Knowers and sayers need to get it together


Public policy decisions, including the allocation of capital and resources, are often based more on public perception than sound knowledge.

The December 2004 Sumatran earthquake and tsunami provide a graphic example of this, illustrating the difficulty of getting important information from the scientific community onto the public policy agenda. Geoscientists were well aware of the threat of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean due to the Sumatran subduction zone. Yet they were unable to generate enough interest to prompt mitigation measures like the establishment of an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system similar to the one that exists in the Pacific. We now know that this failure in communication had catastrophic consequences. This was not the result of a failure on the part of any individuals but, rather, was the result of a systemic flaw in the way we disseminate complex information.

In most countries around the world, particularly democratic countries, governments base their decisions on the perceived will of the people. People’s opinions are formed predominantly by their socialisation, but also by the information they receive. This information comes primarily from the media — newspapers and periodicals, TV, radio and, to an ever-increasing extent, the internet.

News outlets, therefore, play a pivotal role in forming public policy directions. Not only do they influence the way people vote, but they influence the way politicians act between elections. Our political leaders are surrounded by staffers who continually monitor issues in the media and, when necessary, governments respond to these issues. This response can be in the form of policy-on-the-run such as calling for yet another inquiry into fuel prices, or announcing a funding package for some high-profile cause such as the Beaconsfield Gold mine in Tasmania.

However, there is a common misconception about what constitutes ‘news’ in the media. Most people, including journalists themselves, would like to believe that news outlets are sources of information. That is, that their role is to keep their readers, viewers and listeners informed about what is happening in their world. But the reality is that news organisations are more about selling emotions than they are about providing information. News items are prioritised, not by their importance, but by the degree of emotions they evoke. Whether it is outrage, elation, humour, grief, sadness, anger, disgust, amazement, or fear, the story will be placed according to the levels of emotions it induces. This is even true of the seemingly staid business pages of our broadsheet newspapers. The stories that get top priority are the ones that include emotional issues — sackings, company collapses, markets crashing or soaring, hostile takeovers, disputes and corruption.

One easy way of increasing the emotional currency of any news item is to talk to, or about, people we know. Once we know someone, no matter how tenuous the link, they become part of our narrative and therefore any information about them is news. Whether it is a person who sat three seats behind you in the first grade, or Pugsley from the Addams Family, we know these people so we have an interest in them. As a result, celebrities are the junk food of the media industry. An anonymous couple having a baby in Africa is not news. But if that couple happens to be Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, that is news. Because, love them or loathe them, we know these people.

So how does science fare in this emotional marketplace? Not very well. Scientists deal in hard facts, knowledge. They aim to remove emotive adjectives from their communications. So what is ‘absolutely amazing’, or a ‘breakthrough’ to a journalist, is ‘statistically significant’ to a scientist. They speak two very different languages.

The factual dialogue of the scientists is focused on what is correct as opposed to what is incorrect. The peer-review process, like the due-diligence process used by financial markets, is aimed at building on correct knowledge and weeding out the errors of fact. In contrast, the emotional language used in the media, political debates and our day-to-day conversations is focused more on who is right and who is wrong. It is judgemental and emotional — heroes and villains.

When I talk of scientists here, I’m really including all of academia, as well as lawyers and most of our leading corporations.

Why is this so significant? Because it means that in the arena of public debate expert opinion is marginalised to a great extent. This is not to say that experts aren’t quoted in the media, but rather that their opinions tend not to attract headlines. Instead, the media prefers extreme opinions, celebrity viewpoints and emotional language.

So at a time in human development when technology is opening up new layers of complexity and opportunity in all science disciplines, public perceptions are being influenced by the often uninformed views of outspoken advocates, clerics, columnists, shock jocks, zealots, bloggers, protesters and celebrities. We have umpteen examples of actors, musicians and fashion models speaking out on issues as complex as international finance, energy, climate change, health and medicine.

Under the heading ‘The People Who Shape Our World’, Time magazine has listed ‘the 100 men and women whose power, talent and moral example is transforming our world.’ The smallest group on the list is Scientists & Thinkers with only 16 of the 100 entries. The largest group is Artists & Entertainers with 25. But unlike scientists, entertainers appear throughout the list. In fact if you were to count sporting personalities and media figures as Artists & Entertainers then they are represented in every category, making up 41 of the 100.

What this says to me is that our future direction is being determined by our most gifted communicators, not our greatest minds. It’s a trend that can have serious long-term consequences as we fail to reap the benefits of advances in scientific knowledge. It also sends the message to our youth that if they want to make an impact on the world they should aspire to be journalists, actors, pop stars, or fashion models as opposed to scientists, engineers or doctors.

We have governments that find it difficult to draft quality, long-term policy decisions in important areas such as genetic engineering, medical research, energy and environmental management.

So who is to blame? The fact is nobody is at fault. There are no culprits. Society is not divided into scientists and experts on one side, and the media, politicians and the ignorant public on the other. Scientists are as much a part of the ignorant public as the rest of us. While they may have a great deal of knowledge in their specialised field, as a rule, they don’t know any more than the rest of us about other areas of society. Our problem is not a lack of knowledge; it’s how we share information to ensure that our decisions are grounded in sound knowledge rather than just popularity.

The real rift in society is, broadly speaking, between those who have the knowledge and those who have the communications skills. Coupled with our advancing telecommunications technology, particularly the internet, this rift results in misunderstanding spreading throughout our world like a rampant virus, overwhelming important knowledge and suppressing awareness.

The real tragedy surrounding the Sumatran earthquake and tsunami of 2004 is the fact that a huge proportion of those who lost their lives were killed by ignorance — when the warning signs appeared they did not recognise them. Because the knowledge of this pending danger remained largely within the geoscience community, the international emergency response preparation that would have been required to significantly reduce the human tragedy did not occur. Instead it was left up to dedicated localised efforts like that of Professor Kerry Sieh from the Tectonics Observatory, California Institute of Technology, who, along with his American and Indonesian colleagues, began a program of public education in the Mentawai Islands in 2004.

Just because information is put on the public record, does not mean that the public becomes aware of it.

On October 26, 2005, Kerry Sieh wrote an article for the Royal Society, London, titled: Sumatran Megathrust Earthquakes — From Science to Saving Lives. In it he explains why one or two more great earthquakes and tsunamis, nearly as devastating as the 2004 event, are to be expected within the next few decades in a region of coastal Sumatra to the south of the zone affected in 2004. It could happen tomorrow or in 30 years, but it has the potential to again kill hundreds of thousands of people. Frighteningly, but not surprisingly, this prediction did not sound warning bells in the media around the world. If Sieh instead was talking of intelligence about a possible terrorist attack in some downtown bar, I believe the reaction would be very different.

When the next Sumatran megathrust earthquake does occur, it will be, once again, a huge news story of human tragedy. Once again the world will respond with billions of dollars of humanitarian aid. Yet the relatively low-cost preventative steps, outlined by Sieh, that could save hundreds of thousands of lives will probably not be implemented unless the world’s media takes up the cause, prompting politicians to act.

So what is the answer to the barrier between our thinkers and our communicators?

The fact is that the greatest problem plaguing humanity is misunderstanding. Conflict in the world, for example, is entirely based on misunderstanding. This is the oxygen that fuels all emotional arguments from wars to marriage break-ups. The problem is not that they don’t understand each other; it’s that they don’t understand that they don’t understand each other.

The answer, however, is not understanding, because there is too much to understand. The answer is awareness. Once scientists and journalists become aware of this problem, they will soon devise many innovative ways of resolving it. How a concept is communicated can be as important as the concept itself.