All posts by Kevin Synnott

Why Climate Change needs its Playboy Bunny.

This is inspired by an interaction between George Marshall, author of a great book “Don’t even think about it. Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change” and Professor Dan Kahan, the head of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project. When talking about Climate Change in the Media, Dan Kahan is a straight shooter. “Face it”, he says, “even if it does get mentioned on MSNBC or Fox News, ten times more people will always be watching funny animals”. He then urges George Marshall to watch “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” [1]  on YouTube, a video which has gained over 82 million views. Over on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change YouTube channel [2], the climate scientists have a hard time reaching an audience in the thousands combined with a poorly performing Instagram account. There are a couple of concerns here. Firstly, Climate Scientists are not good at getting their message out to a big enough audience and secondly this message isn’t as “cool” to share with your friends as a badass Honey Badger.

Later in the interaction, Kahan argues that people obtain their information through the people they trust, or, beyond that, from parts of the wider media that speak to their worldview and values. Most of the time, this is a highly effective shortcut and works fine, unless, in Kahan’s words, the information becomes “contaminated” with additional social meaning and becomes a marker of group identity.

Kahan uses Gun Control as a case in point. Polls in West Virginia show that 62% of people want more gun control but, you would be a fool to run for election in the state campaigning for gun control. In fact, 85% of the people in West Virginia know you can’t trust politicians who say that they want gun control [3]. Why? Because gun control in politics is associated with college educated liberals, a group the people of West Virginia have a hard time trusting.

Climate Change is similarly contaminated, where activists are again, for the most part, college educated liberals. In fact, I have fallen into this trap by beginning this post with George Marshall and Prof. Kahan. When people get their information from people they trust and these people don’t include the college educated liberal type it’s clear all the facts in the world won’t convince them. Allow me fall into the trap once more and quote philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer “Hence the uselessness of logic: no one ever convinced anyone by logic… To convince a man, you must appeal to his self-interest, his desires, his will”.

Keeping in mind that to convince people we must appeal to their self-interests and desires, allow me to introduce you to a man you will most likely know well, Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy. Now here is an individual who knows how to appeal to man’s self-interests and desires. So, what can we learn from Hugh Hefner? In fact, a lot. He was way ahead of his time, not just in making the topic of sex more socially acceptable but also tackling two big issues in American history, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. It begins with the TV show ‘Playboy’s Penthouse’ in 1959. This was going to be one of the first times that black and white people were seen socializing on television, with guests like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. As you might guess in 1959, southern broadcasting companies were going to refuse to air the TV show. So, Hugh had a tough decision to make, either cut Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald or lose half the potential audience. He chose talent over views in the end, putting both Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald in the first episode [4]. The southern broadcasting companies were true to their word and refused to show the TV show. Regardless ‘Playboy Penthouse’ aired for two seasons and in the late 1950s this was huge for the civil rights movement.

Playboy didn’t stop here. In the famous uncensored interview section of each magazine, it gave a voice to Martin Luther King[5] and Malcom X [6] when no others would. It condemned the Vietnam war [7] long before Time magazine and other media sources at the time as well as using its magazine to educate Americans about HIV/AIDs during the 1980s. It is clear that Playboy used its platform to instigate social change. This was a magazine that was selling millions of copies each month, hitting a broad audience and using this to tackle some of the most important issues in human history. Climate scientists and activists need something similar, to distract from the additional social meaning associated with climate change and create a platform to show people the problems and how we can solve it. Climate change needs its playboy bunny.

What I propose is to use influencers on social media, particularly Travel Bloggers. I am talking about the people who travel the world putting up wonderful pictures and telling us stories of places we can only dream of going. Why would these people make good Climate Change bunnies? Well they are interesting, showing us a life we’d all love and more importantly they travel the world. Scientists are always telling us about various places affected by climate change, but these people have actually been there. I envision interviewing such a blogger who has just visited an exotic island in the pacific and asking what the place it like. The response is perfect, as I am told “the island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It is awful that rising sea levels is resulting in most of the island’s inhabitants having to relocate”. This is brilliant and let me tell you why. Firstly, rising sea levels have been brought up without politicians, liberal celebrities or scientists losing that contamination. Secondly, there is the potential to hit the million or so followers that this blogger has. Finally, as Prof. Kahan had mentioned, people obtain their information through the people they trust, or, beyond that, from parts of the wider media that speak to their worldview and values. Travel bloggers I believe fall into this category. They consistently tell their story, keeping you up to date with their daily doings and issues which such an openness that it creates an almost friendship like relationship. I imagine there are even people who know more about a blogger than they do about a good friend.

Travel bloggers are already using their platform for good. Take Jonny Ward for example with his blog One Step 4 Ward[8]. He has cleverly developed an audience with his travels, storytelling, good advice and motivation and as I write this he has just finished riding around Sri Lanka in a tuk tuk, over 1000km and you should check out his Instagram @onestep4ward to see more. With this audience he has, thankfully, decided to give back with a current project to build a playground for the Burmese migrants in Thailand with an aim to “inject a little fun, a few more smiles and a bit of colour”. This is on top of other projects he has completed in Senegal and Gambia. This is the kind of platform and audience climate scientists need capitalise on. There is no doubt that Johnny Ward would make a good playboy bunny.

So, what am I trying to say with all this? Firstly, climate change activists are in competition with funny and cute animals in terms of getting the message out there, and even when they manage to get their message out there it is often contaminated with this additional social meaning. So, to generate a larger audience I propose we, like Hugh Hefner with his bunnies, use or create a platform which appeals to people’s desires and avoids this additional social meaning  to spread the message and inspire solutions. Travel bloggers are ideal for this. Their use of social media is some of the best out there and they help us imagine, understand and care about places on earth we may never get to.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg

[2] https://www.youtube.com/user/IPCCGeneva

[3] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=yz4kAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA23&lpg=PA23&dq=gun+control+west+virginia+politician+poll&source=bl&ots=XXKtWmaeDw&sig=ZOsGbvLABWTKIT0wNwRPHUaLmtk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiIhYXr29HTAhVHCMAKHaesDR4Q6AEIQzAF#v=onepage&q=gun%20control%20west%20virginia%20politician%20poll&f=false

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052503/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast

[5] http://www.creativeloafing.com/news/article/13065559/mlks-1964-playboy-interview

[6] http://www.malcolm-x.org/docs/int_playb.htm

[7] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284001876_The_Playboy_Way_Playboy_Magazine_Soldiers_and_the_Military_in_Vietnam

[8] https://onestep4ward.com         

 https://onestep4ward.com/help-us-build-playground-burmese-migrant-kids/

Lick your teeth and recycle: The power of Habit and climate change.

I have been struggling with a question for couple of months now: how to motivate people when there is no return on investment? So, what do I mean by this and why is this important? This is how I see the future of our planet with regards to climate change(1). There are two obvious outcomes, we (humans) either fail and live in a world of rising seas and prolonged droughts, or we succeed and live life in a world that looks the same as the one we live in today. Success without gain troubles me. It is a far cry from the idea of success you see with the likes of Conor McGregor, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey and Phil Knight. How can you motivate someone to make a change in their life when this change (if made by all of us) will make essentially no difference? I write now with the belief that we will tackle climate change and win.

The first thing I’d like to answer is, what else is this like? Is there a situation where we do something every day just to be the same? I believe I have found the answer. BRUSHING OUR TEETH. Please, bear with me here. I know it’s a bit ridiculous.  For the average person, we brush our teeth so they don’t fall out. Fair enough, some toothpastes make your teeth whiter, but in general we do it so our teeth don’t rot and decay. Can you see that parallels to climate change? If we fail to brush our teeth they will fall out sooner rather than later, and if we do decide to brush we will have the teeth we have now, as they are, for the foreseeable future. We tackle something now so that it can be the same in the future. Not so dissimilar to climate change in my opinion.

This wasn’t always the case, people didn’t always brush their teeth. So, what caused the change and can the community tacking climate change learn from this? Let me take you back to early 1900s America and introduce you to a great man, Claude Hopkins. He was an original ad man turning unknown products into household names and did so for the likes of Quaker Oats and Goodyear tires.

In the early 1900s Hopkins was approached by an old friend who had discovered an amazing product, Pepsodent, a minty and foamy toothpaste. Now Hopkins was at the top of the advertising industry, and frankly at the time this was financial suicide.  Hardly anyone brushed their teeth, and prior to Pepsodent only 7% of Americans owned a tube of toothpaste. It was no secret either that the health of Americans teeth was in sharp decline. As the country became wealthier, people were buying larger amounts of sugary, processed foods. When the government was recruiting people for World War One, so many recruits had rotten teeth that officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk.  Regardless, Hopkins took the job.

Now almost everyone brushes their teeth, so what exactly did Hopkins do?

He created a Habit Loop, and more importantly (and by mistake) he created a craving. The habit loop is a well-studied phenomenon and in its simplest form has three stages: Cue, Routine, Reward. First, there is a cue, a trigger, to tell your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. And finally, the reward, which helps your brain figure out if the loop is worth remembering. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward –becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.  See here for a deeper explanation, http://charlesduhigg.com/how-habits-work/. I got this information from Charles Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

(3)

So how did Hopkins develop this habit loop for brushing your teeth? To sell Pepsodent, Hopkins needed a trigger that would justify toothpastes daily use. He focused on tooth film, the mucin plaques found on teeth. This film is a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on teeth regardless of what you eat or how often you brush. In fact, toothpaste didn’t do anything to help remove the film, but that didn’t stop Hopkins. This he decided was the cue to trigger the habit. So, he plastered ads all over America. One read “Just run your tongue along your teeth. You’ll feel the film – that’s what makes your teeth to look off color and invites decay”. The brilliance of this ad is that the cue was simple and almost impossible to ignore. Tell someone to run their tongue across their teeth and most will, and sure enough they will find the film. In fact, did you just run your tongue along your teeth?

After the campaign launched a quiet week passed. Then two. In the third week, demand exploded. There were so many orders for Pepsodent the company couldn’t keep up. In three years, the toothpaste went international. Before Pepsodent, as I said earlier, only 7% of American households had a tube of toothpaste, a decade later 65%, and after World War 2, the military downgraded their concerns about recruits’ teeth because most soldiers were brushing anyway.

However, there is something more needed to ingrain the habit loop, something that Hopkins didn’t know about: the reward, the craving.  Unlike other toothpastes at the time, Pepsodent contained citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals. The inventor of Pepsodent included these ingredients to make the toothpaste fresh, but what he didn’t realise is that they are irritants that create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums. People began to crave this sensation, and believed that if this sensation wasn’t there, their teeth didn’t get cleaned. Hopkins wasn’t selling beautiful teeth, he was selling the sensation. As the German/American economist and Harvard Professor said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”.

So, bringing it all back to climate change. What have we learned?  To create a habit you need a cue, routine and a reward. This is the same with anything, for example exercise. Create a cue, an alarm maybe, then exercise and perhaps give yourself a nice smoothie when you’re finished. Another parallel to the climate change is sunscreen and skin cancer. If you apply sunscreen every day you reduce the risk of skin cancer, yet less than 10% of Americans do it. Why? No cue nor reward. So, to tackle climate change and create small changes in our daily lives we need to create the Habit Loop. Let’s take waste for example. You may see a cue on the packaging which causes you to recycle, then a reward of some kind. What this could be I have no idea, perhaps the recycling bin says, “good job”. Similarly, with cycling to work, the cue could be a sunny day and perhaps the business gives you a free coffee when you arrive.

I don’t know what we could use create these habit loops, but I believe they are the way forward. I find that many reasons we are pushed to make small positive changes is because of guilt and I don’t believe this is good way to motivate people. I think the Habit Loop is key, like the teeth brushing, it will help us to make many small positive changes even though there isn’t a direct or immediate return on investment.  Perhaps it isn’t the best way, but I believe it is a good answer to the question, how to motivate people when there is no return on investment?

 

  1. True, the climate is always changing, but here I am using United Nations definition of climate change. “Attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability”. https://unfccc.int/files/essential_background/background_publications_htmlpdf/application/pdf/conveng.pdf
  2. For a bit of fun check out this old pepsodent ad: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=pepspdent+ad+1956
  3. https://mustbethistalltoride.com/category/stuff-i-need-help-with/page/2/

What’s the Job? Climate change in the media.

This post stems from a recent meeting of the Royal Meteorology Society titled ‘Avoiding Myth, Mayhem and Myopia: the challenge of climate science communication’. This meeting aimed to provide insights into tools for more effectively communicating climate science. In the meeting’s description, they claim that the public are beginning to join the dots between climate change, extreme weather and the impacts on our environment. From my experience, I would consider this to be true. Climate science and global warming is certainly becoming a “hot topic”.

So, what are the best strategies for communicating the scientific findings and how far should you go in talking about climate science? It is these questions that motivated the talks. The talks began with visualizing climate data, then climate science in the era of Trump. Following that, talks moved on to connect academics to business, engaging with government policy and why we need climate science communicators. All very important aspects in taking climate science to the public.

However, I want to look at something I consider more important. I want to ask the question, “what’s the job?” A bit strange you might think. Isn’t the job obvious? Communicate climate science?  But is this really the job …

This idea comes from a book by Clay Christensen, a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard. The book is called “Competing against luck”. It seeks to identify what’s the difference between a continuously successful business and a business that just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In the early sections of the book he discusses what the job of a milkshake is. Why does someone “hire” a milkshake?

McDonald’s wanted to boost milkshakes sales so they brought in consumers that fitted the profile of a milkshake buyer and asked them how they could make their milkshakes better. Cheaper, chewier, chunkier, chocolatier? Even when the customers told McDonald’s what they thought they would like it was hard to know exactly what to do.  So, McDonald’s tried a whole range of things corresponding to the desires of these milkshake buyers. And what happened? Nothing, the sales increase was negligible.   They didn’t know what the job was. They needed to ask the question: what job arises in people’s lives that causes them to come to McDonald’s to hire a milkshake?

In the book, Christensen says “What causes us to buy products and services is the stuff that happens to us all day every day”. So, McDonald’s figured out who buys the milkshakes and when. It turned out that one of the main consumers of their milkshake are commuters on the way to work in the morning, almost all to take away. They ask these people, why they “hired” the milkshake. They say it helps with the commute. They hired a milkshake for this boring ride to work and the job was to keep the commute interesting. The milkshake is thick and hard to suck up the straw thus, it lasts the whole commute and is substantial enough to ensure the commuter is full all morning. It works better than a banana, coffee, water, donuts and other on the go breakfast products. With this in mind McDonald’s added berries or chocolate pieces to the milkshake to make it more interesting and moved the milkshake maker to the front making it quick to purchase. Low and behold sales increased!

What this story demonstrates is a paradigm shift. Prior to all this you’d believe that milkshakes compete against chocolate bars, sodas, other milkshakes from other fast food joints. However, this is not the case. People don’t hire the milkshake as deserts for the main part but for breakfast and to keep them occupied for a long commute.

 

Let’s come back to climate science in the media and ask: what’s the job of climate science, from the public’s perspective? Is it to keep them occupied on the tube? Give them material so they can talk to their friend at the pub? I firmly believe that to successfully transfer the results and information generated by scientists we need to understand what job climate science does for the public. I don’t know… yet. Furthermore, we must ask the question of who the competition is. Is it climate deniers or is it celebrity gossip, sport articles, even political news? We must look through the same lens as McDonald’s and seek what purpose the public would hire climate science and use that to our advantage. Answering these questions will accelerate our ability to spread facts and build a wider community who can help tackle climate change.

Before we decide what the best strategies for communicating the scientific findings are and how far we should go in talking about climate science, we first need to know, what the job is.

What can Machine Learning do for Climate Science ?

Firstly, what is Machine Learning, other than a “sexy” buzzword used by the science community to make statistics sound cool? Well, per Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu Inc. and an associate professor at Stanford it is “The science of getting computers to act without being programmed”. That statement leaves a lot to the imagination. One might start off by thinking of movies like I-Robot, Her and Ex Machina. For this post let’s stay grounded and say that Machine Learning explores the study and construction of algorithms that can learn from and make predictions from data. So, what can such an algorithm do for Climate Science? Turns out a lot.

 

Dr Claire Monteleoni, Assistance Professor at George Washington University, uses Machine Learning to track climate models. She along with many others are building a new field of Climate Informatics, a term she coined, with the aim of encouraging collaborations between climate scientists and Machine Learning researchers in order the bridge the gap between data and understanding. In her paper [1] Tracking Climate Models, she demonstrates the advantage of a Machine Learning approach for combining the predictions of multiple climate models. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently use about 20 climate models to make informed decisions and predictions on climate change.  This paper introduces the use of an online learning algorithm called Learn-α to make predictions that match or surpass that of the best climate model.

data_learn_alpha

Machine Learning is also useful in application where there is little data or the data is sparse. For example, global maps of the partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2). Observations of sea surface pCO2 are taken mostly by commercial ships and consequently are sparse in both time and space, especially before the 1990s. Knowledge of this pCO2 is essential to investigate the variation of the ocean CO2 sink, from which data comparisons to the Global Carbon Budget can be made. To “fill in the gaps” Dr Peter Landschützer, from ETH Zürich, employed a Forward-Feed Neural Network. Neural Networks are based on the way the biological brain solves problems, using a large cluster of neurons connected by axons.

neurons-440660_1280

Finally, looking a bit closer to home, the Informatics Lab at the Met Office are applying Machine Learning techniques to traffic cameras. They are currently undertaking a project which will use data taken from traffic cameras to train a machine to recognize the weather. This is especially useful when considering snow. Snow is the hardest weather to forecast as it depends on small differences in pressure, temperature and heights of clouds. To know if it’s snowy it’s much easier to look at the ground. From the images on the traffic cameras the amount of white could tell you and furthermore characterise the snowy weather. What’s particularly cool about this project is that all the code and data is freely available on the Informatics Lab website http://www.informaticslab.co.uk

country-road-946436_1920

To conclude, we can see many applications of Machine Learning from combining the strengths of different Climate models to just wondering if it’s snowing.  The field of Climate Informatics is without doubt exciting and becoming more and more important. We might be a long way off a computer feeling cold but until then let’s use it to tell us more about our complicated climate.

 

[1] Monteleoni, C., Saroha, S., Schmidt, G., and Asplund, E.: Tracking Climate Models, Journal of Statistical Analysis and Data Mining, 4, 372–392, 2011.