Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Science, well sort of....possibilities that create reality

So often, both as individuals and as a society, we look to science for certainty. What does the research tell us, predict, confirm? How can we avoid the possible risks or ensure the potential benefits of any given innovation? In that quest for certainty, we often miss a key point. What science can offer us most is not to give certainty, but rather, create possibility.

In the conversation (I’m consciously rejecting the use of the term “debate”) about human induced climate change, much of the time we hear declarations of certainty from all voices in the “dialog”. Predictions of consequences, whether articulated in temperature increases, sea level rise or socio-political impacts, are questioned. The sheer complexity of the overlapping emergent systems and variables at work make accurate projections impossible.  The daily thrum of Twitter and news feeds alternately alarms and numbs us.  We wring our hands over the feeling that forces aligned against the call for action are slowing needed progress. Governments alternately overreach or refuse to act, and the conversation is being driven by ideological imperatives rather than scientific data.  I often hear the plaintive cries of “If they would just get it!”  However, when I ask folks to describe exactly what it is they want “them” to get and do, I am often met with an uncomfortable silence, or at best half formed demands for unified action, carbon pricing or an imagined post carbon future now.  The point is we are frustrated by where we are, but seem to lack the ability to articulate a cogent vision of where we want to go…..but we’ve been here before.

Not so long ago, another generation faced a future of extreme uncertainty, one also characterized with the possibility, if not likelihood of an impending apocalypse.  It was the cold war.  We rehearsed our first moves after the air raid sirens sounded.  We secretly eyed the civil defense caches of crackers and 50 gallon drums of water hidden under the school auditorium stage, wondering how we were going to open them, and how long they would last.  The media and popular culture were littered with signposts of impending doom…and yet, we also held another parallel vision of the future. One in which we’d be bouncing along on the moon with our dog Astro, wearing cool bubble space helmets, and experiencing the strength of our legs against the low gravity of the lunar surface, bounding ever higher, with the Earth as our backdrop.

On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy gave his now famous speech at Rice University, laying out the case for why we should go to the moon by the end of the decade (You can see it in full length here…a great 17 minute history lesson.) What I find most interesting about it is that at that moment in time we were well behind the Soviet Union in the  “space race”, and we didn’t have the knowledge, materials, systems, technology and resources necessary to accomplish the objective.  However, the creation of the possibility that we might do so, ensured that we did.  There was no data or research predicting the outcome.  We embraced the possible rather than the certain.  And in doing so, we found another vision of the future that allowed us to both cope with and ultimately transcend the apocalypse of the moment.

So, what is the positive vision of the future that we are now offering up to our children?  How are we framing the possibility of the future today with the current apocalyptic challenges before us?  Frankly, I think we are failing miserably.  Too often, even our language seems to portend only negative outcomes…reduce and reuse can lead to or evoke regret, regress, and retreat.  We are asking ourselves to think smaller, safer, simpler…all good outcomes to a point, and certainly attractive if you are already highly educated and secure, but hardly inspirational or aspirational.   The metaphor of a 21st century moon-shot is often invoked to suggest a sense of common purpose and focus that will be needed to overcome the slow creeping horror of climate change.  But this really misses the point.  I don’t think we need to get more organized, I think we need to create a vision, a possibility of wild fun and adventure, full of risk, drama and reward, that our children will embrace.

Jules Verne imagined the possibility of a trip to the moon in 1865, and in less than a century, that possibility came true.  But for the creation of that possibility, one could argue we would never have done it. So, what challenges and dreams can we offer our children today?  What do you believe we should be offering as a compelling possibility for their future?

Note: I must acknowledge Saul Griffith, (who if you don’t know, you should, and can read about herefor posing these questions to me several years ago.  As you can see, I’m still searching for an answer.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Science, well sort of...old signs made new on the web

Growing up in the early sixties, my little German grandmother would take me to San Francisco on most weekends.  We’d catch the N bus at High Street and MacArthur Blvd in Oakland and ride to the old Transbay Terminal.  There we’d usually jump on a 38 Geary streetcar to the great stores of Union Square.  But sometimes we would walk.  On the way up Market Street I have distinct memories of occasionally seeing men who seemed determined to make themselves be seen and heard.  They carried all manner of signs, often one atop the other on high poles, warning us about an array of imminent threats.  Great and ominous conspiracies were proclaimed; often so complex they required many pages of signs written in very tight script.  Imminent apocalypse was declared, corporate/government/ academic  malfeasance revealed and urgent calls to action made.  Often these guys would employ the technology of megaphones to amplify their message to the passing shoppers.

Even as a kid, seeing these guys walking alone up and down the street, swaying under the weight of the sign poles strapped to their waists, ignored by all but the most curious or naive tourists, I could put their message into a context clear even to a young child.  At best they were lone messengers for lost or only imagined causes, at worse, they were just plain nuts.  Even a little kid just learning English could see it.

Today, you don’t often see these guys anymore, but they’re still with us…they’re on the internet.

God bless Wikipedia…it saves me so much time…it beautifully summarizes, “The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.”  Huh?? Stick with me…When the “medium” is a lone disheveled guy with a bunch of signs on poles, the message is perceived in a certain way, even by an uneducated  little kid.  Take that very same message, verbatim, and put it in a blog or on a website, and blammo, it transforms.

So the not too subtle point I’m getting to here is that the content of messages which in past times would have been more easily rejected hasn’t gone away or even changed much…what has changed is the medium.  And as the medium changed, so too, therefore, have our perceptions and reactions to these messages.  We have a much harder time discerning the difference between wacky claims and scientific evidence in a world where one website looks much like another. Blogger A can appear much like blogger B. This is manifested in so many subtle and yet potentially insidious ways.  Folks who would never have gotten the time of day from the media are now quoted as “balancing” news sources simply because they are found easily on the web.  Ideas that have no basis in science, that have been repeatedly debunked and that confound reasonable analysis get traction and take on a life.  Sometimes, this “life” takes the form of only amused curiosity or incessant repetition….other times, it actually impacts public policy or the health of individuals.

So while the words of the messages are the same, the simple act of placing them in the medium of the internet transforms their perceived meaning.  What to do?  A few suggestions….

First, frankly, you might like to start with yourself.  How are you represented on the medium of the internet and how does that impact your perceived message?  Personally, when I see blogs or posts under anonymous monikers such as “AngryGuyForTruth” or “YogaDreamSeeker” I usually give them the credence of the guy with the signs.  What if we all used our real names and put our pictures next to our comments?  I can tell you for me it certainly has the effect of making me choose my words and sources more carefully.  Give it a try, you might be pleasantly surprised, and I’m guessing we would all benefit.

Second, try this…the next time you read a controversial claim made by a legitimate sounding source, satellite Google map their address.  I did this recently for an “Institute” that publishes voluminous and very sciency sounding expert reports on the web.  The “Institute’s” authors and experts have titles and resumes that seem legitimate, and have been cited as authoritative sources.  Turns out the “Institute” in question is housed in a small building on a dirt road in rural Oregon.  Again, seeing this, like seeing the guy on the street, changes one’s perception of the message.
Finally, try changing up your sources to get new perspectives.  Frankly, the longer I stare at my self- selected twitter feed, the more all the tweets start to read like they were written by the Onion.   Not sure what this means, but it can’t be good. Challenge yourself to seek new sources to confirm or reject the blast of incoming messages, and then look behind them. See any sign-toting guys shouting through megaphones?

The medium of the internet, amplified and accelerated by social media, has materially changed the message of our friends with the stack of handwritten signs on poles.  It can also create the perception that there are more of them, and it enables them to find each other and form communities, which can have the effect of further amplifying their message.  As a result, their message, in past times better understood and therefore dismissed, has new sway.

So I think we all can challenge ourselves to pay closer attention to the messengers and discern the role of the “medium” of the internet in how we accept or reject their viewpoints. I know we can do better than we are now.  So, what do you believe?