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Science communication: boring truth or exciting narrative?

By Charles Essery - posted Monday, 10 January 2022

When I left aeronautical engineering at a sandstone university to instead study "Environmental Science" my motivations were solid, even though no one then knew what environmental science entailed. Even as a naïve 19 year old, I realised that the chances of getting a job in environmental science were slim, hence my backup plan was to complement my science degree with a concurrent teaching qualification, as science teachers have always been in short supply. This teacher training component proved not only to be a useful insurance policy but was in fact the best element of that momentous career change. As a concurrent element of my wide-ranging environmental science readings, I was able to learn the core principles of teaching, namely communication, clarity, simplicity of messaging and listening/watching the responses of students of all ages from primary through to tertiary levels. Communication at universities in the 1980s was, to be polite, poor. Lectures were often poorly delivered, with minimal diagrams and often in a manner to enable the lecturer to demonstrate his/her brilliance, and the students' ignorance!

Now 'communications' is an essential part of almost every degree (even communication studies, I hope) and this is to be commended. In the four universities where I have taught, I doubt if more than 5% of those lecturing had ever been taught how to teach or communicate. In the 2020s, not only are students exposed to the value of communication skills for their science, but many now do joint science/communications degrees. Indeed, you can now receive degrees and even PhDs on the topic. Forget the science, it's the communication of the story, narrative or ideas that is 'king/queen' and will get you noticed in your youthful climb up the academic, corporate or government greasy pole. University lecturers, researchers, practicing scientists and even lowly would-be post-graduates know a lot about communicating science. Indeed, what better sign of success than having postgraduates promoting their topic on a 10-15 minute slot on ABC Radio to explain their "earth-shattering" findings, with the appropriate amount of hubris, humour and "wow-factor".

There was a time when a PhD was a tome-like document infused with the blood, sweat and tears of the candidate, wrapped in an expensive binding. Now a PhD can be awarded for anything between 3-5 peer-reviewed publications in "respected, relevant" journals. What next? A PhD based on one ABC 15 minute interview, 3 podcasts, 10,000 twitter likes and several Facebook/Youtube presentations? Or even an "influencer" score provided by Facebook or LinkedIn signed off by Chief Examiner Mark Zuckerberg?


The communication of their "scientific findings from original research" should be the key to a young scientist's career. Professional promotion is geared to communication, i.e. number of academic papers, number of public lectures, media appearances, student feedback rankings and even number of research funding applications written (successful or not). Unfortunately, that is the very issue that concerns many older and retired scientists. Increasingly, when communicating about a scientific matter, the presenter is often compelling, well organised, clear in their message and effective at delivering a good narrative. On closer scrutiny, when asked about the actual, detailed integrity and scientific fundamentals of the presentation, these communicators are often lacking. They distract or divert the queries by referring to others, they recite references or suggest that there is a consensus among other scientists and previous or concurrent work in the field.

I am a climate-change realist. I have monitored, analysed and modelled the climates and their associated catchment areas around the world for over 40 years. I have been exposed to the coming of the ice ages in the 1970s, acid rain nuclear fallout in the 1980s, climate warming in the 1980-90s and now climate change in the 2000-2020s. In the last few years, communication gurus must have counselled the populist climate change communicators to stay away from short-term predictions of cataclysmic disasters (as they have failed to transpire) and focus on existential threats that will appear 60-100 years down the track in our children's-children's-children's generation. Future narratives are 'safer' than failed predictions!

I choose climate change communication to illustrate my point. Climate, meteorology, hydrology, oceanography, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy and their interaction with ecology are vast fields comprising complex issues and they require a specialist understanding of multidimensional interactions. These must be studied ad-nauseam in quiet, often isolated little rooms by dedicated nerds! Science is a wonderful profession, but it does require a significant amount of dedication, determination, persistence and introvert behaviour…. not the best background for Science Communicator of the Year! Enter science communicators. There are a very few practicing top tier scientists who can communicate the complexity of their work – the likes of Carl SaganPatrick MooreHeinz Wolf, Neil deGrassyDavid Bellamy)

Most information regarding climate change presented to the public these days is by professional journalists (e.g. Sir David Attenborough, ABC/BBC science correspondents), actors (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Fonda, Madonna…..), non-climate based populist scientists (who can forget our own home-grown paleo botanist Tim Flannery?) and of course screaming adolescent leaders like Greta Thunberg. In addition, they are supported by would-be kings like Prince Charles, woke teachers, politicians and vested interests (hi there! former PMs Kevin, Julia and Malcolm; former PMs Blair and Brown and former US VP Al Gore). I guarantee you that not one of these has the slightest understanding of the basic science that underlies the climate change. What they understand is the politics and communication strategies.

Tim Flannery gained infamy for his capacity to make outrageous, but catchy predictions of climate doom over the last 20 years and has gained positions and significant financial benefit and these. So far, 49 ( i.e. most likely all) have been wrong ("the dams of Sydney will never fill again"). Excellent communication of bad science seems to work in our media and social media-driven society. Anyone who questions the communicated scientific consensus (no matter whether they are a practising scientist, emeritus academic or an actual scientist who has become a presenter, e.g. the late great Prof David Bellamy!), is lambasted with slurs like "denialist, sceptic, traitor, profitee, flat-earther". It sounds like the days of the Salem witches, the Inquisition, the Stalinist purges. The communication of the climate change narrative is slick, well-funded, supported by the left-biased media (ABC,BBC, CNN etc) and fundamentally bankrolled by deep financial pockets for the purpose of power and influence. Maybe those communication studies lecturers I debated in the senior common rooms of universities were correct: your science stuff is fine, but it's "communication that controls the narrative in the media," they would declare.

So some scientists, particularly those of the climate change faith, have done well from science communications. Others who do not have a lucrative narrative to sell have fared less well. Indeed, I would argue, as the climate change narrative unfolds, the failings and the paucity of its science will damage the hard-earned respect accorded the 99.9% of non-climate change scientists. Already we see the general public becoming wary of medical, engineering and health sciences.


Science communication sells great stories, but science isn't about stories or messages or narratives. It is about hard work, long hours, unpopularity, nerdiness, obsessiveness, attention to detail and above all integrity. Climate change 'science' has damaged the reputation of science and even climate change scientists have strategies to repair their public exposures of unethical behaviour, e.g. "Climategate, 2009". I recall early discussions with some old professorial chums, and their scepticism of my concerns about the failings of global climate models. They couldn't conceive that scientists would be prepared to communicate only partial truths. Four years on, my chums at our three monthly meetings have changed their minds and they now joke about the latest climate change cult message they have seen on the media, and indeed in science journals.

Sadly, I suspect that climate change is not the only topic where science communicators are frightened of the whole truth in their narratives. Most politicians, government departments and indeed universities now have a powerful "Office of Communication" at the top of their institutional hierarchy, not unlike communist dictatorships and corporate entities. Indeed, George Orwell foresaw their power in his depiction of the "Ministry of Truth" in 1984. Ultimately, communication of science is good and essential. However, unless the originator of the actual science has actual authority, and also approval over the final communication of their work, the communication of science will unfortunately veer dangerously away from the boring truth towards the lucrative 'exciting' narrative.

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About the Author

Charles Essery is an independent water consultant, who has been an Australia resident since 1990.

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