Significance lives at the crossroads of consequences and goals. A disputed referee’s call is significant to the players, coaches, and fans watching that soccer game. It is significant to those with a goal to win every point, win every game, and win every season for their team. This is especially true if the consequences of that call determined the outcome of the match. The same disputed call is insignificant to people who do not follow the sport and have no goals regarding that sports team. The disputed call is also less significant if it did not determine the eventual winner of that game or have further consequences.
Noticing what is significant requires improving two skills. The first skill, detection, is noticing what is consequential by sorting the important from the unimportant. Experts are better at detecting and assessing risks within their specialty than are non-experts. Experts notice the signs of consequential effects. The second skill is choosing goals carefully.
Experience and expertise combine to form an awareness that prepares observers to notice what is significant, while ignoring distractions and dismissing the insignificant. This is true within each persons’ domain of expertise, but not necessarily outside that domain. Experts detect the signal—the significant information—among the noise—all the distracting but insignificant clutter.
A poet and a structural engineer walked across a bridge. The poet notices the weather, people, traffic, graffiti, litter, loose paint, potholes, superficial cracks, and other blemishes and imperfections. The structural engineer immediately judged these as inconsequential to bridge safety, based on her expertise and careful observation. Undistracted by these salient yet insignificant conditions, she noticed tiny, almost invisible cracks in structural elements of the bridge. Based on her in-depth inspection and expert analysis, she judged these tiny cracks as consequential to the strength of the structure and representing significant risks to the safety of the bridge.
The structural engineer and a radiologist each examine an X-ray image of a patient’s chest area to identify likely health risks. The structural engineer sees only various light and dark shapes. The radiologist sees the same images and recognizes many shapes, shadows, gray areas, and marks as representing normally healthy anatomical structures. The radiologist then focuses on tiny, nearly invisible spots that may indicate serious tumors, cancer growth, or other significant health risks.
In each case, the experience and expertise of the investigator tunes their awareness and prepares their attention to notice what is significant and to dismiss the insignificant as they scan the environment. With specific goals in mind, that awareness allows then to focus on the relevant, dismiss the irrelevant, and sort the consequential from the inconsequential observations. Their expert awareness informs the judgments they make as they evaluate the consequences of the many observations they notice. Expertise in the context of specific goals sorts the relevant from the irrelevant, the significant from the insignificant.
In our bridge and X-ray examples, the experts noticed a connection between the consequences of some condition and a goal. They then separated the few significant conditions from the many insignificant ones and focused on the significant conditions. Expertise is domain specific. Structural engineers are no better at evaluating X-ray images than are lay people. Similarly, radiologists have no special expertise in bridge inspection.
Experts may draw differing conclusions about the significance of an event. During the launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s 28th mission, a piece of foam insulation broke off the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter. A few previous shuttle launches had seen damage ranging from minor to nearly catastrophic from foam shedding, but some engineers suspected that the damage to Columbia was more serious. NASA managers limited the investigation, reasoning that the crew could not have fixed the problem even if it had been confirmed. When Columbia re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate the heat shield and destroy the internal wing structure, which caused the spacecraft to become unstable and break apart. On February 1, 2003 all seven crew members were killed as the shuttle disintegrated.
System effects, long term effects, and long-distance effects are particularly difficult to notice and evaluate correctly. Construal level theory recognizes that psychologically distant events are thought of abstractly rather than concretely. Events that occur out of sight easily slip out of mind. Examples include asteroid impact events, antimicrobial resistance, infrastructure deterioration, environmental degradation, species extinction, global warming, gradual deforestation, space debris, nuclear accidents, accumulation of radioactive waste, zoonotic diseases, poverty or other tragedies in distant lands, our own mortality, and other menaces that are distant enough they are often ignored. Although these events are real, and are likely to represent real threats, they are often controversial, ignored, or even denied because they are distant.
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Significance requires wise goals. We regard Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, Aristotle, Galileo Galilei and others as among the most significant people in history because they were effective in achieving wisely chosen goals. If they failed to achieve these goals, or if the goals they achieved were foolish, they would not be regarded as significant achievers.
The diagram shown at the right illustrates four quadrants defined by goals and consequences. The goals range from foolish on the left to wise on the right, and action consequences range from ineffective at the bottom to effective at the top. Effective action that achieves wise goals is significant. This is the upper right quadrant. Pursuing ineffective actions, even in pursuit of wise goals, is a distraction. Example of such distractions include use of ineffective medical interventions to treat an existing disease, or relying on dowsing to find water. Ineffective actions in pursuit of foolish goals are insignificant. Time and effort are wasted but because the foolish goals are not achieved no harm is done. Effective actions that achieve foolish goals are folly, and often tragically so. Examples include cult tragedies such as Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown, politically motivated adventures such as McCarthyism and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, consequential actions motivated by unfounded conspiracy theories, and other misadventures.
Assessing risk requires estimating the consequences of some future event and its impact on a goal. The risk of a bridge collapse addresses the goal of bridge safety. A judgement of high risk is the assessment that a future event is consequential to an important goal. Both the consequences of the event and the goal are in the significant quadrant of the diagram. An alarmist error (false positive) occurs when the event is judged to be consequential, and it is not, or the goal is judged to be wise, and it is not. This happened in the case of the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. Similarly, a complacency error (false negative) occurs when the event is judged to be inconsequential, or the goal is judged to be foolish, and they are not. This occurred in the cases of bridge collapses and shuttle disasters.