You say 'falsification,' I say 'validation': taking a multidisciplinary approach to conservation

By Ting-Chun Kuo

Success in conservation requires people from different backgrounds to work together. Seahorse conservation is a case in point, where biologists, fisheries scientists, policy makers, businessmen, social workers, the media, and many others need to work together to achieve the goal of protecting these iconic animals from overfishing and other human pressures. Biologists study the size, health, and survival of seahorse populations. Fisheries scientists study how people use seahorses and assess the sustainability of their use. Ideally, policymakers then incorporate information from these biologists, fisheries scientists, and other stakeholders such as local communities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to design population management tools. Media and advocacy groups meanwhile play an important role raising public awareness around the need for these and other protections.

The process can be slow and frustrating, of course — people are used to viewing a given issue through their particular lens, which can cause them to overlook other important perspectives. But from my own recent experiences, I’m convinced that an interdisciplinary approach to conservation is the only way forward. 

Since I started working in conservation, I’ve made a point of learning skills from multiple disciplines and making an effort to work with people with different backgrounds. Which is why I was so excited when I learned about the Duck Family Graduate Workshop at the University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Politics. It was an excellent opportunity for people working on different environmental issues from different perspectives to interact with each other. The workshop happened over two days in March in Seattle. Every participant submitted a paper about their work for broad-based, intersciplinary discussion at the workshop.

The workshop included faculty and students from disciplines ranging from political science to economics to law. Lindsay Aylesworth, another PhD student from Project Seahorse, and I were the only natural scientists on hand. I presented my work, which analyzes how an international agreement (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES) affects the trade and conservation of seahorses, while Lindsay shared her experience of using local people’s knowledge to understand the distribution of seahorse populations. During the workshop, we had a great time stepping back from the work we have been immersed and absorbing other people's perspectives on it. We were also exposed to a wide range of interesting research on other issues as water usage, green buildings, air pollution, and climate change.

Although we went in mentally prepared, both Lindsay and I were still surprised by how much of an obstacle language can be to communication. Every discipline uses a different dictionary, or lexicon, of technical words. One example was when Lindsay asked a politics student how she ‘validated’ her model after collecting the first round of data. After a couple of minutes of slightly confused discussion, the student suddenly realized that Lindsay was talking about what her discipline calls “falsification.” Equally, the same word can have different meanings in different disciplines. For example, in natural science, “diffusion” means how ions or molecules move from higher concentration to lower concentration. However, when, in political science, people say “policy diffusion”  they mean how the policies of one country influences those of others.

During the workshop I often thought of my PhD supervisor, Dr. Amanda Vincent, and her constant refrain that we must always be on guard against jargon. Wherever possible, in public and multidisciplinary forums, we need to use language that even an eight-year-old child can understand. It was at the Duck Family workshop that I realized how true this maxim really is.

Once we established common linguistic ground, the workshop group had many enlightening discussions. Their different perspectives shook me out of my usual thinking — which is to focus on whether there is a universal principle to explain the patterns in my data — and spurred me to think about the “context” of my case studies as well. My research requires quantitative analysis on economic data, as well as qualitative interviews to understand why people make the economic decisions they do when it comes to trading seahorses.

When I am in the field later this year, I will make a point not just of validating ‘hard’ economic data; I will also investigate the perspectives of traders to better understand how their thinking and behaviour might affect these larger trends in the trade. By incorporating many different research methods, I will look into the questions from many different angles, and hopefully the information from multiple sources will help us have a more complete, thorough understanding of the global dried seahorse trade.

Ting-Chun Kuo (@TingChunKuo) is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.