I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s actually pretty easy to influence stuff. It seems like people don’t try because they assume it will be too hard to change anything, and this is self-reinforcing. I’m talking about things like emailing your local politicians, getting articles and opinion pieces published, and getting a company or website to change their public position. From the age of about 20, I kind of just made a decision to be gutsy, and so far it has paid off.
I want to share some of my successes and tips, and encourage you to try being more engaged and active in issues that matter. I’ll also cover my failures and try to analyse what could have gone better, but I must say the failure rate is far, far lower than people assume it is.
This ended up being a very long article, so I’m going to publish my failures and learnings separately. Make sure to subscribe to get notified when that comes out.
What has worked
My first realisation of how little people try to do stuff they think is hard came in 2013 when I was about to start the final year of my undergraduate degree. I was unsure about applying for scholarships because my results had been lackluster until my penultimate year when I started caring. However, two of my professors encouraged me to try anyway, and one of them mentioned that not many people actually apply. I ended up receiving 4 scholarships with a total value of just under $10,000 AUD, including the prestigious Playford Memorial Trust scholarship, which comes with political networking opportunities (more on this below), and a $2,000 scholarship to which I was the only applicant despite advertising attempts by the organisation.
The takeaway here – if a scholarship looks hard to get, that deters people, and may actually increase your chances. And – you’re may well be more capable than you think you are.
This next one was a smaller financial reward, but really broke down a lot of mental barriers to trying other stuff in the future. In 2014, I signed up for and was accepted to Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project training in Melbourne, a three day course where we learned about climate science, policy and communication skills.
As I mentioned, the Playford Memorial Trust offers networking opportunities with politicians, and I spoke with the opposition leader of South Australia for a few minutes. Amusingly, he approached me because he was impressed by my bio. As an aside, he was in the audience falling asleep when they read it out, and I got the pleasure of seeing him get startled to wakefulness.
I later emailed his office to ask whether they would be interested in sponsoring and funding my trip to the training in Melbourne, citing the reasoning that I would be able to better communicate the risks of climate change to his constituents. His office declined, and I asked whether he would make an introduction to my local state representative to try again. He did, and my local MP’s office got in touch to say they would pay for $100 of the trip as long as I said that they sponsored me.
Let’s take a close look at what happened here. This was clearly a valuable spend of money for them. They spend a paltry $100 and get to demonstrate that they care about climate change. It was very much a mutually beneficial situation. This is the second takeaway I’d like to leave you with. So you want to change something or get something. Half the battle is pitching it in a way that makes it desirable to them as well. Of course, I was very happy to get to say that I was sponsored by my state government to attend climate advocacy training with Al Gore.
You might say that I had some help here thanks to an introduction, and you might be right, but I don’t think it’s that unlikely that I wouldn’t have been able to land this anyway.
Contacting famous people
I often hear people complain about the stance of some famous (or otherwise) individual, but never do anything about it except type angry Facebook posts. I hear the opposite too – where someone is in awe of some individual, but never contacts them. I’ve had a lot of success with cold emails (your unintroduced email to them is the first contact between you), and want to share a few.
In early 2015 I emailed Peter Singer (I got his email from his website), one of the co-founders of the effective altruism movement, after seeing his hugely successful TED Talk on the movement. The talk really resonated with me, and I desperately wanted to know how to get involved. Amazingly, he responded within 30 minutes, and suggested that I start a chapter in Adelaide, then put me on to some people to help. As an aside, his email actually went to my spam. I never checked my spam email, but did this time, and was stunned to see his email there. Now I always check my spam. The lesson, always check your spam.
I once saw a talk by famous British geologist Iain Stewart at a geology conference in Australia. He was well-known for science communication and had been in a number of documentaries. I later emailed him for advice on getting better at science communication, and was pleasantly surprised to hear back from him.
Gary Yourofsky is an well-known animal activist who has given hundreds if not thousands of talks around the world about animal exploitation. I emailed him with some questions about how to have an impact in the space, and he replied with a long, detailed email. To be fair, he said he spends around 6 hours a day replying to cold emails, but I think this just highlights the point that famous people do respond to stuff.
There are many more examples, but I’m sure you get the point by now. I once toyed with the idea of emailing Bill Gates but didn’t, but in all honesty I think the chances of getting a personal response are higher than we all think. In terms of what to say in an email, it depends on what you want to achieve. If you just want to ask advice, just be honest and polite, and giving some context doesn’t seem to hurt (e.g. I saw your speech and it resonated with me. Would you mind if I asked you some questions? The questions are…). If you want to influence them on something, you might want to start with a more innocuous question to build rapport, and increase the likelihood of them responding. I’ve covered this a little more below.
At the end of 2015, I had a very interesting radio experience. I had already been on radio a few times by this point to talk about solar thermal energy through a committee role I had, but the interviewers were all on board and receptive, since they ran a climate related radio spot. As I found out, there is a very big difference between receptive and hostile on the radio.
It started when I saw Neil Mitchell (an Australian radio host) and two other individuals talking on Channel 9 News about the World Health Organisation announcement that processed meat is carcinogenic, and red meat is likely carcinogenic. They laughed and downplayed the announcement using a number of shoddy arguments, claiming that all things are safe in moderation. My main issue with this was that they were on a segment labelled as ‘news’, and were presenting opinion as fact without being kept in check by the news host.
I decided to take a rather aggressive approach, which turned out to work… sort of. I started a petition on change.org to hold Channel 9 News and Neil Mitchell accountable for their irresponsible health remarks. In fact, I called for them to be sacked. You can see the full petition here including my rationale, but here are some key points from the program that I took issue with, and my responses.
““I really don’t think that bacon is the prime suspect.” It is irresponsible to state an opinion as if it is fact. Processed meats such as bacon are indeed one of the leading causes of cancer and heart disease.
“We’re always being told… don’t eat this…” – “Don’t listen.” This medical advice being provided from a news anchor is simply dangerous. Being told to not listen to health advice is in no way acceptable.”
I shared the petition on Facebook, including various Australian vegan Facebook pages. I then followed up with an email to share the petition to key staff at both Channel 9 and 3AW radio where Neil works. Despite only ending up with 147 signatures, the producer of Neil’s program called me the next day to ask if I wanted to speak to Neil that day live on air. I said yes, but if I knew then what I do now about how hostile radio works, I probably wouldn’t have. As I said before, it’s very different to an interview where they are already on board. The first take away lesson here is to judge for yourself whether the interviewer will be at least neutral to your message. If not, it’s probably not worth your time unless you are a pro and have carefully considered the risks.
You can hear the full interview here. I wasn’t as assertive as I should have been, and should have stuck my to my key talking points. Several times he strayed from the topic and it distracted me. He played the audio of part of the news session in question, and I later realised that they had edited it to make Neil sound more reasonable. I should have noticed this at the time and called him out on it, but I was stressed and in the moment. I got some flak from a bunch of random people on social media. But at the end of the day, it was a valuable lesson, and I now know a solid way to get people’s attention.
Since then, I have been on a number of radio interviews about both my PhD research, and my work with Effective Altruism Australia while I was CEO. These opportunities actually mostly fell on my lap (more on the PhD interviews below), so I don’t have too much to say except to put yourself out there, because you never know. With the media, you will often get either no attention, or a lot of attention.
The popular discussion panel Q&A recently launched a radio segment that follows their main TV slot where people can call in to ask questions and talk about what was discussed during the program. After a discussion on climate change that lacked any mention of animal agriculture, I called in to raise this, and was chuffed to get 60 seconds of air time. Unfortunately, the host was pretty dismissive, but it was a good opportunity to share the message to a large number of people.
I’ve also discovered that it’s surprisingly easy to get an article published somewhere, so long as you’re strategic about it. My PhD research is mostly on developing new techniques to understand the physical properties of asteroids, but I also dabble in asteroid impact risk mitigation, asteroid mining and space ethics. Being concerned about existential risk (the risk of some event that might wipe out either humanity or all life), I pitched an article to The Conversation.
The Conversation publish short articles written by researchers in the relevant field on key issues of the day. Their motto is ‘academic rigour, journalistic flair’. They partner researchers with an editor to make an accurate but enjoyable article. I had previously pitched an article on public health, but was rejected because it wasn’t in my area of expertise. I later pitched an article on my PhD research and got an interested editor. He was more interested in the possibility of an asteroid impact and what we can do about it than anything directly related to my work, but I took the opportunity.
Overall, this was a wildly successful use of my time. The article has now been published in two languages and viewed by almost 100,000 people. I was contacted on the day it was published by ABC to do a 3 minute TV interview on the same day, and was contacted for several radio interviews on the same topic. Sometimes opportunities have great flow on value.
I later pitched an updated version of my public health article to the Australian Vegans Journal, where it was accepted (in a forthcoming issue). This is a pretty simple example of why target selection is important. You need to think about what audience would be receptive to the story, but also what outlet would be receptive to publishing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always align with the audience you’re trying to reach, especially if you want to talk about something like factory farming, but you can take easy opportunities to build up your profile and have a better chance later.
I also pitched an article about effective altruism to Plant Based News on how it can and should be merged with animal advocacy. This was a pretty easy sell; because of course animal advocates want to be effective. Unfortunately I have had push back elsewhere with this pitch, because not everyone in the animal advocacy community agrees with the message, but it never hurts to try.
Getting a website or organisation to change something
I have two standout examples of where I contacted someone to change something, and they did. The first and best involved an online article by the Daily Mail titled ‘If you want grandchildren, make sure you eat protein, study finds’. They’re pretty notorious for low quality reporting, and I usually ignore their articles, but this one caught my eye.
This article originally claimed that a study showed low protein diet in humans lead to low fertility. I read the study they cited, and it actually had no data on humans, it was about bovines and fruit flies. So essentially the article had drawn their own conclusions that weren’t backed up by data. I put in a complaint, and impressively, they amended the article. The complaint and response from the Daily Mail are below.
“As a scientist, I’ve first hand experienced poor media reporting of science. The article says that the study reports low levels of protein can negatively affect offspring’s fertility. The news article then says that low meat intake can result in the same, presumably because they assume meat has a lot of protein, even though a plant based diet has already been shown to be more efficient for protein intake. So the author of this article likely made their own assumptions. However, it is impossible to tell because the article didn’t link to the original study, so I can’t fact check it. Overall, this seems like a very poor example of science reporting. I think it is more than appropriate that the article is revisited. If the article is indeed misleading, it should be corrected. I will be following this up with a formal complaint, including to other news outlets, in several weeks if it is not addressed.”
“Dear Mr Dello-Iacovo,
Thank you for your email, which has been passed on to me for a response. We are sorry for the delay in responding to you and please be assured that we meant no discourtesy.
We are extremely grateful for you to take the time and trouble to address these points and as you may be aware we have amended the copy to reflect these.
If there is anything further we can do to assist you then please do let us know.”
I can’t find the study now, but a very high percentage of media reporting (I think over 50%) has at least one minor scientific inaccuracy, and some large percent has at least one major scientific inaccuracy. If you see something that looks erroneous, look into it and try to get it changed! This is also a reminder to not take the news, especially articles, for granted. I have already experienced poor media reporting of my own scientific work first hand, albeit minor (The Conversation allows articles to be republished with credit, so one outlet republished my article on asteroids, but gave it a title that had nothing to do with what I was saying, and made it sound like I claimed something that I didn’t). Make sure to read the original study, especially if you plan on acting based on an article.
The second example was more minor, but involved the Skepticon Australia 2017 conference, run by Australian Skeptics Inc. In case you’re not familiar with the skeptics movement, it essentially involves using a healthy dose of scepticism and rational thinking in your everyday life, being wary of pseudoscientific claims like astrology and homeopathy. Their website included ‘carcinogenic meats’ as a pseudoscientific claim. As I’ve already discussed above, this goes against the WHO announcement. I promptly emailed them to say that their claim was incorrect, and included links to the relevant WHO material. They corrected the website.
My last example of success was my winning of the 2016 Sentience Politics Essay Prize (essay is available here). I had just discovered the field of wild-animal suffering research, and was pretty concerned, so I wanted to write about it and provide my own ideas. I was pretty unsure whether I could win, given that I’m not a philosopher and I sometimes question the quality of my ideas. But whether it’s because not many people entered, or because I am actually a visionary (I think the former is the stronger effect here), I won the $2,000 prize. Competitions probably suffer in a similar way to scholarships, in that people assume they aren’t worthy, so don’t try. You may be more capable or creative than you think.
I don’t see my success in this space ending any time soon, and I only expect to get better as I learn more, so I’ll be looking to update this post with new information from time to time, or to write a new post. I hope I’ve inspired you to try to influence stuff, because it’s honestly easier than you probably think (just please influence stuff in a positive direction!). Please share any future or past successes and tips in the comments to help me and other readers.