I am sitting outside the plenary session of the Australian Science Communicators’ Conference, February 2012. Wagging sessions is not encouraged, but I’m suddenly a little unsure as to what has brought me here – my background in ecology and development studies does not lend itself easily to getting excited about hearing our Chief Scientists talk about how to get today’s seven little Australians off their consoles and into the lab.
Lay audiences, bored kids, climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers bear little resemblance to the scene of the last time I was deliberately doing ‘science meets society’ .
Let me transport you – we are in an open air room, one floor from the ground on a tropical island, complete with ocean views and palm studded shores. Tempting blue is visible from the balcony, but the horizon is mostly obscured by busy posters brandishing marine conservation messages.
About 30 people wilt under the weak ceiling fans, shifting uncomfortably on makeshift bamboo benches.
One of the nation’s preeminent marine biologists is presenting in a mix of the local language and English. His Powerpoint slides show a graph that meets all of the most stringent science journal requirements – x and y axis labels, confidence intervals, r-values and a regression line. For those literate in such conventions the meaning is clear: with fish biodiversity and coral cover plummeting, the local reefs are in a pretty poor state – and declining.
Most of the attendees, some politely gazing at the speaker, others simply studying their hands, do not have these skills. They are fishers, who spend most of their days out on the blue mass that glistens tantalisingly between the slogans. I don’t know what they take away from the talk – none exhibit the signs of impatience that would be recognisable to me, the sole Western observer, but nor do they show comprehension and enlightenment.
The scientist finishes and marches over to us, the minions & apprentices, waiting in the wings. See, he says, it’s very important to feed the information back to them. You shouldn’t just come in, go diving, do your surveys, then leave.
I wholeheartedly admire the sentiment, the passion and the effort. I know that facts presented in even the most expertly accessible way are not a reliable path to persuasion. Does it matter, then, that this presentation would have been much more at home at a Sydney conference, if its message was to fall on deaf ears either way?
Powerpoint was not our only communication vehicle, in our two days of preaching to the fishers. We used games, computer models, 3D maps and the traditional textas and butchers paper, all circling around the idea that there are no longer many fish in the sea. A participant in another place had summed it up best: you want us to stop fishing, don’t you? Why don’t you just come out and say it?
Why indeed. The baldest possible truth is that we wanted to manoeuvre the fishers into saying it for themselves.
I’m reminded how my presentation on using games for tackling management of depleted fisheries was greeted excitedly by people working at one of the international development banks. “I see what will happen! – They’ll play the game. Their fish catches will drop. They’ll realised they can earn more money working in other areas and they’ll leave the fishery. Then the ocean will recover and everyone will be better off.” This was, of course, exactly what we had planned, albeit not so explicitly.
Unfortunately, people tend to realise when they’re being manipulated and have a wilful tendency to put their own slant on your attempts to educate them. Fishers in our remotest village asked if we were teaching them the importance of saving, others used our invitation to imagine alternative livelihoods as an opportunity for comedy, suggesting ‘Beer houses’, a kind of soft-porn karaoke pub loved by men (and reviled by women) to general hilarity.
Scientists – count and measure scientists – are wont to treat those of us bridging the social & economic spheres as their legitimate road to public persuasion. Rocked by the blistering and vindictive attacks on both the process and the profession, they are looking around for trustworthy vehicles of their message.
Social scientists appear to be the obvious target – enough of the same language to seem legitimate, but with access to that most mysterious of creatures: the lay public. Of course, with some notable exceptions – Marx and Smith are two much misunderstood examples – people in general don’t invoke sociological or economic work when carefully decanting their position on the latest message of environmental Armageddon.
Still less do social scientists hold a no-holds barred key to turning the tide of popular opinion. It’s a sad indictment on our own disciplines’ communication skills that we seem to have been unable to get across a simple truth: we can help you understand why they don’t agree but not persuade them that you’re right.
Maybe that’s why I feel so fish-out-of-watery here, in a space where artfully articulating science TO society is the raison d’être, and so many of the participants seem comfortable in claiming their role as PR agents for the academe. I wonder who is speaking for the illiterate, the uneducated and the uninformed, always considered the source and the site of the problems and never with the assets and agency to fix it.