To say that Robyn Williams is a bit of a legend of science broadcasting on the radio is a bit like saying David Attenborough is a dab hand at nature documentaries on the telly.
The “legend” epithet just feels a bit superfluous but is, in any case, annoyingly necessary to introduce a broadcaster to those not familiar.
Williams has presented more than 2000 episodes of The Science Show on ABC Radio National since it was first broadcast in August 1975.
Perhaps the only thing as synonymous with The Science Show as Williams is the microphone he uses – a curious but faithful lump of black plastic that he has used since first joining the ABC in 1972 (I got to talk down it myself once).
Last week Williams was in Brisbane for a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the show put on by the University of Queensland.
Williams, 71, was in conversation with ABC personality John Doyle to an invited audience of a couple of hundred. I was there too. Williams looks well after undergoing treatment for cancer earlier this year.
Joining Williams onstage was outgoing chief scientist Ian Chubb. On a big screen, there were video dedications from the likes of actress Cate Blanchett, theoretical physicist Professor Paul Davies, Nature editor-in-chief Philip Campbell and former UK chief science advisor Lord May.
Oh, and David Attenborough.
But Williams reserved one section of the event to talk about what he called “the war on science” and, in particular, the war on climate science.
So a few days later I spoke to Williams about the event and, in particular, that war on science he’d told people about.
Something happened around 2006 or seven which meant that the usual politeness where you argue over ideas became, instead, a kind of assault – a propaganda assault – which most of us were not expecting.
We had not seen anything quite like that before, except when, as Naomi Oreskes has written, cigarette companies were defending their pitch.
Then it becomes obvious that you have a number of interested parties hiring experts in publicity and penetration and propaganda even to get a message across to sow doubt about science.
Not simply one aspect – like tobacco – but many aspects, as if science was a matter of opinion.
I called it the war on science because before me Sir Paul Nurse from the Royal Society had done so in his documentary for the BBC and in March the National Geographic magazine had done so on its cover story as well.
As I’ve written many times here and elsewhere, much of the doubt about the science linking human emissions of greenhouse gases to dangerous climate change is manufactured.
Vested interests, either ideological or economical, have worked hard to convince the public that sufficient doubt exists about the causes or the impacts of climate change to warrant doing little or nothing about it.
Investigations published earlier this year by Inside Climate News and later the LA Times into one of those vested interests, oil giant Exxon, found that the company’s own scientists were warning about the consequences of their company’s CO2 emissions as early as the 1970s.
Exxon, later to become ExxonMobil, has long been criticised for its funding of groups who push climate science denial.
Now ExxonMobil along with coal giant Peabody Energy are under investigation by the New York attorney general for allegedly misleading the public and shareholders over the risks of climate change.
Campaigns like this are why surveys such as the recent CSIRO report of Australian views on climate change find that less than half the population thinks humans cause climate change.
A study earlier this year suggested that there were more climate science “sceptics” in Australia than any other advanced economy, including the US. That’s quite a feat.
Williams has interviewed probably thousands of scientists over the years. Do they ever confide in him about the attacks they have faced?
Very much so … and it’s not necessarily on the quiet. I did a piece in the United States with a fellow Michael Halperin from the Union of Concerned Scientists and he was talking about the virtual harassment of institutions, of universities and broadcasters exploiting the law so that you can bring them to a kind of, paralysed stop.
That is carefully organised and systematic and it is most unfortunate and many scientists have told me that. Not least of course organisations to do with climate change science itself.
Now, you don’t have to turn your radio dial all that far in Australia to find several high-profile broadcasters (looking at you Alan Jones et al) who will openly accuse climate scientists of fraud and claim the entire field of climate science is a hoax.
You can even get views like that getting a free and unchallenged ride on Radio National now and then, such as the interview back in May where host Tom Switzer gave climate science denialist Lord Nigel Lawson half an hour to dismiss climate science and attempts to cut emissions.
ABC Radio National The Science Show presenter Robyn Williams.
Photograph: The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
So how does Williams feel when he hears denialists doing their thing? I’ll leave you with his thoughts.
How do I feel about some person like that doing the usual encyclical? It’s what put me off broadcasting them as I used to.
Now all of the people who are deniers have been on the programs that my colleagues and I put out. We did so because most of us frankly like and enjoy contrarian views. We like a variety of opinion.
But then you find – as I did – that the people you are inviting in to give their contrarian views are always saying the same bloody thing. You can actually mouth the paragraphs. Here it comes again … just as if they were politicians rather than people considering science.
The people I put on the radio [now] have just written papers, they have published considered books. In other words, you are doing what you hope is serving the public by getting fresh ideas out to them to consider. But the people you are describing – those deniers – I have not noted saying anything new in bloody years.
Here it comes again. Favourite phrases are … CO2 is a colourless harmless gas … it’s good for growing plants … and on and on it goes. It’s shameless.
If on the other hand we had really solid science that made you think twice about the standard climate concerns then on [to the radio] it goes, as it does.
But it just so happens that a lot of the science, like evolutionary theory, coheres from a zillion points of view because it’s good science that’s describing what is really there. So you will not get stuff that’s off with the pixies or where green turns into red.
When I see them going on again I think, how can people take it seriously?
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