Why do we believe what Sir David Attenborough says?
The recent documentary on Sir David Attenborough’s life, where he explains the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of the environment, affected his adoring public. They believed his alarming and difficult message of human impact on the natural world.
Rumour has it that the BBC producers of earlier Attenborough documentaries were wary of presenting the doom and gloom scenario of known biodiversity loss because it might put the public off and reduce the popularity of the shows. Instead, they chose a positive message by making films that showed the diversity of life that still holds on in the far-flung corners of the planet.
Only in the last few years, when anything by Attenborough is a surefire rating success, did the producers allow the truth to come out.
And viewers believed it.
We now know that biodiversity is in trouble.
Why do we believe Sir David?
Sir David is knowledgeable and has been around a long time, much of it as an amiable grandfather figure.
He has great skill and capacity to entertain and inform—a rare combination—on a topic high on many people’s fascination lists. Who doesn’t love the close-up footage of a gorilla in an inaccessible Congolese forest viewed from the safety of the living room couch?
Much respected for his communications skills, Sir David would probably be the first to admit that he’s not a scientist. He’s an old-school natural historian.
That doesn’t diminish the capability to have excellent knowledge of the world’s organisms. Some of his predecessors made extraordinary contributions to the world. The likes of Alfred Russel Wallace, John Audubon, Georges Cuvier and back to Karl Linneaus, even Charles Darwin, on his famous voyages, collected and catalogued the diversity of life to understand it.
They, like Sir David, we’re proud historians of nature.
There is pedigree in knowing your animals and plants, putting a name to them and recording their attributes. It is the raw material for understanding nature.
And then there is the homework.
A brush with fame
An Attenborough show is backed up by a small army of production assistants alongside scientists drawn into the process as advisers and consultants who check and provide facts.
Back in the early 1990s when researching termite ecology at the University of Botswana, I got a call from a young woman in the UK saying she worked for the BBC Natural History Unit. She was checking a fact about termites that was to go out in one of Sir David’s shows. She wanted to know if the huge chimneys constructed by colonies of Macrotermes michaelseni did regulate the temperature and moisture in the nest below.
I reassured her that it was true, data was showing that the fungus garden deep within the mound varies by less than 2 degrees celsius year-round.
She thanked me, ticked another fact off the checklist and added my name to the lengthy list of credits.
Needless to say, I wasn’t paid for my understanding or knowledge, but the producers made sure that the information in the show was as reliable as current human knowledge could make it.
It was my tiny brush with fame.
The natural storyteller
Sir David makes natural history more scientific to bring natural history and science together whilst still delivering entertainment. And to be fair, he has tried to present information as it is, particularly in his later years, which is a credit to him.
Scientists have not been so good at bringing their information and evidence to the table in an accessible way.
We tend to hide behind our numbers rather than let them shout from the rooftops. So there is much work to be done amongst the scientists to communicate better, an observation often made over the decades. Scientists also need to know how and when to tap into emotional responses to the information we present.
This is a massive opportunity for the next generation of scientifically-minded. Particularly the generation that’s grown up, as you have, with social media and the internet at the end of your fingers.
The following decades will see whether or not scientists can bring that information to the general public in ways that they not only understand but also feel strongly enough to do something about it.
Telling these stories is a huge but essential task.
What sustainably FED suggests
We believe what Sir David Attenborough says because he is a gifted storyteller. He tells stories of nature that are fascinating even when they end badly.
We believe him because he speaks to us directly. He knows the art of communication is emotional and that sometimes facts can get in the way of feelings.
We believe him because he has been there, done that, for a very long time. Despite our modernity, we retain the hunch that the wise old man has something important to say.
We believe him because he avoids the bland numbers and sticks to the curious facts, carefully ignoring the ugly ones.
In short, he knows what we want.
Hero image from photo by Olivier Collet on Unsplash