Dr Karl: Turning Rottweilers Into Chihuahuas, And Busting Fake News in the Process

SCIENCE COMMUNICATION

Dr Karl: Turning Rottweilers Into Chihuahuas, And Busting Fake News in the Process

AWANI Review’s Nur Adilla Noorazam sits down with celebrated science communicator Dr Karl Kruszelnicki for an update from the lab that allows genetic alteration involving humans, plants and – dogs! In the age of fake news, he uses science to separate fact from fiction.

Pet owners who may at some point tire of their rowdy Rottweiler may have the magic wand to turn them into chintzy Chihuahuas. News from the biotech labs is of the emergence of CRISPR/Cas9, a new, emerging genome editing technique that allows gene alteration.

“With this technology you can turn a Rottweiler into a Chihuahua and this is not something that is simple. It has changed the whole landscape of biology because now you can modify genetics of humans, plants and animals to suit the needs and wants of the particular setting.

“Although the scientist are still trying to enhance the precision of this machine, I foresee that this technology would develop over the years with possibilities of treating illnesses and solving organ transplant issues,” says Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, Australia’s celebrated science communicator, more popularly known as Dr Karl.

AWANI Review caught up with Dr Karl while on a speaking tour of Malaysia where he concluded two engagement sessions entitled ‘Great Moments in Science’ with over 200 secondary school and university students at Petrosains in Kuala Lumpur.

He engaged with students from Sekolah Sultan Alam Shah, SBPI Gombak, SBPI Rawang and Sekolah Menengah Sains Hulu Selangor for a morning session and students from Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TARUC) as well as the public in the evening.

An author of over 40 books, a host at ABC’s science radio show and BBC Radio Science podcast, a globetrotting speaker and panelist, Dr Karl is the all-round science nerd the world needs.

He impressed upon the starry eyed students that science can be a broad, complicated subject. Facts, sometimes, need to be broken down into smaller, palatable segments to be understood.

These are nuances only someone with experience in explaining scientific facts to the masses can appreciate and such individuals play an important role in saving humanity from making bad decisions that would affect their lives and the lives of others.

According to Dr Karl, fake news and pseudoscience too, are travelling and spreading its veins to more people than ever before. Which means the world might need more science communicators than it knows.

It is the task of science communicators to bridge the gap between the scientific fraternity—scientists, researchers, industrialists—and the masses—by making scientific facts easier to understand and debunk misunderstandings and confusion.

At the age of seamless internet connectivity and high broadband penetration, people can easily access facts and information at the tip of their fingers. Yet, according to Dr Karl, fake news and pseudoscience too, are travelling and spreading its veins to more people than ever before. Which means the world might need more science communicators than it knows.

“Take for example the anti-vaccine movement. Although the history began in the 1800s, the most cited incident in the movement’s argument is British’s doctor Andrew Wakefield’s ‘research’ that tried to link autism to vaccination. The media seized his research theories and ignited public fear and confusion. The truth is Wakefield was paid to skew his research findings to aid a court case. His research was formally retracted, and Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine in Great Britain."

“Despite countless other research debunking Wakefield’s work, there are still some people who believe that vaccination can really cause autism, and this is worrying. Look at other examples such as global warming deniers and flat-earth society that still find their way to sprout in the society."

“Not to mention the rise of fake news. We can never really tell whether the facts presented to us are real facts because there is an information overload and our attention span can only take so much information at once. This is where you need a communication expert. Someone who helps break down the facts for you and present it in such a way that is it easy to understand and remember so you can either use it practically in your life or share the information with someone else,” says Dr Karl.

The author of commercial science reading materials such as Great Moments in Science, House of Karls, Dinosaurs Aren’t Dead and Dr Karl’s Short Back & Science, says that science communicators are not only responsible to break down facts.

“It doesn’t stop there. The number one method to communicate science, one that I always tell people is that, you have to entertain. Second, you are not going to be an expert in everything so if you are unsure, make sure you study the subject first, spend a few hours and even then, refer to experts to answer the questions for you because they know better. We always need to be rigorous when dealing with facts,” he said. 

“The greatest challenge in communicating science would be finding the way to suit your presentation to your audience—you will face people of different cultures, belief system, history and backgrounds—and you need to take all these into cognizant when you present science to them."

When asked about the need for countries like Malaysia to establish the role of science communicators as a way to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning in the country, Dr Karl said that although science communicators play a role in promoting the importance of STEM, the bulk of the effort must come from the government’s commitment to invest, both financially and politically, in boosting the people’s participation in said industry.

“When we invest in education, we will reap the benefit. It may not happen right away and there would be challenges that we need to address but we will get there if the government is willing to spend more money in education.

“For example, when we teach science to students in school. Practical classes that allow them to see, feel, touch and conduct experiments are important because it changes their perspective and open their eyes to the magical discovery of science.

If we only teach theory or if we shortchange them by removing practical classes because they are expensive, then we are robbing our future generation of scientific discoveries and achievements. So, my take on this is, invest. It will pay


“If we only teach theory or if we shortchange them by removing practical classes because they are expensive, then we are robbing our future generation of scientific discoveries and achievements. So, my take on this is, invest. It will pay,” he said.

Dr Karl who is recognized as one of Australia’s 100 National Living Treasures also shared some of his memorable moments as a radio DJ on one of Australia’s most popular science radio show.

“I’ve had some weird moments during my live shows. There are weird questions, some that might be little controversial for TV. Yet I gladly answer them because it makes me happy to know that people are still curious, and they want to know the work behind every occurrence,” he said.

During both engagements with the Malaysian students at Petrosains, Dr Karl explained interesting scientific phenomenon such as extra-terrestial life in Saturn, the link between chocolate and coffee and how watching a one-hour video on your mobile phone uses more electricity than what it needs to run a fridge for one week.

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