THE CHALLENGE OF GETTING THE MESSAGE ACROSS
(A transcript of Paul Willis' opening remarks at the Emerging Issues in Science and Society forum held at Deakin University on the 6th July, 2017.)
I started this week in a severely depressed state. The cause of my depression was not the lingering cold that laid me low for the whole day and had put me in bed for most for the preceding weekend.
It was, in part, triggered by some of the stories that were coming up in quick succession on the morning news. Rapid-fire, almost glib coverage of millions of people facing famine and disease in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, much of that suffering inflicted by warring forces in the area and the breakdown of an organised society. More deaths and destruction in Mosel as local forces retook the remains of the city from ISIS. Images of hundreds of people crammed into anything that will float to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of a new life in Europe – it was estimated that 13,000 such refugees are landing in Italy every day.
And another part of my feeling of doom sprang from my recent research into the fate of the Great Barrier Reef and how the Federal Government appears to be incapable of grasping the basic fact that the key threatening process is warming waters due to climate change. Surely, if they did appreciate this, there would be no further talk about developing the Carmichael Coal Mine or trying to insert a ‘clean coal’ option into the future energy mix for Australia.
It is depressing when you realise that the people running the country do not even have the slightest measure of the enormity of the problems that we are facing let alone the resolve and ability to face up to those problems. It’s akin to watching someone standing in the middle of a busy highway, looking away from the direction of traffic and you can see a large truck behind bearing down on them. It seems that no amount of shouting or hollering, no entreatment or plea to get out of the way can be heard and that all you can do is watch as the inevitable collision occurs.
But even that depressing thought was not the prime cause of my deep and dark melancholy. It was the lead story on the news bulletin which was dissected and discussed in extravagant detail throughout the rest of the show.
That story: Who was going to pay our cricket players to throw little red balls at each other?
Why did I find that so depressing? Because it said that we as a nation were no better than the inept politicians that we so easily deride. We are all standing in the middle of that same highway with multiple trucks of destruction bearing down on us and all we can think of is the vapid distraction of playing games and paying for them.
Perhaps this is a failure of science communication.
It is science that reveals the major problems that we face and so, perhaps, it is the failure to effectively communicate that science which leads to a lack of concern for the issues among the broader society.
So much of what science deals with is beyond the observation of most people. We wouldn’t know about climate change if it were not to thousands of scientists around the world collecting and collating data over the last century or so – a landscape to vast in geographical extent and too long in temporal history for any individual to comprehend. The work of demographers reveals the plight of the global phenomenon of overpopulation where no one can observe all seven and a half billion people alive on the face of the Earth at this moment. The complexities of an ecosystem, the workings within an atom, the movements of the cosmos are all beyond our unaided observation. But, with the instruments of science, complex systems can become comprehensible, the vast distances of the universe can be brought into perspective or the operations of the subatomic can be revealed for all to see.
Even my own area of science, palaeontology, reaches back into an unseen past over spans of time that no human can comprehend. I am the last of the Time Lords: every day I journey through time to reveal creatures and worlds unseen by any other human eye.
I often refer to science as our best grip on reality. The methodologies of science allow us to grapple with what is actually happening in the world around us. It’s inherent cross referencing through peer review and reproducibility means that we can test our understand of how nature works and share that understanding with other scientific adventurers. Science, or rather the scientists, know what’s going on and what perils we face. So why doesn’t everyone understand?
I think that it’s a cop-out to say that it’s all down to the ineffective communication of these ideas. There have been some brilliant documentaries, radio shows, books, magazines and newspaper articles that have clearly explained the findings of science, particularly over the last half century or so. And the accelerating rise of the online environment and the abilities of scientists to tell their own stories has carried this science communication revolution into the 21st Century.
Where the failure occurs, in my not-so-humble opinion, is in the communication of the relevance of the science.
What does it actually mean for the individual?
How will it affect the lives of each individual and their families?
At a recent forum on Climate Change, I asked the question; when will the Australian population take this seriously? The answer was not when we give them more facts and figures but when they can’t insure their houses against bushfires, sea level rise, flooding or storm damage. When it becomes personally relevant, people will start to pay attention.
It’s this Rubicon in the discussion, when we start conveying relevance, that is at the heart of today’s forum. What we’re about to witness is the coming together of the social sciences and humanities with the sciences to create context and impact in the populous mind.
How do we make the abstract relevant?
How do we make the global personal?
How do we show the unseeable?
How do we create perspective across an unbounded plain of thoughts and ideas, data and theories?
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that we have something of a grab-bag of unrelated subjects cobbled together to make today's seminar. What on Earth has an account of the deadly nature of Australian snakes got to do with predicting bushfires? And can those presentations fairly share the same stage as a consideration of misinformation around human nutrition and an understanding of what’s living in your gut?
The common thread through these diverse topics is not in their content but it is in their delivery, in their exposition and their examination where these disparate issues come together into a cohesive whole. Taking seemingly obscure areas of scientific endeavour and, through the clarifying lenses of the social sciences, making them relevant to all of you gathered here today.
Dr Paul Willis is a respected leader in the science community, and served as the Director of the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus) from May 2011 to July 2017 continuing an impressive career in science and science communication. He has a background in vertebrate palaeontology, studying the fossils of crocodiles and other reptiles. He also has an extensive career in science communication working for the ABC on TV programs such as Catalyst and Quantum as well as radio and online. He's written books and articles on dinosaurs, fossils and rocks, and has led eight public expeditions to Antarctica. Now through his own company Media Engagement Services, he's teaching researchers how to tell their research stories to the world and finding new ways to engage the people of Australia with the science that underpins their world.