Conservation and Society

: 2018  |  Volume : 16  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 518--524

Avoiding a Post-truth World: Embracing Post-normal Conservation

David Christian Rose 
 School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, UK

Correspondence Address:
David Christian Rose
School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia


In response to unexpected election results across the world, and a perceived increase of policy decisions that disregard scientific evidence, conservation scientists are reflecting on working in a ‘post-truth’ world. This phrase is useful in making scientists aware that policy-making is messy and multi-faceted, but it may be misused. By introducing three different scenarios of conservation decision-making, this perspective argues that a mythical era of ‘science or truth conservation’ has never existed. Since an ‘extended peer community’ of decision-makers (policy-makers, practitioners, stakeholders) are present in multi-layered governance structures, conservation has always been ‘post-normal’. To decrease the chances of ‘post-truth’ decision-making occurring, the perspective encourages scientists to think carefully about scientific workflows and science communication. Developing a conservation narrative which does not see values, beliefs, and interests, as key parts of modern functioning democracies risks upholding a perception of the disconnected ivory tower of science. Rather, co-productive relationships should be established with decision-makers, and we should harness the power of storytelling to engage people on a personal level. This perspective encourages scientists to take heed of research on stakeholder engagement and storytelling, and to embrace workflows suited to post-normal conservation, rather than trying to deny that a post-normal world exists.

How to cite this article:
Rose DC. Avoiding a Post-truth World: Embracing Post-normal Conservation.Conservat Soc 2018;16:518-524

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The scientific community has reacted with dismay to the rise of a so-called ‘post-truth’ politics (e.g., Tollefson et al. 2016; Gewin 2017; Wilsdon 2017). In the aftermath of unexpected election results in the UK and USA, and threats to pull out of international environmental agreements, the science community has struggled with a decision-making environment that seems to undervalue the importance of scientific evidence. It has been claimed that selective, or biased, use of evidence may be enhanced by the rise of nationalistic governments across the globe (Ross and Jones 2016), who put forward arguments in favour of their own citizens, even in the face of the global science-based accords such as the Paris Climate Change Agreement (Tollefson et al. 2016). According to some, decisions about conservation and the environment can also be post-truth (Begon 2017) as policy-makers selectively use, or ignore, scientific evidence to support political arguments. Indeed, at the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting in December 2016, a conference attended by 1200 ecologists from 50 countries, the phrase ‘post-truth’ was repeated so frequently that one delegate added it to a ‘plenary bingo-card’ as a key theme of note. The resurgence of Japanese whaling is one such issue in which conservationists argue that senior policy-makers are ignoring scientific evidence for their own gain (WDC 2017).

Here, I present a spectrum of conservation decision-making along which the influence of science varies [Figure 1]. I argue that conservation policy and practice has never had a ‘truth phase’ (Scenario 1), where policy was based purely on scientific evidence. Since conservation is never just a technical, scientific issue, we gain little from reminiscing about a mythical bygone age where conservation decision-making was based on scientific evidence alone (see Sarewitz 2017 for a broader analysis).{Figure 1}

Rather, there is more to be gained from accepting the reality that conservation policy has always demanded a post-normal science (Scenario 2: see Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993). Since conservation decision-making is often highly uncertain, and the impacts of interventions have significant consequences for communities, science has never been enough to shape decisions (Francis and Goodman 2010). Instead, values, justice, pragmatics, and stakeholder interests, need to be considered alongside knowledge of all forms (scientific, lay, and indigenous) (Sterling et al. 2017). Thus, conservation decision-making has always operated within a post-normal reality, and we should embrace this scenario to prevent us from moving towards a post-truth world where science is not at all influential.

Although one might consider recent political events to have shifted policy-making closer to a ‘post-truth’ phase1 (Scenario 3), studies in policy analysis have shown that science has had profound impacts on decision-making over long timescales, even if it appears to be seldom immediately influential (Owens 2015). To limit the chances of a ‘post-truth’ phase of decision-making from occurring, conservation scientists could find more effective ways of working in the ‘post-normal’ reality. In accepting the reality that scientific evidence has always rightly been considered alongside other factors, the quality of science communication and engagement may be improved. Firstly, we should accept that there is a need to engage decision-makers2 of all kinds in conservation, including policy-makers, practitioners, and local stakeholders, who have the right to make decisions on matters affecting them. By deploying scientific evidence in a persuasive way alongside other factors, it may improve the chances of evidence-informed decision-making. This perspective encourages conservation scientists to take heed of existing advice about how to do this.

 (MIS)Remembering ‘Truth (or Science) Conservation’

When using the phrase ‘post-truth conservation’, the prefix ‘post’ suggests a shift away from the ‘truth’ phase of conservation decision-making. In order to justify the use of ‘post’, we must therefore be able to identify a period in which decisions were based on truth, or more accurately on science if we follow the dominant discourse described in the following section (i.e., that the science community equates truth with science). Without dismissing the value of scientific evidence in decision-making—indeed it has always been important for policy and will continue to be so (Owens 2016) —scholars have long dismissed the idea of a linear relationship (see Owens 2015). In conservation, several academic studies have similarly argued that scientific evidence has only ever informed decisions alongside a range of other factors, and it has been used selectively (Adams and Sandbrook 2013; Young et al. 2014; Rose 2015; Evans et al. 2017; Rose et al. 2017). In fact, a recent essay discussing the need for ecologists to argue more convincingly states that ‘arguments in the public sphere are not won, and never will be won, by those with the best evidence’ (Begon 2017: 395).

Of course, there are examples which show the importance of scientific evidence for policy (e.g., Montreal Protocol, see Lawton 2007; or ‘Lawton Review’ for UK conservation, see Rose et al. 2016). While we should therefore not expect too much from science —since decision-making is complex and multi-faceted —we should not expect too little (Owens 2016). Technical, scientific rigour remains important, and we are simply not at a stage where science has no influence on policy (post-truth world).

 Questioning ‘Truth’ and Embracing a ‘Post-Normal’ World

In critiques of the rise of post-truth politics (Tollefson et al. 2016), including its potential to affect ecology and conservation (Begon 2017; Wordley 2017), the importance of scientific evidence for robust decision-making has been stressed. Perhaps what some ecologists and conservation scientists (e.g., Begon 2017; Sutherland and Wordley 2017; Wordley 2017) mean by the phrase ‘post-truth conservation’ is actually ‘post-science conservation’, a subtle, but important distinction. Often, the truth is associated with scientific evidence (Sutherland and Wordley 2017), and it is considered irrational to oppose it. As Begon (2017: 395) writes ‘public opinion is being driven not by facts or rational argument (the truth)’. The notion of equating truth with science has been criticised in many areas of scholarship, including Science and Technology Studies (STS) and political ecology. Collins and Evans (2009) encourage us to ‘rethink’ what expertise means since many studies have illustrated the value of experiential, local, or indigenous knowledge for environmental management (e.g., Robbins 2000). Funtowicz and Ravetz's (1993) work on post-normal science helps to problematise the notion of associating truth with science. Their paper argues that there are a number of ‘high stakes, high uncertainty’ problems facing modern policy-makers; in other words, problems which have wide relevance and consequences for society, but for which scientific evidence is intrinsically uncertain. Such problems have been described as ‘wicked’ (Rittel and Webber 1973; Head 2008), referring to a complex issue for which no simple solution exists. In the environmental sphere, pressing problems are increasingly wicked as they become ever-more unpredictable, extreme, and potentially catastrophic on a global scale.

Nature conservation is a good example of a wicked problem (Boyd 2010; Francis and Goodman 2010; Game et al. 2014; Hughes et al. 2013; Maron et al. 2016). Loss of biodiversity is likely to have significant consequences for humans, yet the rate and implications of a decline are difficult to predict with certainty. The implementation of conservation strategies also clearly has consequences for affected stakeholders, for example, local people whose lives are changed by the establishment of Protected Areas. In light of the ‘high stakes, high uncertainty’ associated with conservation, decision-making has thus always been influenced by a variety of factors (Francis and Goodman 2010). In such a scenario, ecological and conservation science needs to be defined more broadly in line with Funtowicz and Ravetz's (1993) suggestion that an ‘extended peer community’ should be consulted.

If conservation scientists are unable to identify unequivocal truths about an issue, other forms of knowledge should be consulted (Montana 2017). Inspiration for a multi-disciplinary approach to knowledge production can be found in the work of Gibbons et al. (1994) on ‘Mode 2 Science’. Knowledge generated in this mode is problem-driven and contextual, arising from pressing issues identified on the ground. It seeks the perspectives of researchers across different disciplines, and this brings a plurality of views into a project. This contrasts with ‘Mode 1 Science’ which refers to a more traditional style of knowledge production in which projects are initiated, and led, by an investigator within the confines of a particular discipline.

Several papers in conservation have illustrated the value of multi-disciplinary collaborations, including with groups external to academia (Margles et al. 2010; Cheruvelil et al. 2014). Keeler et al. (2017), for example, argue that the scientific community needs to put people at the centre of environmental science by seeing the knowledge produced by other academic disciplines (e.g., social science, arts, humanities), and local, community-based knowledges, as relevant in decision-making (see also Colloff et al. 2017). Knowledge that has traditionally been viewed as non-scientific can in fact be powerful and rich, grounded in practice away from the disconnected, artificial laboratory (Rose et al. 2018). Furthermore, the implementation of successful conservation strategies depends on working with stakeholders, who are entitled to shape decisions that affect them (de Vente et al. 2016; Reed et al. 2017; Amit and Jacobson 2018). There is thus a danger of equating truth with scientific evidence. In defining truth narrowly, conservation scientists are missing other useful ways of knowing, and further marginalising groups who have knowledge, but who are alienated by an elitist view of knowledge production.

 Strategies to Avoids ‘Post-Truth Conservation’

One way of avoiding a shift towards a ‘post-truth’ world (Scenario 3), where scientific evidence has no influence, is to embrace more effective ways of working in the multi-faceted decision-making reality illustrated in Scenario Two. As Lawton (2007: 465) argues ecologists need to enter the messy world of politics ‘with their eyes open’. In order to ensure that scientific evidence is influential alongside a range of other factors, several strategies have been proposed in the literature. Here, I focus on two important themes; firstly, methods of engaging with decision-makers of all kinds, and secondly, how to argue persuasively for nature conservation.

One of the most important strategies is to embrace collaborative working (Wyborn 2015; Beier et al. 2017). As shown in Scenario 2, it is clear that scientific truth cannot solve problems alone; thus, a broader definition of truth should emerge that encourages decision-makers to be valued and included in conservation projects. Working in inter- and trans-disciplinary ways, and collaborating with decision-makers of all kinds, will move conservation science beyond the siloed truths of academia (Jarvis et al. 2015; Colloff et al. 2017; Keeler et al. 2017), and towards a more inclusive scenario of knowledge production. Of course, this is challenging in an academic context where publishing is still worth more than tangible impacts (Tyler 2017), and where budgets may be limited (Sutherland et al. 2017), but it is not impossible.

Although conservation is context-specific (Waylen et al. 2010), and thus the same strategies will not work everywhere, several common principles of good engagement with policy-makers and other stakeholders have been identified (see Beier et al. 2016; de Vente et al. 2016; Reed et al. 2017; Sterling et al. 2017). These include, for example, the need to include all stakeholders in a way that empowers communities (Reed et al. 2009), rather than reinforcing existing power imbalances or inequalities (Chambers 1997; Cooke and Kothari 2001; Kleiber et al. 2014). Non-scientific participants should feel that their values and knowledge are being listened to by researchers, and the engagement process should be trusting, transparent, and reciprocal (de Vente et al. 2016; Reed et al. 2017; Lacey et al. 2018). Through sustained two-way dialogue from project conception to implementation and beyond (Young et al. 2014), conservation decisions may be better informed, taking account of diverse worldviews, cultures, and interests. There may be less resistance to knowledge produced by researchers if a trusting relationship has been established. Knowledge brokers and boundary organisations tend to be influential figures in facilitating these two-way dialogues (Cvitanovic et al. 2015). Ultimately, studies have illustrated that outcomes have been more successful where researchers have genuinely reached out to an extended peer community of stakeholders (Fraser et al. 2006; Lazos-Chavero et al. 2016; Amit and Jacobson 2018).

It is worth asking ourselves here, however, whether existing forms of participatory engagement in conservation are truly collaborative, if we take ‘collaborative’ to mean working together in the co-production of knowledge. Critiques of public participation exercises have questioned the fact that consultation events are often conceived, initiated, and led by researchers or high-level decision-makers (see Rayner 2003; Chilvers and Kearnes 2016; Chilvers et al. 2017). Often, members of the public, usually termed stakeholders, are invited to attend events to offer an opinion about a proposed issue. Usually, the questions have already been framed before public participation occurs, and it appears that the stakeholders are not in charge (Rayner 2003). In the context of gene editing (Burall 2018) and energy projects (Chilvers et al. 2017), critical scholars have asked us to re-think or ‘re-make’ (Chivers and Kearnes 2016) public participation. Why do we not, for example, map existing networks of participation that may be informal, and then seek to question what discussions are being led by publics in those settings? Why do we not seek to engage in these existing spaces to discover what publics are concerned about and how they frame issues? These questions, as well as the central point that stakeholders should be involved at an upstream stage of project development (Wilsdon and Willis 2004) so that questions can be jointly framed, are relevant to post-normal conservation. Part of this process may make use of cultural theory, which Thompson (2003) uses to underpin his notion of ‘clumsy institutions’— such institutions would not seek to pick one worldview from a range of choices, but rather seek not to exclude any views from the policy-making process.

There are some positive signs from within the conservation science community, although I do think there is some way to go in developing truly participatory approaches. Keeler et al. (2017), for example, call for a new kind of science which is more inclusive of stakeholders, mirroring calls elsewhere for a more ‘public’ (Robertson and Hull 2001; Scott 2015) or ‘translational’ (Chapin III, 2017) ecology. If conservation scientists are inspired to answer calls for a new kind of science which engages people, then Chambers' (1997) work should always be remembered. Chambers (1997) is considered to be a leading proponent on the use of participatory methods in development. In one of his famous works, ‘Whose reality counts?’ (1997), he argues that development is an activity that should be done by, or at least with, communities, rather than something that is done to people. Where possible, therefore, conservation actions should contribute to social justice and development. Above all, we should adopt a mind-set that conservation should be done by decision-making communities, rather than to them. This seems to be the only way of working in a post-normal conservation world, particularly if we want to build trust in, and support for, science (thus limiting the chances of Scenario 3 from happening).

Secondly, we need to ensure that scientific knowledge is deployed persuasively into decision-making venues, which will allow it to compete alongside other factors. Lubchenco (2017: 3) argues that scientists need to respond to a messy policy-making process with ‘boldness, energy, and creativity’ (see also Begon 2017). In some ways, conservation scientists are able to impose their moral values onto their work more than researchers elsewhere (Baumgaertner and Holthuijzen 2017); although STS scholars such as Callon (1993), Latour (1987), and Jasanoff (2004) would question whether any scientific research can be conducted without being influenced by the societal values and norms in which it is created. Perhaps more so than other fields, however, conservation biology is a mission-driven discipline (Soulé 1985) in which many researchers are driven by a goal to help species on the ground. Although engaging in honest science advocacy may blur the lines between science and policy (Rose 2014; Rose et al., 2016), it is arguably necessary in a post-normal world to move beyond scientific argumentation to engage with emotion and values (Begon 2017; D'Ancona, 2017). This does not mean that evidence should be distorted, but rather scientists may play the role of storyteller to help people engage with issues on a personal level (Baumgaertner and Holthuijzen 2017).

Researchers have long made the case that it matters how we frame the environment (e.g., Scheufele 1999; Lakoff 2010; Bugter et al. 2018) and such work is often associated with the field of environmental communication. Lakoff (2010) argues that fundamental material science of the environment is not enough to change people's minds, citing the failure of the deficit model promoted by Al Gore in the context of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Rather, members of the public require message framing to help them make sense of an issue (Scheufele 1999; Nisbett and Newman 2015). Research has shown how environmental behaviour is affected by belief systems and personal circumstances. Milfont et al. (2017), for example, found a positive relationship between the level to which a person believes that humans should be dominant over nature and anti-environmental behaviour. Furthermore, Baumgärtner et al. (2017) found a link between income inequality and willingness to pay to protect the environment.

Lakoff (2010: 80) argues that ‘truth must be framed effectively to be seen by all', and thus we need to tell stories that rouse emotion and moral values, as well as being relevant to everyday life. In order to gain support for conservation from an extended peer community, science stories thus need to be convincing (Rose 2015; Bugter et al. 2018). It should not be disengaged from the society in which it is used (Nature Human Behaviour 2017).

As Schaller (2007: 46-47) argues, conservation needs to ‘reach people through beauty, ethics, spiritual, religious values, or whatever’, the latter words showing that individuals will respond differently to varying arguments (Mace 2014; Blicharska and Grandin 2015). Although we are still learning about how to change the behaviour of people to care about the environment, there are examples to follow. Feygina et al. (2009), for example, show how framing concern for the environment as a patriotic behaviour increased support for climate change from some groups in America. Other examples provided by Rose (2015) illustrate how a flexible narrative toolkit can connect conservation to people on a personal, emotive level (see also Sarkki et al. 2013; Lawton and Rudd 2014). A growing movement in conservation illustrates how positive, optimistic stories can garner support, instead of presenting doom-laden scenarios (Balmford and Knowlton 2017; and see Overall, it is clear that we need a greater emphasis on learning about the science of storytelling, so that we may tell better science stories to decision-makers of all kinds, including the public (Cairney and Kwiatkowski 2017; Jones and Crow 2017).

 Concluding Remarks

Conservation has always operated in a context where scientific evidence alone is not enough to guide policy and practice. This perspective has shown that if we make time to pursue strategies of working in the messy reality, instead of wishing we lived in a ‘truth conservation’ world, then the chances of evidence-informed decision-making may be improved; and in doing so, it will stop us from moving into a ‘post-truth’ scenario.

As part of a new social contract for conservation science (Lubchenco 1998), a first crucial step is to embrace strategies suited to a ‘post-normal’ conservation context (scenario 2). By recognising that values, worldviews, beliefs, and other factors are legitimate parts of modern functioning democracies, conservation scientists are more likely to build constructive partnerships. While such a view may be challenging to a ‘mode 1’ scientist, who favours a traditional approach to knowledge production, it should not be as difficult for a conservation biologist. The mission-driven nature of the discipline lends itself well to ‘mode 2’ science, which requires scientists to reach out across disciplinary boundaries (and indeed beyond academia) for help in solving problems. If we are to deploy science effectively into a messy decision-making context, then collaborations need to be built outside of academia, particularly with practitioner communities, and those stakeholders affected by conservation. These collaborations should be truly participatory, which may need us to re-make participation. Gaining the support of these stakeholders is essential for the salience and legitimacy of conservation science, and tailored, persuasive stories are needed to provide a compelling call for action.


I thank C. Sandbrook, S. Owens, B. Connor, and P. Stickler (Figure) for their help. I also thank the editors and two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments.[86]


Although I would caution such a suggestion. If we look at the reaction of the intellectual community to recent election results in America, and related to Brexit in the UK, there has certainly been a rapid rise in articles and books on post-truth politics. Yet, there are also many examples of mistruths that have been told by politicians in previous elections, including in the UK. There were few people volunteering to write books on post-truth politics after similar lies were told in past election campaigns. One may question, therefore, whether the rise of a so-called ‘post-truth’ world, and a ‘crisis of democracy’, partially results from a rejection of political outcomes from intellectual communities.From this point forwards, decision-makers will encompass policy-makers at all levels, conservation practitioners, and other stakeholders who are affected by conservation projects, and are thus entitled to take part in decision-making (see Reed et al., 2009 on how to identify stakeholders).


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