Contentious issues

Genetic modification, climate change, vaccination, toxic chemicals, fighting obesity, “dirty” dairying, fluoridation, stem cell therapies, 1080 pest control, deep sea drilling – there’s no shortage of hot-button issues where science has a crucial role to play.

“In a crisis, the public and the media have an immediate need for scientific information and analysis to help them understand what is happening and to allow them to make good decisions. … Any scientist who steps up will almost certainly be better than none.”
Professor Shaun Hendy, University of Auckland

Most media interviews involving scientists are driven by genuine curiosity and interest, but contentious issues require special handling, and many scientists can feel intimidated and out of their depth. However, it is important that scientists step up where they can make a difference in understanding the science behind a controversial issue.

Before wading in, you need to make sure that you know your material well, and that you can use it to make impact on an audience. You also need to be prepared for simplistic and unscientific comments, and often the aggressive argument, particularly in the case of talkback radio and online media.

You may be very sure of the science, but giving scientific facts alone is not enough when feelings are running high. The fundamental concerns raised are rarely just about the science. They are usually driven by emotional arguments, which can be more persuasive than a dry, factual approach. Show that you are prepared to discuss the topic openly and empathise with the audience’s reasonable concerns. Be human and do your best to relate on a personal level with real-life examples where appropriate.

“Know your facts and convey them as simply as possible. Look for ways to connect by describing your science in terms of the everyday lives of your audience – if they can visualise it, they can understand it.”
Professor James Renwick, Victoria University of Wellington

Survival strategies for tricky interviews

Before the interview  During the interview 
Watch/listen to the program you are going to be on so you understand its style. Express your informed opinion, clearly signposted (e.g. “Based on the available evidence, my view is that…”).
Check with the journalist whether you will be debating anyone, or taking calls from the public. Don’t waste time responding point-by-point to misleading questions or assertions.
Remember the interchange is likely to be short, so practise ways of summarising the issue, the main facts, and your position in a way that a non-scientific audience will understand. When faced with an adversarial argument or conspiracy theory, acknowledge it, refute it briefly, and then move the discussion back to your main message.
Scan media and social media to know where the public debate is up to on the issue, and to understand why you have been asked to comment at this time. Confront emotive defenses with emotive arguments. 
Anticipate questions you might be asked and rehearse good answers to them Focus on what scientists do know, and put areas of uncertainty in context.
Have references and facts at your fingertips, including ‘big picture’ statistics from major reports and trusted organisations. Stay calm and sure of your ground.
Research the opposing point of view (e.g. by checking out lobby group websites) so you know and can refute their main arguments. Be alert for selective use of data, unsubstantiated claims, anecdotal evidence and strongly emotional arguments.
If possible, negotiate to have the discussion on your own terms, not at a time or place that puts you at a disadvantage. Ask for a prerecorded rather than live interview, if possible. Ask what the general line of questioning is likely to be.


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