On Monday 15th August 2016 renowned scientist and science communicator Professor Brian Cox confronted One Nation senator-elect Malcolm Roberts on the facts of anthropogenic climate change (ACC) on the ABC program Q and A. As Roberts kept asking for empirical evidence on ACC, Cox finally succumbed to the urge that most scientists probably have, and literally threw data at him to a round of applause from the audience. Despite the theatrics and weird applause for a graph, it failed to address the specific misinformation in Robert’s mind and made Cox out to be overly emotional.*
Roberts was also damaged by the exchange, coming across as an ignorant conspiracist looney who believes that NASA manipulated the ACC data! By that logic, it means that they must have somehow changed all 30 000 independent research reports used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)!
Anthropogenic climate change evokes strong emotions from most people, especially those scientists who understand the vast quantities of data and predictive models with potentially dire outcomes for humanity. Unfortunately, scientists can’t keep throwing data at people if they don’t understand something, and this applies to all complex scientific subjects, not just ACC.
Oh, what’s that, you don’t get it? Here: have some more data!
It’s the scientist’s role, as well as science communicators, educators and journalists alike to then use effective communication methods to translate the scientific publications into plain English for politicians, decision makers and the general public. Mass communication is not the answer, as it fails to answer the individual’s questions and actually reinforces their misunderstanding. Person to person is a great way to correct misinformation.
As scientists, we need to understand the intricacies and nuances of in-person communication to help the public understand the valuable and complicated knowledge. For example, being able to withstand or deflect a personal attack when explaining something, as happened to Cox. This will allow us to determine if the person is genuinely misinformed, or something more sinister.
ACC is a significant and complicated topic that affects us all and needs politicians to understand the information to then collectively act in a timely manner to slow the severe impacts. There are people trying to disrupt this action by causing doubt. It’s important to understand that personal attacks on scientists, institutions and logic are part of this effort by the fossil fuel industry. The challenge is now to point this out to the public and raise awareness about the credibility of information, as it’s easy to put opinions on the Internet!
*For the record, I have full respect for Professor Brian Cox and would like to take this moment in time as an example of what NOT to do in communicating the science of ACC. There are many examples where he is a great science communicator and a small Internet search will show many results! Learning from our individual and collective mistakes is part of being a scientist. Thank you for all of your work Professor Brian Cox and please keep up the good work!
**Disclaimer: My opinion is based on scientific research on the subject of Communicating the Science of Anthropogenic Climate Change. I work independently and am not paid by any institution or organisation for this research.