School of Environment experts weigh in on fear and bias in ecological research
Researchers at the Yale School of Environment advocate for a greater inquiry into negative human experiences in environmental scholarship.
Jessai Flores, Illustrations Editor
A recent study at the Yale School of Environment examined the role that fear and historical bias play in how scientists go about ecological research.
Gabriel Gadsden ENV ’27, associate professor of wildlife and land conservation Nyeema Harris and postdoctoral researcher at the Woodwell Climate Research Center Nigel Golden hypothesize that “social ecological landscapes of fear,” or SELF, create place-based bias, which in turn influences the success of conservation efforts.
The researchers point out that in grappling with a place’s identity, conservationists often encounter bias based on predominant cultural and historical narratives, disregarding the ecological landscapes themselves.
“The social-ecological landscape of fear theory states that fear of relinquishing dominant narratives of space creates a bias in where, how and to what extent conservation and environment scholars conduct studies,” Gadsden told the News.
Place-driven biases have deep historical context. For instance, Black scholars can feel hesitant to pursue research in disproportionately racist environments, which can affect conservation goals, according to Gadsden.
“Science is not as objective as perhaps previously casted across disciplines,” Harris wrote to the News. “The SELF theory proposed forces applied scientists, especially those in natural sciences, to grapple with history. We question not only the past biophysical attributes of the ecosystem that shape contemporary patterns of biodiversity and nature processes, but also how legacy tied to socio-economic conditions and treatment of people drive such patterns.”
Gadsden’s work is the first of its kind to study how fear in ecological research affects humans, as previous studies have focused specifically on animal behavior in fear-stimulated environments.
“Past theories of fear separate humans and nonhumans,” Gadsden wrote. “Our paper unionizes ideas about fear borrowed from the humanities and social science[s] with ecology. It compels disciplinary experts to come to terms with the nature of societies’ histories that promote colonization mindsets in environmental scholarship, and ways to overcome this fear-based or place-based bias.”
Gadsden’s research offers unique prospects, acknowledging that place-based bias is a layered dilemma. In his work, Gadsden focuses on the researchers; he suggests that in order to eliminate any biases, researchers should be cognizant and engage with subject communities in a proactive fashion.
More precisely, Gadsden insists on a three-tier approach to address the crisis. First is co-creation, which is when eco-political and eco-justice scholars unite to cope with geographical prejudices. It could spur them into action, he said, as they invest in missed histories and carry out more intentional research.
The second step is community collaboration, where scientists cooperate to understand attitudes and behavior in specific geographies, interacting with local habitats to create a more stable conservation framework.
Lastly, Gadsden prompts researchers to recognize the role of history in their work. For instance, the displacement of indigenous people in Yosemite between 1850 and 1966 made the forest ecosystem more susceptible to fires, and in order to propel conservation efforts, it is important to be aware of the ecosystem’s pre-displacement state.
Environmental studies major Roxanne Shaviro ’26 said that there are multiple ways intergenerational trauma can affect people and manifest itself in research. There are very few people of color in the major, which she said could partly be because of traumas resulting from racial discrimination.
“People don’t want to face trauma,” Shaviro said. “I saw very few people of color in academia growing up.”
Since the inception of ecological scholarship, dominant narratives have projected false ideals for ecological inquiry, according to Gadsden’s study. Thus, the resulting landscapes of fear have caused gaps in scholarship. In order to remedy this, there has to be a broader effort to consult multiple sources, which can allow researchers to avoid implicit bias in prioritizing ecological issues in certain areas.
Harris’ diverse team at the Applied Wildlife Ecology Lab, where Gadsden works, aims to negate biases by doing hands-on work with a wide array of terrestrial systems, from national parks to farmlands and backyards. The team is working resiliently to not let fear constrain their exploration.
The study was published in the January 2023 issue of BioScience.