Value of Information: the imponderable

“In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free…” – Edward Gibbon


Yesterday’s LOTRW post highlighted listed four powerful trends that are driving up the potential value of Earth observations, science, and services: (1) Declining margins of essential resources such as water, food, and energy are leading to spot shortages and disruptions in supply worldwide. (2) The shortages can no longer be separated and treated individually, or wholly locally. Instead, they are connected in ways that require they be addressed as a whole. Worse yet, critical resource needs cannot be considered in isolation from hazard threats and environmental challenges. (3) The platforms, instruments, and infrastructure for Earth observations, science, and services, are rapidly developing in diagnostic power. (4) Big data and data analytics offer unprecedented tools for translating environmental conditions into their likely societal impacts, and for making societal, institutional, and individual adjustments.

What could go wrong? What could possibly stunt the growth in the value of Earth information?

Well, two things to start[1]:

1.Society could ignore, or misuse, or be slow to use and act on such environmental information – not just the warnings of threat but also the opportunities for benefit and profit. Earth scientists can be quick to see this as the result of malevolent intent or indolence (the climate-change debate comes to mind), but it’s equally possible and perhaps more realistic to interpret this as a consequence of the growing complexity and rapidly evolving nature of the interaction between environment and science. Some examples – three among many – illustrate the challenge.

The California drought of recent years. This has exposed challenges in the allocation of water at state and local levels, among economic sectors such as agriculture and energy, relative to private consumption. Allocations, and distortions in allocation, are shaped by pricing and subsidies. Policies and regulations vary from county to county and district to district. All this could be accommodated in times of plenty but is problematic in the face of multi-year shortage.

Dangerous lead content in the Flint, Michigan, water supply. News media have covered this tragedy extensively in recent months, finding fault with leaders at every level and of every political stripe.

Resettlement of the Isle de Jean Charles. This Louisiana example, important both to climate science and to the task of building resilient futures, is likely not so well known to readers as the similar challenge facing indigenous peoples of Alaska’s north slope; the Guardian article provided by the link merits a careful read. More information is available at, as well as on the Tribal website and at the Lowlander Center.

As the Guardian article notes, HUD has made a $52M grant to the people of the Isle de Jean Charles for resettlement. As the case in Alaska and elsewhere, the award amount is really in the nature of a demonstration project. Full implementation of resettlement will require the people of the area to come up with (roughly comparable) additional funds. Even so, some argue that the federal government has been too generous. Others see opportunity in the award and seek to be awarded critical contracts, forcing the named recipient in the award, the Tribe, to struggle to retain control.

Each of these three accounts demonstrate the way that resource-, hazard-, and environmental issues are currently threaded throughout our society, and, at the same time, how they’re inextricably intertwined with issues of environmental justice and poverty. Now multiply by tens of thousands. Every community, every sector, every nation in today’s world can come up with its own multiple narratives of such tribulations. The stupefying size and complexity of the aggregated problems combine confront huge, entrenched financial and cultural interests in a way that paralyzes consensus building and action.

Today’s political arena reflects this. Here in the United States, the time-honored winning political message has been this one: the politician says to Americans: “look me in the eye! You’re living in a fantasy world – and I can keep the fantasy alive four years longer than my opponent.”

(Alert! First, recognize that this statement is a bit exaggerated, to make a point. Second, don’t make the mistake of blaming politicians for this. It’s our fault. If anything, politicians are extremely realistic… and they know from experience that this is the message all 300 million of us insist on hearing from them.)

This year that rhetoric has been replaced with something far uglier.

Those concerned with the value of information should view this political season with special concern. In past campaigns, fact-checking has held political leaders accountable for their campaign proposals, on down to their passing comments, on the campaign trail. Much less so this year. Facts, consistency, logic seem to be held in low regard. And this in turn implies a decline in the value of information. Remember: information has no value unless it’s used.

Which brings us to a second challenge that can derail the increasing value of information.

2.A society that sees less value in information, is less interested in maintaining the sources and supply of that information, and sustaining the associated R&D needed to move it forward. Referring back to the political campaign – the adequacy of national and world supplies of water, food, and energy; our repetitive loss to hazards; our degrading ecosystem services – this foundation (remember Maslow) for all our hopes and aspirations is receiving scant attention. Maintaining the science and R&D of all that? Even less so. That societal disinterest has implications for us. Sustained continuity in the financial support and other policies that foster innovation are just as important for our work as oxygen and water and food are for us as individuals. To the extent our community is impaired, the world is forced to fly blind into a problematic future.

This doesn’t mean we should amp-up our scolding. Just the opposite! It means we need to redouble our courtship of the society that supports our work – the entire society, not just any single political party. It also means we should put more emphasis on STEM education, on investing in a society that understands innovation and fosters it.

And the freedom we should cherish most? The freedom to be responsible.


All these and more will be considered in future posts… but in the meantime, Easter is coming up.

[1] You can likely offer additions or your own better list. Comments are welcome, including guest posts should you be so inclined.

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2 Responses to Value of Information: the imponderable

  1. Jimmy Correia says:

    I can’t pass up a good cynic position, very thoughtful piece.
    I would also add “certainty” as a pitfall, since you brought up “big data” analytics. That we should ever be so confident that we forget about the unknown unknowns, or that the world works exactly like we think it should.
    I had the pleasure of reading the book “Curious” (author: Ian Leslie) recently. For point #2 then, not just less interested, but less curious. This is much in line with Kleins’ “Seeing what others don’t” — a book on insight as told as he was uncovering his insight on insight (a wonderful read!). In this, you can see that many want to lead us down a path of error reduction, in the business world it goes by many names like six sigma. But there is a hearty place where curiosity and insight live, if you let these things breath and give them room to grow.
    The certainty is that we have learned what we need to know, we work on reducing errors that we know about, and we get more efficient and robust. But most who do this, end up failing as the world changes around them and they haven’t dedicated the resources to insight (e.g. being curious about whats next or what we don’t know). As many an author have pointed out in disasters, we must pay much attention to becoming aware of our own ignorance. And then trying to address it. Truly a compelling challenge.

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