Monday, May 26, 2014

Capacity focus, 88: The role of the public, the media, educators, public health and civil society groups in sustainable management of natural resources and hazards

As we again look at the FAO diagram, we see how the input to the right hand side block is through "information" and how the output of the various actors in a society coming together is societal level decisions and actions that affect how natural resources and hazards are managed:

This impact of information highlights the role of the media, educators, public health, civil society groups and the general public in influencing natural resources and hazards management. But also, there is a key subtlety: information -- even that coming from generally credible sources or public authorities and top flight "brilliant" experts -- is not equal to truth, soundness or knowledge, much less . . .  wisdom.

And in a world of unknown unknowns and out- of- the- blue- sky black swans, we may be playing collective Russian Roulette with a dangerously loaded revolver.

 How, then can we proceed?

1 --> First, by recognising our responsibilities, and our limitations.

2 --> Then, we can determine to err on the side of safety and prudence, especially when what is at stake is potentially very costly.

3 --> In turn, we need to try as best we can to identify the range of possible states of the world, and their raw odds in the context of the range of possible actions on our part.

4 --> Given that we are finite, fallible, often biased and too often less than well-intentioned, that points to a need for a well informed public, and for a participative decision making process that captures the range of credible possibilities. 

5 --> That points to participative planning processes that seek to capture the inputs of various stakeholders fairly, and to take into account the majority, concurring and dissenting views of relevant qualified experts -- with their reasons for that diversity.

6 --> This points away from the notion that we can capture "the consensus" of experts, and that this is likely to be the best shot at "the truth." (Too often such a "consensus" is no better than the academic politics that lies behind it. However, the diversity of experts can deeply enrich our understanding of the possibilities in a situation, especially when they interact not only with one another but the wider circle of stakeholders.)

7 --> Educators and the media play particularly important roles, for it is the education base in a community that often drives how people respond to fresh information, and the media both provides informal public education and fresh news and views coverage that shapes how the public perceives issues and decisions.

8 --> Just in case some media figures may wish to say they do not so much shape as reflect opinion, let us just note that the same media sell advertising space and time to firms etc, on the grounds that advertising is able to shift public opinion and actions, from selling soap and cigarettes to selling candidates.

 9 --> Educators have even higher responsibility, for the public strongly expects them to teach truth. That means, that one of the responsibilities is to ascertain the degree of warrant, strengths and limitations of knowledge claims across relevant schools of thought, and to teach in  balanced fashion, drawing diverse issues, views etc together in a coherent and reasonably understandable way that helps to build capacity.

10 --> Which includes, facing the fact of uncertainties, risks, controversies, diverse schools of thought, etc.

11 --> Does that mean that others can get a free pass, then? No, here is a definition of lying that we all must ponder (never mind that this has long since vanished from Wikipedia, since July 23, 2011 . . . itself revealing):
 To lie is to state something with disregard to the truth with the intention that people will accept the statement as truth . . . . even a true statement can be used to deceive. In this situation, it is the intent of being overall untruthful rather than the truthfulness of any individual statement that is considered the lie . . . . One can state part of the truth out of context, knowing that without complete information, it gives a false impression. Likewise, one can actually state accurate facts, yet deceive with them . . . . One lies by omission when omitting an important fact, deliberately leaving another person with a misconception. Lying by omission includes failures to correct pre-existing misconceptions. Also known as a continuing misrepresentation . . . . A misleading statement is one where there is no outright lie, but still retains the purpose of getting someone to believe in an untruth . . .
 12 --> Especially when it comes to natural resources and hazards, we all have a sobering duty of care to truthfulness, humility in the face of uncertainties and to prudence. Where, we can sum up the above with the well-known revivalist and lawyer, Finney: a lie is any species of calculated deception.

 13 --> Public health comes to bear here, too, as many natural hazards pose health risks, and the ways we extract natural resources and process them into forms suitable for onward industries, or how we farm or harvest fish, etc, may all have public health impacts, such as by exposing us to toxic materials or fostering the spread of diseases.

14 --> Where, of course, disease-causing microbes and parasites etc are natural hazards. (And, as I often point out, it is by properly managing so-called tropical diseases that our region moved from being disease-riddled death traps to the tourist paradises we now promote. That's what turned our beaches, lush watersheds and mountains into high-value tourism industry resources.)

15 --> So, too, for instance, a currently topical case, the firing on Tuesday last of professor Brendan Bain of UWI over debates on his expert testimony to the Supreme Court in Belize concerning the spread of HIV/AIDS and under pressure from  activist groups and their backers, is relevant to and raises troubling questions on natural hazards management and to the information issues we are focussing on.
 16 --> As reported in the Jamaica Observer:
The MAJ [Medical Association of Jamaica] and Jambar [Bar Association] concurred that statements of fact are never meant to be offensive. They insisted that as an expert witness, Bain's "testimony to the Court is a duty to the Court, and is the opinion of the expert himself. He is therefore obliged to discharge his testimony truthfully and professionally".

Walker [Jambar president] pointed out that the legal profession routinely relies on expert testimony to advance clients' cases. "As such, we are very concerned that the actions of UWI against Bain could adversely impact on the freedom of expression by experts giving testimony in Jamaica," the lawyers' association said.
"In civil proceedings in the Supreme Court that are governed by the Civil Procedure Rules, an expert witness has a duty 'to help the Court impartially on the matters relevant to his or her area of expertise' and 'that duty overrides any obligations to the person by whom he or she is instructed or paid'," Jambar added.

"In giving expert evidence, the information presented to the Court 'must be and should be seen to be the independent product of the expert witness uninfluenced as to form or content by the demands of the litigation. An expert witness must give independent assistance to the Court by way of objective unbiased opinion in relation to matters within the expert witness' expertise'," Jambar said.

"In that context, Bain's dismissal may cause such experts (many of whom reside in tenure at UWI) to become fearful to express their honest and considered belief as they may face adverse repercussions, even when their thoughts are based on decades of study and research and independent of the office that they hold," Jambar argued.
17 --> Clearly, a sound community will take positive steps to avoid such a chilling effect or apparent retaliation for unwelcome expert testimony, not only in court but during public discussions of important issues in general.

18 --> Instead, we should seek to elicit the range of credible expert opinions, and use the range to guide our deliberations and decisions under the principle of prudence. In that seeking, it should be clear that there is no hidden agenda of retaliation against the politically incorrect, or . . . as Jambar hints . . .  the consultation will be of little or no value.

19 -->  The same concerns for experts hold for civil society as a whole, identifiable stakeholder groups and just plain ordinary John Q and Jane R Public. With this difference, the organisers of consultations will need major efforts to reach the public and especially marginalised or "silent majority" representatives. Their inputs may be vital.

20 --> I should note too, that in oral societies, it is may be a very important move to tap the elderly, as they will have the oral memories and traditions that may reveal black swan event possibilities. Someone in his or her eighties or nineties could easily have directly known someone who was on the ground coming on two hundred years ago, as a child, and another long lived person or a few in the chain would put the reach of oral history back to 250 - 300 years or even more.

21 --> To give an idea of how useful that may be, an extreme event of likelihood 1 in 1,000 per year, would have about a 25 % chance of happening in 300 years. 

22 --> Of course, geological evidence and the like will also be helpful for capturing rare but possible events, and we should not shun to look at similar examples elsewhere. This, again brings us back to the importance of panels of experts.

23 --> Nor, should we forget sound, well researched history grounded on a good survey of evidence, records and testimony. Where also first rate journalism is "a first, rough draft of history."

24 --> Generally, with a vigorous and sound education system and media culture, the public will be much better informed as a result of consultation processes and that too will go to promote better governance and management of decision-making in the midst of diverse and conflicting interests and goals.

Bottom-line, the better the quality of information and the better the quality of the education that shapes how the public processes it, the better the quality of governance. Which is the next focal issue. END