Alex Zimmerman

Alex Zimmerman

The Crisis of Perception and What To Do


What To Do About The Problems

I have framed both the COVID-19 and the climate change crisis as a crisis of perception. I have argued that we need fundamental change and that, hitherto, we have not paid sufficient attention to either how we get our information or the barriers to change among individuals and organizations.

In thinking about successful change initiatives that I have been involved with, one common thread comes to mind. At the heart of all significant change is the requirement to learn what the need is and then put into action what you have learned.

Both people and organizations have to take in new, valid information, collectively learn what it means, plan to do things differently, implement the planned action, then reflect on whether it is working, including taking in information that has changed from the first planning.

  1. Collectively learn what the need is

As I noted in the previous blog, the internet and social media are central to how we get information that supports our beliefs and ultimately our decision-making. I argued that the very design of the internet and social media, as they are currently constituted, are ill-suited to delivering facts, truth and views that don’t align with our existing beliefs. We all need to be operating from the same set of facts and truths. And there are some objective truths. As Nigel Goldenfeld (Swanlund Endowed Chair, Center for Advanced Study Professor in Physics, University of Illinois), said “ . . . the most basic scientific concept disturbingly missing from today’s social and political discourse is the concept that some questions have correct and clear answers”, and “ You don’t need pollsters or randomized trials to determine whether a parachute works.” I submit that climate change science falls into the correct and clear answer category and that we need to get on with building the parachute we know we need.

As Marshall McLuhan so famously pointed out decades ago, “The medium is the message”. By this he meant not so much that the actual communications channel is more important than the content of that channel but that with any innovation, especially in communication, there are many unintended consequences that we do not or cannot anticipate. These consequences often stem from the basic ground on which we operate, which, like water to a fish, we are not aware of. With the internet and social media, we were quick to embrace the ability to instantly access information, communicate with anyone anywhere and to generate one-to-many messages. There are all capabilities that most of us did not possess before, as this was controlled by traditional publishing and broadcasting media. What we seem to have overlooked, is that the basic human tendency to gossip, spread unfounded rumour, propagate hate speech and tell lies was also greatly amplified, without the signal-damping checks and gate-keeping that are inherent in traditional media.

 There have been increasing calls in the last few years for some kind of regulation of social media companies. This debate has largely been prompted by and focused on the continual parade of data leaks, privacy scandals and questionable business practices, from Cambridge Analytica to Russian interference in elections to a myriad of Facebook scandals. This is necessary and useful debate but I would argue that it is not sufficient.

I think it is time that we look seriously at limiting some forms of what can be said on social media. Immediately, some will cry – “we can’t limit free speech!” In the USA people will point to their First Amendment rights. These rights do exist, but all societies, including the USA, already accept some limits to what can be said in public.

Libel is the first example that comes to mind. We are not free to say just anything derogatory we feel like in public about someone else, if it is not true. It is a criminal code offence in Canada: “A defamatory libel is matter published, without lawful justification or excuse, that is likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or that is designed to insult the person of or concerning whom it is published.” In the USA, libel is more usually a civil matter, but even so there are 15 states and U.S. territories have criminal libel statutes (According to a report updated in September 2015 by the International Press Institute).

There are other limits to free expression. As US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously opined in 1919, someone “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic” is not protected speech. Speech that is dangerous and also true may be protected but speech that is dangerous and false is not.

It seems to me that, like COVID-19 conspiracy theories, climate change science denial is strongly akin to both libel, in that it causes a great deal of harm, and also to falsely shouting fire in a theatre, in that it causes people to do absolutely the wrong thing based on untruths. So, while I don’t have the exact prescription for how best to go about it, I think there is a case for putting limits on this kind of speech, as part of the response to the existential threat posed by the climate crisis.

The solution should involve a great deal of structured public engagement, which I will talk about below.

  1. Put into action what we have learned

One of the things that the study of management and change management has taught us is that there are tools and techniques for managing large-scale change successfully, although these are rarely implemented well.

One of the more useful change management tools is articulated in Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. It is called the Learning Wheel and is an elaboration of Kolb’s Experiental Learning style model, which ultimately had its roots in Deming’s “Plan-Do-Study-Act” management cycle. At its core it describes a cycle of Reflecting, Connecting, Deciding, Doing. Although put forward more than 25 years ago, I found it useful then and believe it is still relevant, with perhaps an additional emphasis on how and where valid information is obtained for the Connecting phase, in the era of the internet.

The image at the beginning of the blog a slide that shows my take on it, done during an organizational exercise some time ago.

What I added to the representation of the wheel was how the Connecting, Deciding, Doing, Reflecting cycle might be characterized for public organizations and also what type of individual preferred learning style (as described by Kolb: Accommodators, Systems Thinkers, Divergent Thinkers, Convergent Thinkers) is best suited to each phase of the cycle.

So how would this apply to the climate crisis and in particular the issue of public engagement that leads to meaningful action?

  • It seems to me that society, specifically our major institutions and businesses, need to recognize the need for this kind of parsing of the challenge in the first place.
  • Societally, we need to recognize that, despite the shortcomings of existing organizational and governmental models and structures, there is a need to deploy a more collaborative Learning Wheel type approach (or something like it that recognizes inherent resistance to change) to implement the changes that are needed.
    • Recognize that we are publicly failing, mainly in the Reflecting and Connecting part of the cycle, in my view. There seems to be plenty of Deciding (although inadequate and much of it wrong) and some Doing (also inadequate).
    • Consult people on a vast scale, on their beliefs, values, perceptions, concerns before trying to come to a consensus on what needs to change
    • Find more collaborative ways to reflect back what was learned in the consultation, and feed back what the perceived consensus is.
    • Don’t use a one-size-misfits-all approach during consultation and consensus-building: recognize people’s different learning styles.

Where can we find instances or models of this kind of approach, that exists in parallel to our governmental decision-making processes? The one that comes to mind is a Citizen’s Assembly. Here in British Columbia, such a body was set up some years ago to look into and de-politicize the question of electoral reform. Excellent work was done by a group of citizens based on sound data, learning and careful non-partisan deliberation. Their recommendations nearly carried the day in the subsequent referendum, and would have, had the bar not been set so high.

As noted at the beginning, this consideration of how change happens in individuals and groups is only another layer or parallel consideration to the whole challenge, but I think it can’t be ignored.

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