Wishful sinking

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Boys swim in a freshwater pond in Nanumea, disorder Tuvalu

Will atoll nations like Kiribati sink as sea level rises, or not?

The prevailing media narrative—which you encounter everywhere: in print, on air, online—is yes. And that narrative nearly prevailed in the choice of headline for my Kiribati story in National Geographic’s just-published climate change special issue.

Several months ago, my editor at the magazine sent me a layout of the story with a gigantic headline stretching across the opening spread: “Going, going, gone.”

I gulped. Only six months before I had written a story for National Geographic’s website that described scientific findings that more than 75 percent of atoll islands in the Pacific are maintaining their size or growing, despite slowly rising seas. I was deeply opposed to suggesting that these islands will soon be going down the oceanic gurgler.

I discussed with my editor the idea of putting a question mark after “gone.” But the problem with doing that, I felt, was that the familiar slogan contained such a strong message that merely adding a squiggly piece of punctuation at the end would scarcely dent its impact.

Psychologists have a term for this: confirmation bias, the tendency for the mind to interpret new information based on previous assumptions. Another cognitive bias (there are dozens of them; it’s surprising we can think straight at all, ever) would also come into play: the availability cascade, in which a collective belief gains increasing plausibility through constant repetition. Readers would expect to see a “disappearing islands” headline, I argued, and a question mark was unlikely to disturb that misperception.

I and one of the National Geographic researchers simultaneously came up with an alternative headline: “Against the Tide.” This appealed to me because not only is it the challenge that people of low-lying atolls face every month, as spring tides bring sea level within striking distance of coastal land and infrastructure, but also many I-Kiribati people are taking a stand against the tide of world opinion that their islands are doomed. They “refuse to think of their homeland as a ‘disappearing island nation,’ its fate already out of their hands,” I wrote in my story. “They do not think of themselves as ‘sinking islanders,’ rather as descendants of voyagers, inheritors of a proud tradition of endurance and survival.”

The editors approved the new headline, and the print magazine has duly been published with the title “Against the Tide” above the Kiribati story.

A fortnight ago, however, the headline battle was fought again, when the online version of the story appeared. It was published under the line “Water May Erase These Pacific Islands but Not their Culture.” Again my heart sank, and I begged the editors to erase the word “erase.”

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