Communicating a crisis

David Spiegelhalter on communicating a crisis:

There are some basic principles, which I learnt from John Krebs, former Chair of the Food Standard Agency, who had to deal with many crises. The first thing is that you should be communicating a lot, consistently and with trusted sources. You have to be open and transparent. You have to say what you do know and then you have to say what you don’t know. You have to emphasise, and keep emphasising, the uncertainty, the fact that there is much we don’t know. Then you have to say what you are planning to do and why. Finally, you have to say what people themselves can do, how they should act. The crucial thing to say is that this will change as we learn more.

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The Myth of ‘Dumbing Down’

For The Atlantic, Ian Bogost on communicating complex ideas to an audience:

One thing you learn when writing for an audience outside your expertise is that, contrary to the assumption that people might prefer the easiest answers, they are all thoughtful and curious about topics of every kind. After all, people have areas in their own lives in which they are the experts. Everyone is capable of deep understanding.

Up to a point, though: People are also busy, and they need you to help them understand why they should care. Doing that work—showing someone why a topic you know a lot about is interesting and important—is not “dumb”; it’s smart. Especially if, in the next breath, you’re also intoning about how important that knowledge is, as academics sometimes do. If information is vital to human flourishing but withheld by experts, then those experts are either overestimating its importance or hoarding it.

I struggled with this during my first year of graduate school, because it took a while to get out of my own head and imagine myself as a reader. Or, in the case of that first-year regression analysis course, I was supposed to imagine a policymaker on a tight schedule.

I would crunch numbers or whatever and write reports. My professor told me I had to do a better job explaining the meaning behind the numbers. How should a non-statistician interpret these results? It was my job as the statistician to explain.

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Finding small villages in big cities

Urban Village

Daily life in cities tends to differ from daily life in small towns, especially by who we interact with. The MIT Senseable City Lab and the Santa Fe Institute studied this social aspect — individuals' contacts by city size — through anonymized mobile phone logs. As expected, those in cities with greater populations tended to have more contacts. However, when the researchers looked at who knew who, the results were more constant.

Surprisingly, however, group clustering (the odds that your friends mutually know one another) does not change with city size. It seems that even in large cities we tend to build tightly knit communities, or 'villages,' around ourselves. There is an important difference, though: if in a real village our connections might simply be defined by proximity, in a large city we can elect a community based on any number of factors, from affinity to interest to sexual preference.

Read the full paper for more details.

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