Opinion: How Malcolm Roberts defeated Brian Cox on Q&A

Celebrity physicist and leading science communicator Brian Cox recently found himself on a political talk show panel debating climate science with Malcolm Roberts, a Senator-elect from the right-wing One Nation party. And he lost.

He lost because he didn't fully use the science of persuasion and by failing to do so he didn't deliver on his potential.

Ok I’m being a little bit cheeky here. Brian knew his facts and he clearly had the majority of viewers on his side. But panel shows aren't a test of what you know, they're a test of how many people watching on you can persuade. And I'm not talking about the rusted-on environmental activists and the science community who cheered Brian's efforts or those that mocked Malcolm Roberts for denying the evidence. I'm talking about those that aren't sure.

Panel shows are a bit like football matches. Football teams set themselves an objective that is often more important than the overall result and more a reflection of their circumstances. When Hawthorn plays Essendon everyone knows who is going to win. But Essendon might try to do better than the last time they played. Or they might say, let’s go at 100 per cent and see if we can win just the second quarter. On the other hand Hawthorn might say let’s get six goals ahead before half time and then play the rest of the game carefully so no-one gets injured.

Professional debaters, such as politicians, do something similar in things like panel shows. They set persuasion objectives based on mathematical targets. This is because panel shows aren't an analysis of facts and stats they're a competition to win hearts and minds.

Right now more than 78 per cent of Australians accept that climate change is happening.

Malcolm Roberts would have walked into the studio thinking “If I can convince just 25 per cent of undecided people that climate change isn’t occurring, I’ve improved my position." In panel shows each side of a debate is usually given about the same amount of time to discuss their point of view, so mathematically this is a pretty easy task.

In addition to this his party only attracted 9.19 per cent of the senate vote in his home state of Queensland but this result elected them a record two senators.

Again, mathematically, it is relatively easy for minor parties such as One Nation to improve their electoral position. They just need to extend that by ten percentage points at the next election and they’ve got an additional senate quota. This is why small parties or people with relatively unpopular ideas give themselves a very different threshold for success in the court of public opinion. Just getting increasing awareness of themselves and their ideas can be a worthwhile objective in itself.

This presents obvious but wicked problems to those defending the scientific consensus. But even when the overwhelming majority of time is spent explaining the consensus in science and the minority view is left with a much smaller amount of time, audiences are usually left with the impression that a consensus about the evidence doesn't exist. Sure, its unfair but there isn't anything anyone can do about that.

Malcolm Roberts is pretty much kicking with the wind in these situations. However there are some things Brian could have done differently to get a better result.

Firstly, there was an over-reliance on the ability of facts to simply speak for themselves. Nothing symbolises the failure of scientists to persuade non-scientists than throwing the Australian Academy of Science's report about climate change at Malcolm Roberts during the debate.

Communication science has shown us repeatedly that presenting facts by themselves often does little to change minds. In fact it can often cause a significant backfire effect - turning soft opponents into hard ones. And if you fail to be persuasive you expose any undecided viewers to the possibility of being persuaded by your opponents.

John Oliver was only partly right when he said "you can't bring feelings to a fact fight." That is only true when you know when you're in a fact fight, not feelings fight. Of course any public debate is a combination of both but scientists are often more comfortable debating p-values than personal values.

For example, using cultural cognition was ignored. Malcolm worked in the coal mines of Queensland. He was the project leader of the Gallileo Moment – a lobby group that describes its purpose as "to expose misrepresentations pushing a price on carbon dioxide", not to investigate the facts. He is an elected representative of the One Nation party – a party that has never accepted the facts about climate change. His views conform to his worldview and to his cultural group. Explaining to the audience not only that Malcolm was ignoring the evidence but that he would never accept the evidence no matter what form it took would have been worthwhile.

Brian Cox on the other hand, is a scientist and should be portraying himself as the independent fact-checker. After all, this is the primary task of any scientist. He failed to do so. Scientists have a position of strength in any debate – that they analyse all the numbers and present the findings in an impartial way so that policy makers can make the right call to address any risks. When they fail to explain this role they not only fail to capitalise on that position in the moment, but they also fail to explain why their advice should be considered carefully no matter what debate comes along in the future.

Thirdly, panellists, audience members and social media commentators mocked Malcolm for demanding “empirical evidence” and using the phrase over and over. Yes, it was annoying. Yes, to anyone familiar with scientific debates the phrase was clearly being used as a crutch to suggest that the evidence Brian had presented wasn’t real. But to many of the undecided this probably came across as someone being shot down just for asking for evidence - something we are all taught to do in high-school science class. Brian would have been wise to stop this mocking and instead focus on persuasion. He permitted the crowd to play the man, not the ball and

Logical fallacies. As an engineer and a science denier Malcolm knows how to spot them. When Lily Serna, mathematician and presenter of SBS gameshow Letters and Numbers, joined Brian's comments by saying, "This is all taken into account with experts who have studied in this field. You don't ask your architect to read your medical charts, just as you don't ask your accountant to perform surgery on you. These are all experts in their field and they advise us on what is real and what is not real and, as far as I'm concerned..."

This prompted the obvious response from Malcolm who said, "I have heard consensus, which is not science. I have heard appeals to authority, which is not science."

In this case Malcolm was right. None of these things is science according to its strict definition and it gave Malcolm an easy win.

Brian also didn't adequately outline the risks of climate change. Following the EPPM model of persuasion Brian should have a quick set of talking points in the back of his mind that quickly explain that the risks are real, that the risks will affect a particular audience in a personally significant way, the risks are likely to occur to them, that there is action that can be taken by the audience and that the action will be effective in reducing the risks. None of this was done effectively. While no-one should exacerbate the risks in an attempt to generate fear, scientists should always discuss these points when talking about climate change with the public. It should be routine and if you've practiced it properly it should take no more than two minutes.

There was little attempt to force Malcolm to defend his position. In my experience this is where scientists often get caught playing defence when they should be playing offence. Brian Cox almost had him on the ropes when he suggested that NASA was corruptly manipulating temperature data to make it look like global warming was actually happening. But he let him go just when he should have gone for the throat. Instead of laughing the suggestion off he should have asked for some details. At what point NASA had started manipulating the data? Were any other organisations in on the conspiracy? How had they kept it a secret given scientific studies have shown how hard it is to keep a conspiracy secret? How did they manipulate the data – was it in the data collection, the data analysis or in the publication of the data? If they did manipulate the data how could things like species distribution patterns still be changing? Once you get enough details you hit him with his favourite phrase – where is the empirical evidence for all of this?

None of this is to suggest that Brian did a poor job. But he debated like he was debating a scientist and not debating like he was trying to persuade the undecided. And when it comes to an issue as important as discussing climate change, no scientists should ignore the empirical evidence of the science of persuasion.

Watch this episode of QandA or read a transcript.