What’s the public face of ecology?

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 “What’s on the shelf at major bookstores” surely is an outdated way of identifying the public face of any scholarly field, at least in the US (here in Canada, Indigo is still going strong…).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.

23 thoughts on “What’s the public face of ecology?

  1. I thought about this a lot back when I was a PhD student and I never came up with a satisfying answer. I wasn’t able to identify a verb-form of ecology that made sense: If artists paint, doctors treat patients, and bakers bake, what do ecologists do? What does it mean to ‘ecologise’?

    I tend to think that ecology is a domain of study, not a vocation, which makes it difficult to have one public face. Ecologists can be researchers, teachers, government officials, consultants, game rangers…the list can be quite long. It’s a pity that the public understanding of ecology is hyper-focused on the nature-part, and mostly overlooks the science-part.

    • Good points. You got me thinking about the relationship, or maybe lack thereof, between the public image of a field, and the practitioners of a field–who they are and what they do.

      I guess probably the most common way for people in the US or Canada to encounter an ecologist would be by taking a class from an ecologist at university? Which of course is something that only a fairly small minority of people have ever done, since most people either never attended university, or didn’t take an ecology course if they did. But I would think it’s even rarer for people to encounter, say, government ecologists or NGO ecologists or etc.

      I do think there are some fields with one or a few *famous* practitioners, who shape the field’s public face. Think of Stephen Hawking in physics, or Einstein before him. Or think of how Stephen Jay Gould was the public face of evolutionary biology in the US back in the 1980s and early ’90s. In large part because his books were on the ‘evolutionary biology’ or ‘science’ shelf at all the bookstores back then. I don’t think ecology has ever had its Einstein or Hawking or Gould, at least not in the US or Canada. I guess E. O. Wilson would be the closest. In Canada, I guess it’d be David Suzuki. Though David Suzuki’s an interesting case, because in his academic work he was a geneticist, not an ecologist. He’s a public face of ecology in Canada through hosting nature and science documentaries on national tv, and environmental activism.

    • Re hardly anyone knows what ecologists do, I recently started referring to myself as an environmental data scientist. Mathematical biologist is closer but opening with math is a sure conversation killer in my experience 😦

  2. For a long time ecology was equated with environmentalism and holistic nature-worshipping in regular bookstores. In fact some had ecology sections for this with separate “nature” sections for guidebooks and the like. It seems to me that is changing now and more people are recognizing the science version. Regarding popular books on ecology, it seems like there are not that many. The ones that I have enjoyed the most are books that describe natural history with an ecological and evolutionary slant, such as
    A Neotropical Companion by John Kircher
    Rocky Mountain Natural History by David Matthews

    • I share your feeling that there aren’t that many popular science books about ecology, except for those parts of ecology that intersect with natural history or evolutionary biology. Song of the Dodo by David Quammen is one.

  3. I’d nominate Aldo Leopold and Thoreau (ugh) as “ecologists the public is likely to know about,” if for no reason other than some high school English classes mandate Walden or Sand County Almanac.

    As for more modern-day ecologists, I’d think of Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass in particular is having a moment with younger folks right now) and maybe Peter Wohlleben (Hidden Life of Trees). Though as far as public face goes, I think it’d have to be David Attenborough if we move from “classical ecologists” into “people talking about nature”.

    I do wonder how much the “public face” of ecology is dominated by environmentalism — I’d bet that a lot of the public perception of ecology centers on global change and conservation biology via folks like E O Wilson and Naomi Klein, while ignoring a lot of the other specialties in the field.

    • As a public face, I think Wilson and Attenborough are in the discussion. But also folks like Jack Hanna and whoever does Jack Hanna-like stuff now that he has retired. I’ve been to some Hanna presentations and he did discuss a fair bit of ecology and behavior, in between cutting up with whatever animal he had on stage. Jane Lubchenco, perhaps? But do people know she is an ecologist or only that she’s a scientist that ran NOAA? Margaret Lowman and Nalini Nadkarni might be in the discussion too, but I’m not sure how famous they really are vs how much I like them. Drew Lanham may be climbing in people’s awareness too, but I’m pretty sure his exposure is still mostly in the US South (Book: The Home Place).

      I’m about 98% certain that the public face of ecology will either work with animals or be well known in environmental science/climate change.

      However, if you consider social media, then I think you have some other options that the more IG/Tiktok/Twitter-savvy could suggest. But I’d qualify that as the social-media-face of ecology and of course that’s a parallel universe. I’m pretty sure the Facebook face of ecology is a science-denier.

      • I don’t feel like Jane Lubchenco has nearly public profile of someone like David Attenborough or even E. O. Wilson. Being ESA President and director of NOAA are important leadership positions, but they’re not really public-facing. That’s not a criticism of Jane Lubchenco at all, of course! (she’s amazing!)

        I’d think that Margaret Lowman and Nalidi Nadkarni have more of a public profile than Jane Lubchenco, thanks in part to their popular science books and TED talks. Good suggestions.

      • Re: the face of ecology as it appears on Twitter…I mean, Jane Lubchenco’s on Twitter! She has 14,000 followers. Heck, our own Meghan Duffy’s on Twitter, she has 12,000 followers. That’s a lot more followers than most ecologists on Twitter have. But presumably, some (many?) of their followers are other ecologists, or else organizations that employ a lot of ecologists. And in the context of Twitter as a whole, 14,000 followers isn’t really *that* many. Most people with 14,000 followers in any walk of life couldn’t really be said to have much of a public profile. I mean, just to get an idea of scale here: philosopher Liam Bright has 38,000 followers on Twitter, and he mostly just makes extremely nerdy in-jokes with other philosophers. (which isn’t a criticism; I enjoy Liam Bright’s Twitter feed…) Scientists and other people with reasonably big public profiles have hundreds of thousands or even millions of Twitter followers. David Suzuki’s foundation has 156,000 Twitter followers. Climate scientist and activist Michael Mann has 184,000 Twitter followers. Richard Dawkins has 2.9 million. Bill Nye the science guy has 6.1 million. Michelle Obama has 20.9 million.

        Now I’m kind of curious which ecologist has the most Twitter followers…

        I agree that the public face of ecology on Twitter is surely “climate change”, or maybe “environmentalism”, or maybe “viral video clips of animals exhibiting dramatic/funny/amazing behaviors”. And I’m not sure that fact has all that much to do with how many Twitter followers any particular ecologist has.

      • Meghan has about 10x more Twitter followers than Lowman or Nadkarni. I guess Meghan is the social media face of Ecology.

      • 😛

        In seriousness, there are various ecological organizations that have many more Twitter followers than Meghan (or Jane Lubchenco). The ESA has 41,000 followers, for instance.

        Not really being on Twitter, except for reading a very few non-ecological accounts via a web browser, I have no idea what individual ecologist has the most Twitter followers. Or the most followers from among non-ecologists. But now I’m curious! +1000 Internet Points are on offer to anyone who knows the answers to those two questions. 🙂

  4. Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer is the best general-interest ecology book I have read. Unfortunately, it did not turn Kimmerer into the superstar (or face of ecology) that she should be, but her blend of indigenous and western approaches to the field, written in her captivating poetic prose, is worth an annual re-read.

  5. In respect of books, although focused on people and specific relationships with trees, ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers has some important ecological messages and lyrical writing. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, Geoff Park’s Nga Uruora is a modern classic, well worth tracking down for an understanding of what’s happened here, particularly to coastal forests.

  6. Would have to be Attenborough in Ireland and the UK, possibly even Chris Packham. Although I’d say as many as half the people I speak to ask what Ecology is (which may be more a function of who I speak to than the knowledge of the general public).

    I’d be interested to hear how you respond to the misconception of nature as a balanced, harmonious whole etc. I agree it’s a pretty widely held view. I guess I’d talk about the dynamic nature of community composition (not in such boring tones). But I’m not sure I have a decent answer ready.

    • “I’d be interested to hear how you respond to the misconception of nature as a balanced, harmonious whole etc. ”

      You’d have to ask Meghan! I’ve only ever taught biostats courses (where the topic doesn’t arise) and upper level ecology courses (where the issue doesn’t arise, for different reasons). Thinking about it, I suppose I’d start by reminding students about evolution by natural selection. Perhaps using that famous Far Side cartoon of the lemmings running into the sea, except one is wearing an inner tube and grinning at the viewer. 🙂 I’d remind them about predation, and parasites, and competition. And I’d show them some data and pictures illustrating cases of nature getting very “out of balance” (i.e. changing a lot, very fast) that have nothing to do with humans. There are plenty of examples one could point to, and they aren’t limited to mass extinctions brought on by asteroid impacts or huge volcanoes or whatever. But again, I’m sure you’ll get a better answer from someone who’s actually had to overcome this misconception with their own students!

  7. A correspondent points me to Mark Westoby’s 1997 letter to TREE, summarizing a very interesting Swedish survey asking members of the public what “ecology” means to them. I encourage you to click through and read it. It’s very interesting. It confirms–and then goes well beyond–some of the tentative suggestions in the post.


  8. I’d agree with some of the comments above that ecology has faces (plural) not a face, and that those faces vary enormously according to the public audience. For example, consultant ecologists have a face that developers, planners, local government officials see as being all about surveying for rare species, environmental impact assessments, etc. Very different from the face of academic ecologists, which is different again to that of ecological activists such as Chris Packham and David Suzuki.

    As for which academic ecologist has the most Twitter followers, Dave Goulson has 26.5k, so he has to be a contender. But then he also writes for popular audiences and is very active in debates about pesticides, etc.

    By the by, ‘What is Ecology?’ was the title of a 1975 book by one of my PhD supervisors, the late Denis Owen, which was quite popular in its day. It’s a pretty good summary of the field at the time.

  9. I’m intrigued by the question, and my sense of things aligns with those of commenters already: we can’t point to a small handful of people that represent the face of ecology as a whole, but in different places or contexts, some people (or books or TV shows) stand out as reaching a large number of people. So, depending on where you live, which parts of ecology interest you more or less, and what media you consume, the faces will be different.

    But I thought of a different question: if you made an amalgam of the many faces of ecology, would there be a set of common core messages? For example:
    – Nature is awe-inspiring and deserves greater respect from humanity.
    – People’s impacts on the natural world have ben massive and need to be scaled back (for our own good and for the good of nature itself).
    – Diversity is good and needs to be conserved.
    – Native species are better than non-native species.
    (To me, that would seem to sum up >90% of what the faces say)

    Or does each face bring a somewhat different message?

  10. Speaking of public face of ecology:
    Anderson et al (2021). Trends in ecology and conservation over eight decades. Front Ecol Environ 19(5): 274-283. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2320

    Things have changed with time. Now the “crisis” aspects of biodiversity and climate are the face of ecology. Used to be something else, a few decades ago.

    • Thanks for the pointer to that! I’d have missed it otherwise. I mostly don’t look at Frontiers despite being an ESA member. Not because Frontiers is bad; I’m just not really part of the target audience for most of the pieces it carries. But I’m definitely part of the target audience for Anderson et al.!

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