Episode 47 – How to communicate about controversial topics (like aliens)

This week we had a fascinating conversation with Dr Graham Phillips focused on how to talk about controversial or divisive science topics – like aliens. Graham is a much-loved Australian science communicator and journalist and has plenty of experience communicating about tricky topics, especially when he was the host and a producer-reporter on ABC TV’s science program Catalyst.

Graham began his career as a scientist (he has a PhD in astrophysics) before quitting to become science journalist/broadcaster/communicator. He’s been a regular science commentator on all the free-to-air TV commercial networks, written about science for almost every major newspaper in Australia and had regular science columns in a number of them. He’s contributed to many, many hours of science on radio as both an interviewee and interviewer, and has had four popular science books published.

Graham recently wrote and produced a series on extra-terrestrial life for Amazon’s podcast arm Audible – Astronomical: looking for life beyond Earth – hence his interest in aliens!

You can follow Graham and find out more about his work here:


Jen (00:00:00)
Well, I hope you’re going to disclose what modern alien technology is on, on air then.

Graham (00:00:08)
I would have to zap you with a laser beam.

Jen (00:00:11)
Would it hurt?

Graham (00:00:13)
No you’d, no you’ll feel nothing. Possibly be transported to a parallel dimension, but you’d be fine.

Jen (00:00:18)

Michael (00:00:20)
Alright, we’re recording now. So better watch what we say.

Jen (00:00:23)
So you realise what you just said is going into the podcast, don’t you Graham?

Michael (00:00:29)
Oh, just as a teaser, as a teaser.

Jen (00:00:30)

Graham (00:00:32)
I’m just going to have to blank your minds now.

Jen (00:00:54)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr. Michael Wheeler. And we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:01:20)
Hello everybody. Welcome to another fine episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
I’m Jen and I am so delighted to be joined, well, by two of my fabulous colleagues and friends today.
But of course Michael as always is here. Hello, Michael.

Michael (00:01:57)
Hey Jen, I’m very excited that Graham is joining us again for another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
And just a quick reminder for the listeners. You’ll be familiar with Graham from some of our previous episodes. So you’re a, a repeat offender, Graham, by coming on the podcast.

Graham (00:02:22)
Just can’t stay away. You can’t stay away.

Michael (00:02:25)
No, you haven’t. You haven’t offended anyone. A repeat engager.

Graham (00:02:28)
Not until this podcast. Perhaps this is the podcast.

Jen (00:02:31)
I was gonna say there’s still plenty of time for Graham to offend us. So I’m looking forward to that.

Graham (00:02:37)
I could see how this podcast could offend some people.
So, you know…

Michael (00:02:40)
Well, let’s see, let’s get into it. But just a quick reminder for the listeners, Graham is one of our wonderful colleagues who has a background in astrophysics and has gone on to have an illustrious career communicating about astrophysics and all kinds of science really in radio and podcasts, print and also on TV.
And Graham, I know for one of our previous episodes, we promised to have you back to talk about aliens. So the time has come. Tell us what you know.

Graham (00:03:12)
I’m already. Yes, look, I would have to laser beam you to death if I told you everything I know. But I can tell you some things.

Michael (00:03:19)
Well look, I guess the serious excuse that we have here to talk about aliens is this idea of communicating about a topic that is divisive because it’s a topic that historically has been associated with conspiracy theory or that traditional fields of science have shied away from.
One of those topics is the scientific search for extraterrestrial life. And I guess with that particular topic, I use the word historically there because it does actually seem like there’s a renewed appetite to discuss the scientific search for extraterrestrial life and that maybe it is separating itself a little bit from conspiracy theory side. What do you think?

Graham (00:04:03)
Yeah. Well look, I think certainly in terms of searching for simple microbes, you know, little bacterial kind of bugs on other planets is a very legitimate scientific discussion to have these days.
Whereas it probably wasn’t I reckon when I was a student. I mean, back then this, [the] prevailing belief was well, there’s probably life nowhere else in the universe. And that is a bit loopy, kind of looking for that sort of thing.
But that’s certainly changed during my career is that people are happy to do that. Now whether they’re happy to search for alien, you know, intelligent aliens, I think that probably has changed a bit as well.
Like we’ve got a program now called SETI that’s been around well since the sixties. But it’s taken increasingly seriously perhaps, where we’re pointing radio telescopes at other star systems and listening for alien signals that might be, “Hello, humans. We’re here.” Or something artificial.
That I think, I mean, that’s sort of border serious science, I would say. I think a lot of people think it’s a waste of time, but certainly there’s a bunch of people that think it is a very worthwhile thing to do. So I reckon that’s the state of the play at the moment.
Now whether you extend that in terms of UFOs and the aliens visiting us, so intelligent aliens visiting us, I reckon there’s a borderline before that and you would find most scientists would think that is loopy.

Jen (00:05:31)
Isn’t this where you’re gonna come clean and tell us that actually, you know, you are intelligent life? It’s come on some really cool UFO. I thought that was the whole point of the podcast. I’ve been misled.

Graham (00:05:40)
Oh, look, I won’t confess that till later. But I think it’s interesting that the argument against alien, it’s sort of weird I think, that you’ve got this idea that, “Look, intelligent life could be out there, somewhere around another star system.”
And it kind of makes sense in a way. I mean, why would we be the only intelligent life in the entire cosmos? You know, the cosmos is a big place.
And you’re going to tell me that there’s a whole bunch of stars out there and galaxies and planets and they’re all much the same, except for one. There is one planet called the Earth going around one star where there’s this amazing phenomenon called intelligent life and it’s nowhere else in the universe.
I just find that difficult to accept as a scientist, you know, that the universe is basically the same ever, except for one little spot that’s special.

Jen (00:06:24)
Well, it just seems like absolutely classic human arrogance. You know, the absolute epitome of human arrogance to argue that we would be the only ones who could be this special.

Graham (00:06:35)
Absolutely. And a lot of astronomers would probably agree with you and say, “Well look, yeah, that’s true. But these other intelligent beings are so far away, they’re never going to come and visit us or anything like that.” But I’m not sure that that argument holds water either.
I mean, you know, the universe is an old place. The earth has only been around for four or so billion years. There are plenty of star systems out there that have come and gone in the time that we weren’t even in the universe yet.
There are plenty of stars out there that are a billion years older than our sun. So you know, if life got going through the same process of evolution and produced intelligent life like it did here, then that life would be a billion years more advanced than us.
You think of how much progress we’ve made in 200 years. I mean, imagine a billion years of technological progress. I mean, you can’t imagine that.
So to me, it’s certainly within the realms of possibility that alien life could be here, intelligent alien life could be here and we just wouldn’t recognise it and wouldn’t know.

Jen (00:07:26)

Graham (00:07:27)
I mean, it’s different though to say, do we have evidence of that, which of course is what science wants, but it’s certainly plausible. It’s not a crazy idea that that’s true.
So the idea that we should look for evidence for that is not as crazy as it might sound at first.

Michael (00:07:41)
Yeah. And in some ways, we’re also looking for evidence to better inform our ability to predict what are the chances that alien life might be out there, right? Isn’t there, what’s the name of this? The Drake equation, isn’t it?

Graham (00:07:54)
Oh yes, the famous Drake equation, which kind of is a, it’s an estimate of how many intelligent civilizations could be in the galaxy.
And I interviewed Frank Drake who came up with the equation, his daughter recently, and she said, “Actually, he just came up with that famous equation over the weekend.” He kind of had this conference looming up on the Monday, but he had to sort of come up with some sort of you know, discussion points. And so he sort of came up with this equation that’s now gone down in history as one of the famous equations.
And basically it just works out, what’s the probability of Earth-like planets around other stars? What’s the probability on those planets of the conditions right being for life? What’s the probability of planets that have a bit of life evolving to form intelligent life? And you basically multiply all those probabilities together and you get an estimate for how many alien civilizations there might be in the galaxy.
But the trouble is there are so many unknowns in that equation. You can kind of get any number you like at the end. It’s a way of sort of structuring your thought, I guess. And one of those terms is what proportion of the stars in the galaxy has planets? And that’s been an unknown until 20 years ago.
We do, I mean we know our star system has planets, but we didn’t know of any others until the ’90s. And in fact, I know when I was at university, you know, there were theories around that imply that the sun would be the only system in the whole galaxy that would have planets. It was a rare event where a bit of gas was captured from a star and planets were formed.
So it’s only really been, even though it might seem obvious to everyone now, it’s only been since the mid 1990s that we knew of other planets around other stars. That we now know that almost all the stars in the galaxies have planets around them.
There’s still plenty of other terms in that equation that we have no idea. I mean, what proportion of planets that are Earth-like in the sense that they’re similar size, they’re in what they call the Goldilocks zone, which is just the right distance from the sun where water will remain liquid.
We can work out maybe how many stars have planets like that, but given those conditions, how many of those produce biology? We have no idea whatsoever. It could be zero almost, you know, or it could be almost all of them. I mean, we just don’t know at this time.
So astronomers use that Drake equation to sort of help structure thought about answering these big questions.

Michael (00:10:07)
Yeah. And I suppose it comes with some assumptions as well that the type of life we’re looking for is not too dissimilar from us.

Graham (00:10:15)
Yeah. And I mean that, that is an assumption too. But maybe that’s not such a big one.
I don’t know. I mean, carbon-based life, there’s kind of a reason in physics and chemistry, if you like, that carbon-based life is, you know, the carbon molecule is quite good that way in producing a whole lot of other molecules.
So you know, that’s why we have organic chemistry. So we don’t have another molecule, another element where we talk about a similar complexity of chemistry like we do with carbon.
So you know, I think the idea that life must be carbon-based is not that big an assumption myself.

Jen (00:10:41)
Carbon is very, very versatile. As we’ve seen.
Okay, I’m really interested. Earlier on in the conversation, we sort of talked about this shift towards a bit more acceptance I suppose, that potentially looking for extraterrestrial life is not quite as crazy as it might once have been.
But I’m interested in, why has there been that shift? Why do we find ourselves in a place now where three scientists are sitting here having a reputable conversation about the search for alien life?
Is it because recent advances in technology mean that our chances of finding such life has really increased in a meaningful way? Is it because we’re having to face facts that we’ve screwed up things pretty badly on this planet and people are starting to think about other options?
I mean, or is it just that, you know, humans have always imagined and been curious and now we hear about other people’s ideas more because of things like social media?

Graham (00:11:32)
It’s interesting. No, I think it’s more than we’re just hearing more about astrobiology, which is a field of science now.
I don’t know why it has become so popular. I think it’s just once you get a few key people interested in the field, then they get students on board to help them explore it. And then they have students and this field kind of grows. And I think that’s been the case with astrobiology.
And you know, NASA has been… Well, it hasn’t been directly looking for life on Mars. They’re sort of a bit scared of that I think. Because sort of, they did do that back in the mid seventies. They had the famous Viking Landers that did some experiments looking for life, microbial life on Mars.
And they didn’t kind of come up with an answer. They had one test that was, they didn’t quite sure if it indicated there was life or there wasn’t life.
And it’s quite a difficult thing to you know, we don’t just have a life detector like they might have on Star Trek. So it’s actually quite a difficult thing to detect. So now they’re focusing more on lifelike conditions.
So, you know, was the geology OK to allow life? And you know, was there liquid water and all that kind of thing?
But they’ve kind of always been interested in that bigger question of whether Mars could have had life in the past or maybe even has life now. So I think once you get big organisations like NASA interested in the field, you just attract researchers in that area.
Because you raise a very good point, that astrobiology has been around for a few decades now. But we still have no examples of life anywhere else other than Earth.
So it’s kind of intriguing. Whereas there’s other fields of science that would say, wait a minute, you have no examples of that. Why are you investigating it?

Jen (00:13:01)
And why do you keep getting grant funding if you’ve got absolutely no good results?

Graham (00:13:06)
Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. So I mean, hopefully they find something soon.
But certainly in my time in the science game, the general attitude to that has changed completely. It’s a 180 degree turn from the late 70s. People were basically assumed that there wasn’t life elsewhere.
Whereas now, I think, I’ve asked many scientists in the field, they say, “Well look, I think it’s pretty likely that there’s simple microbial life elsewhere. But I think intelligent life is a whole other matter. And you know, I think that’s probably pretty rare.”
But I think all of that is based on no evidence. You know, it’s just based on kind of gut feeling.

Michael (00:13:39)
And the other germane question I guess to this discussion is that could Graham actually be a form of extraterrestrial life?
And you know, maybe we’re all examples of extraterrestrial life. Isn’t there that theory that panspermia? Is that credible at all or?

Graham (00:13:57)
Well look, answer to your first question. If you’re asking me if I am an alien, I officially have to say no comment. But in terms of that broader question, which I am allowed to comment on…
Yeah look, that’s another interesting theory in that when I was a youngster, this panspermia idea, which has been around for you know, more than a century, that basically life came from elsewhere.
And it’s sort of traveled to earth, landed on earth, found earth like conditions and grew here and flourished. It’s been around for a while, but it was just considered crazy sci-fi. Whereas now I don’t think it’s got the same craziness element about it.
I mean, the idea that maybe life started on Mars, and was brought to earth by some sort of asteroid collision. So you know, space rock crashes into Mars, chips a bit of Mars off and sends it to earth. And that little chip of rock was carrying life and seeded earth is an idea that’s taken quite seriously.
And we know that this happens. We’ve found bits of Mars on earth. So we know the rocks can get here. And you know, the greater idea of maybe there’s life elsewhere in the galaxy, and it’s traveling here.
I mean, that’s probably getting a little more or less acceptable, I’d say. Because once… It was Carl Sagan, who basically said, “If you’ve got a wild theory, you need a lot of evidence really to support it. And the wilder the theory, the more the evidence you need.”
So I guess that bigger picture of life traveling through the cosmos and arriving on planets is one of those ideas.
But it all comes down to evidence ultimately, I think. I mean, if there is an alien civilization a billion years more advanced and they could send life to see the galaxy with this kind of life. I mean, that’s not impossible.
You know, that’s the thing. You can’t just rule that out and say that’s a crazy idea. But I guess what you have to do is say, “Well look, it’s a wild idea. It’s plausible or true, or could be true. Let’s look for evidence.”
And it always as you know, in science, always comes down to okay, lots of ideas are possible. But where’s the evidence that this particular one is one we should invest in?

Jen (00:15:52)
Presumably part of the problem though, is that we may be, we may have absolutely no idea of what that evidence would appear as, right?

Graham (00:16:00)
That’s true. That’s true and…

Jen (00:16:01)
There could be things all around us that in fact are evidence of there being external life. But we just, we don’t know that that’s what it is if we can’t even conceive of it as being that.

Graham (00:16:11)
Yeah. And that’s right, that’s true. And that’s why I don’t really know what that evidence is.
I mean we have, we’ve got those sort of famous sightings off the coast of California called the Tic-Tac incidents, which were these sort of strange I think disc-like objects that are shaped like Tic-Tacs, basically like the lollies Tic-Tacs. But US military observed them back in 2004 doing strange things off the coast of California.
And it kind of all came out, I think it was back in 2017 because one of the military people involved leaked it to the press and started talking about it. But there’s certainly what they observed were weird kind of things. They observed these sort of objects that were seemed to be just hovering around on the horizon.
They had radar locks on them. And then they would just suddenly drop down to sea level very rapidly. And if you did a calculation on how rapidly that was. You know, they’re breaking the laws of physics.
That should have caused a sonic boom, at least. Probably a nuclear explosion, the speed, the acceleration with which they sort of moved, which doesn’t make any sense from a physics point of view.
Apparently, they were being observed for several days while they were preparing to do a military exercise in the area.
And when it came to crunch time, they were actually going to do the exercise. The radar operator thought, “Gee, we better investigate these things. Who knows what they are. We don’t want to collide with them while we’re doing our flights over the area.”
And they sent in a fighter pilot to have a look and see what was going on. And supposedly, he says he locked onto them. And we saw these objects. There’s images on the internet. You could look at them of locked onto these objects and sure, they’re moving in ways that don’t obey the laws of physics.
You know, they had an enquiry that went to Congress in the US and the military supposedly released a whole lot of information. And the conclusion is, “Look, we don’t know. We don’t know what was going on. There is no simple explanation for this”, which doesn’t, that’s not evidence. You know, that doesn’t mean something wacky was happening, but it’s kind of intriguing that this serious observation was done.
But the next step of how you investigate this to try to find some sort of concrete scientific evidence is the tricky part.

Michael (00:18:10)
Yeah, I mean it is, isn’t it? Because there’s all these kinds of evidence that they’re evidence of something. You don’t know what their evidence of. And I guess that type of evidence is maybe just put into the too hard basket. It’s unexplainable.
But I guess it is possible, right? That one day we might find a bit of evidence where there is a little bit more certainty that OK well, maybe this is evidence of extraterrestrial life.
So it’s interesting to think about what would the communication be like around that discovery? Because we’ve been thinking about the communication challenges of this process of discovery.
But what’s, what does that press conference look like? What are the communication challenges going forward after a more compelling piece of evidence is actually found. Do we need to think about that so we can anticipate some of those challenges?

Graham (00:19:05)
I mean, what kind of evidence would you need? And I… There’s an astronomer, Seth Shostak, who’s investigated a lot of this US UFO stuff, and he doesn’t believe it at all.
He says there’s no way that aliens are visiting here. And I said to him, “Well you know, what would it take to convince you?”
And he said, “Basically some hard evidence”. He’d want a piece of crashed spaceship or something like that, some sort of evidence that you can put in the lab, examine it and say “Yeah, that material is not an Earth-like material”.
Which is fair enough too. Although you may not get that kind of evidence, you know. We’re sort of…

Jen (00:19:38)
So the aliens are probably too smart to ever leave that kind of stuff around, right?

Graham (00:19:42)
Yeah, they’re probably better drivers than we are. You know, they don’t crash, maybe. You know like… That is part of the problem is that if you’re demanding certain kinds of evidence, well, it just may not be available. You know, they may not just operate that way so…

Michael (00:19:53)
But I guess the kind of evidence I’m, I’m thinking of is, you know these, these signatures. So there’s you know, biological signatures. But maybe even more compelling than that would be techno signatures. If we discovered a techno signature, would that be compelling evidence?

Graham (00:20:12)
I think it would be open to interpretation unless it was you know… In the movie Contact. I don’t know if you saw that movie. It was around I don’t know, 20, 30 years ago where they basically it’s sort of taking a success story from the SETI program. So listening, you know, there’s radio telescopes listening for messages.
And in that movie, suddenly we detect the message coming back to us. But it’s a reflection of one of our own radio signals that have been sent out there. So they’ve just cleverly sort of reflected it back at us.
I guess if you’ve got that kind of evidence, that’s pretty hard evidence that something’s going on out there. But otherwise, I think these things are always equivocal.
You know. And it’s like we had back in the 1960s, these mysterious signals coming from space, and they were dubbed little green men because you know, they initially thought they could be alien signals.
So this very regular pulses, like from a beacon, no physical process that we knew of at the time could produce them. But of course, they turned out to be a physical process. They turned out to be neutron stars, pulsars. So getting this sort of unequivocal technosignature is going to be a very tricky thing to do.
I mean, you know, science is very demanding in terms of the standards of evidence. So I don’t know.
But if we got one, then I’ve put that as well to various astronomers working in SETI. And they say, “Well, look, there would be no informing of the president and some specially controlled press conference because it would just leak out.” You know,astronomers always communicate stuff to each other. You found this wacky signal, train your telescope on it. What do you think?
So it would just leak out very quickly. And I’m sure all the conspiracy theories and everything would go along with it as we’ve seen with COVID. That would all be a part of it.
I think I also put this to Seth Shostak, the SETI researcher. And he said, “I got a mysterious signal in a telescope one time and I couldn’t even get the local mayor in my town interested in the story. You know, maybe people aren’t that interested.”

Jen (00:22:00)

Graham (00:22:01)
Really, because it’s you know, it’s just astronomy stuff.
If the aliens came here, I’m sure we’d be very interested.
But just the idea that we’ve detected a signal that’s possibly extraterrestrial alien signal, he wasn’t convinced that people were going to mass panic and there’d be new religions like we see in the sci-fi movies.

Jen (00:22:18)
Is that just because people are really dismissive of things that they don’t understand?
I guess I’m thinking more broadly. You said before Graham that science is a hard task master. We expect very high levels of evidence and process and due diligence around science.
And I know that you’re a really experienced science reporter who’s worked in all sorts of different areas. And you’ve commented to Michael and I before that there are other topics in science that have been really hard for you to communicate effectively as a serious journalist with a high level of science credibility.
You know, do people just dismiss things that they find a bit confusing or why is it hard to, really hard to communicate some of these topics?

Graham (00:22:56)
Yeah, I think there’s a couple of different issues there. The first one is I think when you’re talking about a mass audience, the general public out there, not a sort of science interested, science literate audience, then just getting them interested in science in the first place is a challenge, as we all know.
Because they’ve just got other priorities, you know, and they sort of say, “How would this affect me? Why would I care? Oh, you found some strange signal on your telescope about aliens far, far away. Is it going to change my life? No? Oh, I don’t care.”
Whereas I would think, “What? There’s another intelligence in the galaxy? That’s amazing.” You know what I mean? It just depends on your kind of mindset.
But on the other issue of reporting borderline science stuff. I mean, that is a challenge, you know, because a lot of this stuff that’s not in conventional science is sort of deemed a bit wacky and a bit crazy and full of conspiracy theories or just, just nutty beliefs.
And so I think doing stories on UFOs is certainly in that category. And I’ve sort of really recently just sort of talked about that stuff off the coast of California, doing that in a podcast that we made, covering that sort of subject matter, feeling slightly uncomfortable because it’s right on borderline science.
But I guess my trick I think was just to focus on the science in there and make it very clear about what speculation, what could be true, and in terms of what we know is true from evidence.

Michael (00:24:13)
Yeah. And do you think maybe part of the hesitancy is that the benefits of studying that are maybe a bit harder to imagine?
But there’s probably other topics that traditional science has shied away from where the benefits are maybe a little bit more imaginable?

Jen (00:24:32)

Michael (00:24:33)
Tangible. Yeah, yeah.
I mean, I’m thinking about topics like placebo medicine.

Graham (00:24:37)
Yeah. Look, I’ve tried to do a story in fact on placebo medicine. I probably have done them. And the basic idea is, you know, there’s a placebo effect. So you can give someone a sugar pill, tell them it’s a very effective drug, and it’ll help them in some way.
And there’s, you know, there’s many famous stories like that. There’s one I think from the Korean War that I vaguely remember of a surgeon who had bad appendicitis pain, I think it was. But it was during the war, a whole lot of wounded soldiers came into the surgery and there was no way that this doctor could not operate.
And he asked the nurse to inject him with morphine so he could reduce the pain. And the nurse thought, “Well, if I get him morphine, he’ll be out to it. That’s not going to work.” So she gave him a saline injection and said, “Yep, there’s your morphine.” And the doctor was fine. Pain went away and could operate throughout the night.
And so there was some research going on at a university in Melbourne, I think it was back in the ’90s, by a guy who was looking at this very thing to see if he could reduce the amount of pain medication people had to take.
So if you could slip a few sugar pills in with their pain medication and you didn’t tell them which ones were the sugar pills, his idea was well, they would work just as well as the pain medication.
So you could actually, you wouldn’t completely stop people’s pain medication, but you could you know, you would reduce it by having some of them as placebos.

Jen (00:24:50)

Graham (00:25:51)
But I tried to do a story with him and he was reluctant. And he sort of said, “Oh, you know”. So he was quite young. And he said, “I’ve sort of been told by some of the senior people around me, it’s not the kind of research you really should be doing if you see yourself doing a serious career in science.” And so he shied away from it and I couldn’t do that story.
So I think there are, there are parts, there are things that should be investigated by science. I think this idea of making things taboo and just don’t go there or your career is ruined is a dangerous thing, especially for science that’s meant to be open-minded.
If there’s the possibility of finding evidence, then it’s a worthwhile thing to look for some of that evidence.

Jen (00:26:25)
100%. And if we trust in the process of science and for people to do science properly, then there should be no fear around searching for things that we might find hard to understand or hard to believe. Because if we don’t find the evidence, well, that’s more evidence right?

Graham (00:26:41)
Yeah exactly. But you know, I think we’re all human, including scientists.
Scientists often said that if we get involved in looking for evidence for that, it’s giving that some legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve ’cause it’s crazy.

Michael (00:26:50)

Jen (00:26:50)
So Graham, before we let you go, I guess the thing that I would love to hear your advice on given that you, you’ve had such a long and illustrious career in science communication is what advice do you have for someone who’s listening right now, who you know, not necessarily thinking about whether they can afford to do research into some of these big questions, but just who has a topic that they feel is a little bit divisive or a little bit not quite mainstream, might have a few people sort of asking questions, is this, is this legitimate or maybe there’s some fringe topic. You know, you know what I mean?
Like there are a lot of people who study things that aren’t quite straight down the middle of the road. What advice do you have for people about how they communicate around these topics?
Is it, as you said before, you just have to stick purely to the facts and if you’re going to speculate, be abundantly clear that you are now speculating or are there other things to think about?

Graham (00:27:39)
Yeah, it’s a, it’s a good question. And I think on one side you’ll have a lot of interest. I mean, a lot of the challenge in science communication is getting the audience interested in why this is important to them.
Whereas on those kind of topics, the topics we’ve been talking about, because they’re so intriguing, I think it’s actually quite easy to get the public interested. The challenge becomes protecting your reputation as a science journalist.
And I think the solution to that is to only stick to, you mainly talk about the science that could be involved, make it clear that it’s speculation.
And you can still cover the bigger picture, but just sort of make it clear, “Well look, no one really knows that or if that were true…” Like the case of ESP as we understand it, then that would totally transform our understanding of the world. So that’s a big thing. So, you know, incredible claims require incredible evidence.
I think it’s just a matter of being as honest as possible.
But I think as a science communicator, the topics that the public is interested in and their opportunities to explain some science in there, ’cause suddenly you’ve got their attention, which is the biggest challenge I’ve always found.
But if you can get their attention through UFOs and aliens, and then you can explain a bit of physics as you go along or a bit of astronomy, then that’s a win kind of thing. Provided you don’t, they don’t come away with the false impression.

Michael (00:28:51)

Jen (00:28:52)
Honesty. The best policy, hey?

Michael (00:28:54)
Graham, it’s been absolutely fascinating chatting to you and we’ll definitely have to have you back to continue these kind of discussions, especially if they have that press conference where they do announce compelling evidence of extraterrestrial life.
But unfortunately we have run out of time for this chat. So thank you, Graham. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Graham (00:29:15)
Likewise, always enjoy talking about science with you guys.

Jen (00:29:16)
Thank you, Graham.

Michael (00:29:45)
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