just stimulating conversation
Participant: Craig Cormick. Moderated by: Diana Bowman
Diana Bowman: Good afternoon and welcome to the Risk Science Center’s unplugged event. My name is Dr. Diana Bowman and I am today’s facilitator of the Unplugged: Risk Rage. For those who have attended earlier unplugged series events, you’ll know that the idea behind today is simply stimulating conversation, there are no PowerPoint slides and definitely no scripts.
My guest today in the Unplugged hot seat is Dr. Craig Cormick. Craig is the Manager of Public Awareness and Community Engagement in the Australian Government’s Department of Innovation, Industries, Science and Research and he’s a regular speaker at national and international conferences on the media and public on attitudes towards new technologies, including biotechnology and nanotechnologies and I have seen Craig presenting everywhere from local pubs, right through to these big international conferences. What Craig’s bio doesn’t tell you is about the fact that he is also an award-winning author and science journalist who, as part of his role with the Australian Government, undertook a seven-week voyage to Antarctica in 2008, where I believe you cannot actually take bad photograph even if you try. During this period he wrote his highly acclaimed and somewhat cheekily titled book “In Bed With Douglas Mawson”.
Today’s conversation with Craig is about why intelligent people sometimes believe dumb things, a rather thought-provoking and interesting title, to say the very least. Or more specifically, it’s about social values that govern much about public perception and how they affect our decision making process. I would like to stress that this series, and this event specifically, is designed to be a conversation. While Craig and I could happily sit up here for an hour and chat ,and we’ve done such things many a time, the idea is to have audience participation and involvement. We have a standing mic just over here in the room and I would engage – well sorry, I would actively ask people to pose questions as they’re listening to our initial introduction, and come up and ask questions of Craig.
As this event is being webcast I would also ask you to state your name prior to actually asking your question. So with those formalities out of the way, I would like to provide Craig with an opportunity to introduce himself, the work that he has been doing with the Australian government, and why he is visiting today.
Craig Cormick: Thank you very much Diana, it’s really wonderful to be here today at Ann Arbor, I’ve been practicing that all week. Go Blues.
Craig Cormick: And quick background thing, I’m in a rare position, I guess, for someone in my background. I work with a government agency, so I’m a researcher. I’m also a practitioner of science communication, risk communications you know. I have direct line feed into policy and usually people get two of those three, if they’re lucky, but not all three of them and I love the work we do is with contentious technologies, biotechnology, GM technology, stem cell technology and nanotechnologies, pretty much most technologies that scare the heebie-jeebies out of people.
Diana Bowman: Fantastic, just to start with, I guess a very broad and overarching question. What are the five key lessons you’ve learnt over the years, working in public perception of risk in new technologies?
Craig Cormick: Sure, thanks for asking that one. Now I know there are no scripts today so this isn’t my script, it’s just my notes to recall. Five key things I’ve picked from working in this space a long time, and we started off initially working with GM foods and then we started moving to stem cells, we noticed some things about public attitudes, that values often underpinned people’s attitudes. Then we found people from climate change coming across saying “That’s same as what we’re finding”. We have people working with interim vaccination coming across saying, “let’s have a look at your data”. So now we’re sharing this type of dialogue, lots of people came and coming to form a broader understanding, but five key take away messages would be – when information is complex, people make decisions based on their values and beliefs rather than on facts and logic. People seek affirmation of their attitudes or beliefs, no matter how fringe, and will reject any informational facts that are counter to their attitudes or beliefs. Attitudes that were not formed by facts and logic will not be influenced by facts and logic. Public concern about the risk of contentious science and technologies are almost never about the science itself and therefore scientific information does very little to influence those concerns, and lastly people most trust those people who values mirror their own.
Diana Bowman: So just to pick up on the point of values…
Craig Cormick: Mhm.
Diana Bowman: …could you expand in terms of the type of values that you see reflected in the research that you’ve been doing?
Craig Cormick: Sure, we do a lot of research with, I guess, the broad population. So in most public debates, community debates, you get something shaped a bit like a pirate hat and you get one group on the end here, extremely for, one group extremely against and they tend to dominate the public debate a lot and most of the barometers people use, which would be media coverage, which would be people attending public forums etcetera, tend to be represented by these groups. In Australia, as a case study, in the case of genetically modified foods, that’s about 10% on each end. 20% of the people largely running perception – have a public debate running, so we go and talk to the people in the middle and we recruit them to come to events rather than put an advertisement out, then we start finding what their attitudes or where they’re coming from and we find that values are the key driver of an attitude so, when a new technology comes along that people don’t understand, like put nanotechnology on the table, people say “I don’t really understand nanotechnology, but I think it is – insert personal value” and we see the same in climate change, when you come to climate change denial it’s almost never about the science in climate change and as an example, my father doesn’t believe in climate change. He believes the climate is changing, but doesn’t believe in climate change because climate change is a whole package of a emotive terms that comes with the government involvement and scientist telling you what to do and taking control of the attitudes etcetera, his values are all about individualism, are about the right for capitalism, to make money, etcetera, so defining of his values against the problem values we’re pushing towards alleviation of climate change which we are sacrificing what shouldn’t change in lifetime however if I change the framing to line with his values and say a lot of people are going to make a lot of money out of climate change, there could be new businesses in this area, there could be a lot of new companies coming out, new innovations, all about alleviating climate change, suddenly he’s very interested because I framed it to align with his values and what we know is if you have a discussion if anyone sat in on a climate change debate you’ll have the scientist saying “Look at the science” and you’ll have the climate change deniers not looking at the science, you’ll have an emotional based ,values base discussion on one hand and science based discussion on the other hand, speaking two different languages and never sort of reach each other and once you understand the values that underpin these points of view you can actually have conversations on that level.
Diana Bowman: A lot of your work has been on the issue of nanotechnologies in the Australian community, are there particular pockets of the technology that you have found that people are more likely to have concerns and do you think these concerns are justified?
Craig Cormick: There are and in Australia it’s a lot distant to America, the attitudes towards nanotechnology where the broad population think nanotechnology is a pretty good thing – let’s see, the benefits that will come from it through technology, through health benefits, etcetera except when you hold on a couple of key concerns, one is nanotechnology and food, that’s got people worried and nanotechnology you know, sun screens is the other one but in fact when you go in to deep discussions with members of the community about it the word nanotechnology, you could replace with “that type of technology thing you don’t understand” because it’s food that people worry about, it’s tinkering with food they worry about more they worry about nanotechnology and food and it’s putting things in to your skin or to your children’s skin more particularly is the other one of concern, there was not so much affect you what nanoparticles because like we don’t understand the science, what’s happening with a nanoscience scale, they just think inherently that sounds a bit risky to me and in those cases with new technologies often natural technology is also relevant, it’s applications and the context is everything.
Diana Bowman: Are you’re just trying to say some of those concerns being brought to service in regards to synthetic biology?
Craig Cormick: Not yet because most people still don’t understand synthetic biology, but if I said would you approve of synthetic biology in your food, most people would say no at the at the same rate they’re saying no to nano technology in your food because it’s that unknown type of technology that sounds like your tinkering with what I don’t want you to tinker with, is the real value of driving it.
Diana Bowman: And how do you think the internet and the increasing uptake of the internet have been used to influence some of those discussions?
Craig Cormick: The internet has been, the impact of internet I still don’t think is understood by most science communicators, and the analogy I use is that’s like, when World War One started and the major powers went in to a 20th century warfare using 19th century ways of thinking and it just didn’t work, and so most people working in risk communication and science communication are still using the tools from the late 20th century in a situation where they don’t well apply, and they don’t particularly understand the fracturing and fragmenting of both the media, and fracturing and fragmenting of attitudes that go with that, and start using traditional media alignments and within our work, the place where the internet as a media information let’s face it had probably had the most impact on people with fringe ideas, finding information for those ideas. Now if we go back to the late 20th century it would work like this, here’s the model, I’ve come up with a really whack idea and the whack idea might be that – Elvis is still alive and he’s working as a show singer in Las Vegas so which I’m going to test when I go to Las Vegas in a couple of weeks and I would go and talk to a scientist, I would go and talk – look up encyclopedia, I’d go to a form of expertise comment and find out was that true or not, generally I’d find that the whack idea wasn’t particularly valid and it would die on the vine. What happens these days in the world of internet is you start finding affirmation of your idea, no matter what whack idea you have, flying saucers, conspiracy theories, wearing tin foil hats to stop gamma rays getting in to your head, you name it, you’ll find a site on the internet that affirms it. Now, what’s more of a problem is the fact that in the last couple of years Google has changed its analytics, so people have some the same way Amazon does, that’s if you buy a book on Amazon, it’ll start suggesting books to you very similar and everyone’s done this, say you bought a book on Amazon on – you choose your topic - on Elvis, Elvis is alive and living in Las Vegas, you’ll start people recommending you books in that same vein, Google does that as well, so if I type in “Is Elvis alive?” and I’ve been searching these top sites, it will start favoring sites towards that, telling me if Elvis is alive so I’ll start finding more information so it’s the same about nano technology concerns, climate change issues, genetically modified foods, the areas I’ve been searching all start getting sites favoring those sites so I don’t find the alternative points of view, all I find is affirmation points of view and after a while affirmation back and forward, I’ll find the community, I’ll start to engage with it and that whack idea will become a value or belief and then it becomes really quite immune to change and we see that a lot.
Diana Bowman: So following on from that question, how do you perceive the role of NGO’s within this space?
Craig Cormick: NGO’s have a really valid point in this space and I think its often misunderstood what the role of an NGO is and the NGO’s we work with – we tend to find three different types of NGO’s - there were those who represent the public and they have a public constituency base that they work with. There were those who don’t necessarily represent the public but they represent the publics interest and they’re likely working very hard for public good and there are then those who to tend to represent their own interest and I think you need to understand, you know, which category you’re working with. NGO’s do tend to fit in one of those extreme groups at the end and it’s very often that NGO’s don’t necessarily represent the broad public and you have be, if you’re talking to NGO’s, you’re going to be talking to everybody, find how they fit together and work together, but I often found that NGO’s have a very valid input to discussions that tend to get marginalized by people in the main stream and don’t take seriously and I think it’s often because people don’t know how to engage with NGO’s, people always say, “they’re a bit of the other” when it comes to ways of having dialogues and ways and mechanisms and working with them and then they need to find those ways to work with them.
Diana Bowman: So what approach have you, well you and your team actually taken to do so?
Craig Cormick: We spent the last year and a half doing a process we called the Multi-Stakeholder Process and if we go back two years ago we did a big workshop, we got a room about the size of this room and we had about a hundred people in it and we got representatives from the five key stake holder groups which are industry, which were academia researchers, which were government regulators, which were NGO’s and community groups and were members of the general public themselves with no vested interest and we sat down, so okay, let’s look at everyone’s different perspectives on nano technologies and let’s look at where you have different points of view and let’s look at where those problems and issues are and can we find points of commonality and what we found is that people are very good after a days workshop at defining their own points of view or positions but when it came to understanding other peoples points of view or positions, it actually backfired, people dug their trenches deeper and sat in to their ideological trenches stronger than ever, if you realized that was a 20th century tool it, so it was no longer working in the 21st century, so we’ve come up with a new process whereby we spent a full day workshopping with each group, one with NGO’s, one with researchers, and we had a two day workshop with thirty members of general public, big group and talked them through from no knowledge of nano-tech, to what it was about and what other issues were but then we brought them all together into a multi stakeholder process we worked very hard to get them crossing and comparing and working views and having a strong call to action at the end of it which was to develop a new framework for working with the public and that was much more successful and I think that way everybody had equal accord and there wasn’t this feeling of you having a battle against each other and you are able to – going to have valid input to make on the day much more successful.
Diana Bowman: That’s why there are advantages of working in this framed space where we all generally know each other and you can call somebody and get directly to them so in the context of the US how would you suggest that you move forward with some of these issues?
Craig Cormick: Now, we’ve done a bit of work looking at what’s happened in the US and there was some similarities but some things again uniquely quite different and I think this is a problem when you start picking up models that work in one country and try to adapt in to your own country, you have to put them in to the context so the Dutch had some very good models working with public attitudes towards nanotechnology and community engagement and include a bit of dialogues and so on. They don’t always carry across very well in to other cultures because all Europeans do have a very consensual model rather than a confrontational model and a lot of English speaking countries tend to start from confrontational model and pullback into a consensual model and it can take quite a bit of work and so you need to look at the peculiarities of your systems and we hear a lot of impact at the moment in, I was in Washington last week, I hear a lot of this rhetoric coming from people in Washington saying – we’re starting to see more and more confrontational politics and confrontational ways of addressing things and it was describe to me I think very cleverly as ‘we’ve got the Tea Party and the Chai Party, who are dominating the public debate but really need to find ways to you know, get broader, middle representations in these discussions.
Diana Bowman: Can you suggest one country that is engaging in what you deem to be best practice at the moment?
Craig Cormick: The Dutch are very good at it but I think the Dutch have a country and a culture that allows for it to happen, the British are very, very good at the rhetoric of good engagement, good processes, but they seem have trouble making their models actually have impact, they’ve done nano jury, they’ve done GM nation but the impact of those on having policy impact is being very limited, the US seem very-very good at actually getting up and doing stuff and I’d like to have a lot of conversation with people after this about the impact and that policy event because that’s the crucial thing, you can do a lot of dialogue and have great models of engagement but can you actually have impact from that engagement? And that’s what you should be looking at.
Diana Bowman: And how are you measuring that type of impact?
Craig Cormick: There are several ways, you can look at it – the first one is – does it have an impact on change in policy? Does it have an impact on regulation, are regulators willing to engage with the broad community when they develop it, are scientist wiling to engage a broad community, there’s an exercise I’d like to in the next year or to where we sit down with members of the public at a good conference on biotechnology and we reenact the public debate on GM foods that was never had in the 1990’s so, we jump back in time a bit and we say “Okay, let’s imagine this is 1994 and 1995, we’ve got a panel here of scientists, and they’ve got a new technology called gene technology and that can take a gene from an organism such, take the time to explain gene technologies, now for the panel of the general public for being exposed to this idea for the first time and the scientist might say “We think we should do this for broad acre crops” we like take a herbicide-resistant gene and put it in to something like a canola or a soy and that’s what we think is a good idea then we’ll ask the public “What do you think is a good idea?” and I think we find something very, very different to what happened in the 90’s because I suspect general public would say “No, that’s not a good idea, don’t do it in broad-acre, do it in a glass house, do it in a particular one crop, maybe a tomato with high selenium, to help up stave off prostate cancer, maybe tobacco plants that are non food plants to try pharmaceutical I think we’d end up very different path of technological trajectory, had the public been involved with discussions early on, so what you actually end up but if you don’t do that you get technology failure at the wrong end, after you’ve invested the money, after you’ve gone through the research and development, after products on the street, now it’s interesting model looking at GM because most of the companies involved in it, they know the marketing model, they know the basic premises and find what the public want and you produce what the public want, but when it game to gene technology that went out the window the scientist and technologist fell in love with the technology and they thought the rest of the world would fall in love with the technology as well in the same way and that didn’t happen and so, by having rather waited to test it on the market you can have public discussion and consultation at the scientific development stage the early upstream engagements they call it, you tend to have much more coordinated products and processes that align with public values, that align with public needs and much less market failure and waste of the valuable research dollar.
Diana Bowman: So a lot of it seems to come down to trust at one level of another. How do you see the role of trust in fitting in and influencing public perception?
Craig Cormick: Public perception can enormously, can be influenced by trust and it gets murky though in a state of contention or crisis and if you reach the point you’re your technology, whatever it is, where the public are having a crisis of faith and your trying to reclaim that faith, trust is very hard to get because again, people tend to use the wrong tools, like on a public panel we have a scientist and advocate taught in two different languages, the same thing we trust is most organizations, companies, research, will stand up and talk for science why you need to understand that this product is safe or why do you need to understand we’re doing the best regulation we can, or why you understand we’re managing the risk as best we can, but we know from risk studies that people make their mind up in the first 20 to 30 seconds and they base that really on does that person look empathetic and caring and its’ not about – no, so there’s a great quote from Vince Cavello that says, people don’t want to know what you know, they want to know that you care – that people don’t care what you know, they want to know that you care and that’s the biggest way to influence trust but again people tend to invest trust on those people who mirror their values and we can hold a public forum and put a panel of five to six people and in interview the audience afterwards and say, who was the most trusted person to you and people go to the one whose values reflect their values and say “Oh I really like that person, what they said really resonated with me” What did they say? “The details and facts escaped me but I really liked what they’ve said and what they’re saying is I could see myself, my own values in that person therefore I trust that person” and so again sometimes with broad public debate and holding public forums all your doing is confirmation bias and reinforcing different points of view.
Diana Bowman: So do we still trust scientists?
Craig Cormick: I think scientists have a lot of trust and they’re still in front of the trust scale but it’s becoming more complex as all things are so it’s – the use of the media is becoming more fragmented, trust in scientists has become fragmented you know, there are scientists that invest a lot of trust in and there’s scientists people don’t trust particularly well, there’s a category of bad scientists and you know. We’ve all seen those on X-files we can’t say where they are in society but we know they exist, they’re out there somewhere. if you work for corporation, it’s a lot harder, because you have the trust bit and the lack of trust that comes with multi-nationals and corporations behind you, you work for public-funded body you tend to develop more trust so for scientists the issue of trust is usually a complex one, who’s funding you, does your project align with public values, what you’re working on etcetera, etcetera.
Diana Bowman: And do you think that differs between jurisdictions in which you’ve worked?
Craig Cormick: It does, we’ve seen that a lot, a case study in Australia we have one organization, a government funded organization called the CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization which has the lion’s share of research in Australia, the largest single body for public funded research, it – a partners of industry but it’s perceived as a national icon and it’s been around for 75 years or more, it has huge public trust whatever they do. so, recently green peace activist got out and trashed a GM, genetically modified wheat trial in Canbara, the city I live in, they came in early in the morning, three of them dressed up in Haz-Mat suits caught up with the whipper-snippers which are weed snippers, went through and destroyed the crop, public back lash against that was enormous, because it was green peace actually pitting their credibility against CSIRO credibility and in that they’ve lost out tremendously, if they’d done that against a multinational crop I don’t think it would’ve been this near amount of public outcry so these things of values and trust all come in to play here in many-many areas.
Diana Bowman: You work for the Australian Government, should we trust you?
Craig Cormick: Trust me, I’m from the government, the check’s in the mail, you know, what you take.
Diana Bowman: [Chuckles].
Craig Cormick: The surveys we do in Australia we find that the government actually has a lot of trust in this space as an information provider. It’s perceived to be an honest broker with no particular vested interest compared to those of activist interest groups or compared in to industry groups so you know, in this space who do you trust, people will trust those whose values along with their own but who appears to have the least vested interest is where people also trust.
Diana Bowman: And what role do you say is academics would be in that space?
Craig Cormick: Academics have a vital role to play in the space because it’s the research base that underpins so much of what’s happening and it’s not just the research base in terms of the development of new technologies but the research base of better understanding how the community’s changing than on the same community attitudes, better understanding information flows because if you don’t understand those things you’re still using 20th century tools in the 21st century and will invariably get it wrong. It’s very heartening to say demand of international collaboration happening in this space between people in you know, risk communications areas sharing data and pulling data so, in our space we’ve seen climate change was the trigger for a huge amount of funding, you know, trying to understand why communication strategies weren’t working which has had application to apply to a lot about new technologies in society information flows and channels, why people reject certain technologies, why they adapt to others, but this –we’ve seen the international pooling the data has been tremendous we’re helping people understand these you know, in contexts.
Diana Bowman: So just to change pace or direction a little bit, one of the areas where debate within the public has been very strong, is around childhood vaccination. Have you done any research in to that?
Craig Cormick: We’ve been working with people working very close in childhood vaccination because they’re looking at sharing their data with ours, looking at that whole thing about core values and it’s a very interesting area because people who are opposed to vaccination is a corevalue again and it’s – you’re threatening a core value if you’re trying to convince them to vaccinate. The thing I found most curious though is people who don’t believe in vaccination and that’s a free choice to make, that’s fine, but when you try and convince others when you want to proselytize to others to also not vaccinate, that sounds counter-intuitive because when you choose not to vaccinate your child, that only works if everybody else is vaccinating their children but it also this matter that the diseases we’re vaccinating against are now unseen and unknown but the potential risks of vaccination are seen, are known and you find them on the internet, you find them in chartrooms, you find groups but you won’t find examples of mothers who’s child had died of whooping cough and polio and other examples so with this known and unknown, seen and unseen and this whole thing of the values and trusts of communities. As an individual, you could see why a parent would choose not to vaccinate a child versus society you can’t see why you would support that.
Diana Bowman: Giving in some jurisdiction they have now mandatory vaccination programs, is that something from a government perspective you would therefore support, given consent over risk?
Craig Cormick: That’s when you come back the whole issue, what’s good for society versus what’s good for an individual, I guess it’s the government’s role in most cases to make decision that are society wide. When it come that the basic premise you talked about, when do you, for the people who believe dumb things - look I think every individual has the right to put themselves up they can for the Darwin awards and take themselves out of our collective gene pool for their stupid actions, that’s fine - I have no problem with that, but when you – your actions start trying to spread those beliefs and actions to others and it impacts societal gene pool that’s when things step over the line. I think that’s when you have some way of stepping in and doing this. And we did a rough study recently, we looked at this whole thing of whack ideas that can propagate out there, we looked at what was the strangest idea we could find on the internet and of those ideas which had the biggest following and the one that stood out amongst all of them, you can go back and check this if you want to Google it, Google “the royal family are 7 foot shape-shifting aliens” .
Craig Cormick: I kid you not, the British Royal Family are royal aliens who are 7 foot tall who shape-shift, there’s name called David Icke I-C-K-E, used to play football for England, he run this and he does world tours. Look up his website, he travels around the world talking to people, to huge halls full of people coming to hear about this conspiracy. When he was in America the Bush family were also evidently a part of this reptilian alien group, so that we found to had the highest amount of hits in terms of whack idea and the most whack idea but huge-huge support in numbers.
Diana Bowman: Very interesting. Now it’s time to open up the floor, so hand the microphone across.
Craig Cormick: I should point out we have an incentive today for people to ask questions. I brought along pockets full of clippie Koalas, so if you ask a question you do get a clippie Koala.
Diana Bowman: An accessory that everybody needs.
Craig Cormick: That’s right.
Brian Zikmund-Fisher: I’m Brian Zikmund-Fisher, I’m an assistant professor here at University of Michigan School of Public Health. I noticed that the title of this presentation is about risk rage, but what you’ve been talking about doesn’t sound to me much like rage, it sounds like fear and I wondered if you’d reflect upon what are the emotions that come up when people think about risk and different types of risk and are they different in the context of the kind of highly uncertain risks that you’ve been talking about, like in nanotechnology, genetic modified food and things like that versus perhaps more well-known risks, I think for a – as a potential comparison example we’ve faced both in the US and in Europe fairly wide spread, contaminated food epidemics, you know, that’s a risk we’ve known for years and certainly you know, it is also about food, something we care about great, very much but it doesn’t have that uncertainty element associated with, for example genetic modified organisms, how do you see that as something that’s different and how is that reflected in a way people think about risk?
Craig Cormick: That’s really a good question. So you’ll definitely get a Koala bear for that one. We do a lot of conversations with the public, sit down with you know, in groups, in forums and focus groups and try not to have these things about risk and what drives them and you could almost say that anything to do with food is perceived as both rage and fear because there’s perception that food is natural. Anything you do to tinker with it is a bad thing, particularly anything unknown and that’s the whole point of something, you know, we don’t know. BSC or mad cow disease is a bit different in way because it wasn’t human caused or necessarily human induced by new technology, yes you could say there are practices that led to it but we’ve never lived at a time and society when people are so far divorced from agricultural production, most people never get to see a farm, they have no idea how livestock is produced, no idea how food is produced and have a perception that it should all be natural, and it should be great and that would – ideally that would be marvelous but reality is that’s not how our food is produced. large agricultural production is the only way to feed the numbers of people we have and so there’s a romantic idealized view of what is good natural food as opposed to food that’s not and so when people perceive that you are tinkering with the food yes they have outrage and they have rage about this and when you have rage and fear together it’s a very-very dominant cocktail of emotions it’s very hard to turn around, very hard to turn around. Has that answered your question?
Diana Bowman: What other areas do you think are going to be potential flash points for new technologies?
Craig Cormick: For new technologies, one of the ones emerging I think is going to be health. Particularly as we get gen – the baby boom, followed by Gen X moving into their 80’s and 90’s and expecting a right to live to a 100. You know, I was promised I’m going to have good life for life or yeah-yeah I sat on the couch and ate pizza for 30 years but I demand someone come up with a tablet that is going to make me able to do that. So there is this negation of belief that your lifestyle choices are what’s causing a problems and need to have this you know, better lifestyle options provided by medicine and so we see you know, huge amounts of alternative medicines being sold in to this emerging market. My parents live in almost a gated community and the brochures they get dropped off from are about two things for retired people have to make gazillion dollars very quickly and easily and how to have instant health very quickly and easily and both are quite bogus in their own way but a huge receptive market in this area and new technologies will have roles to play this but I think like we found with stem cell treatments there’ll be a lot of over promising as well and when you get promising that doesn’t deliver then we’re going to start to see some huge of backlashes.
Diana Bowman: Much of the fear appears to be around the actual human and environmental health and safety risk, does your research reveal much around ethical concerns or broader issues?
Craig Cormick: Ethical concerns do rise but against different technologies, so nanotechnology we don’t see much really coming up in the way of ethics but embryonic stem cells for instance huge amount of ethics because they they’re the values you buy into, a right to life value and that’s a very emotive space. Nanotechnology doesn’t yet play in many of those emerging spaces though it may well, it may well.
Tom Robins: Hi my name is Tom Robins, I am professor in Environmental Health Sciences Department here in the School Public Health but I actually want to talk about risk rage in my own, so I am not really here quite as a scientist. So, what you’ve been talking about in the work you’ve done I think is absolutely fascinating. What I wonder if you could address is that when people believe that Elvis is still alive, it’s hard to figure out how that serves any major economic interest with the possible exception of some places in Las Vegas that are going to put a fake Elvis up there and attract a bigger audience. So, let’s take the example of what I’m calling climate change which as a scientist, but maybe this is just my value system, I see this as a enormous threat to the health of actually every human being on the planet and what I perceive particularly in this country that I’m enraged about is that there is very deliberate, systematic, long term attempts - and successful attempts I should add - at manipulating public opinion and understanding of this. I mean, let’s be blunt you know, big energy companies seem to think more about their short term to medium term profits as far I can figure out, than they seem to think about what’s going to happen to the Earth over the next you know, many decades or even centuries and they don’t see it in their direct interest to have a lot of strong action-taking that’s actually going to change the situation with you know, that release the greenhouse gases and they tie this to unrelated cultural phenomena you know, sort of pick out groups of people in the US that have “conservative values” and try to instill as part of those conservative values having a certain attitude about climate change like that it’s a hoax that apparently thousands of scientist that conspired to do this to get more funding etcetera, etcetera.
Craig Cormick: Mhm.
Tom Robins: So, that’s what enrages me particularly and I think there is this big divide even though this you know, even though the values and subject is the same, there’s just big divide between oh here’s just crazy whacko we usually put an “oh” on a whacko ideas in the US versus yeah here’s some whacko ideas that are being carefully generated and manipulated in the public to a specific economic interest…
Craig Cormick: Mhm.
Tom Robins: …and purpose, I wondered if you could speak to that issue and whether it actually affects your own practice when you do these kinds of things and how you think about it?
Craig Cormick: That’s a two Koala question that one, because it’s a really-really good question, really pertinent because when we come to information flows theory, we are not working on a level playing field and there are lots and lots of people out there trying to manipulate the data, to manipulate public perception and attitudes to their own good. And the one phenomenon that jumps on the moment, this one called astroturfing and astroturfing is when you invent a grass-roots organization, that’s not really grass-roots organization, it’s funded by… it could be funded by industry, it could be funded by different interests and you pretend you’re grass-roots and this is something that’s growing enormously and the Chinese are actually the masters of astroturfing, they employ 250,000 people, who they called red-jacketers and they get paid one Yuan a post and they trawl the internet all day long and if they can find somebody bagging China they say “No it’s not that bad at all actually.” -John-Citizen from Shanghai and they dominate the internet chartrooms and blogosphere with this positive grass-roots full of support, so it’s a form of astroturfing. There are interest groups always involved in information flow and whether it’s an activist group, whether it’s an industry group, whether it’s whatever, they’re trying to play this game of manipulating the public to move it in their perspective points of view but my point of view is that it hasn’t always been like that, it’s just the tools have got a lot more sophisticated and when it comes to this whole thing about industry involvement and climate change, don’t they see what the long term impact is going to be? People asking, “Don’t they see the impacts?” I always say to them but sometimes it’s the nature of beast. You might know the Chinese story about the frog and the scorpion, the scorpion comes up to a flooded river and goes “I need to cross the river, how am I going to cross the river?” and the frog comes along and the scorpion says “Could you give me a lift across the river, I’ll hop on your back and you’ll swim across the river with me”, and the frog says “No, you’ll sting me, you’re a scorpion, you’ll sting me and you’ll kill me” and the scorpion said “But if I sting you, you’ll drown I’ll drown too. So you know, why would I do that?” and the frog says “Okay, hop on” they’re swimming over the river and half way over the scorpion stings the frog and the frog starts being paralyzed and he says, “ Why did you sting me? Now you’re going to drown” and the scorpion says “I’m a scorpion”. Sometimes it is the nature of the beast and you understand that nature of the beast, and you understand the change is not necessarily what’s going to happen and it’s other ways of understanding, being that way you have to start working to make change and what the alternative methods are going to be. But the fact that there are strong vested interests playing this information is – to one extent you would say hasn’t always been so? But yes, you can be outraged about it if you’re aware of it. But understand the nature of it before we can make any change to it. If I have a strong position and you have different position, to date, I shout at you louder and louder to try to make you see my position and you shout out me louder and louder to defend your own position. Hey, look, think of any family meal you ever sat around the table at and you watch people trying to convert to their different positions, it doesn’t work but we still try and do that. The only way to make it work is to understand the value sets that people work with and try to align and change with those values sets. So for those companies who see a lot of money to be made in moving their business models into supporting climate change alleviation, they’re moving and as a result of moving they go through cognitive dissonance, like we said, and all the factors we watch for and they’re on board and they see it’s a change to be made. But if you put a company in position where the only thing they can do is lose, they’re going to defend their turf. If you don’t give them a win-out point of view why would they join up?
Brian Zikmund-Fisher: This is Brian again I…
Craig Cormick: Going back for another Koala, I understand that.
Brian Zikmund-Fisher:…[Chuckles] Couldn’t resist following up that one because it seems like you’re now, if this is all about values and…
Craig Cormick: It’s not all about values, but values are very significant.
Brian Zikmund-Fisher: Well, but your – if the argument is that corporations and governments and everybody is going to respond with their own intrinsic interests in mind, because to some degree we are all scorpions, just you know, we have to respect our innate natures. That to me says that some of – the role of scientists is as much about shaping and promoting values as it is about promoting information and perspective. That the argument becomes that we as scientists are promoting a value set of a way of looking at risky trade offs, a way of looking at the kind of issues…
Craig Cormick: Mhm.
Brian Zikmund-Fisher: …that doesn’t necessarily lead to single conclusion but leads to a process by which we evaluate say the potential long-run impacts of climate change and say those long-run impacts should be, and I use the word should quite intentionally, should be weighted more than any short term impacts. So what does, what does this sort of say for your perspective of what the role of scientists should be in shaping the debate about risks like this?
Craig Cormick: You actually touch on an opinion that is very deep and quite dear to my heart because we’re working on the educational module at the moment about critical thinking which is about trying to take the scientific method of analyzing data and coming up with a logical conclusion, rather than illogical conclusions that is something that is not taught to everyone in school. So sciencetific literacy in most countries their education is based on and this scientific literacy is based on how far is the sun from the moon, can tell you me what a hydrogen molecule is made up of etcetera etcetera and you rate them on those and tell me how good of a country you are at science. But no one teaches really well in their curriculums, the critical method of scientific inquiry and yet we know that when it comes to whacko ideas or when it comes to looking at the illogicalness in whatever position you want to look at, climate change or GM, critical thinking at an early age is really only the solution to it and so, very important that if you look at as that as a value of the science, that more scientist support that and trying to teach as many people as possible what the scientific method of inquiry is that people can put that in their own lives. Because when you hold up an odd belief and you put a through the scrutiny of critical thinking, that challenges your belief rather than reinforcing it and you know, that’s a very simple tool but a very-very strong tool that’s not widely deciminated it should be and so I’m very passionate about trying to get more people understanding how to do critical thinking much younger in life to maintain and hold on to throughout their lives as a tool.
Brian Zikmund-Fisher: Okay.
Diana Bowman: And we have another question.
Mary Beth Lewis: I am not a scientist but I would imagine that some of the scientists in this room have been -found themselves in a position about rage which I think this session, I don’t know how much you were planning on talking about this but it certainly came to my mind which is road rage, which is a huge problem in this country, and you want to talk about dumb people or smart people doing dumb things, where does the emotional short-circuit happen that allows you to act against your values in a moment of road rage? Because I think probably some of us have found ourselves occasionally embarrassed, even though our car are smarter and we think we’re smarter, road rage is a problem – a social problem. So do you have anything to say about that?
Craig Cormick: I do road rage is a really interesting one because often people will presume what the problem is and solve that and they find that actually that’s not the problem at all. So why do you scream and abuse the car who’s cut you off? Why do you whine in your window and give them the finger? Why do you throw something out the window at them? Because you know, okay it’s clearly because people are behaving badly on the roads, sure that’s the problem. So we’ll make more polite drivers that will solve it, and we put in speed bumps and we put in flows and traffic lights and it doesn’t change. It may be when you go back and look at it that’s not the actual cause of road rage. The actual cause of road rage is the people are feeling less and less empowered in their lives, people are feeling more and more stressed in their jobs. They spend less and less time with their families, less and less and it’s point of escape iswhen you’re in the car and a car cuts you off. I can’t control this new technology in my life, I can’t control what’s happening in my work place, I can’t control my bosses attitude but I can sure as hell tell that car what I think of them and I’m going to. It sometimes it can be a very complex package of anger and rage and frustrations, and when you find a point of escape, and we find this with lots of new technologies as well, that become the focus of much broader fears. So with genetically modified foods most people who are extremely concerned about GM foods, you talk about the science of GM food, it’s not the GM foods they’re actually worried about, the real concerns come from things that are based on control over what’s happening in the world. Are my children looked after, are they safe enough? Are Multinational corporations accountable? and all these things come together you know, and I cant express those things, i have not outlet for them but GM foods you know, there I have an outlet you know, and there I’m going to go to town. I think road rage you’ll find is a very similar example.
Diana Bowman: We now just have a few moments left and I know I cannot close this session without asking the following questions which Andrew himself would have asked had he been sitting in this chair, so I have two, what keeps you awake at night?
Craig Cormick: That’s easy my two year old keeps me awake at night.
Craig Cormick: And he’s traveling with me and he still thinks he’s on Australian time. So he’s on – he’s having a little bit – he’s slowly adjusting but he does keep me awake at night.
Diana Bowman: Can you focus slightly more on risk.
Craig Cormick: Focus slightly more on risk assessment.
Craig Cormick: Ah sure yeah actually not much does keep me awake at night because I’ve learned over the years that you know, the old aphorism of those things you can’t influence there’s no point in losing negative energy in them but I tend to have my best ideas about 2 or 3 in the morning, if I jump out of bed 2 or 3 in the morning and write for half an hour and then go back to bed, I find that’s worth about 4 or 5 hours of day time writing, there’s not always real legible in the morning but I find that that does keep me awake at night and I’m hoping that will transfer across to the states, where allmy good ideas will happen in the daytime while I’m here you know, I wake up in the night time.
Diana Bowman: It doesn’t work, I’ve tried.
Craig Cormick: Dang!
Diana Bowman: In regards to risk rage, what makes you sleep at night?
Craig Cormick: What makes me sleep at night is when in terms of risk rage, when the world is turning as it should, when people are starting to better understand the causes of road rage, of nano rage or GM rage and the mitigation strategy that has been put in place is actually addressing the cause not the trigger.
Diana Bowman: Fabulous! Well, I’d like to this wrap this up now and thank you very much Craig for coming along and speaking with us today.
Craig Cormick: Thank you Diana, thank you everyone, go blues.
Diana Bowman: Nicely done.