Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Some random thoughts.

So, I've been having  a bit of a think. Some people consider what I do (systems biology) to be quite complex. It's not. Sure, some of it can take a bit to get your head around and it's not something you'd want to try and knock off in a spare afternoon, but once you get into the topic - not that complex.
Even if it was though, I think there is a general responsibility incumbent upon most academic work to be able to communicate the nature of that work to the public, especially if at the end of the day, they are paying for it. Thus doesn't mean dumbing it down, it means taking a little bit longer and putting a bit more effort into explaining what I do rather than using the language I would use to communicate with other scientists in similar fields. This bit, I've been confident of for some time.
The point is, that people are not dumb, the information they are getting is ... substandard at best. The NZ Herald's reading age is 9. That is, they expect a 9 year old of average intelligence to be able to read it. I'm not getting all dismissive of 9 year old's here, there are probably some quite clever ones about, but seriously, if the medium of communication between the politicians and the public operates at levels comfortable for 9 year old's, is it any wonder that there is a huge disconnect. People are also creatures of habit, if they only ever pick up the Herald, they are never going to expect anything better.
People can follow complex ideas if they are explained well. And the governing of a nation is a complex thing. Someone tells you the free market can solve it all - wrong, it's a complex economic system being shoehorned into a simplistic system. Someone tells you that tax is theft and we should just get rid of it - complex system, simple idea. Someone tells you the police are fascist thugs and if we just got rid of them then we'd all just get along - again simple idea trying to be made to fit a complex system. Yet try an explain an economic system as interactions between humans (rather than self interested rational actors) and I think people would listen.

Two things need to improve - the quality of the information being communicated to the public needs improving and the public need to get over the habitual instinct that a national newspaper can provide sufficient insight into how the  modern world works.  I read fairly widely, I think the information is there. it's not being provided though. The getting people to break their habits though - tricky. Short of setting up evening classes on how to find and read news with a minimum of effort every day, I'm not sure how one goes about this. Not that I'm adverse to setting up evening classes, I'm just not sure how to go about it.

If the communication is there, then public demand for better information will mean that the people who run around NZ pretending to be serious media organizations will either wither away or pick up their game. Either way, we stand a much better chance of people getting involved in the political process. Or at least I hope so.

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