The title that I chose for this page is indicative of one of the key questions of environmental communication: what information can be trusted? In theory, data is just a piece of information; a length, a volume, a mass. In the practice of environmental communication it becomes an argument in support of a cause. And if, as I suggest, the environmental debate is indeed polarized, data is the equivalent to ammunition in a fight or war. Data can be manipulated, misrepresented, concealed and even invented. Personally, I am most interested in the effect of the collective unconscious (or our common cultural inheritance) on the reliability of environmental information. Is it a lie when the collector of the data isn’t aware of her own bias? And why is data so ineffective in changing people’s minds?

Some environmental information is readily available whereas other information is not. Environmental data that is easy to find includes: the emissions and discharges of industrial processes, national atmospheric emissions, gas mileage per type of transport, environmental disasters, pollutant concentrations, annual data and short term trends. Information that is more challenging to collect includes long term trends, pollution levels associated with consumables (imported or exported) and data that demonstrate improvements in environmental performance. There doesn’t appear to be any data about: individual levels of pollution and the environmental effects of live-enhancing medical interventions.

People that aim to set the record straight include Hans Rosling and his team at Gapminder.org and Max Roser with his web publication “Our World in Data”. Hans Rosling is renowned for the way in which he was able to present a lot of data in a very accessible manner. I hope you will enjoy his series of TED talks as much as I did. Please also have a look at their Dollar Street project, which provides a visual cross section of the global community; highlighting the resemblance between diverse people with similar incomes. See embedded TED Talk by Anna Rosling Rönnlund below. Max Roser’s “Our World in Data” is an on-line publication that presents the empirical evidence on the development of human living conditions at a global scale. Please have a look at his unique data visualizations of the changes in our world, ranging from population growth to interpersonal trust.