybe conservation NGOs raising money from the public shouldn’t be judged on the species they fail to fund.

    However, one thing NGOs can clearly do is to use the money they raise with pandas and tigers to deliver the greatest good. This means using the species as umbrellas rather than flagships. A flagship species for which we raise money that goes into the management of that species alone is of little use, it may be detrimental. A flagship species that requires broad scale threat abatement or broad scale habitat protection is great. (This is what we think Smith et al. 2012, were trying to say in their discussion on Cinderella species.) Use cost-effective decision-making to choose the best sets of actions, and then pick the flagship species that deliver those outcomes we need for all species.

    The truth is that all players in the arena of conservation (NGOs, governments, political parties, the general public and scientists) are facing an uphill battle and should be working together. We all have choices to make. Our editorial attempted to emphasise this.

    David Salt & Hugh Possingham
    Environmental Decision Group
    University of Queensland, Australia