Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S3. EPISODE 12
Misinformation, Climate Momentum, and Negative Headlines
Featuring Bina Venkataraman
Is there a shift in momentum around the climate crisis? Will we ever hit our environmental goals? How has gatekeeping and bias informed our news? Plus, we talk with Editor-at-Large for The Boston Globe and former Senior Advisor for Climate Change Innovation in the Obama White House, Bina Venkataraman.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m here with Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are wrapping up our third season of What Could Go Right?, our conversations with stimulating, atypical, intriguing individuals with distinctive voices, not animated by outrage, not motivated by fear, trying to look at what we are doing in the world to solve the problems we have rather than adding to the cacophonous noise, creating many of the problems that we all know that we have. And certainly, coming out of the midterms, which I believe most of us were pleasantly relieved and/or surprised, did not amount to the sum of all of our fears, if not a return to normalcy. I mean, after all, what was normalcy? Has the past few years shown us that what we thought was normal was either anomalous or not quite what we thought? But either way, maybe the beginning of a degree of guardrails around the most extreme antinomian forces threatening to tear us all apart societally, a return to or the new beginnings of a degree of consensus that we have to have some consensus about the rules of the game and the road. Otherwise, everything falls apart. So we’re gonna talk to someone today who’s been at the epicenter of media and has focused a lot on these very questions about what we do in a world where there is a lot of information, and almost by definition, a world with a lot of information is also a world with misinformation and sadly as well a world with disinformation. So, Emma, tell us about our guest today.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today, we’re gonna be speaking with Bina Venkataraman who’s editor-at-large at The Boston Globe from 2019 to 2022. She was the editorial page editor there where she led its editorial board and oversaw the Opinion section. Previous to that, she taught at MIT’s program on science, technology, and society, and also directed policy initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard, as well as MIT. She was a senior advisor for climate change innovation in the Obama White House. And before all of that, she was a reporter at the Globe as well as The New York Times. And she’s the author of The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, which is named best book of 2019 by NPR, Amazon, and Science Friday.
ZK: So let’s speak with Bina. Bina, thanks so much for joining us today. You’ve been, I think, at the epicenter for the past few years of race in America, climate change policy, media, disinformation, misinformation, and democracy. So clearly, you haven’t been focusing on the central issues of our day, which is fine. Everybody gets to choose their passions. I think let’s focus a little on some of what you’ve been doing recently and this kind of intersection of, I guess, misinformation and climate misinformation and democracy, right? So you’ve been a writer and a creator of let’s call it media content, but you’ve also been on the other side of the– maybe not the fence, but you’ve been on the gatekeeping side of helping decide what makes its way into media content, at least centrally on a major platform. So what’s your, I guess, take on that given those roles first, right? Particularly on the gatekeeper part. You know, a lot of us, me included, who are in the occasional business of providing content are peripherally aware of just like the fire hose of stuff that comes at platforms and we’re beginning to find some of that even in a smaller form with The Progress Network. But I’m kind of interested from you what that did in terms of changing your sense of like that line between information, opinion, and outright misinformation.
Bina Venkataraman (BV): It’s a great question and there are no neat and clean answers to this problem because I think we’re just like sort of at the beginning of really grappling with it, I think, as a society and as media leaders, but as an editor who oversaw an editorial board and the opinion coverage of a major paper, as you’ve said, major platform, The Boston Globe, I think there were kind of two ways in which I was looking at this problem of mis and disinformation. One is, of course, being responsible gatekeeper, as you call it, or arbiter of credible truth-based, evidence-based opinion in a world where there’s cacophony of opinions and anyone can publish their opinions on any topic at any given moment in time on Reddit or Twitter or Facebook or anywhere else. And so the sort of bar of what a journalistic institution or organization does and what kind of opinions or ideas it puts in the world, I think just becomes higher in the world and the ecosystem of information that we exist in and knowing that, right, these sources of mis and disinformation are out there, that they’re everything from everyday people who are just making kind of innocent mistakes and sharing a post on Facebook about something that they might not understand, maybe they’re afraid of the vaccine, they share some piece of information, and they’re therefore accidentally spreading misinformation about something, ranges from that all the way to sort of major influencers, celebrities, or former presidents who put out messages that they might knowingly recognize as false, like that the election in 2020 was stolen or that there was widespread fraud at the polls in Georgia or Arizona. And those kinds of problems, right, are very, very different in terms of how you think about containing them. And the media is only one part of that sort of problem and solution set and ecosystem. So this brings me to the sort of second part. So there’s the being an arbiter of truth and having really high standards for the grounding of fact when– because opinion, you know, to some degree there’s some flexibility in opinion with, you know, we don’t just stick to the facts. You lean out and say what you think, but holding that standard that that should be underpinned by the truth– and then so the second part of it, sorry to jump around here for a moment, is that recognizing that the media is only one part of it, and that we exist in this environment where the business models for media have been strained over the past decades, that we have these very rigorous and strict paywalls for a lot of news content, including The Boston Globe’s. And then in other instances, there’s very ad-driven content like Breitbart or any number of sites, whether they’re on the right or left side of the spectrum, where the content basically gets more attention based on the amount of ideological outrage at the amount of kind of eyeballs it can garner based on how sensational it is or how relevant it is depending on how you wanna look at that. And so I think that the other way I’ve begun to look at this problem is just to sort of try to study and understand how do we go about solving the underlying problems that allow people to believe in lies or false statements, how do we go about reassembling, reestablishing some degree of trust, communities that can combat misinformation, how does that problem get solved. And so more as sort of a journalist and as a reporter, putting on my sort of writer and researcher hat, I’ve tried to look at where there might be examples of communities that have fought mis and disinformation, or at least where the record has been corrected or where the course has been corrected.
EV: So, Bina, I’m gonna do a perhaps very annoying thing and ask your own question back at you because that’s what I wanna know is like where the potential pass forward could be. Obviously, you know, we’re all in the same industry here in the media and sometimes when we talk about misinformation and what intakers of news can do to be able to spot it, I feel like we’re almost talking about teaching calculus when we haven’t taught basic math. Like when I’ve talked to just friends of mine, like they don’t know the difference between an op-ed and, you know, straightforward reporting. If I have that conversation about what’s the difference, they’re like, well, where does it say that it’s an op-ed? You know, we’re at that kind of basic level. So I’m really curious to hear, you know, during your, your research and reporting what you have seen that has worked.
BV: You’re absolutely right. I mean, I think one of the challenges– one of the things I discovered in diving into this topic a little bit is that there’s some research done by a Stanford researcher named Joel Breakstone that actually indicates that people are very confused about these sources of content, the delineations between opinion and news. But even more, I think, perilously, people are very confused, particularly looking at high school students you expect to be sort of digitally savvy, they’re very confused about the difference between sponsored content, which news organizations, people like me understand and probably people like you understand to be content that comes from advertisers that isn’t subject to the same standards that journalism is subject to. It’s sort of motivated by the advertiser’s goal to sell you something. They have trouble distinguishing between that and the veritable journalism of a site. And if you think about it, it kind of makes sense that people are confused by that because [laughs], we label it as sponsored content, but a lot of the content resembles news articles or resembles sort of our opinion columns that we post. And so I see a lot of responsibility, in what we’re learning about the sources of confusion and mistrust. I see a lot more responsibility as an editor and as someone who is a leader in media to kind of rethink some of these modes in which we communicate, including that way of communicating that something is opinion versus from the news side, which is something that in the print era was a little more clear because you were in the news part of the newspaper and then you would flip into the sections [laughs] that would be marked very clearly as opinion. And now we have these atomized pieces that get spread all around, and they might say opinion on them, and they usually do, but are people really looking at that? Are they really understanding the difference? And how does that contaminate their idea when they read news because they’ve read something that’s very clearly coming from a politically motivated place in the same newspaper or news organization’s platform that they’re then expected to read something very factual that tells them, you know, the vaccine’s safe for you, and they get confused about what’s politically motivated and what’s commercially motivated and what’s not. And so all of that is, you know, just agreeing with your diagnosis of the problem but you ask students sort of what works. And I think we’re still in the very early days, so I would say since 2016, the awareness of mis and disinformation as a problem has just sort of surged, right? Because we’ve seen the sort of start consequences, whether it’s the pandemic and people not getting vaccinated or it’s the outcome of elections and how people trust or don’t trust them, the stakes are just getting extremely high. But, you know, obviously this problem has been around since information has been around, but the scale of it and the scope of it and what’s possible online is really extraordinary. And a couple of things that have come about from my reporting, so I did a little bit of digging into a couple of cases in Maine where politicians who were spreading lies about election fraud walked back their statements. And, you know, that sounds like a very low bar. Like they corrected the record after spreading lies and tried to understand why that had happened. And part of it has to do with sort of physical geographic communities where there’s a sort of local ground truthing of reality. And where that’s possible, that can actually be a way of combating mis and disinformation. And what makes me– you know, it’s small and marginal to say like, okay, if there’s a community of trust, and if someone you know can go and check out whether that that claim is true or false, and then you can hear from that person you know, that can actually be a source, right, of ground truthing and correcting a lie or correcting mis and disinformation. And that doesn’t sound very potent or powerful when you look at those sort of driving forces of algorithmic spreading of lies and sort of how that propagates online. But I think we also have to remember that we’ve been in a reality, since early 2020, where people are very disconnected from physical contact and geographic content, and that’s beginning to change again now, right? Like people are coming back out of their shells and gathering again, you know, fears of new variants and flu season and RSV and COVID notwithstanding, people are in more proximity to each other. And I think that that’s a really good trend based on what I’ve discovered about the communities that have been able to do things like walk back these lies or put sort of the breaks on these lies because we need to be gathering in space with people. And for that matter, we know that that’s good in terms of polarization, right? Like being exposed to people who think differently than us in real time, in real space, not just seeing their diatribes that they post on Facebook.
ZK: I wanna get into something a little wonky for a moment. I’m on the board of PEN America, and, you know, we’ve done some studies of these issues as well, but that there is a more than semantic difference between misinformation and disinformation, you know, misinformation being incorrect, but not necessarily willfully or politically motivated incorrect. And then disinformation, which is the purposeful spreading of wrong information, false lies for political and/or other purposes. And I think there’s an over tendency at times in a partisan climate to label misinformation disinformation, meaning we don’t necessarily allow for good faith propagation of incorrect information, particularly when it’s a partisan thing. And, like, so I wonder if you’ve thought about that at all when you’ve looked into this. And even to the point where, you know, we had this a lot in COVID where in the rush for kind of certainty about outcomes, you’d have a lot of journalists who were not familiar with like reading scientific papers and then editors who wanted a good headline. So you’d get a headline saying 60% of COVID patients do X, you know, whatever X was, and it was based on one non-peer-reviewed early print scientific survey of 180 people. So it was like, you know, 90 people out of 170 in one scientific study but then the information became 60% are X. I mean, that’s a small example. So I mean, what do you do with all that?
BV: Yeah. And it’s such an important distinction. It’s why I said there’s a real spectrum here from like the person who just innocently shares something that they believe to be true, right? Like shares a Facebook post to someone who like deliberately propagates. It’s such as like an easy way to distinguish, right? Is it a lie versus just spreading innocently, spreading a falsehood. And I think there’s actually a lot more leverage points with the people who are good-faith actors, right? So there’s the opportunity to create more skepticism of sources and more sort of like cross-checking and ways of looking at the underlying motivations of the sites where you’re looking at a deep fake or where you’re looking at a claim. And for journalists, you know, the training that’s necessary to parse the claims that are out there is so critical. And I think your point about the way the coverage of COVID-19 unfolded is really important. You know, I’ve been a science journalist basically for my whole career. I’ve worked at this intersection of science and communication for 20 some years, and the value that people recognize now after COVID in having journalists and arbiters who can really ask the rigorous questions like is this study peer-reviewed? Is this a meta-analysis or is this one study with a small sample size? How do we know what we know? How does the scientist making this claim? And also what portion of this policy is about the evidence base and what portion of this policy is about politics? Like, that’s a really important question to ask because that bears on, you know, the question of whether there should be mask mandates or whether there should be closures or social distancing. And politics and science, right, like go hand in hand. And this idea that we just make decisions purely based on science is sort of like– it just doesn’t happen, right? We make decisions based on values. That happens in our individual lives, it happens in our politics. And so, and frankly, it should be that way, right? We’re always balancing evidence and information and science with other kinds of objectives, but really being able to understand that and scrutinize that for people so they can really understand the basis of decisions and make their own decisions and judgments, whether that’s holding leaders accountable, voting people out or in is so critical. And so I think that it is important to think about these different problems. I think where you have like vectors of true disinformation, those bad faith actors, right? There’s where you need sort of like policy, whether that’s internal policy within these social media platforms to tamp down their lies or to prevent them from being able to go viral, right? To put some friction between them and sort of a mass audience. Of course it’s hard when people are political leaders or sports stars and they’re spreading things that are outright lies. It’s really hard to do that, but there needs to be some friction. But then there’s sort of like the innocence with which we’re all coming to information online, which I think the pendulum is starting to swing away. So I think, right, if you think about like the internet and what the promise of the internet was supposed to be and this free forum for people to express themselves and people being able to hear from the young protestors in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring and being able to hear from the Iranian women now who are casting off the hijab or, you know, anywhere around the world, if you think about the kinds of information and stories we’ve been able to get because of the internet and because of the ways people can post things online in an unfiltered way, there’s been a beauty to that and there has been a lot of truth amidst other kinds of information and hate and lies and all the things we know are also out there. And I think there’s an innocence with which we as audiences have all come to the internet and to these platforms, right? We know the people we connected with on Facebook in the early days. They were all people who were first-person known to us, sharing information about their lives, posting pictures and recipes, showing us their family photos from the holidays. And now, right? Like there’s this kind of recognition that that trusted environment and that innocence we came to these places with is not serving us, right? And there’s a growing awareness of that. It’s too small now, but I think we’re gonna get to a place where the pendulum is gonna swing towards people just approaching this information with greater skepticism the way you would if you were like walking by a crazy person on soapbox in the middle of the street and like, you know, you would just be like, okay, what are you saying exactly? Like, do I buy any of this or are you just like a crazy person? You know? Like, I think we need to be able to come to these sources with a little bit more of that skepticism and a little bit less of the innocence.
EV: Yeah, we’re older now and hopefully starting to get wiser. You know, and to pick up on this like pendulum swing visualization, which I like a lot, and to pick up on another topic that you’ve dealt with for quite some time, and it’s another topic that, you know, is very close into the science and communication intersection, that’s climate. You know, you did a piece relatively recently in the Globe about how you felt like you finally started to see the politics pendulum start to swing positively for climate in the US. Some time has passed since that article came out. Do you still feel that way? Are you still feeling positive about the politics in the US changing from, you know, our heels are really dug in into finally money is flowing and action is happening?
BV: Absolutely. I mean, Emma, I feel in some ways it’s not just optimism about the politics and the policy. So this is a pretty seminal piece of legislation for anyone who hasn’t gotten into the details and geeked out on this yet. I mean, this is really the most significant piece of climate legislation in US history. Kind of by the numbers, $374 billion in investment in zero carbon and low carbon technologies, innovation for resilience, electric vehicles, heat pumps, like all kinds of sort of groundbreaking technologies. And from an approach that is actually a bit agnostic about what specifically those technologies should be. So driving innovation in a way that is really broad-based to be open-ended about the possibilities of innovation that could create alternative sources of fuel, alternative sources of energy efficiency, and all of that is extremely promising. And in fact, I think we’re almost not optimistic enough about what this legislation can do. I mean, there was a report that came out from Credit Suisse, the investment bank, that showed that while the sort of literal amount of money in this bill dedicated to tax credits and investments of these kinds for clean energy and climate friendly technologies is, you know, around that order, $374 billion, that a lot of those tax credits aren’t actually capped. So the potential for them, as the engine of the economy gets going on these technologies, as there’s more investments and more companies and startups flooding this space, more talent going into this, there’s so many talented people getting involved in climate entrepreneurship in different ways, that that could potentially be something more in the order of $800 billion of federal investment in climate technology. So I’m very optimistic about that. And, yes, the problem is getting worse. Yes, we have more heat waves, floods, fires, and droughts, and the costs of that are only growing exponentially year to year, climate disaster is very real and we are seeing its impacts all around the world, but political and social change are non-linear, and we are seeing something happen now. I think a tipping point with this legislation and with the momentum it’s going to generate in the economy, not just the momentum it’s generating politically, that I think can do a lot. I think it can accomplish a lot in terms of cutting emissions. And the questions is always gonna be, is it gonna be fast enough? Is it far enough, fast enough? Because we’re always racing against the clock with this problem.
ZK: Although, I mean, it does remain indicative of the world that we’re in in the United States that the most significant climate funding bill ever was called the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. I mean, I was trying to think like of a parallel– what if the Civil Rights Act had been called The Free Commerce and Car Driving Act of 1964? I mean, it would’ve been true, right? ‘Cause it would’ve led to some degree of [laughs] civil rights or, you know, the Clean Air Act would be the Patio and Picnic Act of 1973. I mean, it is odd that that’s the title we gave it, right?
BV: Absolutely. I mean, it’s Orwellian that this is how we name things and that this is how our politics works. And for that matter, that no single Republican in either house of Congress voted to support this bill when climate change– you know, it’s not as if the representatives of people in Florida, you know, those Republican representatives should be all for this, right? You know, think of the real estate, think of the lives that are threatened by each of these hurricanes. There’s no reason why this should be a partisan issue and yet somehow our politics is so broken on this and a number of other issues that it is. So I’m not trying to cast that in a light where I’m saying that now our politics is just totally great on this issue and we’re being real about what we’re actually doing. Right? The fact that you have to Trojan Horse these things with these strange names that have nothing to do with what they’re actually accomplishing is not exciting. It’s not great. It’s not in the interest of truth and sort of reality-based governing, but the outcome of this bill and what I think it can do in terms of creating economic engines for addressing climate change is not to be underestimated. And I think I get a little bit concerned that people who are worried about environmental disaster, which I am one and have been for very long time, are unable to accept progress. And I think it’s really important within the context of movements and efforts to change policy that you take the wins and you build momentum with the wins because you’re gonna build a broader base of people who are committed to change when you are willing to acknowledge that there’s progress and use that as a way to create hope and create momentum.
ZK: So I wanna end with a question to kind of link these two. There is the climate science and what we currently know about the realities of warming and the realities of the impact of human behavior, and then there’s also just a lot we don’t know about the future ’cause it’s a vastly complicated multi-variant system. So we have lots of probabilities and fears and hopes and projections about how all these things might go 10, 20, 30 years out and the international climate panels try to collate vast amounts of global research and come up with probabilities. The way in which a lot of that gets then translated into both media and then policy is much more reductive, right? The science tends to be spectrums of probabilities and possibilities, but then the political discussion ends up being if we don’t do something about this right now a hundred percent different tomorrow, we’re all gonna be underwater in 20 years. And that’s one of the probability pathways, right? But it’s in a spectrum. How do you combat the political tendencies of misinformation? Meaning distorting the unknown to force unknown for perfectly legitimate political purposes while also being advocates or also trying to highlight what’s an issue?
BV: It’s such a great question, Zach, and I’ve been thinking about this too with respect to COVID 19, where, you know, the simplicity of the messaging, right? Wanting to give people clear guidance on whether you need to mask or not mask indoors, you know, those sorts of things. We lose a lot of nuance and the fact that the science is changing, right? We are constantly learning new things. That’s particularly true in an emerging crisis like a pandemic. But it’s also true in the climate. We’re learning new things all the time. We have a general sense of what we’re facing. Political messaging, and for that matter, a lot of media messaging, I think you’re right, is reductive and simplistic and we presume that people can’t deal well with nuance and complexity. And I’m not entirely sure that that approach to things is the best way because I think it becomes self-fulfilling if we assume that people can’t deal with nuance, they won’t be able to deal with nuance because we’re constantly giving them sort of black and white and dichotomous choices and sort of binaries. And then when we tell them that things have shifted or changed or emerged, they’re confused and they say, you know, why has this changed? We thought coffee was bad for us yesterday and now you’re saying coffee is good for us. And, well, the evidence base has changed. And, you know, so I don’t know that there’s a clear answer to your question except that I think we need to grapple more with nuance. I think we’re losing a lot of nuance in our political conversations and in our media conversations, but we need to do that in a way that is easy enough for people to grab onto what they can do because I think people will despair at the presence of complexity in the absence of any agency. So they need clear steps they can take, what to vote for, should they vote to, you know, make renewable more possible at the local level or with their public utility boards, how should they do things, but also not to have things totally dumbed down and oversimplified so that you lose trust, right? So if you tell people that the pandemic is over and it’s not over, you’re gonna lose trust, right? If you tell people that the world is gonna end after certain degrees of warming and then it doesn’t end, you’re gonna lose trust, right? So I think it’s important to have deadlines, it’s important to have clear mandates about actions, it’s important to drive people towards targets, right? Like it was important to do that for the countries with the 1.5°C warming over pre-industrial levels, but you don’t wanna oversimplify the message and say, you know, if we don’t miss this, like if we don’t get here, you know, the world ends or we’ve completely failed. And I fear that that kind of messaging has taken over in a lot of these areas of complex science, and particularly with climate change and that it has an effect, right? That people will give up instead of keep going, recognizing that every degree that we prevent of warming really is going to matter.
ZK: I love that line. I’m gonna shamelessly steal it if I remember it, about people will despair complexity in the absence of agency, which I think is such a well put way of, you know, it’s not that most humans can’t handle nuance, given that we’ve been trying to learn that with pretty sophisticated brains for thousands of years. It’s the feeling of, you know, what do I do with this? And even that can sometimes be a more nuanced answer. The what do I I do with it. But there have to be some answers. So thank you for that. And thank you for the conversation. You’ve been a really acute voice and I look forward to continuing to follow what you do and listen to what you say.
BV: Thank you so much. Thanks for the great questions. It’s been lovely talking to both of you.
EV: Thank you, Bina.
Audio Clip: –things society can do to limit climate change, by far the most vital and consequential is transitioning our energy sector from fossil fuels to clean energy to stop the flow of planet warming climate pollution. Time is of the essence. Thus, the pace and scale of the change needed to avoid dangerous warming requires nothing short of a herculean effort. It’s hard enough as it is, but now, a deceptive nationwide effort to oppose renewable energy threatens to slow efforts even further.
ZK: So, Emma, as I said at the end, I do love the degree to which Bina– first of all, it’s interesting to talk to somebody who’s been both a gatekeeper and somebody who’s tried to and successfully maneuver through those gates. often, I mean, this is a bit inside baseball in the media world, but often editors and producers are editors and producers and writers are writers or people on air are on air. Oddly enough, these are not professions that necessarily go together and to have someone who’s aware of both what it is to try to get your voice heard through elite outlets that have gatekeepers and also having been on the other side of it, like that’s in and of itself very valuable to listen to. But her perspective of, hey, wait a minute, the need for binary simple black and whites can often be really counterproductive, really destructive in a world where there’s not a whole lot of black and whites. I mean, there’s some, if I drink a lot of bleach, I’m probably gonna die. But if I jump off a building, I’m probably not gonna fly. If I love the people around me, my life will probably be richer for it. You know, those are things that are generally true. Other than that, I think there’s a lot fewer black and whites than we think.
EV: Yeah. And I’m particularly glad that she brought up the specific example of the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming target, because I think she’s absolutely correct that that simplification of that target has led to a lot of despair. Because on the one hand, you have a reality where at this point, I’m not saying that the unexpected can’t happen, but it’s probably delusional to think that we’re gonna hit, you know, 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 or 2050 or whatever we wanna do. Probably not gonna happen. And people do have this viewpoint that if we hit 1.5, like game over. I know I had a view somewhat like that before two or three years ago when I started to look into what more people in the climate arena were saying for this particular job. And that’s when I was like, oh, wait a second. I didn’t even realize that the Paris Agreement said 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius was an open target and that, you know, it would be better to have 1.5, but if we get to 1.6, like that’s still manageable. It’s just like we’re trying to–like Bina said, the lower the better. But I really don’t think that that has filtered into a lay understanding of climate at all. And I think exactly that leads to a lot of the despair and anxiety.
ZK: And look, you know, the nuanced view would say any system, any equilibrium has a tipping point. But we don’t know exactly what that tipping point is. We know that it exists. These debates used to be had, and this is obviously less of an existential issue, but it certainly used to be had and continues to be had, and now that I’m saying this, will be had a lot next year with the Republicans in control of the House about what level of debt and public spending will lead the system to implode or tip over. And that’s an open question, right? We know there is an endpoint, like that a system can only sustain so much imbalance. But frankly, in most of these systems, particularly when they’re fluid, particularly when they’re subject to lots of inputs and lots of human decisions, identifying that output is really hard. It’s not like a science experiment where we know at what point water boils under certain atmospheric conditions because we’ve been able to run those experiments enough times that we can say, oh, yes, at this temperature, at these atmospheric conditions, water boils. But most of life isn’t a closed scientific system where you get to run thousands of experiments and identify the actual tipping points. So things like 1.5 or an attempt to sort of plant your flag or stick a finger in the wind and hope that you’re loosely defining some point in the not too distant future where you think there’s gonna be a critical shift, but without then acknowledging that that’s what you’re doing, right? There’s no hard and fast scientific reality about future outcomes that we have yet to experience, except for the fact that I’m sure we could say that 20 or 30 degrees Celsius of climate change would be a problem even for anyone who wants to say maybe not [laughs].
EV: [laughs]. Yeah. And I think that the other problem that’s come along with not clearly communicating and then understanding that uncertainty is then like a lot of moral righteousness. You know, like there’s definitely this whole thing out there about being a good environmentalist or like being a good climate change person. You know, try drinking with a plastic straw these days. You’re gonna get the hairy eyeball, in Greece for sure, I don’t know about the US [laughs]. But I think the interesting question there is like, yes, the journalists have a responsibility, but only journalists can really solve that problem. And then what’s the responsibility that people have as consumers of the news? And I’m not sure if I have the answer.
ZK: Maybe we should just rename The Progress Network. We can call it The Nuance Network, The-
ZK: -Uncertainty Network. That would really work. That’s a rebranding not exercise. So on that note, let’s talk about the news of the week.
EV: So we’re gonna start with a quick positive climate one. I did pick this because it’s about Greece and there’s lots of negative news about Greece all the time in the news and almost nothing positive. Since we were talking to Bina about climate, good news from Greece, renewable energy sources accounted for 47% of Greece’s electricity generation for the first 10 months of 2022. And that surpassed the share of fossil fuels for the first time. It’s funny ’cause renewables are definitely controversial in Greece. There’s a lot of pushback against wind turbines in particular, but I wanted to highlight it as well because when we talk about climate, we tend to talk about the same countries over and over and over again.
ZK: And the pushback against wind turbines is the same as it is in a lot of countries, that people don’t want them nearby. They don’t want the noise, they don’t want the view.
EV: They don’t want the view, particularly in Greece because we are so proud of our, you know, beautiful natural view. And then there’s a decent amount of incorrect information out there about how wind turbines alter the migratory patterns of birds and alter the ecosystem,-
EV: -which I’ve looked into and it’s not correct, but [laughs], it’s out there. The narrative is out there for sure.
ZK: I mean, it might alter the migratory patterns of humans about which view they look at on which island, but I don’t know about the birds. I don’t know that birds are going, oh, man, we used to fly over there. It was such a pretty view of the bay and now it’s all different.
EV: [laughs]. No, because of the-
ZK: Oh, it’s the air currents being created.
EV: -you know, impact of the– yeah.
ZK: Oh right, yeah.
EV: Yeah, yeah.
ZK: It’s not an aesthetic thing.
ZK: Yeah. I got it. I got it.
EV: No, but the human objection is an aesthetic one, and I think it’s a little bit like– to be honest, I’ve been on islands where you can see wind turbines out, you know, on the mountains and it kind of looks kind of cool. Like, I don’t know, it makes you feel like we’re in the tech future.
ZK: I agree. I find wind turbines strangely, like hypnotically, oddly appealing compared to so many other things. I mean, they’re way better than like a belching smoke factory, although I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder. There used to be a line 20 years ago when China was dealing with pollution, and they’re still dealing with it, but they were really, really confronting their first wave of industrial pollution, and the apocryphal story is like, you know, a younger Chinese man is riding a train with a business tycoon and he’s despairing about the fact that the air is– it’s all smoggy and he can’t see the mountains and he says something to the older tycoon about it, and the tycoon says, what are you talking about? I look out the window and I see progress.
ZK: And, you know, until you stop seeing pollution as progress and see it as pollution, it– I feel the same way a little bit about, you know, until you stop seeing wind turbines as an environmental, like aesthetic blight and see them instead as a key to the future, your optic is gonna be very different.
EV: Oh, I guess they could say the same to us, but we’ll leave that for-
EV: -[laughs] another conversation. So next piece of news apropos of our discussion with Bina about the media landscape. This is not a piece of good news. It’s actually a piece of bad news, but we’re bringing it up because I think a lot of people feel– like you mentioned, you know, the fire hose of information coming at journalists in the beginning of the episode, people reading the news and watching, listening to the news also feel like it’s a fire hose of information and it’s particularly a fire hose of negative information. And they’ve actually done research for the first time. This research was just published in Al Jazeera from three researchers in the New Zealand, studied the headlines in the US over the last 20 years, 2000 and 2019. They actually are more negative. They actually do carry more fear, anger, and disgust. So it’s not just in your head, guys. It has now been shown that it is a worse media landscape in terms of negativity.
ZK: And this is where I think social media is a contributing factor. And as you know, I’ve been repetitive and I suppose somewhat stubborn in my saying that we wanna look at the positives of social media and the degree to which it still is connective tissue. And I believe that, and we use social media all the time as the vital tools for The Progress Network and for ideas that we think are more constructive to enter the ether. These are the channels through which you do so. But the financial imperatives of social media in terms of both attention seeking and attention grabbing, absolutely, privilege, fear, outrage, touching those kind of hot emotion buttons because they are much more immediate buttons and that’s what works in an immediacy world. So it’s not surprising that that skew is now evident in terms of headlines. And it’s funny, you see that skew most in terms of headlines in that often those headlines, I’ve certainly experienced this on the writing end of it, it’s very hard to come up with a catchy headline that does justice to, as Bina talked about, a nuanced piece. And often a headline is way, way more reductive and extreme than the resulting piece is. But the headline’s what grabs attention and it grabs attention in that you don’t even need people to read the piece at a commercial level, right? You need them to click onto the headline, but you don’t really need them to read the piece, which is kind of sad but true.
EV: Yeah. I should say also in defense of headline writers everywhere, having written headlines myself, it’s difficult and it is really hard. You know, sometimes you just wanna say like, here’s a really long and interesting piece about culture and religion and you should read it, but like [laughs] you can’t put that out there, obviously.
EV: So, you know, like being [inaudible]–
ZK: Take your medicine.
EV: Yeah. It’s good, I swear. Just give me five minutes. Like Bina said, there’s financial incentives for journalism outlets as well. So before we move on into the next piece, I’m also gonna add probably the question that people are thinking about when it comes to the negative headlines. Whose fault is it, right-leaning media or left-leaning media? They said that the rise of headlines with fear and a decrease of emotionally neutral headlines is both right-leaning and left-leaning media, but in particular, right-leaning outlets tend to use headlines conveying more anger.
ZK: I wonder if left-leaning convey more fear, but either way.
EV: Headlines with more fear and less emotional neutrality is on both sides. Right-leaning media in particular has more anger.
Good to know.
EV: There you go. And a couple of state wins before we sign off. A few months ago, Maryland made the news for announcing that the administration of the governor would eliminate the requirement of a four-year degree for a lot of state jobs. And at this point, they’ve hired almost 2,000 people without four-year degrees into various postings.
Audio Clip: Governor Larry Hogan announced a new protocol for hiring state employees that could affect thousands of those looking for a job.
The first state in the nation to formally eliminate the four-year college degree requirement from thousands of state jobs.
EV: We’re now seeing that start to pop up around the country as a discussion, especially since college is so inordinately expensive. So that’s one piece. And the one that’s related to that is that The Hechinger Report just announced that they’re expecting colleges to drop their prices in 2024 significantly, and that they have studied the pace of the rate of increase of tuition, and it’s finally started to slow down. Especially in relation to inflation, prices have actually dropped already.
ZK: I bet it’s gonna be a long time before that piece of reality percolates into any degree of popular consciousness. Again, back to your headline, there is unlikely to be a double bold headline, you know, college costs decrease X percent. I mean, it might be a news item, but it is unlikely to be front and center featured because crises subsiding are never news the way crises escalating are. That’s just the way it goes.
EV: Yeah. And I think this one is particularly gonna be particularly pernicious because even with a big cut, the price of college in the US is still so expensive that it’s kind of like– well, you know, it’s still an issue, which is why, you know, I think applauding what Maryland has done and hopefully other places, there’s some big companies doing that too. Google and Delta are opening up jobs to folks without a four-year degree, which I think is such a smart move because you’re wasting so much talent there.
EV: And last but not least, a little piece from the midterms that we missed but is very interesting. New Mexico, using some COVID relief funds, had a pilot program for free childcare for certain families who met income requirements. Those COVID relief funds ran out, but the program was so popular that New Mexico voters decided to enshrine funding for childcare into the state constitution.
Audio Clip: New Mexico families are now eligible for free childcare. The governor today announced the program expansion now allowing free care for families earning up to $111,000 a year. That’s for a family of four. That basically doubles the earning level required and means 30,000 more families qualify starting May 1st.
EV: Another sort of neat fact about that is that they’re able to balance the budget for the state for that using oil and gas revenue. So there you go.
ZK: Well, there you go.
ZK: States as a laboratory of democracy.
ZK: Once again.
ZK: And with that, we are at the end of our 2022 season. We will resume full-bore in early 2023, although we will probably do some bonus episodes and some content. In the interim, wanna thank all of you who are listening now and have been listening all along for paying attention, digesting, thinking. And I want to ask all of you who are to take some of the sentiments that we’re trying to put out there about less fear, less outrage, more focus on what’s working, more focus on what we’re doing to create problems that human beings have admittedly created, and see what you can do in your own lives to spread that sensibility in terms of conversations, in terms of workplaces, in terms of general, more critical, in the best sense of the word, reading of news, in that it’s up to all of us to shift the culture, to change the sensibility, to move the needle, all those cliches. And I’m gonna assume that if you’re listening to us and have been, you’re probably intrigued by that and may share it. And back to Bina’s comment about agency and complexity, you know, we all have agency here and I hope we all use it for the best effect into 2023 and beyond. And thank you, Emma, for having these conversations with me.
EV: Thank you, Zachary. And wishing everyone happy holidays and a great end of 2022 and a great start into 2023. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Our editor is Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to sign up for the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org.
Meet the Hosts