Should We Use Simulation or Realism to Facilitate Understanding and Generate Action?

In this episode, Dan Richards discusses the use of realism and simulation in risk and crisis communication and how to figure out which method will better facilitate understanding—and spark action—in our audience through the application of user experience research tools.

Airdate: March 30, 2022

Season 2 Episode 20 | 45 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:11.890] – Liz Fraley

Greetings, and welcome to Room 42. I'm Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions, I'm your moderator. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp, she's our interviewer. Welcome to Dr. Daniel P. Richards, today's guest in Room 42. Dan is an associate professor and associate chair of English at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He also serves as the chair of the ACM SIGDOC.

[00:00:34.460] – Liz Fraley

His research focuses on environmental rhetoric, risk communication, and public understanding of science and the politics of higher education. His most recent project funded through the Department of Defense, applies UX and rhetorical approaches to political negotiation between military readiness and renewable energy development. His work has appeared in Technical Communication Quarterly, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Contemporary Pragmatism, and several other journals and edited collections.

[00:01:03.920] – Liz Fraley

His most recent edited collection on teacher neutrality in 2020 is available through Utah State University Press. Today he's here to help us start answering the question, should we use simulation or realism to facilitate understanding and generate action? Welcome.

[00:01:21.110] – Daniel Richards

Thanks for having me.

[00:01:22.970] – Janice Summers

We're very excited. Thanks for joining us. Now when it comes to risk communication, what are we talking about? What types of things are we talking about when we're talking about risk communication?

[00:01:39.590] – Daniel Richards

Right. Well, broadly defined, communicating risk could be really anything that's natural or that's man-made, anything that is a risk to another person. That could be physical risk, emotional risk, psychological risk. Typically in the way I deal with it, is through environmental risk. That could be something like hurricane readiness or something like that. It could be like man-made disasters, anything like that, so yeah.

[00:02:10.700] – Daniel Richards

But risk also has that psychological aspect to it, where the perception of risk… Where you could be at risk of things, but if it's not part of your psychological perception of it, then you might not feel at risk. There's also hidden risks that we're not really aware of versus the more dramatic ones, like hurricanes or sea level rise or tornadoes or COVID or anything like that. There's a lot of latent risks built into the system that we tend to try to make known.

[00:02:45.040] – Daniel Richards

But yeah, risk communication. There's still a lot of conversation about what risk communication is, what a risk is and our obligation to communicate it and how to best communicate it.

[00:02:53.280] – Janice Summers

Because it's not so simple of a thing. I just sit there and think, well, what is risk really? Is it “I want to tell you well in advance of something happening,” or is it that danger, that warning, is it immediate or is it pending? Where does it fall? The word “risk” has a psychological effect. Does that also play into someone's awareness of a risk?

[00:03:25.910] – Daniel Richards

Yes, it does. There are a variety of different ways of understanding or studying risk. We are at risk of things all the time that we might not necessarily be aware of, whether that's in our diet or ecological things that we don't know, things in our water, other things like that. We're constantly living, Ulrich Beck calls it like a “world risk society”. We're talking about risks that are inherent in nature but then also we keep manufacturing and creating risks through our development. It's part of modern day to come full circle.

[00:03:58.300] – Daniel Richards

We keep creating and making progress, but then there's still that risk, right? And then we have to create new science to address those risks, then that new science is another risk and then it's like a circle. But to me, where my interest is in the psychological part of it, which is understanding people's perceptions of risk, risk perceptions, public understanding of risks and trying to understand how they assess it. Because we're all messy humans. Sometimes it strikes me, sometimes I get on an airplane and I don't like going on airplanes. It's like, well, I make poor risk assessments all the time. I'll drive 12 hours to go somewhere rather than a quick 45 minute flight. It's like, that's not a safe decision. But we make very human—

[00:04:46.800] – Janice Summers

Because there's all those risks along the way. Like, there's a lot of risks in driving in a 12-hour drive.

[00:04:54.890] – Daniel Richards

So many, especially with screaming kids—

[00:04:56.690] – Janice Summers

On top of the fatigue that can happen just from driving. Like, I get driving fatigue. I'm good for three, four hours, and then I've got to stop. I get driving fatigue. But it's interesting because then in that constant evolution and that constant putting ourselves at risk, are we aware that we need to be communicated to at a different level? Because if we're trying to get through to somebody about a risk, this is a psychological challenge. It's like the frog and boiling water kind of thing. How do you get them engaged and aware that this is a risk and I need you to understand, so I need you to stop and pay attention? That's the goal.

[00:05:39.590] – Daniel Richards

Yeah. It's hard because we change risk based upon—or our perceptions change sometimes, not necessarily because of the most effective clear communication. I have friends who are pilots, and I'll talk about my aversion toward flying. They're like, “What are you talking about? You're going to get in a car accident on the way to the airport sooner than you're going to get in an accident on the airplane.

[00:06:06.170] – Daniel Richards

I'm aware of all the logic, all the statistics, all the stuff. It goes in one ear and out the other because I have an affective reaction to just stepping on board an airplane. If we extrapolate that out to other risks, we realize, well, just sharing data and sharing information and sharing statistics isn't really going to cut it.

[00:06:25.620] – Janice Summers

It's not going to cut it because there's that emotional thing and it's not necessarily based on an experience, unless you've been in a plane crash.

[00:06:33.240] – Daniel Richards

I have not.

[00:06:35.450] – Janice Summers

It's not based on like, “Well, I was in a plane crash and I'm averse to flying.” That would make a little bit more sense. We as humans—I'm not picking on you—but all of us as humans have those things because we're emotional beings.

[00:06:51.410] – Daniel Richards

Yeah. Even the decision to smoke or anything like that, you're aware of the statistics, you're aware of it. You understand your longevity and the effectiveness of it and you still engage in behaviors that are risky because they're value judgments about what's worth it and what's not.

[00:07:09.590] – Janice Summers

How do you get through to people then, to communicate that risk?

[00:07:14.930] – Daniel Richards

Well, the recent trend that I find exciting is to localize it and be very specific in terms of your risk communication towards specific demographics, certain social groups, or certain geographies. Because it is linked to affect and because it is linked to the softer elements of humanity in terms of … for example, like the sense of place you have towards that.

[00:07:41.540] – Daniel Richards

A global message for someone in Miami might not resonate because the melting ice caps doesn't really evoke any concern. It still seems distant, seems like, okay, that's it. But if you can localize messaging towards like, well, look, this specific part of Miami is going to be underwater or more at risk, it's going to affect condo development or something like that. You can make economic arguments, whatever it may be.

[00:08:09.430] – Janice Summers

Beaches will shrink.

[00:08:10.690] – Daniel Richards

Beaches will shrink. You're tailoring it to their specific needs and their specific affects, the effective dimension of their understanding of the world around them, then that could be effective. The downside is that's really labor intensive. Yeah, but for some people, the global messaging is… I don't think we can underestimate the fact that statistics and trust in science is still pretty common.

[00:08:36.870] – Janice Summers

But still, I see your point. Unless it's local to them, they don't have that same impassioned understanding about it when we talk about climate change. Unless something is happening locally, they have a harder time understanding. Like, we've had a series of fires and then people are starting to understand it's not that these things never happened before, and yeah they do happen. It's the amount of times they are happening and the intensity that they're happening. People here understand fires. People in Miami would understand the beach is eroding.

[00:09:17.940] – Daniel Richards

How do you see in California, though? Because wildfires have just been a part of life for California even before the Industrial Revolution. How do you build that message to say, yes, these fires are still happening. These happened to your grandparents and your great grandparents and your great grandparents before that and all that stuff, but it's related to this bigger abstract thing that you can't see. I'm always curious.

[00:09:43.090] – Janice Summers

Getting that connection. Well, it's funny because I was having a conversation with somebody. I would say a couple of years ago before we had these series of most recent fires, they were in that climate denying thing. They were like, “Yeah yeah,” and I'm like, no, it's the intensity. Now they're starting to understand because it happened closer to them. Now they're understanding, “Oh, it's that intensity.” We've always had fires. That's how it is. We're…California technically is a desert, so it's going to happen.

[00:10:16.610] – Janice Summers

They're starting to make sense. How do you do this on a proactive rather than a reactive? Because this is like, okay, now you're finally getting it. But what we're talking about in risk communication is we want to avoid that risk.

[00:10:30.300] – Liz Fraley

Not crisis communication. We're trying to step back a little earlier than that.

[00:10:35.320] – Janice Summers

Make a risk communication and not a crisis communication. Good point Liz.

[00:10:40.670] – Daniel Richards

Yeah. Well, especially with the hierarchy of understanding, it's like because so many fires are going on and because you're just trying to literally live and get through the next day and get through the next week, the global messages…you don't even get, you don't know anything about that. There's also that economic argument also, like if you just don't even know what you're going to eat or where you're going to live over the next week or two, then the global argument about life in 2050 or 2075, it's like…

[00:11:07.570] – Liz Fraley

I don't know if I'm getting dinner tomorrow?

[00:11:10.670] – Janice Summers


[00:11:11.340] – Daniel Richards

There's a kairotic… A timing element to it as well. Do you communicate global risk on sunny day messaging? It's like everything's fine, it's good. Now we can talk about this risk and address it because certainly in the midst of the other disaster. And we're seeing this with COVID now, I'm on another project talking about negotiating emergency management shelters with during COVID. Like in the Southeast, for example, or anywhere across the nation, the emergency management people who ran the shelters had to say, like, “Hey, there's a hurricane coming or tornado coming, come to the shelter.”

[00:11:51.230] – Daniel Richards

But also the policies of COVID were changing. People have a sense of shelters being hundreds if not thousands of people during emergency shelter, you have what's called compound risk or concurrent risk where you have to negotiate that thing, get out of your house for the hurricane. But also now you've introduced another risk by being indoors with a 1,000 people that you don't know or 100 people that you don't know, whatever it is. That compound risk really has some really intense psychological gymnastics that you have to do because choosing to shelter in place or go to a shelter even during hurricanes is a stressful enough decision.

[00:12:27.840] – Daniel Richards

You're looking at your neighbors, you're trying to see who's boarding up, who's leaving, who's staying? The guy who's been there for 40 years is just staying put because he's seen this before. You have all these different reads of risk assessment, and especially for someone new to the region, you're trying to gauge how other people are reacting. But then if it's big enough where you had to get out of the house or something like that, where are you going to go?

[00:12:49.450] – Daniel Richards

They were using hotels and other things that are a bit more safer, but the conception people have in their mind of a hurricane shelter is packed like sardines. Just living in there for who knows how long and now you're exposed to COVID. Yeah. The psychological aspect of risk to me is inescapable so I just lean into it and focus on that.

[00:13:17.190] – Janice Summers

Are there methods that work better than others as far as communicating risk?

[00:13:26.900] – Daniel Richards

To go back to that point about localization, a lot of articles have found effectiveness in getting really local and taking global messages, putting them on a very local level. They found those effective. But to assess the efficacy of a message, you have to localize it anyway. You can do a case study or qualitative for empirical work to see what actual impact is this message having? Because for too long, risk communication wasn't…

[00:13:56.940] – Daniel Richards

The art and practice of risk communication, wasn't assessing the efficacy of their message. They had scientists out there with the information deficit model was, well, you're not acting appropriately because you're dumb and you don't have the data. Here you go. Here are the data. You're smart now. Oh, crap. They're still not behaving the way we want them to. Why is this? They weren't really assessing as often the efficacy of the message and why it was good.

[00:14:22.480] – Daniel Richards

I think that's still a pretty recent trend in risk communication to be able to actually highlight the specific strategies that they found useful in this, and hopefully build up enough case studies across enough geographical regions to build up organically some basic principles about what works in risk communication. But people are finding it depends on the region, it depends on the type of risk, type of disaster, too. Something that might work in sea level rise, for example, doesn't really work in hurricane preparedness, doesn't really work in COVID, for example, because there's just different types of risk.

[00:14:53.020] – Daniel Richards

The different categories of risk that you have also have to have their own unique models for how you're communicating that. Yeah, it's hard to articulate general axiomatic truths about risk communication other than… To me, one of the consistent things that I could confidently say is you have to talk with the community and the messages have to be foregrounded in people's real understanding. Their mental model is called their mental model of the idea and if the communication doesn't start with the public mental model of what they have in terms of the conception of risk, then chances are you're just blindfolded.

[00:15:28.590] – Daniel Richards

That is definitely one principle of practice. How that emerges on a specific geographic region or any specific risk will vary.

[00:15:40.310] – Janice Summers

Making it realistic for the local area. Yeah, so that they have a better conception.

[00:15:49.950] – Daniel Richards

Yeah. And the field of tech comm [technical communications] was reading ahead of the curve. Jeff Grabill and Michele Simmons had an article in 1998 called “Critical Rhetoric Risk” [“Toward a Critical Rhetoric of Risk Communication: Producing Citizens and the Role of Technical Communicators”]. That was one of the touchstone articles in our field because they were arguing that risk communication is socially constructed, which comes out of like critical cartography and stuff that was happening in the early 90s about psychometric paradigms of risk. The affective dimensions of risk was of in the late 80s, early 90s, where they started to understand that, wow, people are messy when you talk about this.

[00:16:21.510] – Daniel Richards

But tech comm…That was in 1998 that they published that and that was a really important article for myself and my research, but also just for our field and for others as well. They were focusing on the making it community-centric, making it localized and the rhetorical efficacy of a message is really only as good as the degree to which you understand the community that you're communicating to. Which seems glaringly obvious to anyone in rhetoric, that is Rhetoric 101.

[00:16:46.390] – Daniel Richards

But to think of it in terms of risk communication and think about risk as a dialogue as opposed to a top-down, here's a risk assessment and then you communicate that; that was pretty fundamental at the time. It was  a paradigm shift. Yeah. I found it really useful, and I know a lot of others do.

[00:17:07.690] – Janice Summers

Right. Putting the receiver of the information first changes the whole dynamic of how you communicate.

[00:17:16.610] – Daniel Richards


[00:17:17.160] – Janice Summers

The science and the data is important, and that's great. But you're not… Unless you're communicating with another scientist. It's like in academia, as long as you're communicating with other academics, that's great. But when we try to communicate with those who are not in academia, there's a different language. There's a different…

[00:17:38.480] – Daniel Richards

There are different things that convince. If you're in academia or in science, data are convincing to you, so you're going to turn around and think that that's convincing everybody else and it's not. That's why I think a lot of the best projects have an interdisciplinary team where you have someone in social sciences who understands social psychology, you have someone who understands subject matters in science, someone in communication, for example, to really understand the complexity of it.

[00:18:00.860] – Daniel Richards

But, yeah, it's just a lot of work because you have to understand people are so messy. I think if you were to ask anyone like why they make the decisions they do, they're not going to use data to justify that position. We all make really messy, risky, non-logical decisions constantly.

[00:18:20.010] – Janice Summers


[00:18:21.370] – Daniel Richards

Because of these other multitude of factors. In the specific piece that we're writing for realism stemmed from— we were doing work on sea level rise years before. Then we noticed a trend that they were integrating these images of localities in their sea level rise viewer. Before it would just be two dimensional map, you would find your place, you would take the slider, you say how many feet of water would it take for my house to get flooded?

[00:18:45.890] – Daniel Richards

It was an open data exploration tool that was used by city planners, non-experts. But what people are finding is that, the public were using it at a higher frequency than they anticipated, even though it wasn't designed for them. They were using it, so it was just understanding data and then these images started to emerge of landmarks, so to speak. Here's the house, there's a structure, the statue, whatever it is, landmark, in air quotes because that's a public evaluation, too.

[00:19:18.910] – Janice Summers

There's town square, that kind of thing.

[00:19:21.640] – Daniel Richards

Yeah. We were curious on a very granular level. This project started on a very granular level where we were looking through it and we were confused and we just wanted to know why they were choosing the images that they did. Because we saw it as a broader rhetorical move to use realism as a way to help another contextual layer of understanding for how they might be able to integrate into their schema, their mental schema, this notion of sea level rise.

[00:19:47.580] – Daniel Richards

Maybe if we actually showed what their house would look like, if it was or showed what their beloved downtown actually would look like at 6 feet of water, maybe that would evoke something. We saw it as a vision of pathos, an actual emotional appeal towards one sense of place. But then we asked them and we e-mailed the NOAA, who is the sea level rise—their digital coast tool, and we e-mailed them about the decisions, why they chose it. There was no grand scheme whatsoever. They weren't doing focus groups and saying, “Okay, what statues are most beloved to you?”

[00:20:29.510] – Janice Summers

Which ones evoke more emotion?

[00:20:30.250] – Daniel Richards

Yeah, right. Some of the landmarks were like Virginia Beach visitor center. It's like, people in Virginia Beach would never go to the visitor center because they're never a visitor.

[00:20:36.750] – Janice Summers

They're like, “Oh, surprised we have one.”

[00:20:41.190] – Daniel Richards

We had some people from Virginia Beach be like, “Where is this? I don't know. Why would we need flyers of our hometown?” There's real considerations that I don't want to critique with that because they were hamstrung during that administration and they were having their funding cut. They were not able to maybe do what they knew would interest people. But we're having a conversation and we said, here's the criteria. It has to be open source. It has just more technical criteria for that. No emotional thing. They were engaging in this rhetorical—

[00:21:14.720] – Janice Summers

It has to be in that area. The building has to be in that area.

[00:21:19.310] – Daniel Richards

That's it. They were trying to engage in this emotional appeal, almost this assumption that realism is inherently more effective. That maybe the two-dimensional, just Google Maps type view of water wasn't really eliciting maybe that type of emotion. What we found interesting is, you have this data center tool that was really just used for decision-making, like top level decision-making. Not anything to really do any re-zoning or project development or something like that. But just to give you a top level view of the area.

[00:21:50.620] – Daniel Richards

Then they threw this curveball of images in there and we thought, well, what are you trying to do here? Are you trying to elicit understanding of the data or are you trying to do something a bit emotional by including the landmarks there? We were curious about that. Then we went down the rabbit hole of realism as a technique in risk communication. The weather channel has done a lot of realisms in terms of simulations. They do the flooding, the hurricanes, the tornadoes and it's really hyper-real in terms of actually placing the weather correspondent in the simulated environment so that people could know.

[00:22:25.980] – Daniel Richards

What's happening in sea level rise is there is a trend towards realism as a way to communicate the degree to which just how serious it is. Like any country—Sydney, Australia, here's downtown Sydney, here's the Opera House or the main place—

[00:22:41.850] – Liz Fraley

That's the Opera House, yeah.

[00:22:44.080] – Daniel Richards

That's like where it would be because that's right on the water. All these different things.

[00:22:48.610] – Daniel Richards

There's this rhetorical assumption that realism is always better. But then when you go to the actual research in cartography in terms of what happens when you juxtapose realism onto a map—or superimposed, sorry—realism onto a map, it gets complicated. Because in cartography, they want the level of realism to match the level of confidence in the data.

[00:23:08.440] – Daniel Richards

If an image or a map or something is super real and one-to-one correlation to reality, then the expectation from the scientists and scientific community and the cartographical community is that their confidence in the data, but what it would look like, is at that same level. Whereas if they have low confidence—maybe the water will go here, we're not sure—then you want that image to be lower quality.

[00:23:33.060] – Daniel Richards

The image quality has to match the confidence of data, which is the scientific premise of it. We were seeing these two rhetorical assumptions thrown together rather haphazardly. We saw that as an opportunity to really investigate, well, like the title of the article said, how real is too real? What level of realism would be most effective in the specific context of sea level rise?

[00:23:54.170] – Daniel Richards

But then also could we extrapolate something bigger about, maybe realism isn't most effective. Maybe people have reservations about it or resistance to it and we actually saw that in a few of the participants. They saw it as fear-mongering. They didn't see it as educational or evocative at all. They actually resisted the attempt to try and visualize the realism of the situation because they saw it as an attempt to elicit fear as opposed to understanding.

[00:24:23.090] – Janice Summers

That's interesting. Yeah. Was it because it was too real or because of the message?

[00:24:32.030] – Daniel Richards

Probably a bit of both.. We did mental models research to make sure that the participants understood the basic premise of climate change. We were confident that the 19 people that we did focus groups with had a good understanding. We did a pretest survey to gauge their understanding.

[00:24:49.550] – Janice Summers


[00:24:50.180] – Daniel Richards

Pre-screen a bit. They get climate change, they understand it's related to carbon emissions, it's related to glacial melt and all these different things. We are confident that all our participants actually have a basic understanding of what climate change was and why it was happening, and its relationship to sea level rising.

[00:25:10.790] – Daniel Richards

What was interesting is, it was an attempt for realism, but the images on NOAA's site were actually still pretty pixelated. Like, they weren't exactly like Hollywood quality simulations. They were mid-range and it was really clear because they took an image, so it was just really obvious. Because our demographic skewed younger, because we were doing undergrads, I think maybe because they're accustomed to a bit more refined visualizations or whatever it is, they saw it as almost cheesy.

[00:25:47.140] – Daniel Richards

They talked a lot about the CGI-ness of it, the pixelated nature of it. Just this, water going up on this real image, and it's not really clear. It was interesting that we got feedback about the quality of the images, but then also the intent of showing the sea level rise. They saw us trying to communicate a narrative that was based on fear to say, it's coming, this disaster is coming.

[00:26:13.110] – Daniel Richards

Yeah, it was a mixed bag in terms of how they were actually responding to the quality themselves of the images. But for a lot of them, that was the hang up—it was an attempt to be real, attempt to humanize, but they didn't do it well enough. That was interesting.

[00:26:31.770] – Janice Summers

That is interesting. If you're going to do realism, then if the realism were a higher quality than they would have been more receptive to it?

[00:26:41.790] – Daniel Richards

For some, yeah. They would have been more receptive to it, or they at least would have been…They probably just wouldn't have had their initial resistance to the critique of the actual visualizations themselves. But I'm not sure. I think regardless of how real the simulations were, I think there's always just going to be a segment of group that's just going to be resistant to the message in general based upon just the premise of it. About what it's trying to do, regardless of how nicely integrated the water is into these images.

[00:27:15.730] – Daniel Richards

Or maybe the resistance was just because they had no idea what the landmarks were. There were a couple of people from the area who actually had no idea what some of the landmarks were. They had never seen the Great Bridge in Chesapeake, they had never seen the Air and Space Museum in Hampton. They've never seen the Virginia Beach Visitor Center. They had never seen the Unknown Sailor statue in downtown Norfolk. A lot of the landmarks that were chosen were alienated or disconnected from the participants.

[00:27:39.860] – Daniel Richards

We were curious to see how realism would have worked if we chose their grandmother's house or if we chose their favorite hangout in high school or if we chose their elementary school or something like that. Something that actually has an emotional connection or their church where they want their kids to be raised in. Like, something that's real and evocative for them. I think we would theorize that they would respond differently than to a visitor center.

[00:28:03.940] – Janice Summers

“Realism isn't realism unless it's real to me” kind of thing, right? Yeah. You can show me those, and I'd probably have the same responses they would have because those aren't real to me.

[00:28:19.680] – Daniel Richards

Yeah, that's a good point. It has to be real so the real of the image, but also the real in terms of the actual emotional connection to it.

[00:28:33.700] – Janice Summers

How would you solve that, though?

[00:28:43.890] – Daniel Richards

I have a comment box outside my office, and I'm hoping people are just going to solve that problem for me any day now.

[00:28:51.330] – Janice Summers

That's a huge problem. I know.

[00:28:54.570] – Daniel Richards

Yeah. I'm trying to just break off a little bit and just feel a sense of responsibility for my own community. Then not get too cynical about the global stuff on climate, because I'm just trying to bite off what I could chew and just at least try to get our community to at least understand it and participate in it. It is a unique political environment here with the Navy and stuff like that. The Navy is actually taking charge on sea level rise as a national defense issue. It crosses political lines in our region in ways that you might not see in non-military culture.

[00:29:29.730] – Daniel Richards

Yeah. I think the solution is just a lot of labor, a lot of better understanding people, a lot of continuing to build case studies and models that can empirically show that one specific strategy was proven to be more effective in the specific community. Integrating that into the messaging of the municipal and county and state-level agencies. I think part of it is building a bridge between the academic research that's being done and then the messaging that's being done by the state and municipal employees.

[00:30:02.470] – Daniel Richards

Building those bridges, obviously, as your audience would naturally nod along to that. Yes, absolutely, yes to that. Bringing that research into there and then making sure that they're informing each other, but also that academics keep their work grounded enough to make sure it is useful to people and not just theorize risk as a concept, which is still very useful, but can actually provide empirical studies towards better understanding of one specific thing.

[00:30:30.190] – Daniel Richards

It's a small project within a small part of the country, within a small city. It's like it's really such a small part of it in terms of understanding about what these 19 focus group participants thought about this. But it was interesting to think about, just to challenge that assumption a little bit, that realism is not always the best and that realism can actually have adverse effects if you have someone who is already in a neutral or below position towards the topic. It can actually have the adverse effect. If they think that realism is a strategy for engaging climate deniers, I think they should rethink that.

[00:31:08.450] – Janice Summers

Be very careful if you're applying realism, you have to adjust for all those factors. The fact that the more local you can be, the better. Because that seems to be the overarching thing. It's great to have this information, but it really comes down filter, filter to the really local area to communicate things. Understanding communication at a user level, so where the receiver is and translating all of those things into that receiving area.

[00:31:48.650] – Daniel Richards

Yeah. That's a lot of work that I know a lot of government employees who are already worn out, especially during COVID… They've done their best to communicate, especially on a local level. We saw how COVID worked in the local level because the policies and mandates have been changing. They change from region to region all the time. You drive 5 miles this way and all of sudden a you don't have to do this thing or whatever.

[00:32:14.450] – Daniel Richards

They're doing a lot of work and they're overworked and overtired so to even just kind of provide that partnership to government, business, academic partnership, I think it's important. Then to keep those studies going and keep validating them and building it up, and then sharing data, sharing research with other localities that are in similar part, not thinking that Virginia is unique in some ways, but it's also not unique in a lot of other ways. It's just like any other coastal community.

[00:32:45.060] – Daniel Richards

There are generalities that you can start to do along the Atlantic Coast, for example, that residents of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, down to Florida all care about. There are similarities there but we just need to bring all that data together to see what those are.

[00:33:00.710] – Liz Fraley

In some ways, I feel like you're like, oh, my research is just very local, local. But that's what you're arguing about, too. It has to be local to be effective. That you're getting results is the point as far as I can tell.

[00:33:21.280] – Daniel Richards


[00:33:23.650] – Liz Fraley

Your study is hyper-local and you're getting the results that you're getting.

[00:33:29.090] – Janice Summers

Well, now the communication, if they weren't factoring in that hyper-local community, then that's where things backfired. It would be better to not try to be—you can't fake being real, I think is the message that I'm getting from you is you can't fake being real because then you're going to have adverse effects. Not to try to fake being real.

[00:33:56.960] – Janice Summers

If you're going to be on a general basis, like for the entire coastal region or the entire East Coast and stay at that level, and then it needs to come down from there, then people who are more local need to bring that message down to speak to more of a local community. But it is true. It is hard to filter all that information down. Then when things become politically charged, it gets even harder.

[00:34:26.250] – Daniel Richards


[00:34:27.080] – Janice Summers

Because it gets more emotion involved in it and not logic.

[00:34:32.790] – Daniel Richards

Yeah. Then even once you get down to the city level or region level, the different demographic groups that are in different risk areas because of housing policies in the past and just the different… You have the relationship between redlining and unfair housing practices and sea level rises, obviously, those go hand in glove for sure. To even think about how you communicate risk in a more affluent whiter community that's still along the water; even that messaging is going to be a bit different because those people have the ability to move.

[00:35:11.470] – Daniel Richards

Sell your house or pay 30 or 40 grand to raise your house 6 feet or whatever it is, or do these mitigation measures to put these things in your crawlspace or whatever to lower your flood insurance or whatever it is. There's a variety of different things that you can do. Even once you get there, then you have racial dynamics, you have ethnic dynamics, you have age dynamics as well. Obviously, communicating like, hey, where are your grandkids going to live? To a 19 year old, that might not necessarily be where they're at.

[00:35:43.330] – Janice Summers

They can't conceive their 30s, let alone…

[00:35:47.810] – Daniel Richards

Let me graduate undergrad first and I'll get back to you. Yeah, all those even different social groups is another way to think through. Maybe there's more commonality between those social groups and between regionality and the attachment to the place. It is. There's a lot of good work that's being done on those topics. But I think we're just in the last maybe 10, 15 years getting enough case studies together to start to paint a broader picture.

[00:36:18.070] – Liz Fraley

Those were the light bulbs that were starting to form for me. I'm hearing the same message from researchers doing vastly different things or what they think are vastly different things. But that communication is local. That's audience, that's context, that's sense of place, that is far more dimensions than like, oh, well, this works for everybody. The one thing that stood out was the effectiveness is correlated to how well you understand the community you're talking to. That stands out for me in a way that connects a lot of different research pieces. This is really fascinating.

[00:37:04.690] – Janice Summers

A lot of different angles, really. It's about the locals, the smaller group, the community, and being able to bring it down to that. Which is a big challenge when you think in terms of product companies that are making a product and they need to distribute it out places and to be able to distribute it to remote places and speak to that local community.

[00:37:31.690] – Liz Fraley

You're thinking about Sweta and the water.

[00:37:34.390] – Janice Summers

Well, no, I was thinking about Isidore and the voting machines, too.

[00:37:38.940] – Liz Fraley

That too. Yeah.

[00:37:42.430] – Daniel Richards

We have a variety of examples.

[00:37:43.460] – Janice Summers

See, we're talking —there's a lot of people—

[00:37:44.790] – Liz Fraley

Like it keeps coming.

[00:37:46.460] – Janice Summers


[00:37:50.920] – Daniel Richards

I'm doing more qualitative, smaller… ODU does the Life in Hampton Roads survey where they have the Social Science Research Center call thousands of residents, and it's old school stuff. A faculty can request to have certain questions put on that survey to ask the community. Sometimes we ask to put perceptions of sea level rise, perceptions of climate change, perceptions of whatever risk there is, hurricane preparedness, something like that.

[00:38:17.880] – Daniel Richards

That's one way that we can get…We can still get larger quantitative data sets to be able to understand even just at a top view, even though we're not gathering a nuance about all the people and their different reactions and why. It's at least a good starting place to understand, have a barometer of where the public is at on a specific topic. If it's getting higher in terms of concern, lower in terms of concern, where intervention starts there. There is still lots of room for large scale quantitative data sets. I still find that useful even on the national level.

[00:38:47.550] – Janice Summers

Oh, yeah, right.

[00:38:50.970] – Daniel Richards

In the article, I use Yale's research, where they talk about the six Americas, and they paint this picture almost, kind of persona-based actually in terms of the six different types of people in their disposition towards climate change. I use that as a starting point. That's a national data set from the Climate Change Communication Center, that was my starting point. There is still room for quantitative large scale understanding of what is the framework here? Then we can drill down in terms of developing localized strategies and stuff like that.

[00:39:28.950] – Janice Summers

Yeah, that's true. Then I like also what you were saying about getting the pulse on what the community at large has an appetite for. It's like, are they receptive? Because if they're not concerned about something, then they're not going to be receptive for information in that risk. If you're trying to risk communicate something that the general population really doesn't really think about or care about, it's not in their sphere of concern, then you can talk all you want, you can do all the realism you want. They're just not going to pay attention.

[00:40:09.810] – Daniel Richards

Yeah. How do we elicit that care or concern? That's what I was thinking, because a lot of risk scholars say, like, you need that priming, that emotional priming. If you are concerned about something, you'll look for information and then all this stuff kicks in and you go okay, who's the most reputable organization? You have the science, you can integrate it. But the passion is the foundation.

[00:40:30.750] – Janice Summers


[00:40:32.120] – Daniel Richards

The passion doesn't come from data necessarily. It can come from a story, it can come from experience. A lot of studies, these local case studies relate how experiences change your perceptions. Say, you mention a plane crash—if I was in a car accident, too, maybe that would get me on airplanes more. There are the experiential parts. The correlations between people who have had to take out flood insurance claims versus not and their perception of risk is obviously heightened in those people who have had those experiences.

[00:41:01.170] – Daniel Richards

The plus side of those experiences, we can leverage it and understand it. The downside is sometimes, with some risks, it's too late because by the time they have the experiences—it's catastrophic. If you are talking about Sandy or Katrina or Harvey or something like that, then that's the one off experience that might change moving forward when they're relocated but ultimately it destroyed the community. It's hard to say but for the mid-level flood things, they get the scare, they see water go through the porch, they think, “Okay, next time it's going to do it, so let's take some mitigation measures. Let's get flood insurance, let's put flood vents up, let's do whatever.”

[00:41:45.920] – Daniel Richards

Yeah, I don't know. Then there's also that personal versus political thing, too. There are people who can be like, yeah, let me put a natural shoreline in my beach backyard or put flood vents up in my house or build some barrier around it or whatever it is or raise it but they still won't necessarily vote for a party who will stop it. There's that personal, what you could do for your own personal property, protecting your own personal property, which is part of that “how does that play out politically.”

[00:42:15.140] – Janice Summers


[00:42:23.790] – Liz Fraley

That's part of that balancing of perceptions and risks and the things that you've— It's all tied all into that psychology.

[00:42:32.030] – Daniel Richards

It is. Not just to poke at that but it's also a lot of tree-loving Liberals who make very poor decisions in terms of where they're living. The disconnect often between the politics and what we want in terms of global policy and energy policy and stuff like that, it doesn't always trickle down to our local decision making about where we live. We always still want to live in that cool part of town where it's—

[00:42:59.510] – Liz Fraley


[00:43:01.310] – Janice Summers

Oops. Did he freeze?

[00:43:03.750] – Liz Fraley

I think he did. I'll cut some of this.

[00:43:05.940] – Janice Summers

Yeah, we'll just wait for him to come.

[00:43:07.870] – Liz Fraley

There he is.

[00:43:08.770] – Janice Summers


[00:43:09.620] – Daniel Richards

Sorry. My internet is unstable.

[00:43:14.130] – Liz Fraley

Internet is not a stable place.

[00:43:16.830] – Janice Summers

Yes, the decision-making and people want to live in a cool part of town versus the things that…People are very complicated. We are very complicated and it's just interesting. I don't think there's any easy answer. Now, your paper is out. It's just been published, right?

[00:43:38.920] – Daniel Richards


[00:43:39.930] – Janice Summers

Cool. We'll provide a link for people. They can go find your article, but yeah, I think it's even harder when it comes to risk communication. There's even more complexities. There's no cut, like, here's the easy answer. There's no easy answer when it comes to communication. There's just an attempt to ever improve and ever improve.

[00:44:07.050] – Liz Fraley

It takes work.

[00:44:09.870] – Daniel Richards

Sometimes experience. Yeah, experience as an educator for this, but sometimes not.

[00:44:16.350] – Liz Fraley

Thank you so much for coming. This was great.

[00:44:18.800] – Daniel Richards

This is great. Thanks for allowing me to talk about my research and providing a platform and it means lots me. Thank you so much.

[00:44:26.760] – Janice Summers

I know it's very interesting research so I highly recommend everybody read the article, so we'll include that link for everyone.

[00:44:34.020] – Daniel Richards


[00:44:34.440] – Janice Summers

Again thank you so much for taking time with us. I'm sorry we've gone a little over time.

[00:44:46.030] – Daniel Richards

Thanks Janice, thanks Liz.

In this episode

Dr. Daniel P. Richards is an associate professor and associate chair of English at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. He also serves as Chair of ACM SIGDOC. His research focuses on environmental rhetoric, risk communication, the public understanding of science, and the politics of higher education. His most recent project—a project funded through the Department of Defense—applies UX and rhetorical approaches to political negotiation between military readiness and renewable energy development. His work has appeared in Technical Communication Quarterly, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Contemporary Pragmatism, and several other journals and edited collections. His most recent edited collection, On Teacher Neutrality (2020), is available through Utah State UP.

We talk about the recent trend in risk communication to rely on realism and simulation as a way to communicate a variety of risks. In terms of sea level rise, there has been a trend towards visualizing the effects of water inundation in mainly coastal communities as a way to facilitate understanding and generate action and awareness. Rhetorically, this makes sense. But do we know enough about whether or not realistic visualizations are more effective than less realistic ones? or just data? Are the downsides to using realism, or simulation and, if so, what are they? We discuss how to test these assumptions by applying user experience research to the sea level rise visualization tools.



Twitter: @dprichards


How Real Is Too Real? User-Testing the Effects of Realism as a Risk Communication Strategy in Sea Level Rise Visualizations

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