Promoting Ocean Literacy – a DSN Core Value

When the DSN crew gathered for our inaugural retreat recently, one of the core values we agreed on was “promoting ocean literacy”.  This value is something that just about everyone in marine science agrees on (example, example, example), but what does it really mean?  Marine scientists and marine educators have an intuitive sense of what ocean literacy is.  It doesn’t mean that everyone has to have read Moby Dick (although its a bloody good read).  Rather, ocean literacy means the public understands the fundamental concepts of marine science, how we affect the oceans, and how they affect us.  An ocean literate public is one where, when news or events occur that are relevant to the oceans, they can understand the implications for the seas, for humanity and for the world as a whole, and are engaged both intellectually and behaviourally.  OK great, so how should we achieve this and, specifically, how can we as “scientist communicators” at DSN help this process?

Faced with such a question, I did what any studious scientist does: I went to the literature.  I did this simply because am not an expert on the current state of the social science of ocean literacy, which seems rather important if you’re planning a strategy aimed at improving it!  In other words, to work out how to get where we want to go, we need to know where we are.  In doing this search I was especially helped by a paper by Brent Steel and his colleagues from Oregon State University: “Public ocean literacy in the United States” (Ocean and Coastal Management 48: 97-114).  It paints a picture even more disappointing than I expected.  In their survey of 1,200 Americans, just 4% of folks assessed themselves as being well informed about ocean and coastal issues, whereas over a third considered themselves totally uninformed (this disparity was even greater in non-coastal states).  I was pleasantly surprised to read that 75% of respondents were familiar with the term “Marine Protected Area”, but disappointed that only just over half knew the term “Biodiversity”, which, after all, is what MPAs seek to protect!  About a third of people understood that El Nino affects ocean currents, while less than 30% understood the term “by-catch” in relation to fisheries.  I could go on.  Interestingly, Steel et al. went on to analyse the sources of knowledge that people use for ocean issues.  The use of newspapers and the internet (you go, ocean bloggers!) as information sources was positively correlated with ocean literacy, whereas TV and (to a lesser degree) radio were negatively correlated.  Armed with rigorous confirmation of the poor state of ocean literacy and some ideas about which media modes may/may not be helping, we can go on to think about ways we might help improve the situation.  I came up with 5 steps or ideas to start with, but I’d love to hear more ideas from readers in the comments section.

It might surprise some people that I would start with improving ocean literacy in scientists, not the public.  How does that work?  Aren’t scientists supposed to be the ones with all the knowledge?  Well, yes, but I’m pretty sure that if you ask most marine scientists (and scientists in general) they’ll tell you that science is an exercise in embracing individual and collective ignorance; scientists are just incrementally less ignorant of the world’s workings than everyone else!  Thankfully, improving ocean literacy for scientists is relatively easy; by virtue of their skillset, scientists are pretty good at assimilating and integrating new knowledge.  But there’s still one big hurdle to get over and that is access to that knowledge.  I enter into evidence the following anecdote.  Every day I get emails from scientists that go something like this “Dear esteemed colleague, I am <insert name here>, postdoctoral scholar from <insert developing nation here>.  Please send me a copy of your paper <insert latest earth-shattering Dove et al. effort here>.  Also, I have not the library access, so in addition please to be sending me all papers you have relevant to this topic also as well.”  There are good, earnest and hard-working scientists all over the world that are hamstrung because they just can’t get access to even the most mainstream literature.  If you think I’m picking on developing nations, think again.  In doing the search described above for “public AND ocean AND literacy”, I tagged 9 abstracts in a search of Web of Science, one of the major abstracting journals that gathers summaries of scientific literature into a conveniently searchable database.  When I sought the full papers, however, I could only get 4 out of 9, even using 2 different major university library logins.  In other words, the majority of relevant literature in this case may as well not exist, since it was inaccessible to me, blessed though I am by location and vocation.  Yes, it seems that improving ocean literacy for scientists is another case where the open access publishing revolution offers hope for real improvement.  It’s not the be all and end all of course (the financially-challenged, developing-world scholar can no more afford to publish in many OA journals than to subscribe to the traditional ones!), but it’s a huge step in the right direction.   To improve ocean literacy, therefore, I say Step 1 is – improve access for SCIENTISTS.  Of course, open access would make the very same information available to the public as well, which is even better!

Step 2 on the path to improved ocean literacy is a simple problem with an equally simple solution, one whose simplicity is matched only by many scientist’s resistance to embracing it.  It concerns ocean literacy very literally, but not literacy in the definition “familiarity with concepts”, rather, literacy as “ability to read and write”.  How can we expect the public to become familiar with the concepts if they can’t speak the language?  And therein lies the rub: marine scientists spend years of tertiary training and subsequent on-the-job experience learning, assimilating, indeed inventing, an entire language that describes the content of their research.  It’s not malicious – all expert fields, scientific and otherwise, do exactly the same thing to abbreviate complex concepts and give names to unique entities and processes encountered only in that field – but it does present something of an obstacle to effective communication.  The cold hard fact is that the public cannot and will not (and I argue should not have to) meet the scientific community half-way when it comes to communicating scientific concepts, and that puts the onus on scientists to use language more effectively when communicating about science.  I meet a lot of bright young scientists and students who rail against this idea.  “No!” they say, “Why should I do all the work?  The public needs to make an effort!”.  No, they don’t.  They won’t.  They just don’t care, and that won’t change until you tell them that the oceans are something to care about, and do it in a way that they understand.  So, my step 2 is – Scientists must use the language that we ALL possess, not the one only scientists possess.  Why do scientists not do this more often, anyway?  I think the answer to that may prove surprisingly complex, but here’s a couple of reasons I can think of right off the bat.  (1) It’s a pain in the arse; it’s hard to remember which words or usages others may or may not be familiar with.  To remedy that, I often suggest that people just try explaining it as if they were talking to their grandma: simply and respectfully. To succeed in communication, it is essential that scientists not lapse into jargon, nor give into condescending speech, which is easy to do if you’re oversimplifying.  I often find, though, that its not the complexity of the concepts that is the problem, anyway, so simplifying them is not the solution.  The real problem is that the audience is simply not familiar with the words you’re using, so they are denied the opportunity to understand the concept in the first place. In other words, its the style not the substance, stupid!  (2) The language is part of the scientist’s identity and so ingrained that it can be really hard to unlearn it for the purposes of sharing with others.  For some marine scientists, explaining the subtleties of Ekman transport, thermohaline circulation or bioturbation could be as disconcerting and challenging as a sighted person trying to explain “red” to someone blind from birth.  Of course, this problem of language awareness isn’t a new idea in science communication.  Most recently, Andrew Thaler at Southern Fried Science started a thought-provoking thread about words that mean something different in science than in regular use, and Carl Zimmer’s list of banned words has become essential reading for scientific communicators everywhere.  We at DSN and in the broader science community need to keep the ball rolling and remember at all times that the onus is on scientists to reach across the linguistic divide to engage the public.  One great way to do that: reverent irreverence (see? The core values tie together. Total package…)

My third step is all about who drives the approach we take to communication, scientists or non-scientists; in that sense, it’s probably also tied to the previous step.  There are lots of amazing things to see and learn about life in the oceans, and pretty early on the storytellers of society picked the low-hanging fruit.  These included animals like dolphins, whales, seals, otters and penguins; the animals that scientists label “charismatic megafauna” (a term that has come to have a somewhat derisive stigma in scientific circles!).   As a result of this process, a disturbing proportion of non-science folks think marine biology is all about Flipper and Salty, when of course those animals make up a vanishingly tiny portion of the diversity and abundance of marine life.  Rather than move on to tell the stories of other (IMO more interesting) animal groups, however, many uninformed/unmotivated producers of mass media have continued to hammer these species as being somehow iconic of “all things ocean”.  In doing so, the storytellers of society have often embraced stereotypes and trite oversimplification in order to give the people what they think the public wants; perhaps this is why Steel et al. found a negative correlation of TV with ocean literacy.  Regardless, I call this the Detroit approach.  When the US auto industry tried to give people what they thought we wanted during the SUV craze of the early Naughties – each trying to outdo the other with greater excess – we ended up with the Hummer H2 and so many other similarly ridiculous and irresponsible vehicles, and it drove the industry to the collapse.  No, Step 3 to improve ocean literacy is that scientists need to drive the storytelling more, using the Steve Jobs approach and not the Detroit approach.  The public didn’t know we wanted iPhones/iPods/iPads until Jobs told us we did through excellence in design and marketing.  If we want to achieve meaningful improvement in public ocean literacy, we need to stop pandering to what people think the ocean is about by, for example, not taking the easy route offered by the charismatic megafauna.  Instead, we as scientists need to take charge of the conversation and work with the storytellers to find intriguing, inspiring, exciting and entertaining ways to tell the public why the rest of the ocean is just so incredible, so cool and so critical to our collective survival.  Will it be easy? Not always, but I’m pretty sure the folks at Apple worked their tails off too.  We would all do well to follow the lead of the BBC documentary team in this respect, and to foster the development of new charismatic scientist celebrities (can you say Cousteau?) to help tell the stories.  This all seems to me especially important in light of the findings of Steel et al. that TV is negatively correlated with ocean literacy.  Whether that correlation represents cause or effect is not yet clear, but certainly there appears to be a lot of work to do to improve mass media as sources of ocean knowledge for the public.  At DSN we are in the gifted position of controlling our own media “channel”, however modest, so you can bet we won’t shy away from a good story, however challenging, about some less fuzzy but no less amazing aspect of marine biology.

Step 4 – Improve experiential learning options.  Learning is a funny old thing, and everybody does it differently.  Some folks can learn just from lectures (hearing), while some folks can remember everything from a book they read or a documentary they watched (seeing).  I, on the other hand, am an experiential learner: one who learns by doing.  I swear I learned more in one 2-week marine biology field course in 1993 than I did in the rest of that year’s university lecture courses put together.  The previous points I’ve addressed in this essay only really address the first two types of learning, though, the listeners and the watchers, so what do we do for the experiential learners?  How do we bring marine science to a largely land-based public in a genuinely hands-on way?  Well, there are actually lots of ways, just ask the National Marine Educators Association.  Here’s just two: Public Aquariums and Citizen Science Projects.

One of the best ways people can experience the ocean without setting sail themselves is by visiting their local public aquarium.  Most of the biggest and best of these are driven by multi-pronged missions that integrate entertainment with educational and conservation/research goals (if you’re not sure about your local aquarium, just ask if they are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, it’s A Good Sign).  It’s a case of come for the fun, stay for the learnin’!   Their complex societal role puts a significant responsibility on aquariums to develop exhibit and program materials that will successfully engage the visiting public in marine issues.  As an industry insider, I can tell you that this is something the husbandry, conservation, research and education staff of all aquariums take very seriously.  So get out there and see what they’ve got going on: go to your local aquarium (or a zoo, a museum, a science center), touch an animal, enroll your kids in a camp, go to an aquarium sleepover.  In other words, get involved.  In most cases your attendance dollars will go to support a non-profit institution that can act as a key conduit for you and your family to experience hands-on the oceans that we all love.

The other way to improve ocean literacy for the experiential learning public is through Citizen Science projects.  That is, projects that aim to gather scientific data using the freely-offered help of the tax-paying public that so often supports our work.  Citizen Science is definitely a buzz word in science education and outreach and many column inches and blog screens have been devoted to this topic.  I’m no expert but I think I can safely summarise by saying that Citizen Science is admirable in principle, but hard to do well.  There are lots of them out there, but few marine ones have succeeded in engaging the public at any mass level (compared to, say, the SETI at Home program, for example).  Why aren’t there more?  Probably because they are not always appropriate to the topic at hand (e.g. how many average folks visit hydrothermal vents at bone-crushing depths, hundreds of miles from shore?), they can be more difficult to execute/administer than traditional data gathering projects, and also because scientists often have concerns about data quality when the information isn’t gathered by qualified scientists, or the grad or undergrad students under their direct supervision.  If you’re a scientist, consider a Citizen Science element for your next proposal, and if you’re not, look for one in which you, your kids or your school can participate.  Does DSN have a role in experiential learning or are we “just” a blog.  Well, we have some ideas bouncing around the collective noodle, so watch this space…

At the risk of losing readers who may be suffering from climate change fatigue, I will finish briefly with Step 5 – help the public understand that global warming is first and foremost an ocean problem, not an atmosphere problem.  Climate change is a topic that has received a lot of attention on this blog and countless others, and rightly so; it is the single greatest threat to the future  diversity of life on this planet.  Despite all the talk, there’s still a tragically huge amount of climate change denial going on (we’ve written about that too) and we can’t afford to allow that voice, unscientific as it is, to overwhelm the voice of reason, rigorous data and, let’s face it, reality.  We will continue to cover the importance of climate change phenomena as expressed in the sea, whenever important news develops in the field.  That will include warming but also ocean acidification, which is one topic of which the wider public remains sadly illiterate.

One of the best ways I think we can help promote ocean literacy is simply to be true to ourselves.  We, the DSN bloggers, but really all marine scientists, science online folks, science communicators, science journalists, all of us, need to get excited and to share that with the public.  As Holly Bik has said, we do need to cast aside the stereotype of the scientist as austere, bookish, lab-coated egg heads interested only in  publications and personal impact factors.  Instead, we need to embrace our own individuality, personality and passion for nature, then infect others with our enthusiasm for the cool things we’ve learned about the oceans and – even more importantly – for all the awesome unknown stuff left to learn.  We’re all faced right now with a fantastic opportunity to reinvent science itself (open access etc.) and its relationship with the people who so often pay for it (citizen science etc.).  In addition, we’re living at a time when newer and better technological tools are becoming available every day (social media etc.), tools that can help us make the most of these opportunities for the betterment of science and society.  It’s a great time to be a marine scientist and a scientist communicator and we at DSN are looking forward to playing a part.  I, for one, am psyched.

para_sight (138 Posts)

Dr. Alistair Dove is a systematic and ecological parasitologist by training, with broader research interests in the natural history and health of marine animals, especially whale sharks. He is currently Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta USA. His comments here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Georgia Aquarium





9 comments on “Promoting Ocean Literacy – a DSN Core Value
  1. I think a crucial part of expanding ocean literacy among the public is reaching out to the third party news sources that most non-scientists get their information from. I’m just an undergrad and before I started reading primary sources I would get my news from CNN, Yahoo, and other portals. There’s always a handful of information about public health and “10 ways to get fit fast”, but hardly any information about current climate trends. I know you’ve mentioned this before, but a good working relationship (without jargon and with concise, engaging, and accurate information) between researchers and those reporters who have access to major news networks would go a long way.

    • Nate, I reckon you’re right. The news agencies don’t help themselves much, though, which is bad for the news-consuming public. For example, about a year ago, CNN disbanded its science desk and rolled all science related content into its general news bureau. Given the technical nature of a lot of science news, assigning it to general beat reporters surely can’t help the message, and this seemed to me a disastrous strategic error for one of the world’s biggest sources of news. A good example of its impacts happened yesterday when NASA announced two earth-sized planets had been detected by Kepler in a distant star system, but that both were too hot for liquid water. On CNN, that became “Bizarro worlds discovered”, hardly the same thing, and morning host Ali Velshi expressed shock that planets had been discovered outside our solar system. Any science desk reporter would likely know that over seven HUNDRED extrasolar planets have so far been discovered. Anyway, you’re right that a good relationship with journalists could help. Unfortunately, and especially so in recent times, the relationship between scientists and journalists is often strained at best. I guess we just have to keep working at it.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your article! Working as an oceanographer in a northern coastal community in British Columbia, Canada, I am constantly challenged with trying to present the importance of ocean research to a wide variety of audiences. Language is definitely a big issue. Spending a couple of years teaching at a lower level (say first year college or high school) can often bring home the language barrier to those of us who are too fond of our scientific jargon!

    I will add one comment to your “experiential learning options”, and that is “FUNDING”! Too often I have had government and community approach me regarding Citizen Science programs and aquarium projects. The problem is that they expect me to do all the work (often more than that of a full-time employee) as a volunteer off the side of my desk while I work my buns off to make a living like everyone else. I agree that experiential learning is very important; however it must be properly funded with scientists hired to run the programs. Otherwise, all we will end up with is a bunch of burned out volunteers (which is where my community is at now, having exhausted its supply of volunteers some time ago).

  3. Another idea you might not have thought of – Story-telling for kids that parents will read (and therefore all will learn from) … e.g., Nicki the Naughty Nudibranch (such a great photo, by the way), and her adventures on the bottom of the ocean… Tony the Lonely Anglerfish No One Loved, and how Danny the Dragonfish helped. Etc. Etc. Plain English, with great photos, and wonderful facts – immersed in the story. Add a bit of data about warming oceans, more acid oceans, etc. How a dead whale on the bottom feeds so many creatures for so long,(Our Trip to the Feeding Station). Learning happens with humour, excitement, a bit of horror, and a great story. As long as the stories aren’t obviously “serious” educational stories, but stand alone as great story books for kids of (various ages), they should also sell, and definitely to libraries. A very important topic you’re grappling with. Good luck!

    • I DID link NMEA in the post, in the section about experiential learning, and their literacy program was the very first link in the post, as an example of everyone agreeing on OL’s importance.

  4. Pingback: Jargon: the new black sheep. « A Bit of Behavioral Ecology

  5. This article hits the spot right on. Being a marine hobbyist for many years, I have found that there are many people that think that the ocean is ever giving and that its supply is infinite, through their ignorance due to mis-information or lack of interest. And I am finding out that the average hobbyist does not understand a lot of the concepts that the hobby translates, a lot of them just want pretty fish. I agree with the comment presented by Celia Lewis about the children. That is why I have spent year and a half creating a platform for presentation to children. I have now been a year writing the introductory book to ocean literacy. This first book will lead to a series that will explain these concepts and make learning fun. I have also started writing articles that bridge the gap for hobbyist to associate with the ecology of the hobby and ones that promote ocean stewardship. It is a hard task to put the science into plain words that children and common laypersons can understand, but one that needs to be done. I am glad to see others have taken on this burden to educate the general public and educate them. Look forward to publishing in the near future, right now I am starting chapter six of eight chapters. Wish me luck.

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