Opinion- 25 December 2006



pdf file-available from Australasian Science



Harry Robinson Reflects on the Year That Was


Feeling Good?
We got through the year 2006 pretty well, don't you think? Billions in the bank, only a handful of dead soldiers overseas,

  Sunrise January 1, 2006

 Intelligent Design repulsed by our sanity radar, record donations to charities for the festive season.


And we won The Ashes back.

Could omens shine brighter?

True, climate change moved against us and found us unready, the nuclear power question raised its inconvenient head and found the public in a daft dither, the wheat scandal soiled our self righteous belief in ourselves, the national parliament was dominated by a sly philistine government and undefended by an anachronistic opposition -- until the final few weeks.

But what would you have? Nobody is perfect, no nation is perfect and no year brings perfection. Our imperfections scarcely went sub-rosa and, anyway, the opposition chose Kevin Rudd to lead his side of the House. Hopes rose.

How did our popular guardians, the media, behave during the year? With all the consistency of badly made porridge.

Most of the time they were a sticky mix. Several events excited them, though. First came Prof Ian Frazer and the vaccine to head off cervical cancer. He won plaudits mostly for being Australian of the Year and less for his achievement. Still , it was a salute in the right direction. The next media eruption came with the trapped miners event in Tasmania. This was made for media, at least in the view of media managers. After a week of horrors, heroism and hope the public were turned off by the hysterics in all media. Did media managers tactfully ease off? No, they kept on giving the public more melodrama than they wanted while pollies and union apparatchiks put themselves into camera positions for the final scenes.

Next came the death by stingray of Steve Irwin, croc hunter or tormentor according to taste. He caught the media mongers napping. At first, he was merely a sensational story--until American media began to blow him up big time. His profile here was partly curiosity, partly clown. But when the Americans in their simple way showed he was an international star, why would our home grown media not latch onto the puff? When Germaine Greer poured some of her cold acid onto this national embarrassment, she was good for tabloid damnation. The Irwin death had editors in a frenzy.

In a different key, the last big media episode of overkill came with Shane Warne's announcement that his bowling days were all but over. Fluid tonnes of ink, rolls of paper, aeons of radio time, scads of screen sequences assured us that a cataclysm had occurred and would rumble through a dark future. A few timorous voices muttered that the hero's personal life had disagreeable patches but they were drowned out in a sea of media lamentation.

The year underscored the media's reputation -- averse to mental challenges, hungry for melodrama, the cheapeer the better. This matters to the Educational-Scientific community because the only path toward influencing governments is through media. They will take note of Ed-Sci proportionally to their media support. Ed-Sci cannot rely on media, Ed-Sci must concoct ways to manipulate media -- manipulate the entrenched manipulators. Sup with the devil, if necessary.

Remember Toowoomba and the water recycling affair? That delightful city on the edge of the Darling Downs was facing a chronic shortage of potable water. Mayor Di Thorley went into huddles with scientists and water engineers. A solution presented itself -- cleanse the town's water including sewage and recycle it into the main supply. She was advised that it could be done safely. She was told that the practice was common in cities around the world without harm.

Mayor Thorley decided to put the proposition to the people which was honest and democratic of her but it appears that she made one error of judgement: she came on too strong and thus aroused opposition. Nay-sayers sprang up and the battle was joined at a public meeting. Arguments went back and forth. On radio we heard one anti-yuk man say: "And then the scientists brought up some new figures .. I dunno where they got 'em but ."

It was the voice of the anti-intellectual strata of our nation. It revealed disrespect and distrust of intellectual people.

That was the voice which threw Mayor Thorley's referendum out. The forces of Ed-Sci need more than logic to counteract the "I dunno where they got 'em" syndrome.

Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.