Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On crises and the oversupply of bad news

Crises is a word that became part of our daily vocabulary in recent months. It can be defined as a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger. It also seems as if there is an incentive (at least in some circles) to keep the fires of crises burning. Or to put it differently: bad news sells

Julian Simon, renowned resource optimist had this to say in an article in Science on the question why bad news dominate public discussion on topics such as natural resources, population and the environment, way back in 1980:

Why do false statements of bad news dominate public discussion of these topics? Here are some speculations. 

1) There is a funding incentive for scholars and institutions to produce bad news about population, resources, and the environment. The AID and the U.N.'s Fund for Population Activities disburse more than a hundred million dollars each year to bring about fertility decline. Much of this money goes to studies and publications that show why fertility decline is a good thing. There are no organizations that fund studies having the opposite aim.

2) Bad news sells books, newspapers, and magazines; good news is not half so interesting. Is it a wonder that there are lots of bad-news best-sellers warning about pollution, population growth, and natural-resource depletion but none telling us the facts about improvement?

3) There are a host of possible psychological explanations for this phenomenon about which I am reluctant to speculate. But these two seem reasonably sure: (i) Many people have a propensity to compare the present and the future with an ideal state of affairs rather than with the past or with some other feasible state; the present and future inevitably look bad in such a comparison. (ii) The cumulative nature of exponential growth models has the power to seduce and bewitch.

4) Some publicize dire predictions in the idealistic belief that such warnings can mobilize institutions and individuals to make things even better; they think that nothing bad can come of such prophecies. But we should not shrug off false bad news as harmless exaggeration. There will be a loss of credibility for real threats as they arise, and loss of public trust in public communication. As Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, testified to congressmen. in the midst of the environmental panic of 1970: "The nations of the world may yet pay a dreadful price for the public behavior of scientists who depart from . . . fact to indulge ... in hyperbole".

Why does bad news flourish? In short, according to Simon,  due to R&D funding and media incentives, idealistic/utopian expectations of reality and a (dangerous) sense that communicating a crises/alarmism will lead to action or at least will not be harmful.

My apologies for not being able to finish this post. I have to run, have a project crises to attend to...

H/T: The Encyclopedia of the Earth

Image: tralfaz-archives

1 comment:

Ron Mader said...

Excellent post, Martin. Bad news does indeed sell. But we have a shared responsibility in setting the story right. As background,
I have written quite a bit about Tourism, Crisis and Communication from which I'll excerpt a bit.

The consequence for not engaging the public in dialogue about crisis and tourism is a diminished level of trust for official sources. Said one colleague about a state tourism website that was not updated, "if they are not telling the truth about this, how can I trust anything they say?"

A vicious cycle ensues. Tourism officials deny that visitors are interested in social, natural and political realities. Visitors as well as locals use official sources less and less.

At the diplomatic level governments are quick to alert citizens to possible problems, but they usually lag in letting travelers know when conditions improve. One question locals ask is why the travel advisories remain in effect so long.