Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Messaging for science

At some stage over the Xmas/New Year holiday break, news websites Stuff and the NZ Herald both featured, on the same day, articles about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West expecting their new baby, alongside articles on how scientists had underestimated the rate of melting of the Arctic ice sheets and were now revising estimates of sea level rises to a new figure of 1 metre by 2100.
Guess which of these got top billing? Guess which stayed on the webpage the longest, and had the most follow-up reporting? Why yes! The reality show and sex tape star (google it yourself) baby story.
Guess which of these will have the greatest impact on the everyday lives of millions of people including - gasp!! - New Zealand beachfront property owners? (here's an interactive map where you can plug in 39", ie a metre, into the box and see what areas will be flooded and how many millions will be displaced).
Clearly, sea levels rising 1m due to anthropogenic climate change is like, meh, whatever. 
But why? the article in the Herald (sourced from the UK's Independent) has, in its first paragraph, words like 'catastrophic', and 'glaciologists'. Who? There is no questioning the concern of the scientists involved in the study: "The impacts of sea-level rise of this magnitude are potentially severe, implying a conceivable risk of the forced displacement of up to 187 million people within this century." This is strong stuff for a scientist. 
But perhaps they need to rethink the way the message is conveyed to the general public. Talking about a conceivable risk, even one that displaces close to 190 million people, doesn't quite grip the public imagination - or a newspaper editors, for that matter - like the thought of Kim and Kanye adding to an already overcrowded planet. It's not that the scientists' message is unimportant, it just needs to be packaged in a way people understand.
So I suggest doing away with long confusing words like 'catastrophic', 'inconceivable' and 'magnitude' and go for something simpler, with an attention-grabbing headline: Kim and Kanye's baby drowns in climate-change induced flood! - followed by a paragraph expressing concern that this could happen if we keep burning fossil fuels and the ice caps continue to melt at a rate higher than previously thought likely. Same message, different packaging.
Or we could demand our media to stop being so attentive to the needs of the current crop of policy makers and politicians who think that:
  1. Climate change doesn't exist;
  2. If it does exist it won't affect us much and there's not much we can do about it anyway;
  3. If it does exist and we can do something about it, doing something - anything - would be too expensive for National's core farmer supporters so we'll pretend it doesn't exist anyway.
In other words, put Kim and Kanye in the 'Entertainment' section where they belong.