Last updated October 23, 2017 at 10:04 am
Game of Thrones has parallels with a lot of things, but hear us out – Jon Snow, you could do with some help communicating. Warning: this page contains spoilers for season seven of Game of Thrones.
Season seven of the word’s most epic television show has been a hell of a ride as the show creators ramp up the speed of the story, rushing towards the series conclusion in epic clashes of ice and fire. Seasons of waiting for our favourite characters to finally be in the same place is paying off, and with spectacular dragon battles and javelin wielding white walkers, there’s a lot to love. But one plotline is frustrating fans everywhere, and that’s Jon Snow’s plan to convince Cersei Lannister that there is an immenent supernatural threat from the White Walkers and their undead army. In this dumb scheme Jon and his squad head North to catch a zombie, which they’ll bring back to King’s Landing to prove the problem to Cersei.
As a science communicator, I have some sympathy for Jon Snow. In Episode 3, out-brooding Tyrion atop a cliff, Jon laments that it’s hard for him to fathom how people are so dismissive of what he sees as an existential threat to humanities existence. Jon asks in exasperation a question that immediately made me think of the similar problems communicating the risks about climate change:
“How do I convince people who don’t know me, that an enemy they don’t believe in, is coming to kill them all?”
The White Walkers ARE climate change made manifest. They will bring the long night, a winter to end all winters. Jon knows this and has seen the evidence with his own eyes. Jon thinks that if he can convince those in power that the White Walkers are real, they will then of course act.
This is one of the traps that science communication, especially around climate change, can fall into. If only people knew the facts, goes the reasoning, they’d see the risks and then of course they’d act! Their failure to do what’s needed must be due to them not having enough of the right information. But we know that giving people more facts does very little to change minds, and can even actually reinforce polarised views. Political ideology is a much better predictor of attitude to climate change than how much scientific knowledge you have.
“People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large” replies Tyrion. He’s right of course. The threat of catastrophe is not a comfortable thing to grapple with. Much easier to act in accordance with our feelings, and dismiss or minimise the evidence of such threats. Our ability to self-deceive is actually a feature not a bug, with false hope potentially offering us an evolutionary benefit – it’s easier to keep on going if you really do believe everything turns out okay in the end.
While most of Westeros might not believe Jon, would they believe the Maesters? In Episode 5 we see that Sam is busy trying to convince the Maesters in the Citadel that the threat North of the Wall is real and imminent.
“Everyone is Westeros trusts and respects you,” he implores, “if you tell people the threat is real, they’ll believe it”.
The Maesters are the men of science of Westeros, the rational thinkers and keepers of knowledge. Do the Westerosi trust their scientists? If they’re anything like Australians, we generally do tend to trust in scientists, and scientific institutions, and think that scientists make important contributions to society. Sam is sure that if the Maesters proclaim that action is needed, the Lords will follow their advice. The link between scientific advice and political action is not nearly always so easy, and I think Sam is wildly over optimistic that he’d get the result he’s looking for. We’ve seen time and time again in issues like climate change, scientific advice is compromised to produce politically viable policies. The role of the scientists is to explain the problem and its implications, but it is up to those in positions of power to decide what action to take.
Does this make Jon’s quest north of the wall in Episode 6 to capture a wight in order to convince Cersei of the problem even MORE stupid? Perhaps he could use some sci-com advice and craft a message to appeal to Cersei’s values rather than trying to convince her with facts. As the things Cersei values most seem to be vengeance and wine, I am sympathetic to this being a difficult ask. They’ve got one more episode this season to see if Jon pulls off his ridiculous plan.
Image credit: HBO