Friday, April 06, 2007


Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney have an article in Science about how scientists must accommodate themselves to the public in order to get their message across but Eli would rather concentrate on the Bell Curve version which underlies much of it,

Everywhere you look, polarized views from the tail ends of the bell curve of opinion on climate change are being picked up by the media. Indeed, only at a few outlets like the NY Times, WPost, or NPR can Americans get that "invisible middle" of views on the issue. Unfortunately, these are not the outlets that reach the wider public.
This picks up strongly on the push back from the Inhofians, and says oh how awful that they are angry, without recognizing the panic stricken nature of that reaction. It is a good and encouraging thing. A part of the tactic being used is claiming those who are concerned about climate change as religious zealots, as Nisbet quotes William Buckley
The whole business is eerily religious in feel. Back in the 15th century, the question was: Do you believe in Christ? It was required in Spain by the Inquisition that the answer should be affirmative, leaving to one side subsidiary specifications. It is required today to believe that carbon-dioxide emissions threaten the basic ecological balance.
Now, on its face this is easy to handle by pointing out that the world was given into the care of men, adults accept responsibility, unruly children do not clean their rooms. Concern with the planet is a responsibility for those of faith as well as those who value the community of man. The snarky would note that Buckley has always had the same demands as the Inquisition.

Still this gets us far from where we started to go. If you want further examples, go look at Michael Tobis's new blog. Eli is not comparing Tobis, Nisbet and Mooney to our favored pinati, for one thing, and it is a very important thing, when confronted by climate nuttery, they call it spinach and they don't like it. Still, the tactics they recommend start by condemning what might loosely be called the Hansen-Gore position as way far out, and if not their science, saying that it enrages too many people.

This is the classic case of slamming the Overton Window shut on your own position. This is the
"window" in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable.....
So what should be done. The important point which the Mooney's, Nisbet's and Tobis' are missing, is that they should not define the middle excluding those far to either side of their position. If you try that the Inhofes will define the window for you as including them, you on the other side and Hansen shut out in the cold. If those who think climate change is an important issue try to find the "middle" position as an accommodation, the denialists will leave the middle as the extreme.

What is needed is to move the window AWAY from the Inhofe position, which means always pointing out how unacceptable it is on moral, religious, and scientific grounds, and how thin its real support is. It won't hurt to point to the local Lyndon LaRouche group's complete agreement with Monckton and Inhofe on this, the equivalent of the Hitler Stalin pact as it were. The first job is to move the window toward the reality of man made climate change.

Establish that climate change driven by our actions as a significant problem. Start by pointing to what is the reasonable extreme for meeting this challenge, something beyond what Hansen, for example, recommends.


CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Sorry Eli, I don't buy the propaganda approach. I think it is very important to concentrate on what people are actually saying and why. Most of those who are deep in the denialist camp have some overriding ideological motivation. They aren't denialists because some radio lunatic tells them to be, but because the climate control agenda offends their worldview.

You garden variety denialist is looking for something that they can point to to give credibility to what they already want to believe. Putting out the left wing opposite of the gospel according to Exxon Mobile will only reinforce their claim and suspicion that AGW is a crackpot notion.

They do have a bunch of arguments, not expecially great arguments, but when they go unrefuted, they acquire great strength. This is especially true when they come from sombody like Lindzen, who has some genuine credibility, or Lubos, who has ersatz credibility (on climate).

I have been looking at a few of the notions which I believe have considerable power (the fact that lots of things besides CO2 have affected climate, the fact that temperatures and CO2 levels current are actually quite low compared to most of the last 500 million years, etc.)

Those who want to promote worry about global warming need to master these facts, and get a story about them, or the skeptics will shred them.

I've also got to say that the messy room parable won't cut any ice with me. I've never figured out how to keep my desk, office, or garage neat, and if I think of that analogy I'm sure to conclude that effective action is impossible.

EliRabett said...

Well, I think I am going to have to work on my argument. It is not about propaganda. It is about framing.

A frame has a fixed width. My argument is that those of us convinced there is a problem with mucking the atmosphere and that action is needed should position the frame to include not only a minimal response, but also stronger ones and to exclude no action, push that beyond the pale, where it belongs.

If you try and define a point like middle position your point becomes one extreme and Inhofe the other, which leaves the public to middle at no action. And so to bed.

Anonymous said...

Eli, I agree with you here. If you put the left tail of the bell curve at "don't worry, be happy" and the right tail at "the world is going to end tomorrow", the scientific consensus on the effects of AGW is much more toward the right tail of the bell curve. Reading the WGII SPM4 today just drove that point home. Even the middle point of 3C warming is going to be bad, and as little as 1.5C will be ugly. And that doesn't include the upside uncertainties...

Just yesterday, I had to write an LTE answering some bad misinformation which was published in a column in our local paper (by John Baden of FREE, if you know who they are -- and they are bad) who claimed that rising CO2 levels were caused by natural warming. He also claimed that because of warming agricultural output in our region would go up (after all, his neighbor was able to get 3 crops of alfalfa this year) and that we all could go jogging in shorts in October.

I had to beg to differ with him, since the IPCC (even w/o seeing the WGII SPM) showed that SW Montana was likely to suffer from severe drought (we are now into our 8th, or is it 9th year), that there would be severe water supply problems and that one of our most important industries, fishing tourism, would suffer. Current streamflow forecasts for our area are for flows of about 65% of normal, we haven't had normal streamflows for the last 10 years or so. But hey, don't worry, be happy is the new denialist meme. Hey, go jogging in shorts in October. Heck this winter you could go jogging in shorts in February; we had a run of several weeks in mid winter with temps 30F above normal! Yipee!

I do have some hope though that the dems might be able to maginalize Inhofe and his ilk, but it is going to be difficult to move Hansen and Gore to the middle (where they really do reside). The Rethuglicans are going to fight this one to the end, which should come in November 2008.

Anonymous said...

These guys are not experts either on science or on education -- not even close. None of them have any background in either of those areas. Nisbet and Mooney make the sweeping statement (with no evidence that it is true) that
"scientists carry with them the wrong assumptions about what makes for effective communication."

There are a lot of scientists and science educators who are very good at communicating to the general public and who know a hell of a lot more about it than Mooney and Nisbet.

Mooney and Nisbet continue: "scientists, without misrepresenting scientific information, must learn to shape or "frame" contentious issues in a way that make them personally relevant to diverse segments of the public, while taking advantage of the media platforms that reach these audiences."

Their entire argument is all about framing. They make a big deal about "framing" (a buzzword if ever there was one) but it's obvious that scientists need to make science relevant for the general public if they expect people to listen to what they are saying.

That's not a revolutionary statement. That's a tautology.

I think it's time that more scientists emulated the example set by people like Hansen and quit letting the "communications experts" (Nisbet), pseudo-journalists (Mooney), and "science policy experts"(Pileke) speak for them.

Anonymous said...

I think that one can make a pretty good case that with the global warming issue, at least, the fact that the public has taken so long to accept the idea is due far more to a disinformation campaign than it is to any failure on the part of scientists to properly "frame" the issue.

Of course, Nisbet/Mooney have their out on that one as well: the exploitation by the denialists of the "uncertainty frame".

It's impossible to disprove their "thesis" because they can always come up with some cockeyed frame to explain what is (purportedly) going on.

Much of this framing stuff is just vacuous psychobabble.

Anonymous said...

The main problem with the Nisbet thesis is that it assumes things without evidence:

"Despite the widespread use of framing tactics, many scientists remain distracted by their faith in an idealized view of the public. They retain the well-intentioned belief that the best way to communicate with citizens is through science-laden messages. Scientists assume that if the public knew more about the technical complexities involved, citizens would be more likely to view issues as scientists do, and controversies would go away." -- From "A Misplaced Emphasis on Popular Science" -- Matt Nisbet

Now there's another broad generalization if ever there was one.

Likewise, Mooney/Nisbet alos assume things with regard to issues like stem cell research, evolution and global warming.

Where the public comes downj on these matters is far more than a simple matter of framing: "if only scientists had framed the issue a different way, the outcome would have been different."


Then again, perhaps not.

With the last issue, as pointed out above, a disinformation campaign played a big role -- and that is not countered simply by framing, but by calling people on their lies (then again, i suppose that Nisbet would conveniently call that employing the "honesty frame")

And it is clear with the first two issues above that religion plays a big role in which side of the issue people come down on, so, again, it ain't all (or even mostly) framing.

If someone's religion/church says it is immoral to use embryos for research, one can re-frame the issue in a thousand different ways until one is blue in the face and those people are simply not going to budge. End of story.

The evolution case may not be so clear-cut because many religions are at least tolerant of the basic ideas behind evolution (if not with the specifics of human evolution). But even in that case, scientists are restricted as to how (and to what degree) they can influence the public.

It's somewhat ironic that the guy who wrote a book about the unprecedented scientific disinformation campaign by the Bush administration would now be trying to tell us that it is all (or even mostly) about framing. It ain't, and he certainly knows it.

If there is a message in what has happened over the past few years it is that scientists need to PUSH BACK immediately and vigorously when it comes to lies being pedaled by politicians (and even other scientists).

Actually, given what the scientists were up against in this case (Exxon Mobil and the Bush administration working essentially in concert) and given the reticence of scientists to get involved in political disputes (which I agree needs to change), I think they did a pretty admirable job of exposing the lies.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and let me add one thing to the last paragraph above

Actually, given what the scientists were up against in this case (Exxon Mobil and the Bush administration working essentially in concert and "balance-obsessed" journalists who think its important to present both sides of the flat-earth issue) and given the reticence of scientists to get involved in political disputes (which I agree needs to change), I think they did a pretty admirable job of exposing the lies.

Michael Tobis said...

Eli, I'm a bit baffled by why you think I disagree with you. I'm sure we don't agree on everything, but other than your mention of me I agree with pretty much everything in this posting.

I especially appreciate your link to the Overton Window. I am pleased the idea has a name and a history.

I'm not trying to butter you up. I'll be happy to go head to head when we disagree. I just wonder what it is you see in my initial postings that you think you are responding to.

Anonymous said...

Dear Eli,

I have another take on the framing of science which may sound like I just landed from another planet, but you are welcome to read and criticise it here.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I just posted a comment on Nisbet's latest framing of climate change. He is missing the bigger picture, imho.

Anonymous said...

A blog comparing an opponent to Hitler. This causes a complete loss of credibility