A public announcement

This week, I face the prospect of giving a talk. For some people, that lead to sleepless nights, a bunch of frayed nerves and a desire to drink heavily afterwards in relief. Normally, I’m not one of those people. I was making presentations for youth project funding to panels of strangers at 14, running and MC-ing an entertainment evening show for 150 people at 18, I even started off the first 5 minutes of an Edinburgh Fringe show I was teching to cover for a late comedian one summer (incidentally, it was the same 5 minutes I found out that I wasn’t as funny as I thought). Most of these were performances, and any serious talk about my research or my area of work has been to an academic audience, either at conferences, research group meetings or to other academics, groups in which I feel comfortable talking to.

Today however, I am one of those people who is fearing doing the dreaded talk. And that is because it’s a public lecture – open for anyone to attend and listen to. It’s not the biggest audience I’ll ever have talked to, the hall I’m in will only seat about 80 people. But it’s the fear that for 50 minutes on Thursday evening, anything I say could end up costing myself, but could also be detrimental to the scientific cause I’m talking about.

I’ve done some minor media training, and talking to the public world sounds vicious. Stories of scientists who give a sniff of opportunity for a controversial headline for the Sunday papers run rife, every public interaction assessed by someone looking for a scoop that “disproves the experts”. Personal social media accounts, blogs and encounters forced to carry the standard “not the views of my employer” for fear of bad media coverage. I’ve been to public scientific talks before and know first-hand that there always seems to be at least one person, sat somewhere near the back, who wants to fight the point with alternate theories or their own damming evidence of scientific lies.

I understand why scientists are scared to engage with the public. I also understand why my academic supervisors are equally as terrified, partially that I’ll be torn to shreds and come back a destroyed man, partially that any ripple from my mistakes also affects them and indeed, the whole department. My topic (“communicating climate change to the public” – ironically enough) is one that I find fascinating, and is something that I think really makes a difference in the fight to get governments to take action against climate change.

But after having my work reviewed by someone more pronounced in speaking in public forums, the idea that one slip of the tongue, one slightly ambiguous phrase, can lead to awkward and uncomfortable questions for the entire community became clear. I sent the script, and received back a sheet of suggested changes, many of which were rewording phrases which, at first glance, seemed fine. They weren’t even the science, that was fine. They were mostly the segways from slide to slide, or turns of phrase when describing graphs. It terrifies me that for a simple public talk, the exact wording has to be used for us to feel safe. It’s beginning to feel less like a public talk, and more like a court cross-examination.

It’s good in a way that the public are prepared to demand evidence to believe a theory – scientists are no different in that respect. And I don’t want that to stop. But the feeling that within a crowd there are people that are not there to hear your evidence, but to force a slip-up so that all evidence can be discounted, is one which brings fear to many. And if someone who has little fear of standing up and talking to people can feel the nerves like I am now, then I truly feel sorry for those who are dealing with it when they’re already out of their comfort zone. And I feel that it means we’re going to have to find other ways to try to get our message of the effects of climate change out to the public as we go into the future.