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Science communication hard in land of plenty

By Max Thomas - posted Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Dr Barry Jones, Professorial Fellow at University of Melbourne, says ‘we must defend science if we want a prosperous future’.  Australian scientists, like our sporting heroes, have ‘punched well above their weight’ but they receive nothing like the support they deserve. 

How can this be so when, as Dr Jones contends, our future prosperity might well depend on science?  It may be that complacency about science is a product of being ‘too much blessed’ or perhaps not.  

"People don't want science, they want certainty." The implicit contradiction in Bertrand Russell's witticism, I suspect, would not be apparent to the very people who would benefit most from grasping it.


The 'relativist' notion that all opinions have equal merit perhaps emerged from a misunderstanding of equality. There can be no justice without equality. That we are all equal before the law is indisputable but, as with liberty, there comes responsibility, otherwise some will be 'more equal' than others.  

Had opinion been allowed to dominate facts established by way of rigorous inquiry, the www would have been unimaginable and Dr Jones's post might well have come to us by way of a newspaper or not at all, with little chance of discussion.

We should allow common sense to be the moderator of opinion.  Few feel a need to challenge the wonders of modern medicine or aviation. Millions fly and consent to complex surgery without hesitation. The scientific method that produced these revolutionary advances is the same as that warning of dangerous climate change or pandemic. Of course, the scientific method I mean does not deal in certainty; its currency is probability. Ideas are challenged and modified or abandoned if shown to be deficient.

I want to suggest another, more contentious, explanation for the tendency to readily adopt opinion as fact or even truth. The desire to conform is a natural human instinct. It's hard to resist an idea 'liked' by large groups on social media. Popular environmentalism, for instance, as distinct from evidence-based environmental science, relies to a degree on faith.

Australian environmental campaigner and former politician, Mr Bob Brown, has said: “The Greens are much closer to mainstream Christian thinking than Cardinal Pell.” I think Mr Brown was reasonably isolating the ideals from the behaviour of the institutionalized church. However, his implied link between Christian ethics and environmentalism establishes a basis for thinking that many people, seeking meaning in something greater than the self and having abandoned the church, found what they sought in environmentalism. Whether or not they were ever fully committed to a scientific view of the world is a moot point.

Religion apparently answers a human need to believe in something beyond the self. Voltaire assures us that: ‘if God does not exist, then we should have to invent him.’ A ‘Green God’ has been created to satisfy this need. ‘Environmental fundamentalism’ appears to be a form of religion, complete with articles of faith, high priests and sometimes even a trace of infallibility.


One of the articles of faith is that nature is good and people are wicked, but may be redeemed by regulation. Another is that our planet is in imminent danger of destruction by humans. There are scientists whose environmental ideology is clearly misanthropic. Ironically, this reinforces our alienation from the natural world and inhibits recognition of the real causes of environmental degradation.

Dissent is discouraged, sometimes to a degree that nonconformists are vilified almost as latter day heretics. The division of opinion on climate change into ‘believers’ and ‘deniers’ results from the conflation of science and religion.   

Science needs to maintain its distance from 'fashionable' opinion and politics. Any suspicion of scare tactics or 'gilding of lilies' can transform the friends of science into its adversaries. As far as possible, scientific disagreements should be settled in ways that don't fuel divisions in public opinion. There is no surer way to undermine confidence in science and encourage the purveyors of pseudoscience than scientists presenting apparently conflicting information to the public.

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About the Author

Max Thomas, Dip. Agric. (retired) worked in the public sector and in private consulting on a range of land, water and waste management projects. He prepared guidelines for irrigation with recycled water for EPA Victoria and developed a number of Environmental Management Systems in the water industry.

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