UVic oceanographer asks: Why do people deny science?

Death threats prompt scientist to understand, explore ways science interacts with the public

Jay Cullen, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Victoria, will be leading an event called ‘Inconvenient truths: Why do we reject scientific findings?’ at UVic’s Ideafest event on March 8. (Black Press Media file photo)

Jay Cullen, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Victoria, will be leading an event called ‘Inconvenient truths: Why do we reject scientific findings?’ at UVic’s Ideafest event on March 8. (Black Press Media file photo)

After Jay Cullen, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Victoria, started getting death threats about his published findings on the impact of the Fukushima accident on the Pacific ocean he began to look closer into why people deny science.

As part of the week-long event, Ideafest – taking place at the University of Victoria from March 4 to 9 – Cullen, one of the panelists, will be discussing just that.

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‘Inconvenient truths: Why do we reject scientific findings?’ brings together four UVic researchers to share their experiences communicating with the public on controversial topics. The event takes place on March 8 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Bob Wright Centre.

“People tend to accept or embrace information that supports their view of the situation of the problem and reject evidence that doesn’t support it – scientists don’t have an exclusive right or claim to the truth in the public eye,” says Cullen.

The researchers taking part in the panel are experts in various fields such as immunology and vaccines, climate change, rehabilitation and health along with environmental pollution.

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“We’re going to talk about our experiences and interact with people at the event to answer questions,” says Cullen. “And to explore the issue of how best to communicate science and concerns the public has with how scientists engage with the media and otherwise communicate what we’re up to.”

It’s a hard question to answer and Cullen says he doesn’t have the answer.

“I think part of my motivation for being involved in the event is to try and sort through some of my own experience to try and come up with an answer,” says Cullen. “And a way forward where we can build relationships with the public that allow us to more clearly communicate and influence people’s lives.”

In 2016 Dana Durnford was found guilty of criminal harassment. Durnford threatened violence against Cullen and another scientist, accusing them of underplaying the extent of damage to Pacific ecosystems from the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

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“I would have never thought 10 years ago that I would find myself sitting in a courtroom testifying and having been afraid for me and my family’s safety and my coworkers’ safety because of the work I was doing as an oceanographer,” says Cullen.

He says it’s important to explore the way science interacts in the public sphere because the research scientists do affect the policies implemented nationally.

“It’s clear that many of the problems we face both here in B.C. but also globally … the solutions to those problems are likely going to involve policy that’s based on science,” says Cullen. “How do we develop real relationships so that information gets to people in ways they both want but also understand and relate to.”

For more information on this event or Ideafest as a whole visit uvic.ca/ideafest.



kendra.crighton@blackpress.ca

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