Thursday May 28, 2015
Lloyd Spencer Davis, aka 'Professor Penguin', is regarded as a world authority on penguins. The award-winning film-maker and author is director of the Centre for Science Communication at Otago University.
That was the conventional wisdom when I began studying penguins. But in fact nothing could be further from the truth, which I discovered the first time I went to Antarctica. Our team observed a whole lot of shenanigans going on. We had females going away for, I don't know how to put it politely, a "quickie" as a way of providing breeding insurance. Many of these birds have several partners in one season. We also observed more aberrant behaviours like homosexuality and what could be called prostitution, where females will mate with males who provide them with a stone. Stones are like the currency down there because they're used in nests to keep the eggs dry.
2. What did you think of the movie March of the Penguins?
It's still the highest rating nature documentary at the box office. Most of the science is very accurate. The problem is that we often want to transpose our own ideals of marriage and fidelity on to penguins.
In this case to such an extent the Christian right in the United States promoted the film as exemplifying God's plan. Ironically about 93 per cent of Emperor penguins divorce every year. So they're actually the least faithful of all the penguins.
3. When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?
From the earliest age I just loved being out in nature, lying by a river watching birds. I remember when I was about 5 telling an uncle I wanted to be a naturalist when I grew up and he was blown away because he thought I meant naturist. I became a Junior Wildlife Warden at the gannet colony in Cape Kidnappers when I was 12. We'd be up there in our little red berets telling tourists about the biology of the gannets.
4. Are you religious?
I had a religious upbringing. My mother was high Anglican and I had to go to church four times a week. When I was about 12, I remember this light going off in my head, thinking "this can't be right". I was set to be confirmed and the vicar came into the church completely pissed from drinking the altar wine and fell over the pew. After that I became quite a rabid Darwinist.
5. How were you influenced by 19th-century American philosopher and poet Henry Thoreau?
In my third year at Victoria University I read Thoreau's book Walden about spirituality in nature and thought, "Holy shit. I've found the meaning of life." I was six weeks from finishing my honours degree and decided "nope, I'm going down to the South Island to live by a pond". I'd just decided everything else was bullshit. Luckily the physiology professor convinced me to finish the course.
6. You later followed in Darwin's footsteps for your book Looking for Darwin. What did you conclude?
I'm fairly comfortable now with Darwinism as the best explanation we've got for how and why we're here. It's not perfect. But I looked at areas where his theory was difficult or even contradictory and there were special reasons why selection operated that way in those cases. I also ended up at a place where it didn't really matter whether you believed in God or natural selection when you put that into the context of the negative impact humans have had. Diversity is being vastly reduced because of us. We are - for want of a better word - f***ing up the planet. So for me the greater revelation was how do we reverse the destruction that we've wrought on the planet?
7. Is that why you got into science communication?
No, popularising science is something I've always done in my personal time. Even when I started at Otago University's zoology department back in 1985, I was making nature documentaries with TVNZ's Natural History unit. We established the Centre for Science Communication in 2008. You need an informed public to make decisions on things like global warming, what medicines to take or whether to have fluoride in drinking water.
8. How informed are we now?
Science competency is very low. Very few students are taking science and that has a flow-on effect. The biggest problem is that science has got really complex. We have more than a million papers a year being produced and you need someone to point to the good stuff. It's compounded by the fact that scientists are really bad communicators. It's like joining a club - there's a secret handshake. You know the jargon of your own particular field but everyone else finds it gobbledegook. I'd rather have a root canal than go to a biochemistry lecture. I can't understand what they're saying and I'm a professor of science.
9. What sort of job is the New Zealand media doing with science right now?
Very poor. Everything's ratings driven. To compete for people's attention you have to make science interesting and entertaining. But if you get them, people love science. Research shows storytelling is the best way of engaging people. If you give them science in story form, they'll absorb, understand and recall that information better.
10. How do you reconcile your communicator side, that loves being with people, with your researcher side that loves being alone?
There's always been this balance between family life and the adventurer part of me that wants to go off to these exotic, remote places. Plenty of people have told me that family's the most important thing, but it takes someone like me quite a while to get this. I now have a 2-year-old son who I parent very differently to my other two adult children. My daughter was only 6 weeks old when I took off to the Antarctic for three months. Now I spend as much time with my son as I can.
11. Are you less egotistical?
Yeah, although plenty of people still call me an egotist. I'm really just a slow learner.
Back then I was so self-driven. I was very fortunate to have a supportive wife. But as you get older the priorities change. I was supposed to go to India last year to finish my book on monkeys but I've put that on the back burner to focus on my relationship.
12. Are you hopeful for the future of our planet?
I'm basically an optimist. I sometimes wonder why. Science diplomacy is the answer to the large, intractable problems facing the world. The Copenhagen Accord failed to reach any agreements because nations are still very protective of their own areas. If we remain with the concept of sovereign states then climate change is not to be solved. We need a structure more akin to the United Nations.