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The Christian Science Monitor's Managing Editor, Amelia Newcomb speaks to colleagues in the newsroom on March 22, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Episode 10: Solving Perception Gaps

During the last episode of our 10-part series, we have to ask… how do you solve perception gaps? Is it even possible? We look at the science of perception gaps, as well as the media’s role in closing them.

Episode 10: Solving Perception Gaps

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Episode transcript

SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: Can you believe this is episode 10? Whether you found this podcast on Episode One 10 weeks ago or you just binged them all yesterday, you probably know by now... This is Perception Gaps.

I'm Samantha Laine Perfas. Welcome to Perception Gaps by The Christian Science Monitor.

We've covered so many topics over the last 10 weeks and I want to say that the feedback I've received from all of you has been such an encouragement. I can't believe what an impact the series has had. People have shared with me conversations they've had with their families about politics, how it changed their views on generosity, and even a few shifted their thinking about gun violence. It's been wonderful to email back and forth with so many of you throughout the series. So I just want to say thank you for that. For our final episode of the series, I thought it would be fun to go back to the basics: Why do we have these perception gaps to begin with? Why does how we think about things not always line up with reality? Today's guests will hopefully shed some light on how perceptions gaps have little to do with intelligence, and we'll talk more about why we think the way we do.

ANN REID: Yeah I have a I have a golden retriever who... can you hear him? Buster go in there. Go go go.

PERFAS: This is Ann Reid who is joined momentarily by her good boy Buster. She is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education. They work with educators around the US to make sure evolution and climate change are taught accurately and effectively. As you can imagine, these are just a couple of topics in which people have widely varying perceptions.

REID: So part of what teachers do from day one is help kids learn to see the world in ways that they they are surprised by. So I was just thinking, I'm a new grandmother. I have a six week old grandson and I was reminded this morning about when babies get to be, I can't remember what age it is, maybe three or four months, they start developing something that scientists call object permanence, which is that if an object is gone, if they can't see it, it's still there. That that's something that little babies get, that if their mother leaves the room, as far as they're concerned she has ceased to exist, which is a very scary thing. And then at some point they start to realize that they can drop a toy off their highchair and they know that it's on the floor, and it's like this hilarious joke to drop it and have somebody pick it up and give it back to you. So, that's just like, the first example of you know, we perceive the world in ways that are often at odds with with reality. And education is just a long process of overcoming some of those ways that the brain perceives the world.

PERFAS: Ann said that another teacher shared a really great example of this in the classroom. When you ask a group of fifth graders what they think will happen when you put a thermometer in an empty mitten, they almost always guess the temperature will go up. Obviously. Mittens are warm. As an adult, you can understand their logic but clearly it's wrong. So what happens when they test it?

REID: And when you actually have them do it and the temperature doesn't go up, they don't immediately say, oh my understanding of the world must be faulty if there is something going on here. Instead, they go through all of these explanations for why that might not be happening. Like, maybe the thermometers broken, which is a perfectly good scientific thought to have. So then they go into a test to see if the thermometer's working and sure enough, it's working. And, well maybe we need to leave it in the mitten longer. Let's leave it overnight. Still no change. Well, maybe we need to put it inside a plastic bag. And they'll go through all of these things and then finally, you know, they'll put the mitten on their hand and put the thermometer in, and lo and behold, now the temperature goes up. And so they have, and now they understand, that mittens are warm not because they're intrinsically warm, which is what their brain was telling them earlier, but that they're an insulator. And so they trap your body heat and that's what makes the temperature go up inside.

PERFAS: Addressing misperceptions is central to what their organization does, Ann said. They see misperceptions occur the most when someone feels like the information is in direct conflict with their worldview or values.

REID: So take the example of evolution, because it's very clear there that the clash of values and the sciences is religious in nature. There's some interesting - studies of how people's views change on evolution, how students views change on evolution. And one of the most interesting was done by a group called BioLogos and they asked people from all kinds of religious backgrounds about their evolution education, and they asked, did you learn about evolution in high school? And the evangelicals who said yes, a lower number than in other groups, but the ones who did learn about it in high school were then asked, did it change your mind? And 85 percent of them said no. So that gets right to your question of: Is this just a matter of giving people the facts? They were given the facts. And many of them did perfectly fine in the class, they answered all the questions correctly, they learned the science, but they still don't accept that it's true.

PERFAS: That's really interesting because it, well, there's two parts that sort of stand out to me. You know, the value idea, it's like this information is presented in a way that's forcing me to deny my values or my beliefs. I can't deal with that. So I have to choose. And often the values win. And then it goes towards that second point of ... yeah, the facts aren't enough. You know they can answer correctly on a test or on a quiz, like they know what the "true answers" are. But whether or not that's something that's deeply held and believed...

REID: And it's a real challenge for teachers. And many teachers have sort of resigned themselves to, if I can get them to pass the test and give the answers that they need to get to pass the test to get into college, then I've done my job. It's not my job to change their minds about it. For us, you know, what we would rather have is for the students to resolve that fundamental conflict that's preventing them from accepting the science. What we mean by that is not that they should stop being religious, which I think is what many people in those communities think is what the scientific community is saying to them. Is we don't have any respect for your religious beliefs and we want you to reject them and think like us. And they assume that scientists are all atheists. And so to to be able to make a case for science and religion to co-exist in the same person. You can be a person of faith. You can also understand how science works.

PERFAS: Ann and I talked for a while about science and religion. It can be challenging for individuals who believe science and faith are mutually exclusive. She says they're not, and in fact many scientists are people of faith. But there's often a lack of trust: the faith community believes science won't respect their faith and the science community doesn't trust that people of faith will respect science. I asked Ann, why isn't there more trust? In some ways it comes down to the feeling that the science community is inaccessible, which she says isn't true.

REID: I think it's important too to recognize how alienated the vast majority of people feel from the science community. And the science community can quite frequently inadvertently reinforce that. When they talk about public outreach, scientists are going to go out and talk to the public. That's a really worthy thing. We want our scientists to be out communicating what they do and why it's important and how they do it. But when you put it in that frame, in that way, as we are going to go talk to them, you reinforce this idea that most people, regular people, are not scientists. They have science skills, they can understand how science works, that they may not grow up to be a scientist but that doesn't mean that they can't think like scientists. That gives people a real sense of inclusion and acceptance into the world of science rather than this "us versus them" mentality. And I can't tell you how many people, when I say I'm a scientist, they say, oh, I hated science in school, it is so boring. You must be really smart. I never got it. I just didn't get. I couldn't do science. And it just breaks my heart, because these basic, sort of reasoning skills or are not, shouldn't be foreign to anybody.

PERFAS: True or false: bulls become angry at the color red.

EOIN O'CARROLL: They might become angry, the color red might be present, but as far as I know, bulls do not see the color red.

PERFAS: At the Monitor, we often turn to one person to make science a little less intimidating and a lot more fun.

O'CARROLL: My name is Eoin O'Carroll. I'm a science writer for The Christian Science Monitor.

PERFAS: I decided to have a little fun with Eoin and gave him a pop quiz about common misperceptions. So what do you think: Was Eoin right about bulls not seeing the color red?

That is correct. They do not get mad at the color red because they are partially color blind. OK next one, true or false: bats are blind.

O'CARROLL: That's false. I think most bats are not blind.

PERFAS: Correct.

O'CARROLL: They have very good hearing, but that doesn't mean that their site is particularly bad.

PERFAS: Yeah. They see in black and white and at night they see better than we do. True or false: lightning never strikes the same place twice.

O'CARROLL: That is absolutely false. We have these things called lightning rods that are built so that lightning will strike the same place twice.

PERFAS: But you know what, I think a lot of people don't make that connection, myself included when I saw this one I was like, oh really.? And then I was like, duh, lightning rods. Next one. True or false: ostriches stick their heads in the ground when they're scared.

O'CARROLL: I know that one is false.

PERFAS: Why, how do you know that?

O'CARROLL: I actually don't know how I know that it's false. I can, I know that everyone says it and that makes me instantly skeptical. But no animal would survive very long with that evolutionary trait. If ostriches did do that, they would have never made it this far.

PERFAS: So the thing that I found, it says ostriches aren't terribly smart birds, but this is even beneath them. Apparently what they do, I guess, is because their heads are so small, that when they do reach down, it might look like their heads are underground but they're not. That's sort of where they think it might have come from. But when they're scared, they actually run really fast. So often they run away. Otherwise, they have been known to respond like opossums and they just play dead. Who knew?

PERFAS: Science is basically the act of constantly addressing perception gaps. So from your perspective, what does that mean and how are the two related?

O'CARROLL: Well this is something that actually goes back to the 17th century and the writing of Sir Francis Bacon, one of the founders of what we call today the scientific method. And a lot of his writing talks about eliminating what he calls "idols of the mind," which is what today we'd call perception gaps. He says these are mistakes in perception that would be caused maybe as a function of being a human being. We perceive things moving at medium speeds, of medium size, pretty well but we tend to stumble when it comes to thinking about the movements of electrons or the movements of black holes. Because we're human, we tend to think of things in a certain scale. He also talked about the "idols of the marketplace," which would be our associations with one another. We pick up false information from each other. We take it that it's true. Maybe the person who told us that might be trusted. And so we take bad information and then we spread it uncritically to other people. And so a big part of what science is is taking away that subjectivity, and what's left behind is what we would call scientific understanding.

PERFAS: So it's basically, because we have these misperceptions, that's why we need science. We need some sort of measurement of like, nope, this is unarguably fact.

O'CARROLL: I think so. I mean if our minds were somehow capable of perceiving the universe as it really is, then there would be no scientific questions. We wouldn't need science.

PERFAS: Why do you think we're not able to do that? Like, why do we so easily misperceive the things around us?

O'CARROLL: Well, our perception, like all of our traits, are guided by evolution. And what evolution favors is not what is necessarily true or what is necessarily real, but what helps you survive. So we basically have the same minds that we did 400 years ago, 4,000 years ago, even 40,000 years ago. And these minds were forged, they evolved back when we were much more active participants in the food chain. In previous episodes, we've talked about the prevalence of fear. Fear is actually, it can be a useful emotion, especially if you're in the food chain. But it's not a particularly useful emotion when you're sitting in traffic. So that same biological toolkit that we got to avoid predators doesn't always help us when we're trying to solve more complex social problems.

PERFAS: Eoin's comments go back to this bigger idea that just because we remember something and just because we feel like something is true doesn't mean that it is. That's where science and data can help.

O'CARROLL: Scientists always like reminding us that data is not the plural of anecdote. So when you see something, of course you're going to remember a person's face, of course you're going to remember a person's suffering if you're exposed to it. That's what we are as human beings, we're social creatures. We also have something that's known as an affect of bias, which is that things that produce strong emotions tend to be noticed and tend to be remembered and tend to be more salient than things that don't produce strong emotions. So if you're driving on a highway and you have a 10 hour drive, and there is one moment where there's a heavy rainstorm and you get cut off during that rainstorm, that's going to be the defining quality of the drive if it was otherwise uneventful. Even if there were clear skies, clear roads. That's why we use science. One of my favorite characters on Sesame Street and one of most underrated characters is the Count. Counting can solve so many problems in terms of addressing fears and correcting biases. Look at the statistics and you will see that crime is dramatically lower than it was in the 1990s.

PERFAS: One thing that I was thinking about, as I was thinking about this episode and talking about misperceptions and perception gaps that have been closed over the past, I was trying to think of one where I could be like, yep, we overcame that as a society. And I sort of thought about this idea that the earth is flat. And I was like... but there are still people today who are part of like, they call themselves flat earthers you know, or like the Flat Earth Society or whatever. They have a Twitter account I think. And I was like there are still people today that will argue that the earth is flat. But then I was thinking, are they intentionally choosing to not believe the truth or choosing not to change their perception, or are they just trying to get a rise out of everybody?

O'CARROLL: When I was 16 years old as a high school student I actually joined the Flat Earth Society.

PERFAS: You would.

O'CARROLL: It was about 10 bucks a year, it was really really inexpensive, and you'd get this quarterly newsletter that would just describe their theories about how the earth is flat. I didn't join it because I thought the earth is flat. I joined it because I was always interested in perception gaps. How do we know what we know? And what are their arguments, and could I go out as a 16-year-old and what arguments could I mount to challenge flat eartherism?

PERFAS: Eoin made an interesting point when we were talking about why people might join the Flat Earth Society. Is it because they believe the earth is flat or not? He said describing something just as belief doesn't tell the whole story.

O'CARROLL: We believe things, yes, but we also signal things. We also tell people that we have a certain belief. Maybe not to convince that person or maybe not even because we really deep down believe it, but because we want to convey that we are a certain sort of person. And I think a lot of flat earthers, they are standing in opposition to mainstream science. They want to cast themselves as in some way countercultural. They want to cast themselves as some way "outside the mainstream." And I think that's a big part of it, as well as maybe also believing that the earth is flat.

PERFAS: It almost sounds like, some people, it becomes less like you said, less about the belief and more about the identity that they find in just communicating that they have that belief.

O'CARROLL: And I think that's true for all kinds of beliefs, whether you believe that lowering taxes tends to stimulate economic growth, or whether you believe that evolution is true, or whether you believe that that Wall Street needs to be reined in. A lot of this isn't necessarily based on an analysis of the facts, but mostly we believe things because we identify with one group or another and we want to signal to other people that that's who we are.

PERFAS: This whole first part of the episode was focused on the science of perception gaps. Since this is the last episode in the series, I wanted to spend a little time addressing something that has come up in nearly every episode: the media.

DANAH BOYD: There are a lot of people in this country that do not trust the news media, that do not respect the people who are in the position of making news and information.

PERFAS: This is Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder of Data and Society, which is a research institute that focuses on trying to understand how technology and society intersect in an era of fake news and misinformation. The media comes up frequently as culprits for perpetuating perception gaps in society. So I asked, is the media contributing? And how?

BOYD: The news media is made of people, and people are flawed. I think you know, one of the things that I love talking with journalists and others in the news profession about is there's a deep passion to learn, to understand, to make sense of the world. But at the same time, they're sitting within organizations with all sorts of different organizational pressures and expectations, assumptions about their audience, assumptions about what is newsworthy, pressures to move fast, pressures to not be a beat reporter and develop a set of knowledge on a specific topic. But to be more broad and therefore making mistakes, because they don't know the domain well enough to understand the nuance. So it's, you see, all of these fault lines that are not unexpected, given the organizational and cultural dynamics around news.

PERFAS: One thing that I found brought up time and time again in doing this series, when we talk about these misperceptions and where they come from, a lot of it comes from this idea that the media often reports on sort of the outliers. You know, the outlier events, the big tragic things that happen or the things that are out of the norm and out of the usual, sort of the extremes. Should we not do that? I guess I'm curious because I wonder, is there is there sort of a balance between, how do we highlight like, yes this happened, but also let's look at the bigger trend lines so that people do have a better understanding of the reality of a situation overall, instead of thinking the world is ruined and everything is just going downhill.

BOYD: The practice of journalism relishes the idea that you report out what is newsworthy. Now what is newsworthy is very contested. And so you are right to point that it's... The outliers often are more notable than anything else. It's also which outliers, right? Because you know as Joe Torres has argued in "News for all the People," those outliers have been primarily things of interest to white communities, not to communities of color. So we've had sort of a huge challenge about how newsworthy is defined. But there's another challenge of newsworthiness, which is that what matters in that framework is the act of journalism and reporting, not the act of informing. An educator is really focused on how to inform somebody, to really communicate so that they can hear it, so that they can actually make meaning from that. That is not the top priority of journalists. And so when you speak with journalists, they talk about how they've gotten the story and then it's over. Actually no, in a world of communication, getting the story is only the first step to helping people understand the implications. And then we have to ask ourselves a question of what is it that the public really needs to know to be informed? And this is where we run into some interesting tensions between what people want and what we know is sort of best for a healthy society. And what people want is gossipy, juicy details about you know, celebrities and tragedy and the stuff that is cognitively sticky like bubblegum. As long as the goal is to tell the new thing, to get as many views as you can get on the new thing, to prioritize what people want themselves, all of those will lead you to a path of the most poppy, least sort of enriching kinds of content. I think we've seen this and news organizations mind you have long struggled with you know even on the front page, how do they balance between what the public needs to know to be informed and what people want themselves.

PERFAS: I have this conversation with people a lot. My friends often say to me how disappointed they are in the media, how they don't know who to trust and how they feel like the quality of journalism is really going downhill, which can be frustrating to hear when you work in the industry. So I always counter that by saying well, what do you click on? What stories are you reading? And quite frankly most of the time their answer is that sticky like bubblegum sensational content that Dana mentioned, which puts journalists in really hard situation. Should we write stories that are better for society or stories that people will actually click on and read?

MARK SAPPENFIELD: The question of fake is the question of is there correct information out there? And I think there is correct information out there, but there's a lot of incorrect information out there and we kind of have to say, well, why did that come about in the first place? Why weren't people satisfied with the information that was out there, why are they seeking other viewpoints?

PERFAS: Our next and final guest of this series is someone we thought would be fitting: Our editor in chief Mark Sappenfield. We're going to talk a little bit more about the media's role in closing perception gaps. Because of Danah's point regarding the subjectivity of something being newsworthy, I asked Mark how does the media decide what's newsworthy?

SAPPENFIELD: It was so interesting that when I went to journalism school, I can remember it's such an interesting kind of moment when you think about it today, the very first class, the very first day, the very first thing that I can remember my professor saying is: you are the gatekeepers. And you know it is supposed to be.... bumm BUMM. It's like the weight is on your shoulders: what is news? The people in this room will decide what news is. And so take it seriously folks, because what you decide is news is what the world will get. Not true. It was then. That was 1992. So obviously, different era back then. That was absolutely true. That was still, you know CNN was still only a little more than a decade old and the Internet was probably not... I remember using it for the first time in junior year. So the Internet was not yet a thing that we used. So when you think about newsworthiness, it has changed. For so much of the media's history over the past 70 years, we did decide what news was. So what is newsworthy? It's what I think it is, is essentially it. And I think as with most things when there's an advance, there's good and bad to it. The good is that it's not really good when one person gets to unilaterally decide this is news. But hopefully if we're doing our job and we're trained, the good thing about it is that someone whose job it is to literally decide what is news and you go through training and you do these things. My wife is German and you have to become accredited to become a journalist and say hey, I can do this thing, just like if you were a doctor. So I think what we're feeling our way through is that era of, the editor of The Monitor decides what news is is over and it's not coming back. But where's the right middle ground between inviting in this really healthy conversation and dialogue and also making sure that the standards of professional journalism are still maintained in the newsroom?

PERFAS: We often talk a lot about reporting stories that are sort of, counternarratives. In fact Perception Gaps was sort of framed as one of those. What does that mean and why is that valuable?

SAPPENFIELD: Well, I think that goes directly to why do we have perception gaps. Not from the sense of why do we have perceptions cast as a society, but why does the Monitor do the Perception Gaps podcast? And I think it's because you recognize that perception gaps in society grow from I think two different reasons: one is lack of information and one is lack of trust. And those two things can become interwoven or they can be distinct things. And I think what the Monitor has always done, forever really, is try and address the first half of that, which is the information side. And I would, not that other newspapers haven't done it, but I think the distinction that we have made is that good can be news too. And there is this bias in the media toward things that go wrong, and those are absolutely news. I mean you don't not do those. We try and create this binary where you say you have good news or bad news. No, it's all news. And I think you mentioned this in the poverty podcast where you said you know, over the past whatever it is, three decades, the news media could have written a headline that said 137,000 people left extreme poverty yesterday... That's news! Not that, not that we need to have that headline there but you know, we return to all these political things that are going wrong over and over again and obsess over them. Why don't we obsess over the good stuff too? That's as much a factor in what's shaping our world today as the bad stuff. And I would actually argue in some cases more. I mean the things you've been talking about in Perception Gaps are about things that have changed the world. About war, about poverty. And we need to report on that better as a news media. And I think that's what the Monitor has always done in addressing perception gaps. It's kind of, take these things that are good and are happening and our news, but other news media kind of have a bias against reporting them, and say no, we're gonna, we're gonna do this. Because it's important to get a well-rounded and not have these perception gaps grow. I think what one of the things you have done so well in this Perception Gaps podcast, is I would say, more recently the focus has been on the trust side of the equation, and the lack of trust for the media. And I think that goes too, and as the first person and Ann Reid talked about on this podcast, from the sense of: at some point you get to the point where information doesn't do anything. You can keep throwing information out there and people just don't listen or don't want to listen or shut you off. And I think that gets back to what I was talking about the how. Which is how do we talk about these things. And Ann also talked about with the scientists being a part of the community and feeling like they're a trusted voice. And I think if you kind of take that and take that universal element of it, it's that sense of are we speaking to as many people as we can and inviting as many people as we can into the circle of "us-ness" so that when we speak to them, even if we have hard news to tell them, they go, this person's after my well-being. This person knows me and trusts me and respects me. And so if they tell me something that might rock my world a little bit, I've created enough of a community, enough of a sense of buy in that that person knows I'm looking out for their best interests.

PERFAS: How does the Monitor develop a relationship and a sense of trust with its own readership?

SAPPENFIELD: Yeah, I think that's a really important question and I think it's one that doesn't have a simple answer, in the sense that for it to work, for that trust to build, it literally does need to be a relationship. And as we know from marriages and all other sorts of relationships, it has to go both ways. It can't be just the Monitor reaching out and saying you know, please help me. And it can't be the reader reaching out and saying you need to change. It needs to be both of them mutually saying that we are better together than we are apart. And if you think about it, that's really just what a subscription is. A subscription is not just about giving you money. It's about a partnership where people say you are bringing value and I am giving you value. And so I think it really comes down to really embracing that "us-ness."

PERFAS: Think I said this all the way back in Episode One. The Monitor takes our role in the media industry very seriously. We're constantly trying to build relationships of trust and transparency with our readers and listeners, which we feel is very effective. We have a loving, loyal audience, but one that's also not afraid to have honest conversations about our coverage. It's this kind of relationship that makes the news work. Before we close, I wanted to share some final thoughts from Mark and how he thinks we can grow beyond this age of perception gaps and misinformation.

SAPPENFIELD: There was something in his "Strength to Love" book by Dr. Martin Luther King that just jumped off the page for me in the context of this conversation, where he says: hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. And it's to me, it's like, that's the perception gap right there. And what can we in the media do to address hate. And by hate I don't I... obviously we do mean white supremacy and those sorts of things, but I think we're also just talking about hate within our own thought. Hateful thoughts toward another, hateful thoughts toward a policy or a party or whatever it happens to be. I think that reframes our task as the media a little bit. Obviously the information and all that needs to stay, it's not like we just say, oh facts don't matter. That's the reverse of what we need to do. But how can we infuse those facts with a mission to overcome hate. It doesn't need to be saccharin it doesn't need to be you know, editorials on these things, it just needs to say in our thinking from the moment we conceive of a story to its execution, hate cannot be a single element in the way that we go through thinking about that. And I hope and I'm sure you hope that the Perception Gaps podcast has not been just about addressing those perception gaps of information, but those perception gaps where hate has come into the conversation and kind of warped our view of things. So I mean, this, what you're doing, is what I think we as the media can do more of.

PERFAS: Thanks for listening to this episode everyone. If you haven't already listened to previous episodes you can find them at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps or wherever you find podcasts. We've officially reached the end of our series. It's been a journey and I again want to thank everyone for listening. If this is only your first or second episode, I encourage you to go back to earlier episodes, such as the one on crime or the one on generosity or on opioids. Really just pick your favorite topic. I hope you learned a lot, I know I did, and that you feel empowered and inspired. And if you do, send me a message. We're in the process of figuring out what comes next for Perception Gaps, so we'd love to hear your feedback and ideas. You can reach me at podcast@csmonitor.com.

I want to thank all the guests who participated in this podcast. Thank you for your incredible insight and taking time out of your busy lives to help others understand the world better.

Finally thanks to everyone who made this episode possible: my producer Dave Scott; our studio engineers Morgan Anderson, Ian Blaquiere, Tori Silver, Jeff Turton, and Tim Malone; original sound design by Noel Flatt and Morgan Anderson; and a special thanks to all my volunteer editors: Mark Sappenfield, Erin McNeil, Greg Fitzgerald, Rebecca Asoulin, and Eoin O'Carroll.

And I'm Samantha Laine Perfas. Thanks for listening to Perception Gaps.

COPYRIGHT: This podcast was produced by The Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2018.