Has there been a year in my lifetime quite like 2016? The possibility that the UK might leave the EU was alive at the start of the year, but few seemed to think that it was likely to actually happen. And Donald Trump was a cartoon character at the fringes of the race for the US Presidency. Yet here we are, as the sun sets on the last day of the year, living in a UK that has voted – narrowly – to leave the EU and 20 days away from President Donald Trump’s first day in office. The phrase “post truth” seems to have established itself in the English language, encapsulating the sad truth that the veracity of figures quoted by politicians, or emblazoned on the sides of their buses, is less important than their impact on target audiences.
Michael Gove’s comment just before the referendum that “people in this country have had enough of experts” puts the year into perspective. He was referring, particularly, to the dire economic forecasts in the event of a vote to leave the EU but the comments hit much wider. Most environmental scientists are engaged, to some extent in predicting outcomes depending upon particular interventions and we are trained to understand and articulate the uncertainties associated with these predictions. It is the foundation of responsible decision-making. Yet it also means that we are easy meat for ideologically-driven politicians who can latch onto either the uncertainties themselves, or on differences between predictions, in order to push their own agendas.
I have a mote of sympathy for Gove’s comment. Environmental scientists, in particular, can revel in the complexity of systems and deploy powerful statistical techniques that render outcomes inexplicable to non-specialists. Being able to communicate the state of the environment to wide audiences is, in my opinion, in danger of becoming a lost art. This is a point that I have tried to make in this blog in both 2015 and 2016 (see “The democratisation of stream ecology?”) and will continue to push in 2017. This is not to pretend that the environment is not complex; or that there are not nuances which may be missed by a superficial or rapid analysis. It is, rather, recognition that we need to pay particular attention to aspects of the environment to which non-specialists can relate if we are to produce evidence that is resistant to the guile of the political classes.
My word cloud for 2016 is similar to my 2015 word cloud, with “see” and “algae” both prominent, reflecting what is, I hope, the core business of this blog. It was algae that put oxygen into the atmosphere in the first place, and which play a major role, still, in regulating affairs on this planet. We may marvel at nature as presented by David Attenborough on Living World 2, but it is important that we do not forget the important role that nature’s “back room staff” play in the web of life. The danger of TV natural history documentaries is that people end up thinking that the interesting stuff only happens elsewhere. It doesn’t. There is just as much interesting natural history in your own back garden and in the stream that flows through your local park, as there is on the African savannah. We just need to look for it ourselves rather than expect the BBC Natural History Unit to do all the hard work for us. That’s why I started this blog in 2013, and I hope to continue doing this throughout 2017 too.
Happy New Year.