It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Nisbet Gripe, Cont'd

I have no objection to the idea of framing messages effectively. Until this week, I had no idea why some people were complaining so bitterly about Nisbet.

But Nisbet is in the strange headspace of politics, where science is just a piece of furniture on the landscape of politics. What's more, it's a black box which emits certain very simple results. And when he describes the box, he gets it hopelessly wrong, and uses the bizarre and broken frames of the worst elements of the press.

The problem isn't the concept of framing. The problem is that the guy who has done the best job of staking out "framing" as his personal territory has about the most toxic set of frames out there for our issues. There is no getting rid of writing to your audience, but the word "framing" itself isn't all that valuable. If it belongs to Nisbet I don't want it.

One thing I've learned recently is that while in many ways I behave like a journalist, I simply have almost no interest in "news" any more than I am interested in "sports". Events in sports fall clearly into the space of "don't matter". In fifty years nobody will remember who won the superbowl this season. In politics, they will remember Obama's name, but little of what he said or did.

As long as we play on the battlefield of week-to-week politics and don't actually look into the science box, we lose the war of words. Yes, the right is disposed against us and the left toward us, pretty much for arbitrary cultural reasons. But the opposition is free to twist the facts and we aren't. So they pick off people as they start to pay attention and the mythology of massive corruption in climate science gets further elaborated.

If we don't play the long game, if we don't try to revive critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning, if we don't go beyond assertion and into explanation, we are playing on the opposition's turf.

Nisbet may have done a good job of describing the opposition's turf, but that is all he knows. He, specifically, is an example of a person lacking a scientific education remotely commensurate with his capacities and interests. His approach embodies the substitution of politics for knowledge.

The long game is our home turf, and we have to stop listening to people who miss that point completely. The absurdly short time scales and shallow symbolic allegiances and frantic half-crazed yuppie obsessions du jour of the beltway and the press are the problem, not the solution.

6 comments:

manuelg said...

I am slack-jawed. You summed up Nisbet perfectly. You communicated better than I could have, exactly how Nisbet rubs me the wrong way. I am compelled to go into detail about how good a job you did.

> Yes, the right is disposed against us and the left toward us, pretty much for arbitrary cultural reasons.

A good thing to remember. Once the costs of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches the trillions (with human cultures displaced from drought and flooding, loss of food and wood production from climate change, and loss of ocean protein and nutrition from acidification), the left cannot be counted on to spend scarce resources effectively, because of the need to reward loyal voting blocks. (Not claiming the right will be any better.)

> Nisbet may have done a good job of describing the opposition's turf, but that is all he knows. He, specifically, is an example of a person lacking a scientific education remotely commensurate with his capacities and interests. His approach embodies the substitution of politics for knowledge.

So cruel, and so true.

keith said...

Michael Writes: "As long as we play on the battlefield of week-to-week politics and don't actually look into the science box, we lose the war of words."

If you want to influence federal science policy, then you don't get to choose your own "battlefield." You ignore politics at your own peril.

Additionally, per frames: we all have our own personal filters with which we view science. To me, it sounds like you're throwing out the baby with the bathwater, because you don't like "framing."

So for example: while I don't share the conservative Evangelical worldview, I recognize that they represent an important political constituency in the U.S. And many of them, because of people like Richard Cizik, now care deeply about climate change. But they obviously come at it differently than you or I. They have their "frame."

So recognizing all the various frames into the climate change issue seems a valuable thing to me, especially if you want to mobilize such varied constituencies into a political force that must be reckoned with on that "battlefield" you prefer to ignore, but which all the nation's business gets done.

-KKloor

Michael Tobis said...

All sort of true, but if the public had a modest but appropriate grasp of the science, the politics would look very different, and the science would be healthier, too. The role of science (as a community) in the debate, then, cannot be about the day-to-day noise of politics. The purpose of science is to establish facts, by which I mean not just "information" as Nisbet puts it, but understanding.

The problem is that we establish understanding for our own satisfaction, and consider ourselves done. There are no reasonable incentives or structures for conveying that understanding to the public. Our science is not the only one where the public's understanding is not only inadequate but grossly inaccurate.

The existing institutions, i.e., journalism and scientific outreach, have proven woefully inadequate. Maybe they can be fixed. Maybe some new institution is needed. But the fact that a random scientist can't compete with Marc Morano on TV is not evidence that professors need to learn to act like Mornao.

keith said...

You write: "if the public had a modest but appropriate grasp of the science, the politics would look very different, and the science would be healthier, too."

Perhaps, but that "appropriate grasp" needs to happen in school, and not be pinned solely on journalism, which often seems to be the case. Maybe you've been barking up the wrong tree all this time? :)

Anyway, as for Nisbet, I think you too easily dismiss him because of some things you don't like. That's like Deltoid saying last week the Washington Post brings no value to the climate change debate because they publish Will and Palin.

I'm not familiar with the body of Nisbet's work, but from what snippets I read from him here and there, he seems to make a lot of sense to me.

--KKloor

guthrie said...

Yes, thats why we have PR people employed by unversities, and science popularisers writing books and appearing on TV. But it seems to take a journalist like Monbiot to pin down the liar called Ian Plimer. But you can't keep watering stuff down for public consumption, or making it fancier and more entertaining all the time. That just turns science into entertainment, rather than giving people an understanding of the realities, processes and results of the process and body of work labelled science.

Nobody is saying ignore politics, but what I think he is saying is that we need to drag politics back into the long game and an appreciation of science and rational thinking.

Michael Tobis said...

"Perhaps, but that "appropriate grasp" needs to happen in school, and not be pinned solely on journalism, which often seems to be the case. Maybe you've been barking up the wrong tree all this time? :)"

That can't be the whole problem.

The Charney report came out in 1979. Even if a proper climate science curriculum could have been created instantly, there are lots of people around who graduated high school before 1980.

Whose job is it to bring them up to date?