The Sad Story of Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Dr Karl is a very familiar face and voice in Australia, for his role in communicating and demystifying science. He’s a polymath and skeptic, with a large number of degrees and a strong commitment to raising awareness on crucial issues such as climate change and puncturing misconceptions and myths. With 33 books and an extensive publishing career, it’s no surprise that he’s a widely respected figure in the area of scientific communication and he holds a fellowship at the University of Sydney on the strength of his demonstrated track record and commitment to science.

It is a very sad state of events that has led to this post, where we have to talk about how his decision to get involved in a government-supported advertising campaign has had some highly undesirable outcomes. The current government of Australia has had, being kind, a questionable commitment to science, not appointing a science minister for the first time in decades, undermining national initiatives in alternative and efficient energy,  and having a great deal of resistance to issues such as the scientific consensus on climate change. However, as part of the responsibilities of government, the Intergenerational Report is produced at least every 5 years (this one was a wee bit late) and has the tricky job of crystal-balling the next 40 years to predict change and allow government policy to be shaped to handle that change. Having produced the report, the government looked for a respected science-focused speaker to front the advertising campaign and they recruited Dr Karl, who has recently been on the TV talking about some of the things in the report as part of a concerted effort to raise awareness of the report.

But there’s a problem.

And it’s a terrible problem because it means that Dr Karl didn’t follow some of the most basic requirements of science. From an ABC article on this:

“Dr Kruszelnicki said he was only able to read parts of the report (emphasis mine) before he agreed to the ads as the rest was under embargo.”

Ah. But that’s ok, if he agrees with the report as it’s been released, right? Uhh. About that, from a Fairfax piece on Tuesday.

“The man appearing on television screens across the country promoting the Abbott government’s Intergenerational Report – science broadcaster Karl Kruszelnicki – has hardened his stance against the document, describing it as “flawed” and admitting to concerns that it was “fiddled with” by the government.” (emphasis mine, again)

Dr Karl now has concerns over the independence of the report (he now sees it as a primarily political document) and much of its content. Ok, now we have a problem. He’s become the public face of a report that he didn’t read and that he took, very naïvely, on faith that the parts he hadn’t seen would (somewhat miraculously) reverse the well-known direction of the current government on climate change. But it’s not as if he just took money to front something he didn’t read, is it? Oh. He hasn’t been paid for it yet but this was a paid gig. Obviously, the first thing to do is to not take the money, if you’re unhappy with the report, right? Urm. From the SMH link above:

“What have I done wrong?” he told Fairfax Media. “As far as I’m concerned I was hired to bring the public’s attention to the report. People have heard about this one where they hadn’t heard about IGR one, two or three.”

But then public reaction on Twitter and social media started to rise and, last night, this was released on his Twitter account:

“I have decided to donate any moneys received from the IGR campaign to needy government schools. More to follow tomorrow. Dr Karl.”

This is a really sad day for science communication in Australia. As far as I know, the campaign is still running and, while you can easily find the criticism of the report if you go looking for it, a number of highly visible media sites are not showing anything that would lead readers to think that anyone had any issues with the report. So, while Dr Karl is regretting his involvement, it continues to persuade people around Australia that this friendly, trusted and respected face of science communication is associated with the report. Giving the money away (finally) to needy schools does not fix this. But let me answer Dr Karl’s question from above, “What have I done wrong?” With the deepest regret, I can tell you that what you have done wrong is:

  • You presented a report with your endorsement without reading it,
  • You arranged to get paid to do this,
  • You consumed the goodwill and trust of the identity that you have formed over decades of positive scientific support to do this,
  • You assisted the on-going anti-scientific endeavours of a government that has a bad track record in this area, and
  • You did not immediately realise that what you had done was a complete failure of the implicit compact that you had established with the Australian public as a trusted voice of rationality, skepticism and science.

We all make mistakes and scientists do it all the time, on outdated, inaccurate, misreported and compromised data. But the moment we know that the data is wrong, we have to find the truth and come up with new approaches. But it is a serious breach of professional scientific ethics to present something where you cannot vouch for it through established soundness of reputation (a ‘good’ journal), trusted reference (an established scientific expert) or personal investigation (your own research). And that’s purely in papers or at conferences, where you are looking at relatively small issue of personal reputation or paper citations. To stand up on the national stage, for money, and to effectively say “This is Dr Karl approved”, when you have not read it, and then to hide behind an “but I was only presenting it” defence initially is to take an error of judgement and compound it into an offence that would potentially strip some scientists of their PhDs.

It’s great that Dr Karl is now giving the money away but the use of his image, with his complicity, has done its damage. There are people around Australia who will think that a report that is heavily politicised and has a great deal of questionable science in it is now scientific because Dr Karl stood there. We can’t undo that easily.

I don’t know what happens now. Dr Karl is a broadcaster but he does have a University appointment. I’ll be interested to see if his own University convenes an ethics and professional practice case against him. Maybe it will fade away, in time. Dr Karl has done so much for science in Australia that I hope that he has a good future after this but he has to come to terms with the fact that he has made the most serious error a scientist can make and I think he has a great deal of thinking to do as to what he wants to do next. Taking money from a till and then giving it back when you get caught doesn’t change the fact of what you did to get it – neither does agreeing to take cash to shill a report that you haven’t read.

But maybe I am being too harsh? The fellowship Dr Karl holds is named after Dr Julius Sumner Miller, a highly respected scientific communicator, who then used his high profile to sell chocolate in his final years (much to my Grandfather’s horror). Because nothing says scientific integrity like flogging chocolate for hard cash. Perhaps the fellowship has some sort of commercialising curse?

Actually, I don’t think I’m being too harsh, I wish him the best but I think he’s put himself into the most awful situation. I know what I would do but, then, I hope I would have seen that, just possibly, the least scientifically focused government in Australia might not be able to be trusted with an unseen report. If he had seen the report and then they had changed it all, that’s a scandal and he is a hero of scientific exposure. But that’s not the case. It’s a terribly sad day and a sad story for someone who, up until now, I had the highest respect for.