Science in a glossy mag? Tell ‘em they’re dreaming

Thank you to Sarah Keenihan for preparing this piece.

There’s no doubting Professor Rob Morrison’s science communication credentials. With more than 40 years of experience as a broadcaster and author, he has also won many national and international awards. In 2002 he received the Eureka Prize for Critical Thinking and the Michael Daley award for science journalism. In 2004 he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal, in 2007 a Eureka Prize for Science Promotion and in 2005 the South Australian Premier’s Award for Excellence in Science Communication. In 2008 he was South Australian Senior Australian of the Year (see this RiAUS profile for more).

As members of the Australia Science Communicators and active consumers of science, many of us already know this. But what about the rest of the world? Sure, they’ve seen Rob as one of the starring duo in The Curiosity Show. But other than that, how would they come across the guy? Indeed – to take it further – how do most Aussies even read about science, just as something interesting to consider and perhaps reflect on?

To my great surprise, I stumbled across science and Rob in an unexpected setting during my 2014 Easter holiday reading. Lounging in a sunny spot at the bottom of South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, I noticed Rob was the subject of the regular “One Hour With” interview segment in the Autumn edition of the glossy Adelaide Hills Magazine. Adelaide journalist Lainie Anderson asked him about his history with The Curiosity Show, touched on the place of science and technology in Australian life and explored his role as an expert witness in the Azaria Chamberlain Royal Commission (he contributed evidence relating to how wide a dingo can open its jaws, in case you were wondering).

When I purchased my Winter edition of the magazine a couple of months later, there he was again! This time he presented his own article. With the title ‘Gone – and almost forgotten’, the piece described the loss of native mammals from the Adelaide Hills due to habitat destruction and the introduction of feral predators.

As a former scientist and lover of science communication, this made me very happy. Somebody outside of science was actually publishing this stuff for a general readership.

But how did this happen? Was it a deliberate choice to feature science amongst the other stories? Did the magazine see a desire for such articles in its customers? I was keen to find out more, so I contacted the editor of the Adelaide Hills Magazine, Max Anderson. I had met Max at a workshop he ran at the SA Writers Centre in late 2013. I started off by asking him about the magazine itself, which has a readership of more than 10, 000 both in and out of the region.

“Adelaide Hills Magazine is a glossy regional mag focused on the Adelaide Hills,” he explained. “That however comes with a qualifier: the features we run are firmly rooted in a wider context. From an editorial point of view I aim to run features that would satisfy or interest anyone anywhere in Australia.”

The fact that Rob lives in the Adelaide Hills factored into his initial inclusion in the mag, but it soon went way further than that.

“Rob was suggested to us as a perfect ‘One Hour With’” said Max. “He was well known to South Australians for his work on the ABC and — as it transpired — had a remarkable trove of experiences and stories that most people knew nothing about.”

So was science a sellable part of Rob’s appeal? Max said yes.

“I reckon sharing a story is a colourful way of making a case,” he told me. “Science makes great stories and brilliant, often demonstrable, cases. Climate science, environmental science, social science, the science of electric cars and how to train a chicken; what’s not to like?!”

Of course I agree. I wanted to get Rob’s thoughts on the matter as well, so sent him a quick email with some questions. He admits he was initially quite surprised to be of interest to a glossy publication.

“Before having anything to do with Adelaide Hills Magazine, I would have thought it was a lifestyle publication,” he wrote. “I am impressed with their scientific inclusions, and not surprised any longer to see that they seem to have a pretty strong interest in such material.”

So is it important that science pops up in the general media like this? “Extremely important,” Rob stated. “Science should be as much a part of the spectrum of civilised people’s interests as art, music and politics. We have let it become a specialised topic that people don’t always feel they can embrace as they do these other subjects. We need it back among the ‘dining room’ conversations, and that will only happen if it is as much a part of everyday media as the many other subjects that one expects to find there.”

I’m completely with Rob. (In fact, his thoughts reminded me of similar words I chose in a review of The Curious Country which I performed for George Aranda’s excellent website Science Book a Day).

Adelaide Hills Magazine has recently published its Spring edition. Once again, science features among its panel of articles. The first is a piece on climate change, including an interview with BOM scientist Darren Ray (also an ASC member) and anecdotes relating to how warming and water access is impacting on producers in the region (I wrote this particular article). The second looks at a local chess grand master, who is working with children on the autism spectrum. In Max’s words, “It’s a story with science lurking discreetly at the edges – and hopefully it’s packaged in a way to make people connect.”

I believe this idea of connection is a key one. If we can help people find a way to relate to science, offer them a ‘foot in the door’ so to speak, then maybe one day they might be prepared to become advocates for science. Or at the very least not reject it on political and social grounds.

Rob describes the problem thus: “We are now in a lamentable position where science is politicised (evolution, climate change, genetically modified food, vaccinations) on almost every topic, with more and more people who have no science taking increasingly dogmatic and scientifically unfounded positions because it suits their beliefs or lifestyles.”

Can featuring science in popular publications help to counter this? I say yes.

Should we as a society be looking out for publications that support the general relevance of science? Again, my answer is in the affirmative.

And what do I actually do with my science-containing copies of glossy magazines? Straight to the pool room, of course.