Information Overload: What’s the Antidote?

This post originally appeared in substantially the same form on Yale Climate Connections on Jan. 5, 2016; here’s the link to our original post. We’re reposting it today because our work will be featured this week in the Yale Climate Connections podcast series. Climate Connections consists of 90-second stories about how people are responding to our warming world. Our podcast title is Coping with Climate Information Overload and it will appear on Wednesday at the Yale Climate Connections website. Of course, we’ll post the link once the episode airs!

 

Many of us over recent years have become all too familiar with the term “too big to fail.” But what about “too big to follow?”

That term applies well to the issue of global climate change, where the daily flood of new and worthwhile information and data can easily swamp even the most sophisticated library database information aficionado.

What a waste – and what a pity. What if policy makers, legislators, educators, and engaged citizens were more able to gather and digest the vast volumes of authoritative information on this issue—and make it “actionable”? What if we were each able to find that proverbial needle in the haystack that would help us toward more informed decision-making, both individually and globally?

A pipe dream? Not so fast.

‘If only we knew what we know …’

The recent release of the Climate Knowledge Brokers Manifesto made clear the challenge of the “too big to follow” situation. We’re engulfed by a cacophony of “climate noise.” As E.O. Wilson puts it, “we are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.”

TheBrainIconIt’s more than an academic or theoretical concern. Climate-related decision-making is becoming more important throughout broad segments of society, both nationally and internationally.

“Human beings are facing up to an unprecedented challenge with climate change; one that impacts on the most basic systems we have created for our survival – agriculture, water and energy use – as well as the places in which we live and our quality of life,” the Manifesto’s authors counsel. “Our decision making is likely to become increasingly climate constrained.”

The challenges posed by having valuable information by and large inaccessible to all who need it and could put it to good use are compounded by the simple reality that most professionals involved with climate change issues are incentivized to produce information, not to organize it into actionable knowledge. It’s a reality facing communities of all who need to be involved in addressing the challenges and opportunities arising in a warming climate.

In their book on knowledge management, If Only We Knew What We Know, Carla O’Dell and C. Jackson Grayson address the issue of knowledge management head-on. In her 2011 book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, Margaret Heffernan notes that even good information doesn’t necessarily lead us to see what’s right in front of us, and ties it  directly to climate change: “In failing to confront the greatest challenge of our age – climate change – all the forces of willful blindness come together, like synchronized swimmers in a spectacular water ballet.”

Combating confirmation bias

Let’s admit it: Dealing only with that climate information that we “come across” – or worse yet that comes across our desks – is time-saving, as is the common resort to confirmation bias.

But it’s a real problem for informed climate decision-making. Overwhelming levels of climate noise impede climate progress; for many it becomes difficult to separate the signal from the noise. In the face of a daunting and constantly growing body of climate information, we’re less inclined to even try.

That situation isn’t about to improve on its own, as the Manifesto notes:

Many more people will need to make use of climate knowledge in the future to support them in making their decisions. We understand that these users of climate knowledge require access to high quality information that is tailored to their specific circumstances. This includes a synthesis of relevant climate information, contextualized with an understanding of their sector and locality.

With all this in mind—and humbled by the recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenge—the Climate Web is a start. It incorporates ways to overcome the problem of “willful blindness.” Built on the foundation of The Brain® knowledge management software, the Climate Web integrates information from disciplines as wide-ranging as climate science, risk perception and risk management, climate modeling and forecasting, business decision-making, technology innovation, and communications theory. The goal is to deliver actionable climate knowledge to support climate decision-making by a wide variety of interests.

Instead of presenting a single point of view, the Climate Web pulls together the best arguments and best thinking from hundreds of experts and thought-leaders across the spectrum of climate-relevant issues. In doing so, it helps users explore from their own perspectives critical questions such as:

  • Are climate risks sneaking up on us?
  • How can climate communication barriers be overcome?
  • How reliably can we predict climate futures?
  • Will adaptation be the answer we deploy?
  • Is there a “safe” level of global warming?
  • What role will business interests play in responding to climate change?
  • Will a successful social movement develop around climate change issues?
  • Will society decarbonize before or after the planet is committed to a 7oF increase?

The Climate Web incorporates tens of thousands of sources and links to news stories, blogs, websites, and other resources. But it only scratches the surface of what this kind of tool can deliver. It’s available as an open-access program; users can test-drive and explore it on their own.

We welcome comments, suggestions . . . and assistance in making sure it meets the challenges laid out in the Climate Knowledge Brokers Manifesto.

 

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