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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September-October 2016

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Review of Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data

Edited by Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2015 (ISBN 978-0-87071-776-5).

We live in a world of cascading information. Data crash all over us like detached avalanches or unhinged landslides.

We have always sought to organize chaos. Otherwise we simply cannot cope. Father and son Paul and Scott Slovic have produced a set of challenging essays and fascinating interviews with artists, activists, and writers. These indicate that we are prone to numb our moral sensitivities and emotional outreach when confronted with too much despair among others. What lies behind this are the difficulties of linking rational comprehension to emotional empathy when faced with happenings to lots of people through tumbling events. The editors begin with Aristotle. He distinguished between ethos (the authority of the communicator), logos (the organizing of information), and pathos (the use of emotional appeal to guide an audience into a meaningful response). Their point here is that we appear to require a bridge of empathy to enable us to convert mass occurrences, even with huge death or injury involved, to propel us into a prolonged and effective reaction. Congested information creates an attenuation of feeling termed psychic numbing. This is a process of resigned insensitivity to the horrors of large-scale and repeated calamities, as for example witnessed in Syria every day, and all too often in the markets, hotels, and schools of Iraq, or Pakistan, or Kabul. This process in turn may lie behind our struggle to address seriously and continuously such huge long-term dangers as climate change, nuclear exchange, and widespread disease. It also underpins the oft-cited cries of despair from the aid agencies and humanitarian organizations of “donor fatigue.”       

Before retiring in July 2005, Tim O'Riordan was a professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England

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