Friday, February 01, 2013

Navigating to Reality in the Misinformation Age

A critique of the news media's abdication of its role in correcting widespread misperceptions (from a 12/12/12 letter to a local newspaper):

Let it be known that on Nov. 28, a new approach to journalism was born, on page 7 of the Town Topics. Though I had been waiting nearly two decades for this breakthrough, it took several readings for the importance of the headline to sink in. "Not Everybody Knows That Hospital Has Moved From Princeton to Plainsboro." I know, it doesn't sound like much, and my first inclination was to pass it by. Only when I re-encountered the headline, in the process of recycling, did the headline's import sink in.

The article was about people still making the drive to the old hospital site in search of medical care. But on a broader scale, consider how many people labor under the burden of misinformation, and spend their lives driving their fevered thoughts to the wrong conclusions time and time again. Though this is considered the Information Age, it is equally the Misinformation Age, when lies go viral, replicating exponentially in nutrient-rich environments of resentment and fear. People are lost not only because they aren't paying attention, but because they are being actively misled.

Fortunately, as the hospital article described, there is someone waiting at the old hospital site to redirect those who are lost. Additional signs directing people to the new hospital are now in place.

These steps make obvious sense, but ask yourself if the same steps have been taken to help people arrive at reality-based destinations in their thinking. Where, for instance, will people encounter, in an adequately redundant way, the basic facts about the human-caused transformations now underway that will change life on earth forever? Princeton probably contributes to the global problem of rising oceans and radicalized climate as much per capita as any other town, and yet there is precious little "signage" in news media--local or otherwise--directing us towards an understanding of the gravity of the situation.

An article in the pioneering style of "Not Everybody Knows...." would give the basics about how human activity is warming the earth and acidifying the oceans, and that the many consequences--more destructive storms and droughts, coastal flooding, undermining of marine ecosystems, melting of ice caps, temperature rise-- are playing out faster than scientists' models had projected. It would say that sea level rise is accelerating, with three feet likely this century, and 220 additional feet of rise still locked up in the ice fields of Greenland and Antarctica. It would say that the impacts of pouring climate-changing gases into the atmosphere, unlike many other forms of pollution, are essentially permanent, and continued dependency on fossil fuels will only destabilize climate and marine systems further.

That's the sort of "signage" we need, posted like hospital signs in well-traveled places where people are sure to see them again and again, until the message gets through. The lack of it, the fact that one almost never encounters this information in daily living, reading, and listening without considerable search, is sending a very clear message: that it doesn't really matter where we're headed.

First appeared in the Town Topics, 12/12/12

Beijing, 2013 -- Gary, Indiana 1960s

News of the apocalyptic air pollution in and around Beijing, China took me back to family road trips around the south side of Lake Michigan in the 1960s. As we approached the steel mills in Gary, Indiana, we kids in the back seat would ready the Kleenex, and then hold it over our noses as the acrid, sulphurous gases penetrated through our station wagon's doors. It was like driving through a sunset at midday, with clouds of purple and orange pollution drifting over the freeway. For fifteen minutes we'd endure that torture, wondering all the while how people could possibly live in the houses we passed.

In China, fifteen minutes would not be enough to escape the noxious air. One radio report described China's off-the-charts pollution as being twice the width of Texas.

Flight From Empowerment

One of the less productive responses to the reality of human-caused climate change is the effort people expend not to think about it. A different and, I would argue, more satisfying approach is to embrace its reality and focus on the positive things one can do to lessen its impact.

Climate change is like another phenomenon people avoid thinking about, aging, in that both are driven by an incremental accumulation, whether of greenhouse gases or time.

But unlike with aging, rapid changes in climate are something humanity has imposed upon itself. There are many things we can do both as individuals and collectively to slow or eventually even reverse the radicalization of climate.

That most people have not responded to this rallying cry, so common in the books and documentaries on the subject, suggests a need to avoid empowerment and maintain a sense of victimhood. Standard news media have long catered to this need by avoiding any implication in daily reporting that human activity contributes to making forest fires, floods and storms more destructive. The overwhelming desire is to perceive threats as coming from the outside, rather than being generated cumulatively from the inside.

Jared Diamond, in a recent essay in the NY Times entitled "That Daily Shower Can Be a Killer", describes one aspect of the flight from empowerment this way:

"It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops. At the same time, we underestimate the risks of events that we can control (“That would never happen to me — I’m careful”) and of events that kill just one person in a mundane way."

Action sells, but it's the accumulation of mundane daily choices that is most likely to determine our individual and collective fates. Acknowledging the real threats that one actually has a hand in, and accepting that small but measurable power to change prospects for the better, involves seeing the profundity and cumulative meaning in day to day living.

Democracy is built on such a notion. Each vote, small but measurable, counts towards the final result.

The relative lack of individual or collective response to climate change suggests that people are stuck on the first line of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Courage, people, courage!