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The challenge of a ghastly future

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Blog picture: The challenge of a ghastly future
A forest fire (Image by Bernabe Colohua from Pixabay)
"The unique challenge facing scientists is exactly how to pitch our message for maximum impact and to find the best way of telling it like it is"

I have a lot of notes to self about things that I need to get better at doing; these include remembering people’s birthdays, eating five a day, getting out for a walk etc etc. From a work perspective one of these is handling in a more-timely fashion the requests from our Comms team for comments in response to alerts from the Science Media Centre. For those of you that don’t know how this works, a newspaper plans to run a story about a new scientific discovery or paper, and then puts out an alert requesting comment from other scientists. As a researcher this is a relatively easy way to help your research institute or university get its name into the national media.

One trick here seems to be speed. I’ve tried to play this game before but by the time I responded the newspaper in question had all the quotes it needed. Of course, the other possible explanation for my comment not being used was that it wasn’t particularly inciteful. Unlikely though this second explanation may seem, in a spirit of enquiry I started to look more closely at the types of comments being used by newspapers. What struck me was that in many cases they weren’t particularly penetrating or inspired but said something relatively generic in a catchy way. On this basis I fixed on a new strategy of speed, and when an alert from the Science Media Centre was forwarded on by our Comms colleagues in the middle of January I decided I needed to just say something and to say it quickly.

Hindering my speed strategy, however, was the paper itself. A perspective paper by Bradshaw et al. in Frontiers in Conservation Science, its title was “Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future”. This perspective is aimed fairly and squarely at the major international negotiations coming up around climate change (UNFCCC COP26) and biodiversity (CBD COP15). You can probably guess at the general thrust, but the last line of the abstract sums it up well “Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.”

However, one of the problems in responding to the Media Centre request was the simple density of information crammed into this paper. The Science Media Centre circulates a list of generic questions, for example “Does the press release accurately reflect the science? Is this good quality research?  Are the conclusions backed up by solid data?” For a paper such as this I doubt anyone other than the authors would be able to answer these questions, and maybe no single author would be able to address them, let alone in a situation where speed is of the essence.

The other major challenge was the style of the paper. Being a perspective paper, it mixes statements which have a clear evidence base with those which seem to be opinion rather than fact. For example, “If most of the world’s population truly understood and appreciated the magnitude of the crises we summarize here, and the inevitability of worsening conditions, one could logically expect positive changes in politics and policies to match the gravity of the existential threats.” This is presented as inevitable logic but seems to me to be an arguable point, in that it might also drive more powerful nations to become more inward looking and defensive, a response which is perhaps mirrored in our recent handling of Covid vaccine availability.

At a larger scale, what struck me about this paper is that this is very likely an indicator of what’s to come during 2021, and possibly into 2022 if these major negotiations are again postponed. A challenge for us as scientists - if we’re asked to comment in that capacity - will be separating out what is fact from what is persuasive rhetoric and opinion. The other challenge, which this paper lays out very clearly, is whether we should in any case and at this time of crisis try to maintain our neutrality, at least in terms of the strength of message we put across. The paper ends by stating that given the human ‘optimism bias’ it is “incumbent on experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to eschew reticence, avoid sugar-coating the overwhelming challenges ahead and ‘tell it like it is’. Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst.”

Finally, did my speed-based strategy work? In this case, yes, with the following fairly straightforward statement being used in the Guardian online: “We certainly should not be in any doubt about the huge scale of the challenges we are facing and the changes we will need to make to deal with them”. Perhaps within this wider context, the unique challenge facing scientists is exactly how to pitch our message for maximum impact and to find the best way of telling it like it is.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author, and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/ecologicalsciences/challenge-ghastly-future on 10/04/21 11:09:31 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.