By Bassam Shuhaibar Ph.D
It happens all the time. You’re checking your smartphone or surfing the web and a breaking news alert pops up in your notifications bar, virtually yelling at you to pay attention. A natural disaster has stricken somewhere, an environmental catastrophe is imminent, there is a leak of some kind and unless something is done yesterday, the damage will be irreversible. This will all be an abstract notion to the vast majority of people who live nowhere near the vicinity of the incident, yet will directly affect the denizens who do.
When this is the only source of information available to those unfortunate enough to experience such tragic circumstances, the providers are tasked with an important moral responsibility: to communicate the facts as succinctly and accurately as possible. Unfortunately, the never-ending quest for higher ratings and website traffic means that, in most cases, sensationalism and hyperbole will prevail; look at the recent spate of storms and the sheer number of shocking [and yet unvalidated] videos being uploaded to Instagram.
As such, people have been conditioned to accept the risks as described, even though reality would paint a different picture than the one portrayed (anyone remember the “shark in the mall” photograph from years ago; an outrageous example of perception versus reality). This only adds fuel to the fire of a debate in which scientists are constantly involved with the public at large: when it comes to risk, what is the disparity between the actual threats versus the way they are perceived?
This topic always brings to mind the revolutionary sci-fi movie “The Matrix,” where the world is depicted as the virtual product of a computer program to which the human population is oblivious. There is one specific scene where Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is discussing this concept with Neo (Keanu Reeves) and asks him to choose between a red or blue pill. Of these, the former would reveal the “reality” to Neo whereas the latter would ensure his ignorance of the situation remains intact. Neo ends up choosing the red one and ultimately goes on to fulfill his destiny in his “awakened” state. This is precisely how the argument between actual versus perceived risk should be framed.
One closer-to-home example that comes to mind took place towards the end of the 2018 Spring semester at one of the local private schools. There had recently been a severe sandstorm which lasted a couple of days, resulting in reduced outdoors activities and health advisory warnings for those susceptible to respiratory illnesses. Many parents chose to keep their children home until the worst had passed, after which school activities resumed as normal. However, the parents were greeted the next morning by e-mail messages urgently requesting their elementary school-aged children be picked-up and taken home. The administration had just received the latest Air Quality Index (AQI) forecast and the numbers were far from encouraging, prompting them to make an executive decision knowing all too well what the ramifications would be.
As expected, there was the mandatory level of chaos such an exercise would generate. Parents had to rearrange their schedules or take time off work to accommodate this request. That being said, the one thing that had made the situation so much worse in their eyes was how absolutely perfect the weather appeared that day: sunny skies, scattered clouds, and not a speck of dust in sight. It seemed implausible that poor air quality was the impetus behind such a logistical nightmare, and the complaints came in like a mudslide.
“What is the AQI anyway?” would be a very fair question to ask at this juncture. It is a number developed from measuring several different air pollutants, which is associated with a color-code. The value and its respective color help governments communicate the degree of air pollution to the public and, in turn, its associated severity: the higher the number, the higher the percentage of the population who are likely to suffer adverse health effects due to poor air quality.
One of these pollutants is called PM, or “particulate matter.” This can be likened to soot or fine dust. PM comes in many different sizes (denoted by a number written after “PM”), but the ones focused on the most are PM10 and PM2.5, given they are able to enter our bodies through inhalation and provoke health-related issues. As PM2.5 is the smaller of the two, its presence can affect our bodies in the worst way due to its propensity to bypass the natural defense barriers of both the nose and lungs. However, the “2.5” in this case denotes a size of 2.5 micrometers or less. To put that into perspective, a human hair is about 100 micrometers thick, implying that these particles cannot be seen with the naked eye. In fact, they cannot be observed except with the aid of an electron microscope.
What the parents of the aforementioned schoolchildren did not realize was that our five senses are poorly equipped to relay what is really happening around us at the microscopic level. In addition, whilst the air quality on the day of the storm itself is quite poor due to the sand being suspended in the air, gravity will eventually take over once the wind subsides and force that dust to deposit onto the surfaces making up our immediate environment. This process could take anywhere from a few hours to several days to complete, implying that the risks posed by poor air quality are prevalent well after the storm is over, and the fact that the day is picturesque has no bearing on this whatsoever. That is what prompted the commendable decision made by the school administration, which was the right call given the information available.
The example above is one of a plethora. Others include the risks of indoor versus outdoor pollution; nuclear energy; and climate change. The list goes on. When an opinion has been formulated on what is being perceived rather than the facts, the task of dissuasion can be very challenging, made more so by the constant bombardment of information in a 24-hour news cycle that has been accepted as the norm. Sensory overload, subliminal messaging and lack of awareness constitute a perfect storm of misguided perception, one that could have grave implications on everything from regulatory decisions to a deciding vote in a closely-fought election. How do you ensure that the foundation upon which you are basing your perspective is sound? Easy.
Take the red pill.
Bassam Shuhaibar Ph.D is an Associate Research Scientist with KISR (Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research), with an MSc and then doctorate in Philosophy from The George Washington University gained following his B.Eng in Civil and Environmental Engineering from The University College, U. of London. Follow Bassam on Instagram and Facebook as @bshuhaibar.