The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Communication and the Market for Lemons

"In a market where the seller has more information about the product than the buyer, bad products can drive the good ones out of the market."

In an article on Wired, Bruce Schneier attributes this observation to economist George Akerloff. He discusses the implications for computer security products, which need not concern us here.

A Slashdot reader summarizes neatly: "when deep quality metrics are unavailable, customers will base their decisions on shallow metrics instead."

What does this have to do with our interests here? In attempting to communicate science in the face of organized opposition we have a fundamentally different task than is conventionally true of science outreach. In the past, scientific communication with the public had to overcome indifference, but now we have to overcome opposition. In other words, we are in a competitive situation.

We have the quality product, but producing the shoddy competition is easier and cheaper. The buyer (the lay person, the journalist, the politician) has only weak signals on which to base their decisions.

It's not enough to be good, my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Adair, once told her class. (This is the single fact I have retained about Mrs. Adair.) You also have to look good.

I've never forgotten this advice, and it took me a very long time to forgive it. I disliked it from the beginning, as many scientists and other intellectual types are wont to do. She is right. This is because it is difficult for the lay person to process the deep information. We must take care that our shallow information is in good shape as well.

There are a lot of ideas competing for everyone's attention these days. We can't get the real dimensions of the sustainability problem across to people if they don't listen. They won't listen if they think we are a bunch of half-crazed hippies.

Once we start offering advice, we have to project calm authority, and that means we have to look like what people imagine scientists to look like. (I think this might be set mostly by the demeanor of medical professionals, the closest thing most people see to a scientist.)

I don't like it, but it seems to me that in the end Mrs. Adair was right.

3 comments:

Fergus said...

But there's the rub...

Your final paragraph reveals an underlying problem which the science community has no answer for; audience perception.

Joe public has a couple of models to work from when working out who these scientist guys are who are telling him that he is a bad boy: his moth-eaten teacher from school (my much-appreciated chemistry teacher was a chain-smoking war veteran with shell-shock. He was great.); Albert Einstein; the evil scientist who makes things like Frankenstein and lets loose horrors on the world in the name of science, in countless movies; and the Einstein-lookalike cartoon characters that poulate every comic and cartoon since the 1930's.

And you wonder why there is a problem with credibility?

Have a cigar, while I pull the third switch...

(hibiscus) said...

this framed so narrowly, it's hard to disagree with it, but it's not looking at enough.

i found a poll, just months old, that said americans think the ozone hole is a bigger problem than AGW. looking at your argument for engaging lunatics positively in public, how should we interpret that resistance to understanding that the ozone trouble is managed? "sometimes people trust scientists implicitly, sometimes they hate them"?

there's 15 years of anti-warming propaganda, 25 years of anti-public-good propaganda, and 150 years of industry-defines-progress propaganda. those are the deciding events, not the perception of scientists. nobody can seem to stop the media people from calling it a "controversy" no matter how many of them keep up with the news or watch AIT or whatever. that's the weakness. that's where the focus needs to be. those people are responsible for this, not the wider public. they've been republishing press releases so long they think adjudication is for sissies.

debate lomborg in the press space and you will be holding a debate about the controversy in the only place where the controversy truly lives. you're confident you can do that and win, or that the effort is worth it, by itself, and your detailed demolition of lomborg's latest arguments is well done.

maybe you're trying to teach people how to get established as a pundit. that's not a bad thing; needs a think tank though — cato and AEI are permanently on call — and apparently NASA and NOAA are reliable sources of information only in the abstract, even after katrina/rita. but again, controversy is the trigger of the media gun, please take care.

think tank. a place media people could call to get a lay read on the latest science and engineering. something to think about, if you're truly convinced the problem is public perception.

Fergus said...

Hibiscus; I think your point about media coverage is good; a 'hot' advocate with a bit of charisma, some 'sex appeal and a powerful set of rhetorical skills would make for good media. But then there's the point that came up about the debate last month; isn't this just giving air time to the idea that there is a 'debate' about the science?

OTOH, I absolutely agree that the fact that there appears to be no climate think tank in the UK is a disgrace. CRU, Tyndall and Hadley are all scientific institutions. As far as I know, there is no equivalent to the Cato Institute or the AEI 'from the other side'.

Perhaps this is to be my new mission...