Communicating complex science in the era of Masterchef

Melbourne University School of Land and Water

Dean’s Lecture Series

Åsa Wahlquist

August 4, 2010

Communicating complex science in the era of Masterchef.

When a colleague of mine read I was going to present this lecture he helpfully sent me a link to the US online site:

The article read: SILVER SPRING, MD [Maryland] —Frustrated by continued demands from viewers for more awesome and extreme programming, Science Channel president Clark Bunting told reporters on Tuesday that his cable network was “completely incapable” of watering down science any further than it already had.

“Look, we’ve tried, we really have, but it’s simply not possible to set the bar any lower,” said a visibly exhausted Bunting, adding that he “could not in good conscience” make science any more “mindless or insultingly juvenile”.

Along with Bunting’s remarks, the Science Channel issued a statement claiming that it currently airs more than 150 programming hours that are tangentially, and often laughably, related to science, and that staff members are unable to bring themselves to make those hours even more asinine.

This article provoked hollow laughs of recognition from some science journalist colleagues.

Our society, our daily lives have never been so dependent on science, yet science reporting, especially specialist science reporting is under threat. This is despite a raft of surveys showing the general public want to read about science, in fact they would rather more science and less politics and economics.

So why isn’t there more reporting, complex reporting, of science.

The terrible irony is

In today’s world we have never been so dependent on science, for everything from our food, shelter, transport communications and clothing to the modern medicine to which most of us owe our survival and good health,

I have been puzzling over how, given the depth of this dependence, there is not more interest in science reporting.

I think the first answer is that it has become all too complicated.

I was a child during the 1950s and 1960s. Looking back on it now, I realise it was a period of huge transition. We shared the timeless knowledge and skills of our parents and grandparents, but we were the first who could confidently expect to survive childhood. The post war years brought vaccines and antibiotics, pesticides and cheap and abundant food, at least in Australia.

When I was a child it seems there was always someone who could explain how the world worked. My mother grew vegetables and kept chooks. All our food was recognisably related to natural ingredients. She made all our cakes and biscuits and even our bread. We knew what was in everything and we never needed to read lists of coded ingredients.

She sewed our clothes, I knitted our jumpers from good Australian wool. We knew where our fibres came from.

My father, it seemed, could build and mend anything.

When I wanted a radio, I made a crystal set. When the family took up sailing, my father built our boats.

We lived in a world where the scientific principles that governed the world around us were accessible. A curious child could take apart a clock or a telephone, her older brother his car, and, with luck, put them back together again. The world was just full of things that were just waiting for a child to explore, to understand, to ask an adult to explain to them.

Fifty years ago, most of us had some basic understanding of how the objects in the world around us worked. Science was a seamless part of daily life.

I suppose that all started to come apart with the introduction of computers. My first computer took up the entire basement in the University it was housed in. I had to learn basic and then Fortran to get it to do equations I could do in my head.

These days I don’t have a clue about how so many vital parts of my life work; from my car that appears to need a computer to fix it, the DVD player, to my laptop. Instead of engaging my curiosity, piquing my scientific interest, these I relegate to the experts.

And I think that is what we as a society are doing.

As a society we are no longer actively engaged in the science of the world around us, especially the manufactured world. It is all too hard, something to leave to the experts.

This I think is a tragedy of our times.

Though I do have hopes that in some small ways it is changing.

I am very excited by the burgeoning interest in growing vegetables, something I have always loved to do. I belong to a community garden, and I just love taking visiting children around the garden, stimulating their curiosity in the natural world.

This also links in with the raft of popular cooking shows, but more on that later.

So the first problem in communicating complex science is that, as a society, we are losing

that fundamental connection to the way things work, the science that underpins our lives.

Then there is the resistance to the new. What new development am I talking about here:

It was called unnatural, they said it could be a tool of cheats, speculators, and would-be monopolies. It would immorally prolong freshness for commercial gain. It will break the natural cycles of produce, seasonality and be dangerous to health

And people would not be able to trust the safety of food, and the meaning of the word fresh?

Biotechnology? no.

They were talking about the beginnings of refrigeration. (From ‘Fresh’, written by Susanne Freidberg.)

The second reason there is less reporting of complex science is due to the culture of media organisations.

Journalists and editorial staff, come overwhelmingly from an arts background. In fact, at The Australian, the newspaper I work at, which has an editorial staff numbering in the hundreds, I know of only two other people, beside myself, with a science background.

On a practical level, this can mean explaining things like the carbon cycle, or how to read meteorological maps to ones colleagues.

Robyn Williams, from the ABC’s Science Unit, recently wrote an article about the falling number of specialist science writers under the title “facing extinction’.

He quoted the president of the US science writers association, Jim Cornell who said the situation in the last five years had gone from dismal to dreadful, with only 80 of its 2500 members working full time in the media.

Robyn talked about the science communication paradox. He said “despite science and health stories being place top in every survey since Methuselah was in child care, there are very few science units in media organisations, and science stories usually get placed last, if at all.”

Incidentally one argument he makes for the popularity of science, is that

five of the top ten programs pod cast on the ABC come from the science unit.

Robyn argues, and I agree with him, that science journalism is best served by specialists.

But the number of specialist science writers is falling: leaner newsrooms prefer journalists they can assign to any story.

I think specialist science programs and publications will remain, although I don’t know how many of those working in them have a journalism background. The attrition is occurring in the newsrooms of the metropolitan media.

Four years ago the Australian Science Media Centre was set up. It provides bite sized quotes on science, health and environmental issues of the day, and also hosts press conferences on breaking news stories and pertinent issues.

I must admit to mixed feeling about the Centre. Exclusivity, being first with the story is highly prized in journalism. Breaking news stories is what your editor notices, and judges you on.

You get those scoops by following the round carefully, by being a specialist.

But these days the science media unit is likely to arrange a press conference, or send out quotes on a breaking story. It can be curiously counterproductive.

An example: I keep a very close eye on weather records. I have been about to go into print with a story on an extended dry or hot period, when the science media centre organised a press conference on it. The result is a story I had a good chance of getting a good run on the next day gets spiked, because it was all over the wires, thanks to the science centre, immediately after the presser. This also affects my value to the newspaper.

On the other hand, I recognise there is a need for informed science reporting, and the Australian Science media fills that gap.

Though personally, I couldn’t just pick up a paragraph, no matter how well sourced. My research notes are typically, ten times longer than my final article.

The thing I find most scary about journalism is what I don’t know.

But the reality of life for most daily journalists is they have to become instant experts.

The news cycle is getting faster, news budgets are shrinking and demands on journalists are growing. None of this bodes well for good reporting of complex science.

The culture of the media prizes conflict. It loves certainty, it craves the simplicity of the headline. So that if a group of scientists, no matter how highly esteemed, claim one thing, the journalist covering the story will be asked to find someone with a contrary view.

The more contentious the claim, the more urgent the search for the contrarian.

This process, by and large, serves journalism well. It is the job of the journalist to test the information presented to them.

The difficulty arises when the journalist, or her editors, does not understand the culture of science and the scientific method.

They want the certainty of politicians, but from science they get qualified answers.

Some editors would also prefer scientists stayed in their labs.

But many scientists feel a duty to tell the world what they have learnt, and that can be a bewildering experience.

Peter Cullen, who was a graduate of this university was in many ways my mentor. He was a scientist who dedicated himself to communication of his science.

He gave a seminal paper called Science and Politics, Speaking Truth to Power, to a conference in Alaska in June 2006. I think every scientist interested in participating in public would be well served by reading this article. (available on The Wentworth Group website:

In this paper, Peter says that so many of the big issues facing society – issues like climate change, over-allocation of water, endangered species and a raft of medical issues – are what he calls science-intensive, “and beneficial outcomes are unlikely unless science can be actively engaged in the development and assessment of appropriate policies”.

He believed ardently in the importance of scientists speaking up, that with scientific knowledge came responsibility.

But Peter points out “this interface is difficult for science, since the language and operating rules of both make them seem like foreign languages to each other”.

He describes science and politics or policy development as being two different cultures.

“Science seeks the truth. it makes observations and then develops explanations that are tested by making predictions. Ideas are involved in a Darwinian struggle for supremacy, and scientists often take contrary views to test the current orthodoxy.

At all times science is contestable, and alternative explanations can be advanced which will be assessed against the conventional explanation to see if they provide a superior explanation or predictive capacity.”

Peter goes on to say “while science seeks the truth it can never be confident it has been found. A better or more powerful explanation may be just around the corner.”

None of this is new to those of you who are working scientists, but I can assure you there are many people in power who do not understand this.

Peter goes on to outline the political process, which he said is also driven by a Darwinian battle for supremacy, “but this time the battle is about the underlying values that drive human behaviour”. Those values include truth, justice, freedom and religious beliefs, but can also include notions of taming the environment, and creating wealth.

He said the political process “provides the forum for the contestability of these value sets in the context of some specific issues. Politicians listen to a range of interests on any issue and come to a judgement as to the best way forward at that time”.

This judgement could be based on short-term popularity, or the support of an interest group they want to maintain or attract.

Peter pointed out that although conflict lies at the heart of both the scientific and political process they are resolved very differently.

Science conflicts are resolved by consensus which becomes the orthodox view, though of course there will always be contrarians. Both resort to the data sets, although might choose different data sets to support their positions.

Peter said political conflicts “are resolved through processes of bargaining and negotiation using whatever arguments can be mustered to advance particular positions”

Science is just one tool, along with economics, ethics and the law.

The objective, Peter said, “is not to find a truth, but to find an outcome acceptable to relevant interest groups”.

Peter gives as the example of the over-allocation of water in the Murray- Darling basin.

I first became aware of this problem in December 1991, when there was a 1000 metre long outbreak of blue green algae in the Darling River. The images of the livid green river were broadcast around the world.

I remember standing on the banks of the Darling River in 1991 with the then head of the NSW department of Water resources Peter Millington, who told me the algae was like a riverine heart attack.

I then assiduously attempted to get the relevant members of the NSW Parliament to admit there was a problem: that too much water had been taken from the system for human use and not enough left to maintain a healthy environment.

Within a year I finally got the then-NSW minister for Water to admit there must be a claw-back of water licences. That was 1992.

Later this month, or maybe next, we will see the draft of the Murray Darling basin plan which will define the sustainable diversion limits – that is how much water is needed to sustain the environment – in each river. The remainder of the water will be available for consumptive use, for towns and irrigation.

The plan itself will come into effect next year, 20 years after that blue green algal scare. It would have taken much longer, but the long dry that began in 1997 in Victoria, and hit the basin hard in 2003, forced governments hands.

In fact it was the dire year of 2006, when the inflow into the Murray fell to an unprecedented low, that prompted the Howard government to address the problem. Water Minister Malcolm Turnbull put together a plan to give the Commonwealth power over the southern basin, to buy back water for the environment and upgrade inefficient irrigation systems, and the Rudd Labor government has been putting that into effect.

The science was not in dispute. By every indicator, the health of the Murray river was failing. Peter pointed out the tactics used to delay reform included denial of the problem, largely from those upstream who were not living with degradation; asserting other factors were more important than flow; engaging advocacy organisations to confuse the issue, and finally attempting to silence scientists that worked in government agencies on the grounds they should not be involved with policy.

I’ll come back to this last point later.

For those of you unfamiliar with the facts of flow in the River Murray:

Between 1999 and 2009 the average amount of water flowing into the River Murray was less than half the long-term annual average.

Over the three years 2006 to 2009 it was just one-fifth of the long-term annual average.

5040 gigalitres or billion litres, compared with the long term average of 26,700GL.

The water available for irrigation over those three years averaged 2500 GL compared with the long-term average of 8095GL.

Under natural conditions, 54 per cent of the flow in the Murray reached the sea. By the mid 1990s, before the drought that had been reduced to 21 per cent.

Since 2002 there has effectively been no flow to the sea: the Murray mouth has only been kept open by dredging, and the terminal wetlands of the River, Lakes Alexandrina and Albert are in dire health, with a huge loss of their natural biota, and with the exposed lakebed at risk of acidification.

This past autumn was the first in over a decade when the basin received average rains.

But average rains no longer mean average run-off. There are a number of reasons for that: one is the soil is so dry, another is the groundwater has been depleted, and the third is the rising temperature.

One of the most astounding facts about the Murray darling basin is that only four per cent of the rain that falls on the basin goes into the river. 94 per cent evaporates and the remaining two per cent percolates into the ground

Four per cent runoff. Go to Europe ad the US and the figures are 37 and 42 per cent.

But evaporation increases with rising temperature. Wenju Chai from the CSIRO has calculated a one degree rise in temperature results in 3500 fewer gigalitres into the river.

More data: the decade that ended last year 2009, was the warmest on record. last year was the second highest on record for Australia, the highest being 2002.

Australia, Victoria, South Australia and NSW all recording their warmest July-December periods on record last year. The high temperatures continued into this year with Victoria and Tasmania recording their warmest 12 month period since records began at the end of April.

That, by the way, is about as complex as you can get in an article for a mainstream newspaper. But I think you’ll agree that is enough to paint a very powerful picture.

The problem is, as Peter Cullen explained, that knowledge from science “is an important element in coming to a policy position, but it is only one of the factors that will be considered in coming to a policy position. Peter points out scientists must first understand

they hold different values from others. For example, their notion of a healthy river is likely to be different from those who use the river to make a living.

To quote from Peter: “When scientists do enter the political arena, they must understand they are playing to different rule from those use in science and need to learn the rules of politics and the media. Unless they understand the rules and tactics of policy debate it is like walking on to a tennis court equipped only with golf sticks.

Science in the public arena needs different communication skills from those used withint science.

Complex issues have to be simplified, and qualifiers, conditions and detailed references left out of public communication if you hope that audiences will understand.

It is necessary to stay on message.

Scientists entering into public debate need to understand that they are leaving a world where finding the truth is the most important goal for a world where winning is important.

That debate, of course, is conducted in the media.

I am talking at some length about this because communication complex science often isn’t just about complex science. When it comes to big policy issues, like restoring the health of the Murray-Darling, or climate change, the science does not stand alone.

At the Australian, the newspaper I work for, climate change is seen not through a scientific paradigm, but through an ideological one.

Waleed Aly in his Quarterly Essay, What’s Right, the future of conservatism in Australia, wrote: “At first blush, climate change might seem to be the kind of issue that is ideologically neutral. It is, after all, a matter of scientific determination not political persuasion…. As it happens, climate change is the most ideologically charged issue we are likely to witness for generations.”

“It is not, for many of its participants, about science at all.”

He argues, not surprisingly, “climate change denialism on the part of non-scientists is always an ideological or an emotional process.”

This can be due to the arguer being in a high-emissions industry and being unwilling to change; or it could be more ideological.

Aly draws parallels between climate change denial and anti-evolutionism, with each “beginning with the position (denying the apparent scientific consensus) and then looks for ways of supporting it”.

He argues “neo-liberalism is incompatible with the politics of climate-change response, and that neo-conservative politics is far more compatible with climate-change denial than with its acceptance”.

Opponents of responding to climate change argue those who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as desiring “the de-industrialisation of the west”, they charge those wanting to act on climate change as being anti-growth or even embracing environmentalism as a religion and they worry about unnamed bureaucrats restricting or controlling the market, and at the far end, one world government.

You hear them talk about “believing” in climate change, as though it were a religion, rather than “accepting the science”.

I am talking at some length about this because I want to make the point as clearly as I can: the very best science is not going to win these arguments.

I think this applies to a number of issues: I can remember writing a feature about kangaroo harvesting. There is good science about kangaroo numbers and their distribution, about grazing pressure, the impact of harvesting, and the nutritional quality of kangaroo meat. The counter argument goes: we should not kill native animals. That is it. Try as I might I could not move the opponents beyond this single six-word ideological statement.

I would argue the opponents of genetically modified food mostly fall into the ideological category, too. They might cite science, though in my experience that science is either marginal or only partially quoted, when a full reading results in another conclusion.

And I have always found it curious how Australians happily adopted GM insulin, but many appear to reject GM food.

The anti-vaccination lobby certainly falls into this category. It is easy to dismiss them, but they are surprisingly effective in some areas like northern NSW where there is a lower immunization rate than the rest of the country.

Then this week we have had the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission arguing that there are places that are simply too dangerous to build. The science is clear. It was clear before Black Saturday and it is even clearer after: There are some areas that are extraordinarily fire prone, places that with the best technology in the world cannot be defended. Yet after the fire both the Federal and Victorian Governments after the fire rushed to assure people they would help them rebuild.

Enough to that, let me tell you a science success story.

In 2002 an El Nino event developed, and drought crept over eastern Australia.

A group of Sydney businessmen, including a very senior executive of the company I work for, got together and set up Farmhand. It had the twin aims of delivering drought aid and drought proofing the country.

I was instructed to go out and do a series of drought stories. I was outraged. The previous year was the best in living memory for Australian farming. The seasons were good, the prices thanks to an Australian dollar that languished in the low US50 cents were fantastic and farmers produced big crops. Everyone knows drought happens in Australia, I argued, and if farmers couldn’t survive one dry year after such a good year, they needed to look for another occupation. A colleague counselled me to make the best of it, so I wrote a series on farmers thriving through drought.

One of the members of Farmhand was Sydney shock jock Alan Jones. I don’t know how to describe to a Melbourne audience the power of Alan Jones, but he hold enormous sway.

Alan has many obsessions and one of them is turning rivers like the Clarence in northern NSW, the Burdekin in northern Queensland the Ord in north Western Australia inland. The water, he claimed, was wasted flowing into the sea and would be used to drought proof the land.

In October 2002, the World Wide Fund of Nature, gathered a group of 11 natural scientists, at the Wentworth hotel in Sydney. They wanted to wrest the agenda back from the shock jocks, to insert the science that was their life‘s work into the debate.

I was at that meeting along with two other journalists, Anthony Hoy from The Bulletin and Nick Grimm from ABC Radio.

The conversation ranged widely across Australia’s settled history: through agriculture, land clearing, salinity, the climate, water use and drought. It was very stimulating and great fun, until Anthony slammed the table and challenged ‘what are you going to do about’. I was scandalised, I think journalists should witness, not intervene.

But the scientists thus challenged, adjourned to the next room.

Fifteen minutes Peter Cullen came back in and read a statement that began: “We are of the view that the problem with Australia’s degrading landscapes is not just one of the immediate drought, but it has been 200 years in the making, and we really need to look again at how we live in this landscape.

“You can’t drought proof Australia,” he read, “we need to learn to live with the landscape, not try to fight against it all the time.”

The statement not only outlined the problem, but presented a five point solution.

Anthony and I spontaneously applauded. And so the Wentworth Group was born.

The next morning Nick Grimms’ piece on the group went to air on AM. The statement hit the media like a drought-breaking storm.

Peter confessed: “We were just flabbergasted by the press response. We had a dream run in the media and got so much coverage from it that it just amazed us.” He estimated they did perhaps 100 interviews in the week following the group’s formation.

Two weeks later I ran into a member of the Group. Why, she asked me, did they get so much coverage when they were only saying what they had always said?

The answer is a combination of timing: the stage set by Jones, and the authority and courage of the members of the group.

I clearly recall Peter, who at that stage was coming to the end of his term at the CRC for Freshwater research, and John Williams who was also shortly to retire from his position as head of CSIRO land and water, saying if men who were at the peak of their career, facing retirement will little left to lose, did not speak out, then who would.

This is important. This was during the Howard years, when publicly-funded scientists who spoke out could expect a political backlash.

I was involved in one firsthand in October 2005. Mike Young, one of the Wentworth Group scientists who was then working at CSIRO land and Water, and Jim McColl, a CSIRO fellow and former Director General of Agriculture in SA, did a review of drought support, with the intention of looking at ways to support change in the irrigation sector.

The review, like every other review of drought support before it, argued drought support did more harm than good, that it hindered change, that it kept people on the land to the detriment of their own well being and the health of the land, and prevented more successful farmers from acquiring the land and achieving a better scale of production.

Mike got the necessary clearances from the CSIRO and gave me an interview about it. There was nothing new in this to me, but my editors at the Australian thought differently. They ran the story on page one, and unknown to me, one of my colleagues rang the Agriculture Minister, Peter McGauran who attacked the review.

He said: “It is a callous and highly-inaccurate judgement made by two academics who have form on this subject. Frankly it turns my stomach to see two members of the famed CSIRO denigrate farmers in this way.”

Mike rang me the next day and in a strangled voice said “Asa, how could you?”

It was a very difficult time for him, but it had a happy ending: Mike was offered a position at the University of Adelaide with the guarantee he would be free to speak his mind. As the director of the University’s Environment Institute has been able to make an invaluable contribution to the debate on water management in this country.

I am acutely aware that many scientists are not in his position.

The night the Wentworth Group was formed, it put together the foundation of their Blueprint for a Living Continent.

Peter argued the success of that message lay in its clear simple language that anybody could understand – with no qualifiers, conditions or references,

– clear articulation of the problem, that was strongly linked to realistic and effective solutions that could be implemented by governments should they wish

– no obvious self interest, in other words no call for research funding

– and the message was focussed on the key points, and did stray into the many other interests the authors also felt passionately about.

They did receive some criticism for the lack of references from some scientists, but Peter pointed out that criticism was a profound misunderstanding of how the media operates.

An opinion piece in most newspapers has a limit of 800 words. Most new stories are less than 600.

The blueprint was delivered to the Prime Minister and State premiers before the media, and Peter said this added to media interest.

The Group has released eight reports, covering issues like the health of the Murray darling basin system, Australia’s changing climate, Blueprints for a Living Continent and a National Water plan, Optimising carbon in the Australian Landscape, and Sustainable diversions in the Murray Darling basin.

All have received good press coverage. They have injected good science into the public debate. I will leave it to others to assess their impact on public policy, but I can tell you their impact on theses debates has been profound.

Not only do journalists, and those interested, have a clear, well-written and argued reference point, the Group itself gives journalists somewhere to go when seeking opinions on these matters.

So, how to get complex science into the media.

For a start I would like every scientist to have the freedom to speak. I would like a Peter Cullen, a scientist committed to clear, focussed accessible and relevant science communication at every science institute.

Yes, I’m dreaming. But how about this for an idea.

You don’t need to me to tell you how successful Masterchef has been. But what is cooking, but applied science? And look at the range of sciences involved in getting something plated up:

The botany and zoology, horticulture, agronomy, soil science, genetics, entomology, veterinary science that it took to deliver the raw produce.

The microbiology used to make cheese, wine and fermented products

The mathematics to measure ingredients, and of course the chemistry and physics of cooking itself.

So how about a program about those sciences, called, say Masterboffin, though I am open to suggestions on the title.

The scientists would be called up to answer questions like: Why can’t we unscramble the eggs in an omelette? How much water does it take to grow one lettuce, or produce a pint of milk or a kilo of beef? Why is it so hard to find an adequate substitute for gluten? Does wine have to have more than 11 per cent alcohol to taste good? Why can’t you grow brussel sprouts in Sydney?

Imagine, without even realising it, the viewer would learn science that was vitally relevant to their daily lives.

This would also lay the groundwork to help us understand the greatest challenges of our time: climate change and the growing world population. Within 40 years the world will have to product nearly double the amount of food it does today, and that in the face of declining area of arable land, the end to the cheap petrochemicals that provide the fuel and fertilised integral to food production, a shortage of phosphorus, a decrease in spending on research and development and climate change.

It is an almost unimaginable challenge, and we will need a well-educated and supportive public to meet it. The communication of that science will be more important than every before.

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