SCANZ 2012 – Dr Mark Quigley: Calm and Assured on the Outside

By Michael Edmonds 02/03/2012

There are probably very few Cantabrians (or New Zealanders) who wouldn’t recognise Mark Quigley. Soon after the major quake of September 4th, 2010, Dr Quigley began appearing on our TV screens explaining what was happening to the ground under the Canterbury region.

As a result of the excellent work he did informing and reassuring the New Zealand public in 2010 and 2011, Mark received both the Prime Ministers Science Media Communication Award and the New Zealand Association of Scientist’s Science Communicator’s Award. And at SCANZ, Mark shared many of the trials and tribulations of being catapulted into the public gaze.

Mark’s movement into the spotlight could be best summed up, in my opinion, as “fortune favoring the bold.” Shortly after the September 4th quake, Mark found like many of us that there was little information available about what had happened. Hearing various concerns expressed via a local radio station, Mark called in and began to fill in the gaps for the many concerned callers, for example, explaining what liquifaction was. This was then followed by a Skype interview with NBC for which he was able to provide his own photos of earthquake damage.

Now identified as the “got to” guy for information on the earthquakes (by this stage multiple aftershocks had occurred) Mark found himself cycling across a damaged city after a day working in the field to appear on TV in the evenings. Sometimes, they would keep him waiting around for hours, and after a while Mark ended up having to make it clear this was unacceptable. Personally, I think these appearances by Mark in his work gear lent great credibility to what he was talking about. Instead of the suited show ponies we had someone who was obviously involved in what was happening in the city.

Mark described how after the first severe quake there was an almost unending thirst from the public for knowledge. Public lectures were incredibly popular with some media describing Mark described as a “Geo Rockstar”.

Mark credits various factors for his success in working with the media:

  • being willing to engage and communicate the same message over and over again across all media
  • a willingness to be time flexible and geographically adaptable (i.e. willing to cycle across the city for interviews)
  • having a broad knowledge base and a willingness to expand it
  • using Google Scholar to quickly check info before interviews
  • respecting the audience
  • responding to public and channel interest where appropriate
  • being culturally sensitive and human
  • being careful with what is said

Though in spite of the last point Mark did experience being misquoted and having colleagues ask him “Did you really say that?”

Mark describes himself as having been a local based optimist while being scientifically realistic in what he said.

One of Mark’s final points in his talk was to remind us all that if scientists don’t talk to the media the gap gets filled with speculation and nonsense, and that if scientists downplay or avoid discussing the science then this just creates suspicion from the public.

An extremely important point, in my opinion.

0 Responses to “SCANZ 2012 – Dr Mark Quigley: Calm and Assured on the Outside”

  • ps Dr Quigley also, in my opinion, did one of the best interviews to counter the pseudoscience being peddled by Ken Ring.

  • I’m a Wellingtonian with friends in Chch. I heard Mark numerous times on radio and, every time, I reflected afterwards that I had learned something useful, and also that this information must be very reassuring to people in Chch. I especially admired the way Mark didn’t buy into any of the sensationalist lines that journos occasionally tried to spin from him; he was always measured and realistic, and acknowledged that it would be great to have more certainty, but we simply don’t have it and that’s that. Not an easy message to get across, but he did it; congratulations Mark, an honour richly deserved.

  • Amy,

    Glad to hear Mark had a positive effect on you too. Apparently once or twice journalists did sensationalise what he said, which he pointed out is one of the reasons many scientists feel uncomfortable dealing with the media, many because they are nervous how their peers will respond to this. Still, top marks to Mark for putting himself in the public eye to inform and reassure us all.

  • Great observations, Michael. Mark is a fantastic guy and really met the demands of the population well when we were confused and upset about what the heck was going on.

  • Thanks Andrew, I think everyone at the conference learnt quite a bit from Mark’s talk.