Thursday, January 31, 2019

The semantics of popular science

It seems that anyone with half of a brain cell has an opinion about climate change these days, so I guess I'll throw my two-cents into the ring.

In light of current naysayers of climate change and Washington state's measles outbreak, it's hard not to think about where we went wrong with the messaging of popular science. (After all, there's little else to do here in -20-degree polar-vertex-induced weather.)

These issues are multi-faceted and oftentimes oversimplified, stemming from misinformation and sometimes taken up in arms with religious zeal. Putting reasons of anti-establishmentarianism, willful ignorance, and corporate denial campaigning, aside, I've begun to think about the current branding of popular science and why it has become divisive.

Social media incentivizes engagement with what's popular, not ethical.

The topics of climate change and vaccination are similar today because they evoke a lot of emotion, and emotion is where the money is. It doesn't matter that some of that emotion is frustration or fervent denial. So long as these trendy topics raise alarms and attract eyeballs and clicks, there is no incentive for advertisers to care whether or not the ethical outcome is productive.

Online media companies capitalize on user engagement, algorithmically striving for a balance of happy and validating content sprinkled with the occasional controversial newsbit. There doesn't seem to be much commercial demand outside of emotion. (In fact, some nonprofits and advocacy groups even sustain themselves heavily on the emotions and influx of dollars that correspond with the political news cycle.) Social media isn't designed to afford the bargaining of deeply entrenched beliefs, as much it's monetized the riling of those beliefs.

The extended Kubler-Ross grief cycle

Sometimes I think that the social media echo chambers perpetuate emotionality, if not manufactures it by design. In other words, I feel like the cultural warfare between "us" and "them/deniers" is perceived to be more magnified than it actually is because we each live within our own bubbles of confirmation bias. This de-personalization does injustice for both sides of the aisle.

Furthermore, alarmism does little to correct our mental models of the quantitative data regarding specific issues. I am an optimist because the number of reported measles cases has dropped significantly from 1954 to today, at least 800-fold. I am slightly alarmed at the smaller number of unnecessary deaths in the past ten years, but acknowledge that there is little I can do in my current position to persuade the likes of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities to vaccinate their children. What value do I get from receiving headlines repetitively about the measles outbreak in Washington, Disneyland, and Oregon in my newsfeed beyond a feeling of moral superiority and soft keyboard advocacy with a "like"?

The History of Vaccines data from 1954-2008
CDC data from 2010-2018

(Of course, I'm only complaining of the magnitude, not of the fact that media blazes alight from news that the Trump Administration plans to lift offshore oil drilling moratoriums. When that inspires a collective and productive rise in arms among a more informed public, I think that's a net good.)

Resilience Library

Ironically, another consequence of when climate change is used to sensationalize is that the usage begins to undermine its own weight and desensitizes users to its urgency. Readers begin to admonish the movement, associating it with tree-huggers or rock-lickers. It's just natural heuristics. Newton's Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and brandishing climate change as a virtue signal undoubtedly attracts its share of contrarians. Climate change as a cohesive brand is useful as an awareness tool, but terrible at helping people comprehend the disparate foundational knowledge and facts that make up climate change.

Popular science is still relatively nascent.

After all, popular science can be rather exclusionary based on education level, and that needs to be strongly considered in the messaging of popular science. If you consider a generation-by-generation time frame, popular science is nascent. Modern philosopher James Flynn claims that newer generations are increasingly able to form logical thoughts from abstractions because that's the demand that our interconnected, global society requests of us. It's easy to envision hypothetical scenarios of an apocalyptic wasteland in one scenario of Pascal's wager, which is a sufficiently convincing argument to act. 

Pascal's wager, climate change edition. Source

But despite countless systematic reviews show that vaccines are not linked to autism (a stigma of which also needs to be addressed), there are still those who insist otherwise because a reliable friend, family, or neighbor told them so. One example is a holy grail of research, involving multiple cohort studies, case-control studies, and randomized clinical trails, that disproved any connection between the MMR vaccine with autism, asthma, leukemia, hay fever, type I diabetes, and much more.

If we don't engage thoughtfully in emotional design, then we're not very helpful to other people. Sometimes it's not that people don't believe in corrective information regarding vaccination, but there's no profound emotional impetus to translate that belief into behavioral change.

There must be a paradigm shift in how we evaluate our messaging--maybe that's thinking in terms of emotional, or specifically trust, capital? There's no silver bullet to get people to act on climate change or vaccine their children, but I imagine that individualized regional policy considerations might be a part of the solution, like the NYC HOME-STAT program's lean towards more trustful analog communication channels.

I believe that somehow we can design the messaging around popular science to make it more inclusive. How can we alter the semantics, rather than content, specific to each strata of people, coupled with proper channels of outreach? What are other compelling calls to action, if not social responsibility? What are pain points we can eliminate to make socially responsible action more accessible?

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