Almost 200 people died in the German floods of 2021 because experts couldn’t convince them of impending danger. We must rethink how to get through to the public, says hydrologist Hannah Cloke
23 February 2022
IMAGINATION is one of those powerful human traits that sets us apart from other animals. By reading the word “circus”, your brain automatically conjures up a rich tableau of images and ideas. But you don’t need to be daydreaming of clowns to know that imagination plays a vital role in science.
The advancement of this domain intrinsically requires the birth of new ideas. Einstein famously claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge in the formulation of his theories. When researchers test ideas against reality, imagination is hardwired into the process: the point of science is that it allows you to see the future, to look round corners, to extend the capability of human insight. In that sense, imagination in science is alive and well.
But in another sense, it has an imagination problem. I recently gave evidence to two state-level inquiries in Germany into the July 2021 floods in the west of the country. Both inquiries are exploring why almost 200 people died there in a deluge that was forecast accurately several days in advance. It is a complicated question that will probably yield many answers. I believe a lack of imagination may be partly behind this.
The scientists couldn’t imagine that their forecasts, delivered in good time and with accuracy, could be ignored. Municipal authorities couldn’t imagine that such dire forecasts might be correct. And many of the people living in harm’s way just couldn’t imagine what a 9-metre wall of water would do, or how badly they would be affected.
The best scientists use many of their human abilities – imagination and creativity, collaboration, communication and empathy – to make discoveries and reach new insights. Yet when it comes to telling people about them, we can turn into robots, unable to deliver important messages.
All of the most compelling ideas are those conveyed to us in ways that we can see and picture and feel. The big bang is a conceptual theory that no one needs to grasp to stay alive, yet it fundamentally changed the understanding of our existence. If physicists were able to describe it only to other physicists, humanity would be all the poorer.
Putting a human face on non-human phenomena can work too. There is good evidence that naming storms leads people to take action to protect themselves. In the UK, we have had plenty of exposure to this recently. The prospect of Corrie, Dudley or Eunice smashing into your home, as opposed to just seeing a generic warning of “gusts greater than 80mph”, engages your brain in a way that encourages a response.
If naming storms works, then how about naming floods? Would people be more or less likely to respond to a warning and move to higher ground if a rising river was renamed Flood Dave? Such a label may be less accurate to hydrologists, perhaps, than saying that a rise in river levels of 5 metres will lead to flooding with a return period of 20 years. But probably more useful to everybody else.
As with the comet-spotting astronomers in the film Don’t Look Up, or the real-life climate scientists that it is based on, it is a tragedy to see danger ahead when no-one acts to avoid it. The most advanced supercomputers running complex simulations are useless if nobody understands the risks that they foretell.
By ignoring imagination when we convey science, we are shirking our responsibility as scientists. If communicating our findings is important – and sometimes, lives depend on it – then we have a responsibility to undertake the task with as much flair, creativity and passion as we use when we do our research. Logic and reason is fine. But when we can’t move beyond the facts, people may die.
Hannah Cloke is a hydrologist at the University of Reading in the UK (@hancloke)
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