By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM
One of the lessons we have learned at the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) over the years(and one that we have been particularly reminded of over the last year), is the importance of using an agreed upon lexicon when trying to communicate science within the context of public policy, law and stakeholder engagement. Indeed, each of those three areas (policy, law and engagement) will typically interpret the meaning of words differently. For example, in conducting interviews with states in regard to how they define streams, we discovereddifferent meanings for the word “ephemeral” depending on where one lives in the country. In fact, in some states, the term “intermittent” may include streams that are sometimes scientifically classified as “ephemeral.” And one only has to look at the flurry of debate going on in regard to the new Proposed Rule for the Clean Water Act to understand how difficult it can be to create definitions for words that describe natural phenomenon such as what types of waters are protected by it or what constitutes “connectivity.” Nature is messy and hard to define.
Recently, ASWM convened an interdisciplinary work group to tackle the challenge of improving wetland restoration success. The word “success” was the group’s first hurdle to overcome. What is “success” – what does it look like and how is it measured? Joy Zedler prefers not to use that word at all – she believes it is entirely too subjective and that scientists should measure quantifiable metrics such as soil hydrology and water chemistry. They should measure progress toward reaching a specific goal. “Success,” on the other hand, is in the eye of the beholder. Others in the work group, such as Robin Lewis, point out that the word is used regardless of its subjectivity. Since often funders of restoration want to show “success,” we have no choice but to use it, though it must be couched within observable or measurable performance standards. Similarly, the word “value” can mean very different things depending on the context in which it is used (e.g., economics, science, religion, etc.).
When our restoration work group put together its first lexicon glossary to assist with discussions and for the development of a future white paper, the variety of meanings for different words wasremarkable. For example, consider the word “resilience”:
1) Engineers define resilience in terms of structural performance, efficiency, constancy, and predictability, and measure resilience in terms of the ability for a system to return to a steady, functioning state after a disturbance (Schultz et al., 2012),
2) Ecologists on the other hand, who recognize the inherent adaptive nature of systems, and focus on ecosystem response to perturbations, measure resilience in terms of resistance (the system’s ability to maintain a particular trajectory in spite of stress), and dynamic equilibrium (the ability to recover or regain functionality and structural integrity once a disturbance has passed) (Society for Ecological Restoration International (SERI), 2004);
3) Whereas sociologists come at the problem from a human perspective, focusing on a community’s ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from and more successfully adapt to adverse events (National Academy of Sciences (NAS) 2012).
In the context of any discussion about resiliency, it is necessary to clarify which definition of resiliency is being used.
The English language is dynamic. So is our understanding of the world around us. It follows that meanings of words change as our understanding of the world around us expands. Many words acquire new meanings when used in political and policy discussions (e.g. “sustainability”, “natural”). Often words with a history of common usage in the English language can end up with new scientific meanings such as “function.”Developing a glossary or common lexicon at the beginning of any in-depth discussion can avoid misunderstandings and set rational expectations. It is similar to what I do whenever I facilitate break-out groups. I start by developing a list of ground rules so that folks have a chance to agree on what is acceptable during discussion or not. For example, a popular one is “don’t talk over other people – wait for your turn.”
Similarly, in order to successfully communicate within diverse audiences, we must first provide a glossary to define our lexicon to ensure that everyone is on the same page. In fact, when communicating with audiences from different backgrounds, it is a good idea to start by learning their lexicon. It’s not so different from traveling abroad. If you don’t know the language, most folks bring a translation dictionary with them so they can try to communicate with the native tongue. And for Peat’s Sake – in a world where “LOL” can actually end up in the Webster’s Dictionary, we must be vigilant in our attempts to continue the art of two-way dialogues that use actual words and avoid acronyms. Is a rose a rose? With all due respect to Gertrude Stein, it depends on who defines it. Developing acommon lexicon is an excellent way to start.