Monday, October 8, 2012

The power of legends

During the past few years, Ryanair has been surrounded by various rumors, including that passengers would have to pay for the use of toilets, that there would be standing up flights, that they will charge extra costs to fat passengers,  that they fix their planes with scotch tape, and more. Most likely, it is all part of a PR campaign aimed at generating interest in Ryanair, but it illustrates the power of legends on the human mind. (image above from CNN)

A few days ago, sitting with some friends at a restaurant, we were chatting about this and that when there came up the subject of how traveling by plane has become crowded and uncomfortable. One of my friends, sitting near me, said, "and, you know, they will also make you travel in the plane while standing up!" I thought she was joking, but I soon realized that she wasn't. She really believed that airlines were planning to transform planes into winged subway cars.

At this point, I made my mistake for the day (I seem to have a ticket book for social faux pas, sometimes I think I have to punch at least one every day). I told her that the story of people standing up in planes is an obvious legend; a publicity stunt destined to create interest in the airline creating it. I added that I am always surprised that people fall so easily for this kind of hoaxes. As you may imagine, that was a mistake. She stiffened up and she said, angrily, that she was sure it was true. I tried to remedy as I could, but it was too late. I think she went back home, later on, still angry at me and still convinced that in her next plane trip she was going to fly standing up, probably holding a handle hanging from the ceiling. That was worth at least five faux pas tickets punched.

Now, this friend of mine is blond haired, but she is no dumb blonde. She is a lawyer in her early 50s, by all means an intelligent person who, in her job, wouldn't be easy to fool. But she is not exceptional in falling in the legend trap. I have more examples and surely everyone of us has had some similar experience. Normal, intelligent people who completely fall for legends that are plainly absurd. It is what I called the "Anti-Cassandra effect;" believing the unbelievable.

The legend of standing up flights is basically harmless;  just like the several others surrounding Ryanair. Possibly, the idea is that passengers will feel privileged when they board the plane and they discover that they actually have a seat! The problem is, obviously, when the same disconnect with reality comes for subjects that involve real danger. Climate change is a classic example and there you find the most absurd legends taking hold with incredible strength. You know the examples: Greenland was ice-free at the time of the Vikings, Mars and Jupiter are warming up, in the 1970s they said an ice age would come, scientists have confessed of having falsified the data, and many more.

Now, imagine that you hear one of these climate legends told to you by one of your friends who believes that it is true. How would you react? Simply telling him or her that it is a legend and that it is obviously false wouldn't work. The reaction would be, most likely, the same that my friend had for the legend of standing up flights. So, I think that with climate legends we (intended as scientists and professionals) have made the same mistake. It is not enough to tell people that their beliefs on climate are incompatible with physical reality. Doing that just causes them to get angry and retreat even deeper into their beliefs. Scientists, indeed, seem to have been able to accumulate a huge number of faux pas tickets punched in their attempts to convey the message that climate change is real and that it is urgent to do something about it.

But how do we manage to tell people that climate legends are legends without hurting their sensitivity?  With a friend, maybe you can gently coach him or her into learning something more about climate. But dealing with the press and the Web is much more difficult - you surely have experience on what happens when the discussion heats up. So, what to do? Maybe we should ask to Ryanair's PR agency. Or does anyone have suggestions?


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)