Too slow deadly for reputations, but also for lives? Virginia Tech case.

The court case is beginning against Virginia Tech, nearly five years after the deadly shooting that took 33 lives including the shooter. According to this story the prosecutors are focusing the accusations against the school on its slow response in alerting the school community about the initial shooting.

This event in April 2007 brought media and public attention to the the automated notification systems that had been evolving in the few years before that. We must remember that prior to VT, few in the public understood that it was even possible to communicate quickly and directly. Notification in emergencies was based on sending a message to the media who would broadcast it to everyone. And VT had had a problem earlier where they had sounded the alarm to the media, scared everyone, and paid the price for crying wolf. They didn’t want to do that again.

But, as the media got onto the VT massacre, they discovered that some schools had put text and automated phone or reverse 911 systems in place. The question then became–why didn’t VT. And every university president had to answer the question to their local media if they had such systems and how prepared they were to notify the campus in such an event.

Such is the way a story like this horrible event can change the world. I’m guessing now that this trial could have a further effect. If the school is found liable based on its lack of awareness of or slowness in implementing the latest notification technology, that certainly will put a burden on everyone with responsibility over a group (schools, nursing homes, prisons, even whole communities) to make certain they are keeping up with best practices and technologies in communication. And if the administration is found liable based on their rather deliberate and slow approach to react to the emerging crisis, that too will put a lot more focus on an organization’s ability to respond quickly.

Not long ago, Chief Bill Boyd commented on the fact that universities with their collegial approach to decision-making were not amenable to implementing ICS with its very top-down management approach. I believe he is right about this, but management styles that don’t fit with ICS are not limited to universities. The VT lawsuit may draw some attention to this large gap. If the jury and the public through the media decide that the administrators caused deaths by slow response and lack of the latest technology, this court case could have a very significant impact on how organizations evaluate their crisis communication plans and technologies.


“Scared to Death” by Jon Entine should be mandatory reading

Unless you are brand new to crisisblogger you know that I think far too much of what parades for journalism today is bad for us. The competition for declining audiences leads even the most respected news organizations to resort to hyperbole, sensationalism, and shallowness. Stories too often have to create visceral emotions of fear, uncertainty, doubt or outrage–whereas the truth frequently is far more complex.

This, in my opinion, is one of the key drivers in the remarkable decline of trust in our nation. The public doesn’t trust big companies, CEOs, government agencies and certainly not Congress. But trust is lowest, ironically, in the news media.

So I think today’s media environment, while toxic for corporate reputations, is harmful. Now, I see that it is also probably quite harmful for our health.

Jon Entine, of the American Council for Science and Health, has written a powerful book called “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.” This organization’s focus seems to be combatting junk science and situations where politics and public opinion intervenes in good policy making relating to science and health. The list of prominent scientists and physicians involved is long, impressive and fully disclosed.

I can’t summarize the basic message better than Entine:

“Belief in the relative benefits of chemicals, trust in the industries that produce them and confidence in government regulators have never been lower. Corporations that produce chemicals are often portrayed as greedy and indifferent. Questions persist about the government’s ability to exercise its oversight responsibility.”

The result, says Entine, may very well make us less healthy than healthy. One of the examples he provides to support this hypothesis is the clearly political nature of the President’s Cancer Panel Annual Report for 2008-2009. While 1.5 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year, and over a half million Americans die of cancer each year, and the societal cost if nearly a quarter trillion dollars, the report falsely focused on chemicals in the environment. How can he and I say “falsely”? Entine carefully answers that question, demonstrating that the consensus among epidemiologists is that the primary causes of cancer are tobacco, obesity, infections, radiation, stress and lack of physical activity. These numbers leave about 4% of cancers caused by toxins, contaminants and pollution. But, reports like this, so eagerly used by the media, activists and tort lawyers takes focus and dollars away from the real factors, thereby threatening our health.

But I found Entine’s detailed case studies on BPA and atrazine the most compelling.

BPA or bisphenol A is an industrial chemical used to make plastic products stronger and more flexible. It has been used in plastics manufacturing for over 50 years.

A sponsored link at the top of the Google search for the chemical gives an idea of the campaign against this chemical:

Plastics are everywhere and in most cases are very affordable and convenient. But, increasingly scientists are finding that a hidden cost may be our health. Some common plastics release harmful chemicals into our air, foods, and drinks. Maybe you can’t see or taste it, but if you’re serving your dinner on plastic, you’re likely eating a little plastic for dinner.

Even the wikipedia article on it gives substance to the government and scientific studies involving this chemical including the fact that it has been banned in Canada. But Entine tells a very different story. He notes that the studies, as with so many other chemical products, involve serious hormonal effects on rodents. But those tests are with injected chemicals at a rate 500,000 times of that consumed by humans–which do not inject BPA. Entine makes a strong case that the scientific evidence does not support concern over BPA and highlights the efforts of many from the European Union, to the Komen Foundation, to the FDA to try to calm the public fears about this substance. Here’s the CDC on BPA for example: “In animal and human studies, bisphenol A is well absorbed orally…in humans, little free bisphenol A circulates after oral absorption due to the high degree of glucuronidation by the liver. The glucucorinidated bisphenol A is excreted in the urine within 24 hours with no evidence of accumulation.”

Despite efforts by organizations like the FDA and CDC to calm the fears, the media pays no attention to such reports. Not when they can when “bushels” of awards like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has done by publishing more than 50 stories “excoriating the government for not restricting or banning the use of BPA.”

The ban by the Canadian government provides a great example of politics completing overwhelming science when activists and sensationalist media combine to scare us to death. Entine reports:

“When Mark Richardson, the chief scientist and head of the study [by Health Canada on BPA]. unofficially concluded the evidence showed that the dangers of BPA were ‘so low as to be totally inconsequential’ and compared its estrogenic effects to tofu, activists and the media, led by The Globe and Mail of Toronto, mounted an attack on his credibility that led to his reassignment.”

But, when the Health Canada report came out it echoed Richardson’s conclusion: “Bisphenol A does not pose a risk to the general population, including adults, teenagers and children.” So what did the Canadian government do? Health Canada, reflecting on the role of public anxiety also said: “Even though scientific information may be inconclusive [a strange statement given the fact that this is one of the most studied chemicals on earth and none have shown a danger except by injecting 500,000 times the amount used by humans in rats], decisions have to be made to meet society’s expectations that risks be addressed and living standards maintained.” So, of course, the Canadian government banned it for use in infant products–but not for any other use. And now, the fact that it is banned in Canada, gives credence to the activists and media reports, strengthening the loop.

Score one for the activists and fear mongering media. Science loses, and so does the public interest.

The case study on atrazine is equally compelling, but I won’t go into the details here.

Chemicals kill, no doubt about it. Chemicals that occur in the natural world and that are created in the lab and factories. Everything we taste, touch and experience involves chemicals. The danger always comes in the amount of exposure and what that particular chemical does to us. And we are continually finding out more about the risks as well as dramatically improving our ability to detect chemicals and their risks. That is all good. Plus, there have been some horrible examples in the past where greedy corporate managers have overlooked risks to the public for the sake of profits. That’s why effective government regulation is essential, and we must hold our elected officials accountable for that.

Given all that, I fundamentally agree with Entine and the Council’s position. Too much junk science is pushed by activists and attorneys. Too many journalists and now bloggers and commenters are eager to scare the beJesus out of us in order to attract eyeballs and be seen as crusaders. Too many politicians care little about the science and what is real in their eagerness to be seen as the white knights out to save us all. Too many educators and academic scientists pass on their 1960s and 1970s values of distrust. The result is a world filled with false fears. It is endemic in our youth in particular. It is evident in far too many anonymous comments on the web. There is outrage, fear and mistrust that is stoked by too many institutions and fear mongers who have much to gain.

We are being scared to death and it is hurting all of us.

Is hyper-connectedness ruining our youth?

My wife and I have often commented on the potential negative impact of everyone being continually plugged into their mobile devices. While in this blog and my blog on emergency management I work on understanding what this means for crisis and emergency communications, there is a deeper question: is this a good thing? Is it good for people to be tweeting and texting and watching their smartphones while having dinner with each other? Is it good to never be far away from the phone, email, text or social media, as I saw on the golf course yesterday. Lynne (my wife) and I watched with real sadness one day as we saw a teenager of about 15 having dinner with his grandmother but spent the entire time texting on his phone. I don’t think the two of them said one word.

Now Elon University and Pew Internet Project have published a study showing effects of hyper-connectedness on our youth. Here is their quick summary:

Many of the experts surveyed by Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Internet Project said the effects of hyperconnectivity and the always-on lifestyles of young people will be mostly positive between now and 2020. But the experts in this survey also predicted this generation will exhibit a thirst for instant gratification and quick fixes, a loss of patience, and a lack of deep-thinking ability due to what one referred to as “fast-twitch wiring.”

The study was done by through an opt-in, non-random online survey of experts in this field of study. The overall feeling seems to be that the impact will be more positive than negative but some serious concerns about impact. I was a bit disheartened to see that the focus of the report seems to be on performance, on decision-making, on making our way in this world. There seemed to be less interested in what really happens to us as human beings, in how we relate to each other, the care of our souls. The answers to those questions may be hidden in the depths of the report but I haven’t taken the time for in-depth analysis, just a quick scan and impatiently at that (which by the way, is the sign of a hyper-connected person).

However, I think there were some brilliant analyses and insights provided by the many experts who participated. Here is an example from Barry Chudakov, a Florida-based consultant and a research fellow in the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.

He wrote that by 2020,

“Technology will be so seamlessly integrated into our lives that it will
effectively disappear. The line between self and technology is thin today; by then it will
effectively vanish. We will think with, think into, and think through our smart tools but their presence and reach into our lives will be less visible. Youth will assume their minds and intentions are extended by technology, while tracking technologies will seek further incursions into behavioral monitoring and choice manipulation. Children will assume this is the way the world works. The cognitive challenge children and youth will face (as we are beginning to face now) is integrity, the state of being whole and undivided. There will be a premium on the skill of maintaining presence, of mindfulness, of awareness in the face of persistent and pervasive tool extensions and incursions into our lives. Is this my intention, or is the tool inciting me to feel and think this way? That question, more than multitasking or brain atrophy due to accessing collective intelligence via the internet, will be the challenge of the future.”

(emphasis mine–but I think Chudakov comes close to the soul of the matter with this comment)