gavin_schmidt's picture
Climatologist; Director, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies
The Disconnect Between News And Understanding

We are surrounded by complexity. Issues that demand our attention—ranging from health-care reform, climate change or the Arab Spring—have a historical context, multiple viewpoints, clashes of diverse and deep values, and a bewlidering set of players with their own agendas.

The news provides a tremendous source for what is happening right now: who made what speech, what the result of the vote was, what the latest paper said, how many people died etc. While never perfect, the news industry mostly delivers on it's duty to provide information on what is 'new', and with the advent of social media platforms and aggregators like Google News, it has never been easier to stay up-to-date.

But much of what is needed to understand a situation is not new. Instead, deeper knowledge of the context is needed to inform an understanding of why the present events have come to pass. The present situation in Afganistan makes no sense at all without an appreciation of the culture and history of the region. The latest pronoucement of a future climate impact makes no sense unless you understand how we know anything about how the climate system operates and how it has changed already. Understanding the forces driving the Arab Spring requires a background in the breakup of the Ottoman empire and the responses to the colonial adventurism that followed. Unfortunately this context is not in the least bit newsworthy.

The gap between the new and the old is widening and that should be profoundly worrying. It is as if we have a populace that is well informed about the score of a game, but without any knowledge of the rules, and worse still no effective direction to find credible sources to explain them. It is perhaps no surprise that public discussions often devolve to mere tribalism. It is far easier to base decisions on who supports what than to delve into an issue yourself.

Any efforts that can be made to make it easier to access depth and context must therefore be applauded and extended. New online tools can be developed to scaffold information by providing entry points that are appropriate for any level of knowledge. 'Context' buttons alongside online searches could direct the interested to the background information.

But unless we start collectively worrying about this, nothing will change and our society's ability to deal with complexity in a rational way will continue to decline.