‘It’s not our fault’ – Kelvin Berryman and quake communication

Following the Canterbury earthquakes, scientists have been working hard to provide clear and accurate information for the people of Christchurch. Reporting for The Press, Vivki Anderson captured the thoughts of Dr Kelvin Berryman (GNS Science) on science communication.

An excerpt (read in full here):

Don’t blame the scientists – it’s not their fault.

When Dr Kelvin Berryman, Manager of the Natural Hazards Research Platform for GNS Science, and I first meet it is outside The Press in Cathedral Square, one month after the Greendale Fault ruptured on September 4.

We met again recently at The Press’s new site on Logistics Drive. Only Berryman’s firm handshake and the reason for our meeting remained the same.

After hearing two elderly women’s terrified conversation on the bus, in October I approached Berryman wanting to know if there was a way that scientists could relay information to the public simply and efficiently so that those without degrees could understand it.

Berryman had said in October that communication was an area they were looking at but they were too busy, up to their knees in “soul-destroying” liquefaction in Kaiapoi or dodging bulldozers on farm land, marking out how much movement there had been from the fault.

“Geologists have to move quickly,” he said. “It’s important from a scientific point of view to capture that information which can be short-lived and farmers, understandably, want their paddocks back.”

Berryman’s parting words to me in October then were “maybe we’re not necessarily finished”.

Nine months later he remembers uttering that phrase.

“It seems like a whole lifetime ago … I didn’t imagine we weren’t finished in the same way. That’s the shocking part. To go from something bad to something extreme. The idea of predictability that it was going to go into the city and trash the city so badly was truly shocking. That’s happened and we’re trying to deal with that in and amongst everything else.”

He admits that scientists are failing to communicate scientific data to the public.

“We are failing, we know that. There’s a lot of feeling of mystery, that we’re not telling the whole truth. We need to toughen up a bit and not be so sensitive to being criticised that this is not working.

“Someone told me early on here that, especially in a traumatised situation, the obligation of the information sender is not to send it the way you mean it but to send it the way you expect it to be received. The receiver is the most important person.”

Having been on the back foot for some months, he feels that things have finally slightly “shifted to the front foot”.