The message and the journey

Last week Ben outlined his journey from opponent to proponent in the context of mistaking the message for the messenger. It’s something we’ve all done at one time, falling into that tribal trap and forgetting to look at what is said rather than who is saying it. This week Dayne Eckermann will look at the message of nuclear and the journey one takes from opponent to proponent.

“You really should follow this cool tech I’m passionate about”

“I don’t want to, it’s very bad”

“You’re just irrational/hysterical/a stooge/shill”

I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, and we’ve all been there. That one person who’s passionate about an issue, wanting everyone to be on their side, but fails to listen and most importantly empathise. They’ve assumed the intent of the person they are talking to, knee jerked into attack mode, and proceeded to force their opinion on “the other”.

It is the sisyphean; the futile attempt to take a hard task and watch as that boulder rolls back down the hill only to push it up again, because this time “I might succeed”.

It is the phyrric victory; I think I won the argument, but lost the audience.

Changing minds is hard, it is laborious and will take time. Lots of time. Especially if a person’s cultural identity informs their views on complex matters. This is something we cannot shortcut with force, top down or fast-tracked development, or by isolating a group. While the short term gain may seem attractive the long term gains will be naught.

Debunking handbook

It is something all scientific fields continually struggle with. How do you change or open minds to a scientific issue that is technically complex, wrapped in people’s cultural identity, and the emotional associations are negative?

People collect information from a variety of sources, usually ones they trust, to form a view on a topic. It can be as brief as listening to a friend or as long as a wikipedia rabbit hole (we’ve all been there!).

How do you talk to someone when their views have been informed by people and sources they trust, and that information has been credible at face value? It is hard to hear that you have been misled, accidentally or deliberately, by people and places you trust to guide you in good faith.

It explains why some, when confronted by this fact, react defensively. Not because they necessarily disagree with you, rather they’re undergoing a journey through some rough introspection. Admitting you were wrong is hard, especially if it is a part of your cultural identity.

It has been something climate scientists have had to grapple with for over two decades, as they observe and publish the effects of climate change. Because of this, John Cook of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, and Stephan Lewandowsky of the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia, have published a handbook to help scientific communicators “debunk” misunderstandings.

This handbook emphasises the importance of:

  • keeping key messages focussed on the facts, not the myths, and these should be simple and concise;

  • providing clear warning about the misleading nature of the myth;

  • providing an alternative casual explanation to fill in the gap of the refuted myth; and

  • core facts should be shown as graphics if possible.

Otherwise the result is a backfire effect, where the person upon hearing the facts that counter their’s, entrenches their position.

It is a reason why Bright New World looks to engage in an emphatic manner, especially on nuclear. We will always to strive to empathise with our audience, not to assume intent, and always give the benefit of the doubt. This has been a main focal point on how I have been engaging Bright New World with people who may be to be opposed to what we do.

We don’t get it right all the time, to err is human, and learning from failures does make us better. At the end of the day we strive to ensure that we’re open to all. We would happily speak to the leader of the Australian Greens about what Bright New World advocates for, especially nuclear power. Accepting that invitation is another matter all together! But we would reach out, because our message:

Stable climate. Rich nature. Prosperous humanity.

Is one that is inclusive of all, no matter who you are or what you believe is true.

For Bright New World, one of our immediate goals has been to ensure that all low carbon technologies get an even footing in Australia, and this means nuclear power, which has the lowest footing of all - it’s illegal in Australia.

Previously on this blog we’ve spoken about how nuclear was prohibited, it’s benefits and opportunities, but it is a least favourable energy source in Australia compared to others. While overall support has risen, it is luke-warm at best, and this diminishes as the reactor distance to home decreases.

This is no surprise in Australia. We were brought up with “On the Beach”, suffered the fallout from British Nuclear tests, listened to Midnight Oil (Ed- they’re still a great band!) and watched the uranium mining protests of the 80s. There have been many attempts at establishing a nuclear power industry in Australia, but they have always ended before they began, and in most cases resulted with a ban. The ways of communicating and undertaking nuclear of the past will be destined to always fail.

Why? Because forcing a development or an issue with a top down approach never works. There may be short term gains, but in the long term it divides, creates a negative emotional association, and can result in a ban. The overall emotional association is vitally important as we remember how we felt about something before we remember the details of it.

What works is a process in which the community can claim ownership of. This involves detailing, in the broadest terms, what the proposal is, and from this asking for communities to undertake a voluntary process to learn more about the project specifics before they commit. It is a process that the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility Taskforce has been undertaking in South Australia. It gives a chance for a community to hear from experts and undertake the journey themselves, rather than being told what to do and think.

This is a process that I have embarked on with a close friend. Unlike Ben, I was always a proponent of nuclear power (I’m a sucker for engineering), however my friend Louise is not.

For her, nuclear is a technology that is risky and has had catastrophic outcomes in the past. Only through empathising with her views was I able to understand why she saw it as dangerous. Luckily for me she is well versed in scientific literacy and, through providing access to expert material on the risks of nuclear, she has opened up to prospects nuclear offers, but still remains on the fence.

But this is a common position of most Australians, on the fence but leaning over to the “no nuclear” because they’re not certain. So I’m going to go on a journey with Louise and start where everyone is familiar:


Over the next few weeks we’ll be watching HBO’s very popular series Chernobyl, and Louise will be writing a series of blogs for us on her nuclear journey. This is so we can all gain a better understanding of how to talk about nuclear in a context in which everyone is familiar and understand how a person takes those first few steps from a nuclear “yeah-nah”* to becoming more open to the prospect.

*For our international readers Australian slang “yeah-nah” is a shorthand way of saying “Yes I acknowledge and respect what you are saying, but I must disagree”