Jane Goodall and the rise of activism in science

Over the course of her career, Jane Goodall has reshaped our views on ‘boring’ scientists.

Story by Jonathan Flynn | Photos by Hannah Gabrielson

Jane Goodall, the woman who revolutionized how people study and observe primates. Jane Goodall, the woman who inspires hope in millions of people around the world, encouraging them to take the necessary steps to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. Jane Goodall, the woman who demonstrated to millions of young girls that they deserve a place in the world of scientific discovery and progress.

Jane Goodall, the woman.

She steps quietly from behind the curtain onto the stage of Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham on October 8, 2018 and makes her way towards her chair. Instead of the vibrant and charismatic changemaker one might expect to see, there is a tired soul, weary from nearly 300 days on the road as a lead actor in the fight to protect the planet. Soon, she will speak to a completely sold-out theater for nearly two hours about her experiences in the jungles of Tanzania and how they inspired her to educate others about the importance of conservation.

Goodall made her first incursion into the scientific community in 1960 after she made the groundbreaking observation of chimpanzees using sticks to pull termites out of the ground, evidence that humans were not the only organisms on Earth to use tools. This discovery was groundbreaking and forced scientists to redefine what was considered to be “human”. When the National Geographic Society decided to fund her second expedition into the territory of our primate cousins, she became a media sensation.

But Goodall had no idea that she would embody such an influential public image when she first set off into the jungle. of what is now the Gombe National Park in Tanzania.

“Other people created [my public image] for me, I just went on being me,” she said. “Then I realized chimpanzees were vanishing so I had to leave Africa and raise awareness.”

Goodall’s example shows us how science can be leveraged to inspire action. She used the power of the media to found the Jane Goodall Institute and to build a global education program, Roots & Shoots, which gets students of all ages involved in wildlife conservation. She has established multiple wildlife preserves and plays an active role in monitoring conservation programs. Even in the face of her fame and subjectivity, many of her findings and results remain standing today.

Reputation is everything in science. The popular image of a scientist tends to be an introverted white man in a white coat resigned to the confines of his laboratory, categorizing test tubes and vials with numbers and scientific jargon. To the irritation of the scientific community, Goodall, with no collegiate training, broke those conventions. She chose to give the chimpanzees she was observing names instead of numeric classifications.

“Scientists like to have difficult words,” Goodall said during her talk. “It makes them feel important.”

It can be challenging for reporters to interview scientists. They’re afraid of being misrepresented or being taken out of context, especially with the anti-science sentiment of today. But the need for science outreach is dire. Only 28% percent of Americans are considered to be scientifically literate, according to a NASA report from 2016.

In the shadow of the recent report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which found that the effects of human-caused climate change will likely continue for centuries, it has become evident that the need for science outreach is more pressing than ever.

The entire reason Goodall was able to inspire the widespread conservation action that she did is because she presented her science in a way that was both accurate and motivational. Climate science has failed in this respect, largely due to the community’s insistence on appearing unbiased and apolitical over the last thirty years.

Merely presenting the information to the public and policymakers isn’t going to change anything. Environmental scientists are trained to quantify and objectify. Very little (if any) of our training is focused on outreach and education.

Every environmental scientist is asked at some point in their education if science and activism can be tied together. In many ways, Goodall has shown us exactly how to do that.

“I think what young scientists have to do is to stick by their beliefs and just go on carrying on and sharing their knowledge, spreading information as best they can,” she said.

The Planet is Western Washington University’s award-winning quarterly environmental publication and the only undergraduate environmental magazine in the U.S.

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