Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Cognitive Sewage", Public Policy, and Communicating Science

A perennial lament heard on the science-scene: "why is The Public so damn irrational!".  The frustration of having perfectly sound science ignored or rejected out of hand by Folks must account for more than a few gray hairs (although it's probably good for beer sales).  We're all pretty familiar with irrationality born of wacko-idealogies, like creationists, climate change deniers, or expanding earthers; from the stand point of Science, there's not really much you can do about those deeply rooted irrationalities that motive people like that. 

The earth sciences (broadly defined) have a lot of interaction with the irrational public, largely because we deal with complex systems that have a definite effect of peoples' lives.  It's hard to get worked up about quarks (beyond the "gee-whiz" factor, I suppose), whereas acid mine drainage, or peak oil, or ocean acidification have a very concrete ability to impact people and the environment.  How do we engage people about these complex issues? 

There's a really interesting story up from NPR, which previously aired on Morning Edition a week or so ago, titled "Why Cleaned Wastewater Stay Dirty In Our Minds".  Briefly, some clever engineers down in California have been looking for solutions to the region's horrible water situation, and they came to a very reasonable, rational, and environmentally sound conclusion: recycle sewage water into potable drinking water for communities.  Pretty good idea, huh?

BUT, when they tried to implement the plan, the public balked.  Rather than gnashing his teeth, a UC-Santa Cruz Environmental Studies prof decided to tackle the question of WHY people reacted so negatively to such an eminently reasonable idea.  And the way he attacked the problem was through psychology. What they found when they talked to people was that people was that, as in a lot of human experience, people were engaging in what is called "contagion thinking".  A pretty clear example of this is given by a psychologist who participated in the study: if asked to value a family heirloom versus an EXACT replica of the heirloom, people pick the original, since it has a history (through contact) that makes it MORE valuable, even if two objects are identical physically.

This sort of thinking carries over into how people think about resources; if their water has ever been in contact with sewage, it's contaminated irrevocably, which gives rise to the completely rad phrase used in the study of "conceptual sewage".  Even more interesting was what the study found in regards to people's view on preferred water resources.  Given the choice, people would rather have water from a river or aquifer than from treated sewage, despite the fact that water in rivers or aquifers has, through a matter of course, at some point been in contact with something's digestive/excretory system.  Unless we start synthesizing water directly from volcanic gases, or from the atomic furnaces of stars, you aren't going to be free of the historical fact that, at some point, someone or something pissed in your water supply.  So why doesn't that bother people?

The question sort of get's at peoples' conceptualization of what is "natural" or "clean", and seems to hinge on the idea that, through the natural processes that feed rivers or supply aquifers, some sort of conceptual transformation in applied to the water that makes it "clean".  In the article, it's suggested that, by introducing some sort of "naturalizing" aspect to the sewage treatment might make it more palatable (both figuratively and literally) for people.  This despite the fact that, as noted in the story, pumping treated water back out into the environment is, objectively, going to degrade it's quality.

It's a really interesting article, and one that we as Earth Scientists should really be paying attention to.  What we do and how our science is used impacts peoples lives, and we need to be aware that is in and of itself a transformative process.  Science as an adviser to policy has to take into account the history, psychology, sociology, and cultural milieu that it's trying to influence, and that's something that we science-types just don't seem to think about all that often.  Take the water issue discussed in the NPR story.  One approach could have been to have just said, "too bad, we need to conserve water so we're going to recycle sewage".  What response might that engender in the public?  Maybe they start buying only bottled water, exacerbating water supply issues and producing mountains of plastic garbage.  And poorer people might not be able to afford exclusivity bottled water, exacerbating class division and economic disparities.  OR poorer people might decide that, since the water from the faucet is (cognitive) shit, they're just going to have to spend more of their money on only buying bottled water, stretching their fragile finances even further.

It's a complicated issue, and one that we really aught to be thinking about every day, and in a variety of situations.  And the earth sciences are right at the heart of all these complex intersections between natural systems, people, society, economics...all that stuff that makes up the complicated mess we call the real world.  The NPR report does a pretty good job introducing the topic, and the link above let's to listen to the audio version of the report that played on Morning Edition.  Enjoy! 

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