Just Waiting to be Discovered Finding Hope in Earthbound Mysteries

The Liberty Bell. Image Credit: National Park Service

One summer in my early 20s, I worked as a tour guide in Philadelphia’s historic district. Daily, I marveled at the busloads of tourists dropped off and given one or two hours to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall before re-boarding their coaches bound for other cities and sights. I wondered: How could they go home and say they had seen Philadelphia after such a brief visit?

Clockwise: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Eduard Charlemont's Moorish Chief, and James Burns's mural-in-progress, Sanctuary. Image Credits: Wikimedia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Those tourists didn’t dine on DiNic’s roast pork in Reading Terminal Market elbow-to-elbow with collars white and blue. They evaded the imperious gaze of the Moorish Chief in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and escaped the dirt and the grit sandwiched between charming Colonial homes and grand murals. These hasty visitors neglected to explore nearly everything that gave my city character. Like those missed Philly streets that crisscross between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, beneath the surface of the ocean lies a world, largely unexplored.

We’ve investigated less than 5 percent of the world’s oceans. Climate change is altering and pushing against the boundaries of our terrestrial lives. We need to rediscover our sense of curiosity about this – our home – planet, most of which lies underwater. But how? It can be difficult to engage the public and get them to care about “the ocean” – a place so vast and mysterious that it is easy to see why humans living in Colorado or Kansas think the ocean won’t affect their lives. But the ocean regulates climate, supports life, and offers, perhaps, one of few viable pathways to providing enough sustenance to feed a growing population.

Ocean health is inextricably connected to climate change, which complicates engaging the public at-large – a public that continues to place climate change at the bottom of the priority list. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found climate change is an incredibly polarizing issue – one’s political viewpoint is likely to predict whether or not one believes scientists armed with mountains of evidence of a warming planet. Severe storms, rising sea levels, droughts, and mass extinctions — these are not problems to be faced in the future; rather, these events are a modern-day reality.

As a science communicator, I’ve become increasingly aware of the need to carefully frame discussions of climate change and ocean health. Media frames – a much-researched concept in the social sciences – help storytellers tell complex stories in ways that are digestible.

Communications scholar Mathew Nesbit wrote, “Framing is an unavoidable reality of the communication process … There is no such thing as unframed information, and most successful communicators are adept at framing.”

Simply explained, frames help us make sense of the mountains of information needed to understand an event as it unfolds.

Coral reefs are homes to millions of ocean critters. Image Credit: NOAA Ocean Services

Jyotika Virmani is the senior director for Prize Operations at Shell Ocean Discovery xPrize. The $7 million xPrize challenge is designed to accelerate ocean exploration and inspire the public by uncovering some of the mysteries that await us below the wavering surface of the water.

Virmani wanted to understand why the public seems to engage enthusiastically with the space program, but not with ocean exploration. Her team examined public perception of ocean news. While the results of the study haven’t been published, Virmani explained the initial findings: “Space stories are generally very positive – exploring a new planet or finding life out there, or tapping into that human achievement of getting into space.”

Space exploration captures the imagination. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

Ocean stories, on the other hand, are often framed by what’s wrong: ocean acidification, marine debris, and coral bleaching events are pressing concerns requiring action. And, it turns out most people aren’t very good at making decisions when stories are framed negatively. What if the frames we commonly use to discuss oceans, rather than engaging, serve as barriers to progress?

Public perception of ocean stories can be better understood when partnered with cognitive bias research. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, starting with their 1974 paper, "Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases," created a paradigm shift in our understanding of decision-making (for which Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in 2002). The duo set out to determine if humans were “intuitive statisticians” and discovered that we are, in fact, not.

Humans make decisions using heuristics — mental shortcuts — that may or may not lead us to the best possible outcome, especially when playing with odds. When a person is presented with options based on the probability of an outcome, they are more likely to select the option that is framed in a positive light.

While this discussion barely skims the surface of framing research (for more, see here and here), one thing is clear: When the outcome of a decision is uncertain, as it is with climate change, how the message is framed impacts the actions we take. By focusing on the positive and tapping into the sense of magic and awe that awaits us below the surface, we could better engage the public.

“The ocean is full of alien creatures,” Virmani said. “We're looking into space, but we have entire alien creatures on our own planet that can glow in the dark, conduct electricity, have eight limbs and you can see through them.”

Video Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Virmani cites the recent discovery of 40 ancient shipwrecks in the Black Sea and a 7,200-foot tall underwater volcano (accidentally located during the search for the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight 370) as evidence of all that waits for us, if we engage with ocean exploration.

“Our largest museum on Earth is the deep sea because it preserves so much. It’s such a massive store of historical knowledge and we just do not yet have access to it,” Virmani said. She remains confident that we will eventually access it all because, she cheerfully adds, “How often do we get to explore a new planet?”

As I think about how to frame the stories I’ll write in the coming year, I will do so in ways that offer hope and foster a connection with the ocean. And, I approach the end of 2016 imagining that Virmani and others like her will be exploring our own "new planet" very soon.

Ice scours the North Caspian Sea. Image Credit: NASA

Jenny Woodman is a science writer and Writing Fellowship coordinator for IEEE Earthzine. Follow her on Twitter @JennyWoodman.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.