The Message and the Messenger

Dr Ben Heard for Bright New World


Nearly a decade after I first made an appeal for something higher in our energy conversation, Australia’s anti-nuclear forces are making an appeal in the opposite direction, seeking to frame what should be a matter of evidence as a culture war.

That’s because it’s just about the only fight they still believe they can win.

We can end that before it begins if we keep putting in the work to separate the message from the messenger.

It isn’t intended to be a ‘funny’ presentation, but I am hoping to earn one laugh, right at the end. 

It’s 8 March 2011[1]and I am speaking to a full room at the Adelaide Tafe. The Technology Industry Association has invited me to speak at an event about nuclear power, and I am the support act for Barry Brook[2]. For only the second time, I am giving a presentation called ‘Nuclear Power: From Opponent to Proponent’. The first time was in a free public venue in inner south-east Adelaide, to an audience of four – one of them, my father. I felt…humble.

But another audience member was an organiser from the TIA. As the beautiful song goes, from little things, big things grow.

So now, I am speaking to a room of about 60 people, and they have followed my (quite literal) train of thought for nearly 40 minutes[3]. I have lined up, and then shot down, six-out-of-seven of my own fears and objections to nuclear technologies – the result of a few years of shutting-up, listening, thinking, reading and contemplation. It’s time for number 7, and it went like this:

At reason number 7, I called out my own susceptibility to    tribal bias.    I literally did not want to be aligned with supporting nuclear power because of my dislike for one of its supporters.

At reason number 7, I called out my own susceptibility to tribal bias. I literally did not want to be aligned with supporting nuclear power because of my dislike for one of its supporters.

It works. As the final bullet point hits the screen, declaring that I hated nuclear power essentially because I hated the former Australian Prime Minister, the room rewards me with a hearty and affectionate laugh. As well as the essential element of surprise, it’s a laugh of recognition, a levity shared because they know. It’s funny because it’s true.

We all know just how vulnerable we are to this insidious error – confusing the merit of an idea with the vehicle that brought it to us. 

Confounding the message and the messenger.

Keeping the message and the messenger clear and separate has underpinned science, democracy and effective public discourse for millennia. It takes constant vigilance. When we let the error creep in, we swiftly revert to tribalism and its modern theatre, the culture war.

This basic instinct is one the anti-nuclear movement constantly seeks to activate. What surprised me recently was how openly they called out their own strategy in this piece (‘Nuclear power exits Australia’s energy debate, enters culture wars’) by Jim Green of Friends of the Earth.  

It’s hardly subtle in how it seeks to frame the re-emergent nuclear discussion in Australia. Naming a list of political figures, Green tells us:

Yes, they’re all men, and all so far to the right of the political spectrum that right-wing ideologues think they are right-wing ideologues.

And they all support nuclear power.

Should anyone support nuclear power because a group of politicians do? No. But the more important point, in the cause of reason, is that nor should we oppose it for that reason. Who supports the idea doesn’t matter. What matters is the idea.

But it’s precisely this tribal re-framing Green is seeking to ignite, saying: ‘support for nuclear power has become a sign of tribal loyalty: you support nuclear power (and coal) or you’re a cultural Marxist, and you oppose renewables and climate change action or you’re a cultural Marxist’.

That’s claptrap. It simply isn’t the truth, it’s merely Green’s preferred framing the issue.

His framing ignores that the IPCC, the IEA, national governments all over the world, research institutes, environmental organisations, and many independent climate, environmental and conservations scientists are clear and pragmatic supporters of the use of nuclear technologies. 

Green knows what he is doing, and why. The more identarian we are, the more tribal we are, the more we decide to engage in a culture war…the more we actively seek out and attend to the facts that serve as weapons for our ‘side’. We act on impulse, to fight rather than reason. Green duly serves his carefully curated selection of the facts that support a pre-existing point of view[4],[5].

I would know all about that selective lens. This is how I viewed nuclear technologies for a very long time. This is what I called myself out on in 2011. In calling myself out, I was making a promise and a request. A promise to never think this way again. A request for others to join me – whatever their starting point on whatever the issue

Let none of us be lured into fighting someone else’s affected culture war over something as crucial as being inclusive in technology choices. Let’s instead think for ourselves, with the help of open, good faith dialogue, and a refusal to define ourselves in opposition to others. Know that to stand for anything worthwhile, you will occasionally stand in strange company. 

Bright New World is an NGO that doesn’t vet the merit of our supporters based on their voting, their choice of newspaper, their media preference or their style of dress.  Stable Climate. Rich Nature. Prosperous Humanity. These are the core values behind which we unite and we absolutely depend on our supporters. Are you in?

[1]You read that right. The second time I ever spoke publicly in support of nuclear power was three days before the Sendai quake and the resulting triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. That weekend I watched footage of the wave, in as much shock as everyone else, and then heard the emergent news of a stricken plant. It would be an understatement to say I felt incredibly tested by my new position. I responded with this guest blog for Brave New Climate

[2]And I was very much still in awe to be keeping his company! We went on to become friends, professional associates, co-authors, and Barry was initially the principal supervisor of my PhD. 

[3]A slightly later version of that exact slide deck was saved here for posterity along with a few others

[4]It isn’t limited to Green, and it isn’t limited to anti-nuclear. There is a strain of the pro-nuclear position that is, to my observation, populated by apologists for problems that the industry simply has to own. I don’t think it’s helpful, and I think it undermines the pro-nuclear position.

[5]For my much more comprehensive evidence-based positions on the topics Green is advancing, please refer to this digest of my work.

Ben Heard1 Comment