COSAM News Articles 2020 January Dr. Hill Speaks on the Challenge of Remaining Objective in Scientific Investigations

Dr. Hill Speaks on the Challenge of Remaining Objective in Scientific Investigations

Published: 01/28/2020

By: Carla Nelson

The Auburn University Society for Conservation Biology held its first meeting of the spring semester on Jan. 13 and new chapter advisor Dr. Geoff Hill, a professor in Biological Sciences and curator of birds in the Auburn Museum of Natural History, gave a presentation on “Balancing Dooms-day Projections with Optimism in Discussions of Wildlife Populations.”

Dr. Hill spoke about the challenge of remaining objective when conducting scientific research on topics about which you are passionate.

“This is a problem that every scientific researcher in conservation biology faces,” shared Dr. Hill. “It’s very hard to be an objective scientist in a topic you’re really passionate about. Most people are drawn to a career in conservation biology because they want to save the world; they want to help make things better. Important decisions are based on the data collected by scientists and for this process to work well the scientists making assessments have to remain objective.”

Dr. Hill spoke about how it is human nature to exaggerate an experience—including the results of scientific research—when conveying the experience to others. This tendency is compounded when there is press coverage involved. The worse you make a problem in conservation biology sound the more attention the problem and the scientists studying the problem will receive. He focused on a recent study reporting a decades-spanning decline of birds in North America. The study presented data that there are 25 percent fewer birds in the U.S. and Canada than there were 50 years ago.

Hill agreed that the data was sound and the conclusions of the study, as published in the journal, are likely correct. 

“In the press coverage, however, the results of the study were hyped up to make them seem dire,” he explained. “Anyone who has lived through these decades knows that there are a lot more people and a lot fewer birds than there were in 1970. A 25 percent decline in bird populations matches my experiences. But the North American avifauna is not in collapse and dozens or even hundreds of bird species are not at imminent risk of extinction, as follow-up statements by conservation biologists about the bird decline suggested. As a matter of fact, all of the rarest species of birds in North America are increasing in numbers due to management of critical habitat over the past 50 years.”

Dr. Hill repeatedly returned to his theme that the results of scientific investigations must be reported objectively and that scientists should not try to simultaneously play the roles of impartial assessor and advocate.

“If the public starts to see evidence that scientists are not objective and are just playing for the next grant or donation, then people start to not believe what scientists are saying,” he said. “That would be really bad. We need public confidence in what we’re doing. My challenge to the next generation of conservation biologists is to resist the urge to overstate what data tell you.”

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