Friday, 17 May 2013

Talk no. 3: Information and Perception: Living Through a Revolution

Four talks on disaster risk reduction, no. 3
Information and Perception: Living Through a Revolution

We live, in the Information Age, or so it is said. According to the pyramidal diagram constructed by the eminent geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, information is the second of four levels of understanding. It renders the base of the pyramid, facts and observations, more powerful by combining them in such a way as to add value, but it lacks the insight and explanatory power of the higher levels, knowledge or wisdom. Hence, information is not wisdom: it constitutes the bricks from which we can, if we want to, build the wall of knowledge, from which, we might, if we are lucky, accede to the lofty heights of wisdom.

Professor Henry Quarantelli, the doyen of disaster sociologists, wrote that the current information and communications technology revolution is about as important for humanity as the invention of printing was in the fifteenth century. He noted its enormous power to transform the way we view the world and hence the way we react to disasters. However, he also listed a dozen unintended consequences that will need to be dealt with, and that may create problems rather than solve them.

We also live in an unstable age, one characterised by vast and profound changes. Many of their most important implications are currently unpredictable and are likely to remain so for a long time. We have glimpsed enormous potential, but do we know how to harness it? The copiousness and unprecedented ease of access that characterise modern information resources pose severe challenges. The first is how to appreciate and utilise such a huge amount of information. How to separate useful from useless information is a pressing problem. So is how to verify the truthfulness of information and interpret its meaning.

The greatest risk is posed by the fact that, when confronted by avalanches of facts and data, the easy way out is to treat them superficially. The bombardment of new information is a sort of solar wind that blows constantly through cyberspace and the mass media. In reaction, the world's attention span is limited and fickle, It passes rapidly from one novel incident to the next. As a result, we have developed an attitude to disasters that brings to mind the ice-cream parlour, home of the 'flavour of the month'. Today as I write, the flavour is 'earthquakes', as two very damaging ones have just occurred in northwest Iran. Perhaps next month it will be floods, or terrorism, or nuclear radiation releases. It all depends upon what happens in the meantime.

Long ago, risk researchers determined that people find it difficult to evaluate risks concurrently, and hence, despite the fact that we all run multiple risks all of the time, we tend to think about them sequentially, one or two at a time. Clearly, in the 'flavour of the month' approach, this is also true of the collective psyche of the mass of viewers, listeners, readers and surfers, the consumers of news (which we all are).

The survivors of the information age are those of us who know how to adapt to it. This not only means adapting the way we seek and assimilate information; something that is now radically different from how we did it half a century ago. It also means learning how to exploit the sources and flows of information and how to commandeer and dominate the interpretations. Verily, the soothsayers have not gone away. They no longer look at the tails of comets and tell us that the gods are angry, but there is no guarantee that a pundit with a strong presence on the dominant mass media will offer anything better, for we live in an age in which the public has developed a chronic appetite for personalities. Incidentally, the original pundits carried the equipment when the British surveyed north India. No doubt it was a repetitive job, because modern punditry certainly is.

One well-known pundit of the modern media was a certain Dr Iben Browning. His chosen field was one of the most contentious in science: the short-term prediction of earthquakes for the purposes of warning people of their imminent arrival. In 1990 he "predicted" (if that is the right word—which it probably isn't) an earthquake in southern Illinois. Modern media do not distinguish well between 'plausible' and 'specious'. Browning is now deceased: he took his earthquake prediction secrets to the grave with him. However, in 1990 he developed a strong and plausible mass media presence that put the official scientists to shame.

No earthquake occurred in southern Illinois during the period specified by Browning, but anxiety proliferated among the local population and there was a significant convergence reaction among the US mass media.

Short-term earthquake prediction may never be feasible. Although there are nine or ten physical phenomena that can undergo characteristic, or 'signature' changes hours or days before earthquakes, the level of uniqueness in slip-faulting mechanisms militates against developing a standardised short-term prediction measure that can be employed with ease around the world. And, incidentally, contrary to public perception, the anomalous behaviour of animals is about the least reliable earthquake precursor, such are the unknown vagaries of the psychology and reflexes of animals large and small. Nonetheless, all physical precursors are being actively, indeed intensively, studied by scientists in the hope that one day there will be a break-through.

The US Geological Survey, as custodian of America's scientific values in this field, examined its navel after the Browning affair and concluded that it had underestimated the power of charlatans to manipulate the media and appear credible. A publicity offensive should have been mounted on behalf of official science. Incidentally, Browning's coup de theatre was the fact that he managed to convince a legitimate geologist that his prediction had substance. The man in question was eventually sacked by his university for misconduct.

Two years later, in 1993, the US Geological Survey issued a prediction for a moderately powerful earthquake on a locked segment of the San Andreas fault in California. By virtue of having a surface expression, the San Andreas enjoys a public image that few other active faults can aspire to (most of them are deeply buried). The role of cowboy films and Easy Rider can perhaps be detected in the fact that equally spectacular surface faults in China and Venezuela remain unknown to the world's media audiences.

Parkfield, California, lies astride the locked segment of the fault. In 1993 it had a population of 57, plus 300 scientific instruments, 80 of which were continuously recording. Within days of the start of the USGS's 'Parkfield Earthquake Experiment', the local population had swollen to over 2,000, a motley combination of media representatives, New Agers and the curious and idle. But after 18 months the experiment ended without a significant seismic event—and even today it still hasn't occurred.

Official reports by the US Geological Survey make it clear that a 90 per cent probability of a magnitude six earthquake also means a perfectly respectable ten per cent probability of nothing at all. And that is what transpired. It reminds me that I once attended an earthquake conference at which the flower of Californian seismologists congregated in a flimsy looking room that projected outwards from the first floor of a monastery (a 1930s edifice, not something Mediaeval—this was California), about ten kilometres from the San Andreas fault. It was interesting, if somewhat macabre, to speculate what would have happened if the 'big one' had occurred while we were all in that room, but such thoughts took no account of the hard reality of probabilities. And if probabilities did not enter into my considerations, they are positively shunned by the general public.

It is an interesting exercise to type 'earthquake prediction' into an Internet search engine. Bona fide, official science has its websites, and these explain that long-term, regional earthquake prediction is effectively a solved problem with routine procedures, but short-term transient prediction is no more than an elusive goal. What is worrying, however, is that there are many other websites that confidently predict major earthquakes all over the place, and usually the day after tomorrow. Hence, the Internet has given free rein to the charlatans. Although the science behind their activities is false or suspect, the visual impact of their sites is usually as good as that of the USGS. And because it is the Internet the sites are not policed.

Many a legitimate scientist would like to be the one who is remembered for ever after as being the person who cracked the problem of how to predict an earthquake reliably in the short term. The fact that earthquakes do commonly emit precursors makes this goal seem tantalisingly near at hand. Fortunately, bona fide science has its in-built protection mechanisms which ensure that legitimate scientists do not make unjustifiable leaps of faith, and that charlatans are excluded from the circle of practitioners. But does the public realise this? The socio-economic implications of earthquake prediction are potentially enormous: house prices may dip, people may not go to work, children may be kept away from school, residents may leave the area, psychological pathologies may develop, and so on. In other words, the stakes are high in both the negative and the positive senses, for being able to predict imminent earthquakes could indeed save lives if it were coupled with a well-rehearsed plan of action.

In 2004 a talented Israeli sociologist, Avi Kirschenbaum, published a book about disasters. The body of his text reported a well-executed but fairly standard social survey of how the Israeli population reacts to threats, hazards and emergencies—a kosher piece of work. However, there was something radically different about his first and last chapters. In Chapter 1, Kirschenbaum plotted the number of disasters, worldwide, against the dates on which important disaster management organisations were founded. He discovered a significant correlation. Now, most researchers would automatically assume that the organisations, associations and agencies were founded in response to the disasters. In individual cases, that is often so. However, Kirschenbaum thought the opposite. He argued that there are increasing numbers of disasters because there are increasing numbers of disaster management agencies, not the other way around. His thesis was that these organisations have a vested interest in self aggrandizement and therefore tend to inflate the number of disasters and the magnitude of their impacts. In reality, he wrote, the increases in the size and frequency of disasters have been relatively modest.

Kirschenbaum's last chapter contained a radical proposition. Having argued that the world can ill afford such rampant inflation in the number of disaster management agencies, he suggested that the best thing to do would be to make disaster response a fee-for-service activity. If a person, or a family, does not subscribe to it, they will receive no help when the next disaster occurs. Since Kirschenbaum was writing in the early 1990s privatisation has become more and more fashionable and has been applied with careless abandon to many public services in many countries. Why not civil protection? Parts of it are already in private hands anyway, for example in branches of many countries' health services.

In my view there are too many considerations about welfare and the care of the vulnerable for such an approach to be morally justifiable. I will return to this issue in my next talk. But for the time being I would like to point out that Kirschenbaum's book should be required reading. It is a sort of "intellectual cod liver oil" for disaster specialists: it tastes bad but it does you good.

Is 'virtual reality' an oxymoron? And in any case, what is reality? An enduring image comes to my mind. It shows a village ruined by earthquake. All the houses are visibly damaged, and some have collapsed. They have been abandoned by their occupants, with one exception. This is the coffee bar at the centre of town, which has reopened with temporary connections to electricity and water supplies. Inside it there is a party of local residents who are grouped around a television screen. They are watching an image of a town that has been ruined by earthquake and abandoned by its inhabitants, except for one building at its centre. Possibly it is their own town.

This early and rather primitive example of a sort of virtual reality highlights the importance of perception of hazards, risks and disasters. Although perception studies have been conducted in this field for the past seventy or eighty years, they have only really come into their own since the 1970s. In part, this is an effect of the development in the 1970s of the concept of subjective risk (as opposed to measurable 'objective risk' based on hard data about probabilities). In the end, perception equals money, because it can be equated with what people are prepared to pay for safety and what services they are not prepared to underwrite because they perceive them as being unacceptably risky.

Disaster risk is a parallel world to the one we live in. I will go further: risk does not exist. I hasten to add that despite that it is no less real. But risk is like friction, it only comes into play when it is mobilised. We can never make a direct measurement of risk: what we measure in its stead is impact, and by then the risk is over and done with.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that risk has proved such an elusive phenomenon, easily misunderstood, seldom perceived accurately (if accuracy is possible) and in many cases feared and dreaded.

Our parallel world is not merely inhabited by risk, it is increasingly subject to risk aversion. A risk is regarded as 'dreaded' if it is considered intolerable. What is tolerable is a matter treated with great elasticity. I mentioned in a previous talk that the glare of publicity can turn on the flow of solidarity; and turning off the stream of reporting can stifle the process of donation. Likewise, the degree to which a risk is feared or dreaded—conversely, the extent to which it is accepted—depends at least in some measure on publicity.

In the mid-1960s in a classic article in Science magazine, the risk analyst Chauncey Starr declared that "a thing is safe if its risks are judged to be acceptable". Hence, safety is a variable factor, indeed, one that varies over time. This means that it is also malleable. In that sense, the mass media are the mirror of what society is thinking and of its sense of values. But it is a two-way relationship, in many ways, more or less subtle, the media can create society's agenda. It can very easily pander to people's prejudices.

One evening I turned on the television news and the top story was a train crash which had occurred that afternoon at a place called Crevalcuore (which translates into English rather aptly as "break-heart"). Nineteen people died when two trains crashed head-on in fog on a single-track line. News is, of course, not merely a question of reporting the facts, but also involves putting a spin upon them, emphasising a particular angle, and selectively reporting the details. Evidently in this case the television news editors had a grudge against the state railways. The news bulletin gave the distinct impression that it would be far safer to get on the motorway and drive like a maniac in thick fog than set foot in a train. Trains are actually a very safe means of transport in Europe, yet on a previous occasion the same news service had reported the deaths of six passengers in a crash as a "massacre", while the deaths of six times as many people in road accidents during the same weekend was treated as a "normal", unexceptional statistic.

These rather crude examples illustrate how the goalposts in the game of safety are constantly being shifted. The threshold of what is considered tolerable and what is treated as a disaster migrates over time. And of course it differs greatly from one part of the world to another. A flash flood in Mogadishu killed 118 people, but as it came at a time when conflict was raging in Somalia and there was daily mortality due to fighting. Because, moreover, many vital life-support services had broken down, the flood was hardly a disaster at all, or at least it was hardly distinguishable from the disaster that was daily life.

Stalin once famously observed that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic—he more than any of his contemporaries other than Hitler should have known. Perhaps the great misfortune of our time is our ability to decouple large death tolls from the human tragedy.

But let us return to the information technology revolution. Disasters have always had a symbolic value, and different cultures have ascribed to them different symbols and associated them with interpretations. Following the Golden Bough of Sir James Frazer, magic involves the covariance of unrelated actions, event and consequence without a true cause and effect. The very term disaster, "dis-astro", means "bad star" and thus refers to the role of the stars and planets in causing extreme terrestrial events, or bad luck on earth. Science has established a more enduring set of causal relationships (although not without mistakes, setbacks, controversies and inaccuracies), but curiously this has not led to the demise of symbolism, only its metamorphosis.

Nowadays, we talk incessantly about 'icons'. Clearly, we do not mean venerated paintings of the Madonna and Child. We mean reductive symbols. Whether they are small diagrams or people who embody some characteristic (usually celebrity), the modern idea of the icon is to be able to reduce reality to a simple, perhaps fleeting, piece of symbolism. The symbolic value of disasters has changed—somewhat—but it has not diminished.

In January 2012, the Costa Concordia cruise ship foundered on a rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea and beached on a Mediterranean island. Ships have always been a metaphor for society, and perhaps that is one reason why churches have naves. We travel through time in notional vessels and we endeavour to float on a sea of life made turbulent by vicissitudes. And there on the Island of Giglio we had the biggest loss of a passenger ship in history, for the Concordia is two and a half times the size of the RMS Titanic. We also had a brave, thoroughly modern, venture that came to grief on the unforgiving rocks of an ancient marine basin. Destiny struck. It is perhaps small wonder that the Concordia was immediately likened to the European economy, as it foundered on the recklessness of bankers, the profligacy of governments and the tax avoidance of citizens.

Information technology has greatly aided a process of separating the protagonists from the bystanders. For the majority, disaster is a spectacle to be enjoyed. The condiment sprinkled on top of each daily dose is the realisation that it is all happening to someone else and one can be thankful for such deliverance. For the sizeable minority, it represents suffering, hardship, pain and inconvenience. We the privileged watch this from the ringside as if we were immune. We are not.

I sometimes think that international terrorism perpetrated in Western countries is nothing more than an attempt to re-import the risk that such nations have so successfully exported to the less privileged countries via the globalised economy and its insistence on the exploitation of labour.

Meanwhile, information technology has succeeded in inverting the status of victims. One theory of disasters is that they are a source of moral outrage, which is usually directed against the institutions that have signally failed to protect citizens who put their faith in them. This, incidentally, forms part of a general drift away from the concept of personal responsibility for bearing risks. However resilient society has become, individuals in Western countries are probably less resilient and less resourceful than they were sixty years ago when the state could do relatively little to help them overcome the problems of disaster. But now the individual can easily become the harbinger, or purveyor, of moral outrage. Its handmaidens are the lawyers and accountants whose presence has been substituted for common sense.

A century ago, or even less, to be the victim of disaster was to bear a burden of disgrace and shame. Nowadays, the victim may be featured on a chat show, is possibly on first-name terms with a cabinet minister, and is certainly equipped with a powerful weapon: moral outrage. There are, of course, those victims who use such equipment to labour tirelessly and selflessly for the greater good of safety and disaster risk reduction. There are others who exploit it for all it is worth and assume the symbolic mantle for shameless self-aggrandizement. The public's voracious appetite for personalities, and the ease with which interactions can occur in the age of digital telecommunications, mean that the less scrupulous protagonists of modern disaster are as likely to be applauded as vilified.

Business continuity management is the art and science of doing two things simultaneously. One is keeping a crisis under control by tackling its root causes and its effects on the ground. The other is vigorously defending the reputation of one's company. Reputation equates to stock-market value, consumer confidence and a host of other monetary variables. Of course, it can be difficult to defend a reputation when the underlying crisis management is hopelessly inadequate, but there are many who have tried. It is certainly a bad idea to manage a crisis faultlessly with the exception of a plummeting reputation.

Hence, it is notable that in the present age as much effort seems to go into creating the impression that things are being done as goes into actually doing them. Hence we return to virtual worlds. Disasters and crises are managed, and so, in parallel, is the impression that they are being managed.

So, whether reality is 'virtual' or real, we live increasingly in parallel worlds. The symbolic value of disasters may be no less real than is risk, which in turn is no less real than the actual impacts of disaster, but there are disjunctures between all of these things. Noam Chomsky argued cogently that public consent is manufactured, rather than obtained. Information is a primary resource and, despite all the talk of free flows, it is quite still rigidly controlled. What I mean here is that you can believe anything you like, but if too many people believe "the wrong thing" then corrective action must be taken.

Official attitudes to disasters on the part of governments are quite variable. Shame is often one of them, along with concealment, political opportunism another. In some cases, moreover, governments are as likely to listen to celebrities as they are to scientific experts. Or perhaps I am being too negative. Dr Ilan Kelman has shown, in more than 30 detailed examples, that disasters are often the occasion for the renewal of diplomatic initiatives. The field of disaster diplomacy got underway in 1999 after earthquakes in Greece and Turkey occurred in quick succession. The two countries were at loggerheads over a territorial dispute, but the mutual process of offering post-earthquake assistance jump-started the diplomatic solution to their dispute.

Whatever the attitudes of governments, and the efficacy, or not, of disaster diplomacy, there is a growing consensus that we need a world community of disaster risk reduction protagonists, composed of scientific experts and leading decision makers. Information and communications technology, and mass travel, have genuinely contributed to the creation of a 'global village' in which the plight of disadvantaged people and their communities is now impossible to ignore.

As each of us participates in global village life, we must adapt to changes, driven by technology, that are faster and more profound than those our forebears had to deal with. Let us try to make sure that we build a full pyramid: not merely information, nut knowledge in the service of wisdom.