Communicating Our Science: Building Trust and Openness

This article appeared in Vol. 11, No. 3 - 2015


This year saw the AAPG Annual Conference and Exhibition descend on the oil capital of the world, Houston. One focus of this year’s conference was to discuss issues faced by those in the industry and beyond. Our own editor, Jane Whaley, was invited to sit on the panel for a forum that would debate the pressing issue of how science is communicated, to both scientists and the public.

The panel of highly respected individuals, each with their own angle on the science communication dialectic – from university professors to communications advisors at O&G multinationals, former astronauts to federal policy advisors, and naturally the Editor-in-Chief of an industry-leading earth sciences magazine fundamentally tasked with communicating science to everyone – set about raising and responding to some of the biggest issues facing us today.

The AAPG ‘Communicating our Science’ forum panellists deep in discussion: (L to R) Michael Zehr, Jane Whaley (Editor), Iain Stewart, Heather Saucier, Jim Reilly and Don Paul. In our rapidly developing world where communication methods have increased the speed at which information is shared, the nature of how and where we look to construct an opinion – or underpin our own existing beliefs – has changed dramatically. This rampant technological development has made science available and digestible to more people than ever before, yet we are experiencing a shift in interest away from science-based subjects to more vocational ones, at all levels of education.

Geology and the earth sciences have suffered especially badly. With very little contact in schools and swathes of bad press circling the oil and gas industry, one begins to understand the struggle to get people engaged with the topics and key players.

Understandably, companies are wary of being misquoted by unscrupulous journalists looking for sensational sound bites, so choose to not engage unless they are forced. Academic freedoms have been similarly curtailed as universities rely more and more on private funding for research. All of a sudden, academics and industry specialists – the authorities on the subject – must be very careful of what they say as it could reflect badly on the faculty, company or their own reputation. This means fewer and fewer people we ought to hear speak on these things, to educate the public and redress the journalistic social bias, get the chance. The result is an inherent cultural suspicion of advocacy; a knee jerk reaction that assumes this accredited figure has been presented to con us and distract us from the truth.

Everyone’s a Journalist 

Social media has given a voice to those previously never able to be heard, helping to topple governments, spread hidden truths and get us all up to speed on most things at the click of a button. Now, anyone can be a journalist, report on what they feel is important and offer it up to the public, a fantastic achievement and exactly the kind of engaging attitude we need. However, this powerful tool is not without its ‘Pandora’s Box’ quality. 

The loudest, the biased, the ill-informed and the powerful can usher in a thunderous presence that manipulates the consensus for personal or political gain, making what should be a rational and objective debate an entirely emotional one.

We all know bad news sells better than good news; one only has to turn on the television to hear a litany of global disasters. The question becomes: how do we use what we have to get people thinking and engaged in the matters at hand without the emotional hooks? I believe the answer lies in using cross-media platforms to speak directly to the public as often as possible, as rationally as possible, so as to alleviate the emotional burden.

This means building institutional two-way trust and openness with the press, educating the public at all levels to spur the self-deterministic belief that social media has furthered, and to reward and protect the knowledgeable, trustworthy, courageous people who choose to stand against corporate interests or socially unfavourable practices for the sole reason of educating the public for the benefit of our planet, ourselves and the future generations that must learn to share global responsibility. 


Related Articles