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Scary stuff

Ted Nield reads some sensational rag while working in the BA Press Centre. (Photo: Steve Connor, The Independent)

What chance the European Water Directive against “Volcano doom” in the media? Absolutely none. We'd much rather be scared than bored...

As Media Monitor blearily boarded the 0705 flight from Heathrow to Hanover on September 10, he accepted the offer of a free copy of the Daily Express. It was easier than refusing, but for the past three days he had been working in the British Association Festival of Science Press Centre (picture, by Steve Connor), and was interested to see which stories from the day before had made it aboard Mr Desmond’s flagship.

If all you know of BA meetings comes from their media coverage, then you can be forgiven for not knowing that every Festival of Science has a different theme. These themes tend to reflect whatever drowsy, end-of-season bees are buzzing through the Presidential millinery that year, and this year, the Festival buzzword was “sustainability”. But it was business as usual in the Media Centre, which picked up on such things as proving that a duck’s quack can create an echo; a possible vaccine against nicotine addiction, and the amazing revelation that “most people” cannot tell a girl’s choir from a boys’ one.

So in only its first three days, the BA taught us that a received idea we had mostly had never heard wasn’t true; held out the tempting promise that science would find a hi-tech replacement for willpower, and revealed to a stunned world that “most people” have cloth ears. Some killjoys might mutter that if this is all science has to tell us, perhaps scientists had been better employed doing something else. Like finding ways of saving us from natural disasters, for example, or something equally important - but far too boring to think about – like implementing the European Water Directive or the River Basin Management Plan…

MM escaped the BA early this year because Society duties drew him instead to Hanover, where the Association of European Geological Societies was holding its 13th biennial meeting on – the European Water Directive and the River Basin Management Plan. This excellent meeting was organised by the German Geological Society, and the various constituent bits of Geozentrum Hannover – principally the Lower Saxony Geological Survey. It was a sound, professional scientific meeting, where specialist geoscientists from different countries shared their experiences of EUWD implementation.

Nobody was silly enough to imagine that such a meeting would be worth bothering the public about. There is no shame in this. Nearly everything that people do in the world, irrespective of its importance, is of no great interest to anyone else. The citizens of Europe may or may not welcome the EUWD – but they will be even more delighted that someone else is dealing with it so they won’t have to. One is glad to have an accountant rather than learn double-entry bookkeeping.

Nevertheless, there exists one idée reçu as absurd as, but far more widespread than, the one about the duck’s non-echoing quack. This is the idea that with enough work, anything can be made into interesting TV programmes or news stories. I recently heard Nobel Prize-winner Sir Paul Nurse tell a conference of science communicators that perhaps “new ways of telling stories should be discovered” in order to present science in a style that scientists would find more congenial. The communicators had news for Sir Paul. The human race has been telling stories for a lot longer than it has been doing science, and if there were any more story forms, we would know about them. And perhaps someone should have told the BA that sustainability is one of those subjects for which a new form of storytelling will have to be invented if it is ever to make the Daily Express.

While making good his escape (the day before boarding the Frankfurt Fokker) MM and another fleeing journalist fell into conversation with a fellow passenger – who, by spooky coincidence, worked as a sustainability consultant, advising organisations on EC Directive compliance strategies and their economics.

There. Did you feel your eyes crossing as you read that? Yes, the Devil has all the best tunes, and our fellow travelling expert shrewdly observed that the presentational aspects of consumption are far more alluring than those associated with sustainability. They have a Darwinian edge, involving glamour, fast cars, access to attractive mates and the prospect of more successful offspring. Images of sustainability emphasise care, tidiness and stewardship; cooperation before competition. In fact, as a subject, sustainability is a middle-aged, anaemic sentiment, lacking that red-in-tooth-and-claw quality that brings most folk excitement – and makes them read news stories. Face it - some material obstinately refuses to be sexed up.

The allure of sex is perhaps only excelled by the visceral sensation of fear – for which reason it also sells well. When scientists complain that the media overemphasises doom and disaster (rather than, perhaps, hymning the engineering wonders of some new cutting through difficult terrain on the A45) it is the public they are haranguing. The media respond to demand. They know what will be read and what not, and they also know that nothing they can do will ever change it. These are immovable psychological realities, and using them (if you have the material) is merely common sense.

Finding ways of saving us from natural disasters is important work. More than that: science achieves nothing greater than when it banishes fear by explaining Nature and mitigating her. Nature is much more dangerous than civilization. Thanks to scientists’ warnings, we have a better idea about how to control, prevent, protect and survive. Scientists are not reviled for warning of disaster – they are rightly admired for it.

But - back to the aeroplane. MM settled down in seat 9D and opened his Daily Express. After a front page lead, a double page spread and a second leader all about the deadly effect of diet on breast cancer in the West, came another worrying tale. Another not-nice way to go. This was “Volcano Doom”.

The feature covered almost a whole colour page with maps and cross-sections and detailed descriptions of the horrific consequences that might follow the next eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano - if we’re still around by then. The story is alarming, but the usual caveats were presented, and it was not - by any stretch of an unfevered imagination - alarmist. I saw many people on the flight read it from beginning to end. If they did not see the Horizon programme three years ago, then it will have seemed like news. But nobody ran screaming for the emergency exits. They took it really well.

Unfortunately, when scientists exploit the fact that frightening stories work, they often get criticised for “alarming the public”. MM has always felt this to be unfair. The professional pants-scarer-offers should not have to endure the envious sneers of pallid semiconductor physicists, who would dearly love to get that kind of publicity for Josephson Junctions. Some in the scientific community probably do think that the public really is that delicate. Well chaps, good news. Cheer up and worry no more.

The public really enjoys being alarmed from time to time, and they can handle it. More than that; they are glad that scientists are warning them, and working to protect them. It means, oddly, that they don’t have to worry so much. Someone else, better qualified, more knowledgeable and dependable, is saving the world for them. If only scientists do not mislead journalists by over-egging the pudding, and journalists resist the temptation to improve their stories – in other words, if two groups of professionals can trust each other to do those things that each knows how to do properly - all will be well. Volcano doom notwithstanding.

Volcano Doom: Daily Express September 10 2003, p25. For representative general BA coverage, see for example Times, Telegraph, Independent or Guardian Monday 8-Saturday 13.