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Public debates in science: Where’s the balance?

Earth Science PhD student Peter Spooner shares his experiences after working as a science-policy intern at the British Library, struggling to achieve scientific balance in a politically charged debate.

Greenpeace's Will McCallum talks to Barrie Deas of the NFFO at TalkScience.
© The British Library Board
Anyone who follows any kind of environmental science will be aware of the differences in the ways that science can be portrayed - be it in the news, in TV shows, on the radio or at public events. As an organiser/reporter, a debate is often a good way to make your event/article more interesting, and there are almost always different points of view clamouring to be heard. It is often straightforward for a scientist specialising in a topic to point to a media debate of the issue and say: ‘That debate did not represent the scientific position’. However, as I discovered during my recent internship at the British Library, trying to organise a properly balanced debate is very difficult and may not always be the goal to which every debate aspires.

The British Library’s TalkScience series are discussion-style events focussing on topical issues in science. Past events have included topics such as: climate change and extreme weather; the impact of pesticides on bees; genetic modification on the farm and many more, all topics with relevance to political/social issues as well as science. When designing my event, my oceanographic background (along with having a scuba diver’s love for all things marine) led me to choose the title ‘Fishing and Marine Protection: What’s the Catch?’ The discussion would focus on the increasing pressure under which we are placing our marine environment and the impacts that has on the life beneath the waves and the fishermen above them.

A catchy title and puns galore adorned my mock up flyer for the event. But what about the speakers? Could I (or should I) make this event balanced? How could I (realising that I have a somewhat biased view of the topic) avoid ‘false balance’, especially when I am not a fisheries expert? I was able to invite three speakers and one chair person; a great number for a small discussion event, but hardly enough for a truly fair and balanced debate – a debate not just on the science of fisheries and marine conservation, but the political, economic and social aspects too. It was clear I needed at least one scientist, but since the discussion was not to be simply about science but about policy as well, I couldn’t just have scientists on the panel. Further considerations were whether those I asked to speak could eloquently handle the job, were prominent enough to lend weight to their arguments, and whether it would be possible to get a diverse panel. As if these considerations weren’t enough, I also had to think carefully about how I wanted the event to run. For example, if a conservation scientist were to speak alone opposite a fisheries representative then the conversation may not have been entirely constructive. It was important to me to try and generate a discussion that left people in a positive frame of mind, or with some good ideas to take away.

In the event, this latter goal took precedence over scientific (or political) balance, especially since those are so difficult to achieve with so few speakers and with my non-expert knowledge of the subject. It was important to me to include panellists and audience members from all the stakeholder groups interested in fishing and marine protection, to have a healthy debate, and to get everyone talking in a friendly atmosphere. Dr. Alasdair Harris, director of the charity Blue Ventures and one of our panellists, summed up the event by saying: “Change is about relationships, and change is about dialogue and understanding perspectives.” We certainly heard some different perspectives during the event, from conservation scientist Professor Calum Roberts advocating for strongly protected marine reserves, fisheries representative Barrie Deas highlighting the difficulties that conservation policies can cause fishermen, to Alasdair’s view that engaging with fishermen is the key to ensuring successful ocean protection and sustainable fisheries. The speakers (and audience members) were able to address each of these perspectives leading to a good degree of balance in the discussion.

A very useful inclusion in this regard was that of having a chairperson (Dr. Helen Scales) who was both trained in media communication and an expert in the scientific field. These skills allowed Helen to use her scientific knowledge to make sure any controversial points were challenged, and her communication experience to drive a positive discussion and engage the audience. Perhaps by using this system more often – with a subject expert acting as chair – we could better avoid situations where non-scientists are able to derail debates by simply denying the science. With science seen as the building block and basis of the discussion, rather than as one side of the debate, we could hope to remove the impact of unrealistic scepticism and focus instead on how we use what we know to inform policy and to drive change.

If you would like to learn more about fishing and marine protection, you can listen to the highlights of the event in this British Library podcast below. The whole event is also available as a video on Youtube, and you can learn about the history of fishing in the British Library science blog. If you would like to hear about future TalkScience events you can check the British Library website or follow @ScienceBL on Twitter.



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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Peter Spooner from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.  Peter's research focuses on deep-sea corals and climate.
Peter Spooner

The closing date for applying to next year’s round of RCUK internships is Friday 28 August 2015, apply here if you are interested.  

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