Posted by: Kash Farooq | September 3, 2014

How (not) to engage with the public

At Nottingham Skeptics last night, we hosted geologist Hazel Gibson to talk about fracking.

Andy and I have wanted to arrange a talk about fracking for a while. We don’t know much about it, and, as for all the talks we put on at Nottingham Skeptics, we wanted to hear something evidence based. We Googled to see which speakers were “on the Skeptics In The Pub circuit”, found Hazel, and persuaded her to come to Nottingham.

Hazel was brilliant. She delivered an excellent presentation, discussing her research into what three groups of people (scientists, activists and locals) think about fracking. There was a little bit of science at the start to explain what fracking is, but the talk was mostly covering the diverse opinions of the three groups of people. Fracking is not Hazel’s specialist area –  she is more interested in the people angle.

It was almost a talk about the public perception of science and science communication. For example, how scientific terms can be completely misunderstood by members of the public. One planning application complaint in Wales focused on the word Devonian, and how bringing gas extracted by fracking in Devon all the way to Wales would cause traffic problems.

During the Q&A, Hazel was polite, measured and calm. Which is more than I can say for a certain group of people in the audience.

Here is the tweet that has inspired me to write this blog post:


0 - Frack Free to Nottingham Skeptics

Let me rephrase this Tweet in some other ways to explain how this came across to me:

Disappointed that you invited a biased doctor to tell people about vaccines and autism. Total nonsense.

Disappointed that you invited a biased evolutionist to tell people about creationism. Total nonsense.

Disappointed that you invited a biased climate scientist to tell people about global warming. Total nonsense.

Going to a talk and not having your beliefs confirmed does not automatically imply that the speaker must be biased.

This tweet sums up how Frack Free Nottinghamshire came across to our audience:

And there are some comments from various people on our Facebook group:

“I found that as someone who is undecided about fracking, the questions from the anti-fracking crowd (especially the aggressive delivery of questions) might make me lean on the pro-fracking side of things. Overall still undecided. Really enjoyed the speaker though.”

“I was personally very disappointed that the anti fracking attendees came across in such a negative way. And this is coming from someone who has considerable concerns about fracking and it’s impact on the planet. It was never advertised as a ‘pro’s and con’s of fracking’ debate, but many people who attended wanted it to be so. Fair play to Hazel for staying calm and retaining her sense of humour.”

“I think we got a consummate lesson in how NOT to do public engagement from the environmentalists last night.”

“It must really suck to do research, talk about it for an hour and then be asked so many questions that aren’t directly relevant to your research or what you’ve spoken about, especially when the exclusion of that content was already explained at the start, and then several times in the Q&A. And a lot of the questioning did come across as hostile, which was fully unnecessary.”

There are also many tweets sent directly to Hazel such as:

1 - Frack Free to Hazel

Or how about this conversation between a local science blogger that is planning to write up the event?

2 - Frack Free to Ash

“She’s geologist, she’s going to PRO the technology”. Spot that logical fallacy. Non sequitur, I believe.

There are plenty more where this came from. Just check out the @FrackFreeNotts’ timeline. You’ll probably find some Argumentum ad hominem fallacies too.

For any scientist, last night’s Q&A (and Tweets) perfectly demonstrate how not to engage with the public.  Scientists and science communicators could learn a lot from watching this sort of approach take place at an event. Just go to a scientist-led talk on fracking!

Basically: “Coming on too strong turns people off to your cause” (another quote from Holly).

I thought I should include my brief thoughts about fracking. Well….it’s another dead dinosaur fuel, isn’t it? That can’t be good. Will fracking postpone any much needed research into renewables? That’s my top concern.

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  1. My eureka moment was when I realised that it wasn’t a talk about fracking, rather it was a talk about people’s perception of fracking (and to an extent, geology in general) Unfortunately, I don’t think that the activists there made this distinction.

    In addition to their overly aggressive attitude (both on the night and subsequently on social media), what disappointed me the most about these activists was that they could come to a “sceptics” night with such closed minds.

  2. Sadly, I am not surprised by this. I guess we would all want to consider ourselves ‘environmentalists’ but there is certainly a cadre of people who use that as a rationale for aggressive hostility whenever someone tries to engage with them in debate and discussion. I have worked to support people who have presented science, particularly around large civil projects, at public hearings only to be told “We know where your children go to school. One day soon, they won’t be coming home.” and worse. I have heard murder threats from Environmentalists (I used the E word loosely) and I have seen people suffer life-changing injuries when attacked in public sessions. I have seen people stand alongside engineers and blow brass trumpets directly into their ears as they try to speak. The civilised (and sometimes uncivilised) debate we get at Skeptics is as nothing compared to the real horrors of environmentalist extremism, where the behaviours are sometimes akin to those of the more virulent anti-abortionists.

  3. an excellent post. Just the same problems with fractivists in the Fylde, Lancashire

  4. What’s the lesson here, if I might ask?

    If there was a problem (and I suspect there was from some Gav Squires’ comment above) with the way the talk was advertised then fair enough. If Hazel’s talk was publicized incorrectly and people were thrown by the way it wasn’t a straight Pros and Cons talk then I see where the lesson is: Clearer provision of information BEFORE the event is needed.

    But if this wasn’t the case – i,e, if it was pretty clear what the talk would be about – then this isn’t a lesson on how not to engage with the public. In fact, this would be a PERFECT example of how to engage with them. She handled hostile questions from a group of people with composure and humour and that’s exactly how it should be done. If this was the case, it was a lesson for the public in how not to engage with scientists.

    I wasn’t at the talk so I don’t know how it was advertised.

    • The “(not)” part of the title was referring to the anti-fracking members of the audience. Not Hazel.
      Hazel handled everything perfectly and did demonstrate perfectly how to engage.

      The anti-fracking audience members turned up expecting a debate, demanded their right to reply. We never host debates, never have and probably never will.
      Here is the description of the event. Definitely no mention of a debate, pros and cons, etc!:

      • Thanks Kash, that honestly hadn’t occurred to me! I suppose it’s a little prejudice of mine that I totally assumed the activists in question would never read this and thus never learn from it. Also, anyone who might feel the need to go out and do the same as them probably won’t stop and think of this article before changing their views. I must be more pessimistic that I thought!

        But yeah, it totally makes sense now that you’ve put it that way, scary to think that I never once considered that :/

  5. I saw this and did some posting. So much nonsense from the anti frack brigade, and a refusal to accept the great amount that has been done to learn from this technology and the poor practice in the US. If people want to learn more could I suggest the Wiki page I have been editing. Its based upon real science, not the made up, or US based stuff.

  6. Wasn’t at this talk in Nottingham, though I’d like to have been. Even though I don’t know what Hazel said, I have experienced other ‘professionals’ (geologists, like Hazel, mainly) talking about fracking.
    What to say?
    There is a conflict of interest, if you are a geologist with training and expertise in oil/gas related geology. You are not going to disagree with most – no, all – of your prospective employers. You are not going to commit career-suicide.

    • The trouble with that chriscabby is that you learn about the science when you work with it. Thats what affects peoples opinions. I have 12 years (some time ago but the basics dont change that much!) as an engineer in drilling and that means that I understand many of the processes. If you mention that to people, and then say you do not think there will be many of the problems that you hear about, then they think the oilfield companies have stolen your brain. I have my own brain and use it, and it seems that is not universal. The Geological issues about fracking are minor, it’s the drilling side and if it can keep fluids where they are supposed to be that’s at issue. As to affecting future employment, I really cannot see that would be an issue unless you really got on your soapbox, and did silly things. I don’t understand how all of the technology in a mobile phone works. I do however accept that it does tho! We live in a society that relies upon specialists alas.

  7. I’d just like to wade in here to make a point. The Tweets (I assume) repeated here from ‘Frack Free Notts’ make some pretty disparaging comments here about geologists being ‘biased.’ Is there a policy within the group that all geologists are slaves to capitalism and not to be trusted, or are those comments solely the actions of a renegade ‘activist’? Pretty much everything we use from day to day is provided because at some point a geologist has worked to provide it. There are many fields in geology, and many geologists are in fact wary of shale gas for a variety of reasons, but would almost certainly be put off from having anything to do with the ‘Frack Free Notts’ group following this debate.

    In response to the comment by chriscabby, being a geologist does not automatically suggest you have a vested interest. As stated above, there are many fields in geology (some of which actually promote moving away from a reliance on oil and gas). The speaker at this particular event is actually conducting research into what people think about geology. It is most likely a benefit to her research that she has some experience in the field, as she can now understand what (or not) people understand about it. If she was chasing a job in the shale gas world, she’d surely be training as a petroleum engineer!

  8. Saw Hazel when she came to Oxford Skeptics in the Pub a while back (thankfully we had a much more civilised audience and a good debate in the Q+A). It is a fascinating and informative talk, that people who are pro-, anti- and neutral about fracking. She is totally honest about both the benefits and flaws of fracking, and a fantastic speaker who provides you with the actual information about fracking, not the misleading propaganda you so often hear (especially from anti-fracking groups)

    Unfortunately there are a section of people who are so welded to their ideas about a subject (see also anti-vaccinationists, anti-evolutionists, climate change numpties etc) who are not only unwilling, but also unable to see any point of view than their own, and who shout down and try and drown out any alternative views. They don’t seem to realise how much harm they do to their own side.

  9. […] don’t get me wrong – I achieved a heck of a lot last year, what with giving talks for Skeptics in the Pub, volunteering at Exeter Museum, being invited to represent the Geological Society for Voice of the […]


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