Shooting the Messenger

OPINION | COSMOS | December 2010


Robyn Williams, who has hosted The Science Show for 35 years, is coming under fire for covering climate change

Campaigns against ‘inconvenient’ science can succeed in sowing doubt. And nothing works quite like playing the man and not the ball, says Wilson da Silva.



IN THE FLUSH of excitement of the Industrial Revolution, when science advanced by leaps and bounds, leading thinkers believed that the scientific method held the promise of certainty. Built on a solid foundation of verifiable data and collected with objective and trustworthy tools, science was delivering dependable and reliable knowledge.


But science has also shown us that this knowledge will forever be incomplete, and that a true understanding of the world is ultimately beyond our grasp. We now live in an age where the only certainty is uncertainty. Most grown-ups know that uncertainty isn’t a problem to be solved, it is a reality to be lived through. But not the people who are making Robyn Williams’ life hell.

Williams is a national treasure, the doyen of science journalists in Australia. But for some time, there has been a campaign against him, attacks in the letters pages of national newspapers and assaults in blogs and tabloid opinion columns.

Williams is a national treasure – literally. The National Trust of Australia has listed him among the 100 Living Treasures, along with scientist Gus Nossal, Olympic swimmer Dawn Fraser and actor Nicole Kidman. For 35 years, he’s been the host of The Science Show, the doyen of science journalists in Australia and overseas.


But for some time, there has been a campaign against him, with bags of complaints being sent in to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, questions asked of the ABC managing director at Senate Estimates hearings in Canberra, attacks in the letters pages of national newspapers and assaults in blogs and tabloid opinion columns.


Why? Because of his climate change coverage. Williams reports on peer-reviewed, scholarly work in the best journals, but has the audacity to ignore the objections in unrefereed papers from mostly self-professed experts. He’s guilty of “peddling alarmist propaganda while denigrating our best independent thinkers,” according to Jennifer Marohasy, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs.


Other science journalists get this too: waves of vitriolic comments on our website within an hour or so of publishing climate change stories online. Science journalists overseas report the same thing. It’s enough to make you suspect such attacks are coordinated.


As with smoking, a small group of ideologically driven scientists and advisers with close ties to politics and industry have run effective campaigns to mislead the public about climate change

And they probably are, according to Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science at the University of California San Diego and co-author of Merchants of Doubt. On a recent lecture visit to Australia, she told how a small group of ideologically driven scientists and advisers with close ties to politics and industry have run effective campaigns to mislead the public about climate change.


She described how coordinated campaigns against science that happens to be inconvenient to powerful interests – such as tobacco companies, asbestos manufacturers or chemical companies reliant on CFCs – can succeed in sowing doubt and delaying action. And how we are seeing it all again with climate change.


This time, the push to reduce emissions has upset a lot of powerful interests in the coal, oil, gas and transport industries, as well as electricity generators. So much so, that it torpedoed the Climate Change Summit in Denmark in 2009, as Julia Gillard noted in her speech at the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science in November.


“We saw vividly … just how greatly the forces of denial and distortion can hinder good public policy and how decades of thorough science can be overshadowed by those with louder voices and fewer scruples.”

“It is science which has freed humanity from the habits, fears and superstitions of the past. It is science which has created greater progress in the past two centuries than all the previous millennia of human history.”

The prime minister valiantly defended good science: “It is science, more than almost any other pursuit, which has freed humanity from the habits, fears and superstitions of the past. It is science which has created greater progress in the past two centuries than all the previous millennia of human history.”


Science Minister Kim Carr was more direct, “Not all opinions are of equal intellectual value in scientific debate. And quackery certainly doesn’t deserve equal time as credible research.”


To paraphrase Socrates: wisdom is to know that you do not know. Hence, scientists are wise to hedge their bets, to say – as Australia’s Chief Scientist Penny Sackett has – that on the key issues of climate change, the levels of certainty are closer to 90% or more. And to be open to fine-tune their understanding as new data comes in.


To use uncertainty as a bludgeon against scientists, or to shoot messengers such as Williams, is intellectual cowardice.

Wilson da Silva is the editor-in-chief of COSMOS. This was originally published in COSMOS in December 2010.

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