This will be part of my message in a couple of weeks when I will be a guest panellist at the Australian Science Communicators conference in Brisbane.
The conference comes at an interesting point for me personally because communicating science in a media friendly way is an area where I have a great deal of experience. But I will be entering this conversation as my own thoughts on climate science communication are shifting.
To set the scene, here is why I think good science by itself is not enough. The fact is like most science communicators I can get coverage for new research that advances the science around climate change with relatively little effort. It is my bread-and-butter and, as a former editor of newspapers, I know how to key in to current events or set scientific papers in such a way that they are newsworthy.
But, repeatedly, despite good coverage and a definite firming around the science of global warming, in Australia the policy discussion and the voice of global warming deniers in the public space is as loud and potentially as influential as ever. What is even more remarkable is that the voices of deniers are repeating busted myths in the public sphere and talking about them as if they were fact.
I offer a recent article by Maurice Newman - Crowds go cold on climate cost (paywall) published in News Corp newspaper The Australian as an example. Worryingly Newman is leader of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council and therefore part of the inner circle of advisers to Australia's current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott,
In this bizarre piece of denier fantasy, Newman says:,
"In his marvellous chronicle of human gullibility, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay wrote: "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one." It's a pity Mackay did not live long enough to include anthropogenic global warming in his list of popular delusions. There has been none bigger."
"The scientific delusion, the religion behind the climate crusade, is crumbling. Global temperatures have gone nowhere for 17 years."
Anybody with a modicum of understanding around climate science knows that these Newman rantings are the sign of somebody who has been captured by conspiracy theorists and deniers. He clearly has little or no understanding of the science. Yet News Corp papers and in particular The Australian repeatedly give these people space in a national broadsheet, inevitably prompting a huge round of discussions across the media.
In articles like this and others, climate scientists have been described as frauds, the research misreported and undermined by people with absolutely no qualifications in this area.
What we have to realise is that the science in this context means very little. These pieces are primed to create a reaction and to continue a discussion that suggests there is doubt around man-made climate change.
Scientists have to respond because to leave these unchallenged means they are likely to be accepted as fact by the general public. Those with qualifications and who seem to understand man-made global warming often respond with facts, usually days afterwards. They are inevitably polite, considered responses and not in the least bit disagreeable, unlike those we see from Maurice Newman and deniers of his ilk.
And there lies the problem. By being polite and agreeable two things occur:
- Scientists do not get an equal space or dramatic headline in the following days
- By responding to deniers in this way these naysayers are treated as if they deserve respect and consideration for their views on science, suggesting the arguments around global warming could be valid.
Scientists are playing politely, by the rules and on the turf of mass media where they are the most inexperienced. It is my growing suspicion that as long as scientists play politely and by the rules they have no hope in getting the urgency of global warming across to an audience or controlling the discussion in the mass media. They will always be reacting and often well after the impact of the first story.
Now is the time for disagreeable scientists to step up.
The definition of the disagreeable
I had been considering the idea of the disagreeable scientist for many years without realising it until I read, David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. The book itself is not particularly substantive and its main point, that the weak can overcome the strong by breaking the rules, is at times clumsily made but it isolates the idea of the disagreeable individuals being responsible for shifting a society.
The key elements of the disagreeable are that:
- They do not play by the rules.
- They are not concerned by the opinion of others
- They are courageous and passionate
The power of the disagreeable
When I look at recent history in Australia, for good or bad it is the disagreeable rule breakers who have moved our society. Let me offer some quick examples.
Smoking advertising was widely accepted in Australia, right up until the 80s. And then BUGAUP (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) came along and started defacing the billboards of tobacco giants. I still remember the outrage by the multinational cigarette manufacturers.
But the public response quickly divided and the discussion rapidly shifted from the rights of advertisers to the damage cigarettes were doing to Australians and the cost to the entire health system.
Within a few years cigarette advertising had been removed from billboards and television. Sometime later cigarette companies were no longer allowed to sponsor sporting events in Australia.
Buga-up was not entirely responsible for this change, but they accelerated the discussion and through their controversial and disagreeable actions gave medical experts the opportunity to talk about the health consequences of smoking. This then led to a transformation of public attitudes and made smoking advertising a real consideration with voters, quickly leading to legislation banning cigarette advertising.
Regardless of your political leanings and feelings about the very disagreeable (in the sense we mean it here) Pauline Hanson, her career in Australian Federal politics was short but its impact was profound. She moved Australia substantially to the right and turned immigration policy into a major political battleground, where it has remained ever since. Her disagreeable approach, tacitly endorsed by then Prime Minister John Howard when he refused to censure her, completely changed the dynamic around what was acceptable discourse in Australia, attacking political correctness and elevating discussions that formerly were considered racist to commonplace.
Hanson's maiden speech was as disagreeable as it comes, in terms of breaking rules, lack of concern for the opinions of others (proudly so if you read the speech) and for its courage.
There are many other examples of the power of being disagreeable. For instance, News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt not only makes a living being disagreeable but uses it for a specific purpose as he said in his column on May 25, 2013.
As I explained in introducing Abbott at the IPA anniversary dinner, Abbott must operate within the cultural space allowed him. My role is to help expand the cultural space so that what was once thought too hard, too risky, becomes the easy and sane. It is also to point to what needs doing, before most people are ready for the bother.
Why its hard to be a disagreeable scientist
When I look at scientists and the spokespeople for the science of global warming and then compare them to the deniers, whose sole aim is to generate doubt, the imbalance and lack of the disagreeable scientists becomes immediately apparent.
Scientists are handicapped in these public discussions because:
- They play by the rules and talk in probabilities rather than definite outcomes.
- Public discussion in scientific circles is often about research and politely arguing the facts, data and merits of a theory with a countervailing theory also based on data and facts (some scientists may not think their discussions are polite but compared to what goes on in mass media, even the most vicious disagreements are almost like English gentry in their politeness)
- As a group, scientists definitely care what their peers have to say about their research standing in the scientific community. A few years ago I thought scientific attitudes were starting to change around science communicators but too often lately I hear good science communicators derided as bad scientists.
The disappearance of the disagreeable advocate
As for environmental advocates, many NGOs have moved towards the business community and play a far more sober line than they did in the past. I remember less than six years ago when supermarkets and fishing organisations backed away from environmentally unsound practices because they were terrified that Greenpeace activists would create bad publicity. Greenpeace owned the unreasonable activist space and put chills up many businesses.
Four or five years ago WWF-Australia in Queensland played an in-your-face role in leading the fight against pollution of the Great Barrier Reef with strong statements in the media and then went visiting farmers on their land to explain the benefits of reducing fertiliser run-off.
Over the past few years both organisations appear to have softened their approach. Greenpeace has quietened its actions, moving more towards the centre and becoming more compromising with its advocacy and WWF-Australia has almost disappeared entirely in terms of its public voice.
This trend has made it much harder for either to become disagreeable.
The failure of Copenhagen, which suprisingly caught many Environmental Non Government Organisations off guard, has meant that many former advocates for action on climate change have departed the climate science space because it is too hard, so now there are fewer voices as well.
The result is that while fossil fuel groups and deniers ramp up the unreasonable rhetoric, those people best placed to change the conversation are no longer up for the battle. Despite all the ammunition that the latest research gives science or advocacy groups, almost no one has the courage to bring out the unreasonable gun.
How to be unreasonable
Let's return to Maurice Newman, who has basically stated that climate scientists are deluded, gullible, running a religious crusade and are ignoring evidence that global warming has stopped for 17 years.
Prof David Karoly wrote a lovely piece in response to Newman's column obliquely calling him a fool in regards to his understanding of climate science and questioning his fitness for the position as leader of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council. Prof Karoly is one of the great communicators of climate science in Australia.
How much more disagreeable would it have been for a scientific organisation or an advocacy group to call for Newman's removal from the Business Advisory Council and be utterly direct in its statement that Maurice Newman is a complete idiot when it comes to understanding the science of climate change.
Advocacy groups and scientific bodies can't just work behind the scenes, sometimes they have to move the agenda along with loud, rude discussions as well.
Understandably, a large chunk of the scientific community has always wanted nothing to do with policy or advocacy. They believe their job is just to get good science out there and good policy will follow. Many say privately they didn't get into science to engage with the public or advocate policy.
This is an attitude that sounds dangerously close to statements by soldiers convicted of war crimes saying, they were just following orders.
At what point does a scientist decide it is their place to argue, to be unreasonable in public because the consequences of their research leads to a greater responsibility to society than another research grant? At what point do they screw up their courage and become prepared to break the rules regardless of the pallid opinion of others in their field?
And in case you were wondering, those last statements were from a disagreeable communicator aiming to get a conversation going. So, come on, let's discuss.