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Communicating science

By Keith Suter - posted Wednesday, 17 March 2010


Introduction

On February 3, 2010, while being the Crawford Miller (Oxford-Australia) Visiting Research Fellow at St Cross College University of Oxford, I was able to attend the Commonwealth Partnership for Technology Management (CPTM) Smart Partners Hub meeting in London.

The meeting was on “Smart Partnership, Climate Change and Science”. I was asked to say a few words on the state of the Australian debate. That statement was based on a short aide memoire I had prepared for The Club of Rome. A summary of the total meeting has published by CPTM.

The purpose of this note is to amplify a few comments I made in the context of reporting on the Australian climate change debate: the problem of communicating science.

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Science and the media

I am not a scientist and so I look at the science profession from the outside - that of being, among other things, a foreign affairs presenter on Australian television and radio. It is evident that the science profession is losing the battle for hearts and minds when it comes to the climate change debate.

Welsh physicist Sir John Houghton has been quoted as saying something similar. He told BBC Wales on February 12, 2010 that most scientists were now in a “PR war” with [climate change] sceptics: “We are in a way and we’re losing that war because we’re not good at PR. Your average scientist is not a good PR person because he wants to get on with his science.”

This is not necessarily a new issue. Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time magazine, has produced a large biography of Albert Einstein (Walter Isaacson Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon & Schuster, 2007). After his work on Relativity, Einstein became a very famous scientist. He became a trend-setter: “In the current celebrity-soaked age, it is hard to recall the extent to which, a century ago, proper people recoiled from publicity and disdained those who garnered it. Especially in the realm of science, focussing on the personal seemed discordant”. He became the world’s most famous scientist - but his fame got him into trouble with other scientists!

In May 1959 another dispute erupted: CP Snow (1905-80), a celebrated novelist with a science background from Cambridge, spoke about “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (annual Rede Lecture, University of Cambridge) (Robert Whelan “Fifty years on, CP Snow’s ‘Two Cultures” are United in Desperation” The Daily Telegraph, May 5, 2009). He argued that there was then a gap between scientists and “literary intellectuals”: scientists didn’t read Charles Dickens and humanities professors didn’t know the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Snow warned that many key decisions in public life were being made by people without much knowledge of science. The situation probably has not improved in the past half century.

Communicating science

One of the best books I have encountered recently on this problem of how to communicate science is by Randy Olson Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. Olson was a science academic who changed life in mid-career and went to California to learn movie-making (he now specialises in science and environmental movies). One of his theatre lecturers told him “not to be such a scientist” and the reprimand stayed with him.

I have found his book helpful to understand how, in effect, the Australian Labor Party Government headed by Kevin Rudd could move from winning an election in November 2007 partly on the climate change issue, to losing the public debate over climate change in two years (with the then Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, losing his own position to a rebellion within his own party and for him to become the world’s first party leader to lose his position because he was supporter of taking action against climate change; he has been replaced by a climate change “sceptic”).

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Olson argues that there are four “layers” of communication, rather like a pyramid, with the layers getting broader as they move towards to the base. At the top of the pyramid is the “mind” - which is where most scientists spend most of their time. They communicate learnedly with each other in a careful, heavily foot-noted style.

The next layer down is the “heart”: the locus of love. The third layer is the “gut”: locus of fear. The base of the pyramid are the “reproductive organs”, which is why so many people, companies and organisations use romance, and so on, for marketing - it is the easiest way to reach the broadest number of people whatever is being sold: cars, chocolate, clothes etc.

Applying the top three layers of the Olson model to the Australian climate change debate, we can see how the model helps explain the change within Australia.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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