Way back in 2004, sociologist Kieran Healy amusingly summarized the public faces of different fields of social science and humanities. “Public face” being defined by “the books on the shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble”.
What’s the public face of ecology, by that measure? Books about environmentalism and climate change, I guess. Field guides to birds. Maybe also a bit of classic nature writing–Walden, Sand County Almanac, etc.
Or maybe not. “What’s on the shelf at major bookstores” surely is an outdated way of identifying the public face of any scholarly field, at least in the US (here in Canada, Indigo is still going strong…). But when I search amazon.com on “ecology”, the search returns a bunch of ecology textbooks. I don’t think that textbooks count as the “public face” of any scholarly field.
When I google either “ecology” or “what is ecology”, the top two hits are the ESA’s webpage on “What is ecology?” and the Wikipedia page for “ecology”.* That’s more like it. Surely Wikipedia, and the other top hits from a Google search, are closer to being the “public face” of any scholarly field than the field’s textbooks are. On the other hand, does the Wikipedia page on ecology (or the ESA’s explainer) really capture the gestalt of what the public thinks of when it thinks of “ecology”? There’s a difference between the “official” face that a field presents to the public, and the face the public actually sees.
Or maybe the public face of ecology is defined by nature documentaries. I think there’s something to that. In the past, Meghan has talked about how the #1 misconception about ecology among her intro bio students is the idea of nature as a balanced, harmonious whole, with every organism working for the good of the entire ecosystem. Surely that misconception comes from nature documentaries.
I should probably ask what the public face of ecology looks like if you learn about it from influencers on YouTube and Instagram. But I have no idea. Does ecology even have a public face at all, if “public face” is defined by “whatever influencers on Instagram and YouTube talk about”? How do you do, fellow kids?
So, over to you. What is the public face of ecology? Does ecology even have a public face? Does it need one? If ecologists wanted to change the public face of ecology, is there anything they could do, individually or collectively, that would be likely to have much effect?
*Those searches come out the same way when I search from a private browser window. So it’s not that Amazon or Google knows I’m an ecology professor and personalizes my search results accordingly.