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:
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:
Or how about this conversation between a local science blogger that is planning to write up the event?
“She’s geologist, she’s going to PRO the technology”. Spot that logical fallacy. Non sequitur, I believe.
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.