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Carl Safina on Science, Advocacy, and Animal Smarts

Carl Safina
Carl Safina's latest book gives us a look inside the minds of animals.

Carl Safina is a marine conservationist and professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island who has been an advocate for the ocean for many years. Safina says he started out researching seabirds.

“I left science behind, not intentionally,” he told WCAI. “I started getting involved in these conservation debates. I thought I would do it for the non-field season, for a year or two. Then I realized my research was farther and farther back in the wake and I was not going to circle back to it.”

Science remains critical to the job of a conservationist, Safina said. In fact, it’s the only tool we have to figure out what is happening on our planet.

“The role of that scientists have is as arbiters of our best understanding of what’s really going on,” he said. “Then other people can decide what to do about that based on their values.”

Partway through his career, Safina decided his role should be to communicate what humans should do if they value species that are in trouble. In the 1990s, he helped lead campaigns to re-write U.S. fisheries law and conserve fish like tuna and sharks.

At the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, his work centers around teaching scientists how to talk to the public.

“Scientists always take what we know for granted because they’re always interested in what we don’t know,” he said. “If you ask a scientist a question, they’ll start talking about the parts that they don’t know, what people are still working on. And what people really want to know is: what do you actually know? What do you feel confident about?”

His advice to scientists: don’t lead with the question, lead with your answer.

Safina’s latest book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel has just been published in paperback. In it he shares his belief that empathy for endangered animals is one of the most powerful tools we have for stopping extinction.

Why the switch from conservation to animal behavior?

“To be honest, I wanted to take a break from thinking about conservation all the time,” he said. “Because it’s a little bit brutal to think about these things all the time every day.”

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