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

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Bad Media Advice"

It's time to revisit the whole horror of the first ten years of the millennium. Could things have gone worse? Maybe a little bit, but not much.

Things were looking pretty much under control ten years ago. Dematerialization and disintermediation; information replacing goods; a transition from dirty energy to clean; increasing globalization in attitude and a decline in xenophobia; increasing respect for technical knowledge and rigorous education.

What happened? Others may disagree but I would argue that W. happened. The country leading the transition to the future was itself led by a buffoon. Speaking as a Texan, I have to sadly admit that he was an especially Texan sort of buffoon; a fellow who inherited more influence than he deserved who got by on a certain mischievous frat-boy backslapping and a peculiar sense of entitlement to his good fortune. A fellow who, no matter how hard he tried, could not fail. Who, after years of being bailed out by Daddy, managed to hand over the reins to a team of adults just in time to avoid utter collapse and is finally being bailed out by Barack Obama while he half-heartedly plans his Presidential Library in Dallas. (It will no doubt be a good deal less thought provoking and moving than the LBJ Library here in Austin.)

Leaving aside for now the frat-boys busy destroying many of the states, meeting only token resistance outside of Wisconsin, let's consider how we got not one but two terms of reckless buffoonery, enough to quite permanently and unmistakably damage America's prospects in the world, and to set the world back a couple of generations as well.

I think it's PR.

We all remember the peculiar way in which W defeated Mr. Gore, and dread the inevitable future tie elections which it harbinges. But the very idea of a tie election between a very serious, honest and educated man and a buffoon is terrifying. To some extent, it was Gore's very seriousness that lost him the election. As I've said elsewhere, the educated person speaking to the general public has a delicate dance to avoid the appearance of arrogance; on one hand you can appear patronizing as you explain in painful detail to some members of the audience what others will find obvious. On the other you can appear arrogant and insular as you bandy about concepts that some members of your audience find inaccessible. Meanwhile, the complacent, vaguely beery fool you are arguing with just needs to be quick with a quip or two.

But I've seen Mr. Gore argue on the Senate floor, before he was particularly famous (it happened to be about cable TV regulation), and I've seen him make the case about the CO2 quandary. He can be passionate, articulate, persuasive. For a white guy in the modern age, he can actually wax rhetorical without causing a wince. Why was his actual, real, compelling personality buried in the catastrophic 2000 election? Because he was stage managed within an inch of his life!

Because he had advisors who said the safest plan was to get a bare majority in a set of states with a bare majority of electoral votes (which, in fact, was correct except for some minor complications that basically boil down to backslapping frat-boy pranks against him). Because the safe path was not to engage Mr. Nader and carve out a position as a centrist, nor to engage the public on the real long-range issues the energized him, nor to rise to oratory, but simply to try to pass for a harmless wonk.

And now, he is a liability to the movement he started and a laughing stock among the frat-boys, not to mention his personal problems. Why? PR advice. Advice from 20th century media professionals, the very people that the very internet he promoted are happily making extinct. Advice about what color clothes to wear, what topics to raise, whom to engage, and what to talk about.

The amazing thing about this sort of advice is that it never gives up. No matter how often elections are reduced to random chance (if it rains in Eastern Ohio but not in Western Ohio...), no matter how matters are rendered shabby and superficial, no matter how much evidence there is that Americans are withdrawing from democratic processes in droves, they go on with their shallow and shabby frat-boy acts.

Science under attack

And now that science has been slapped in the face hard enough by the frat-boy pranksters (along with just about anything else outside commerce) that scientists are waking up to the fact that "whoa, we may have a public relations problem" , who is there to step up and offer advice? Well, public relations professionals, of course. Who else?

After all, if experts on biology should be taken seriously on biology, and experts on climate should be taken seriously on climate, whom should we look to for public relations advice? Why the experts of course!

Never mind that these are the exact experts whose clever advice brought the back-slapping beery frat-boy conspiracy to levels of power previously held only by grownups.

Or, going far enough back into history, psychopathic and deranged hereditary monarchs like the fellow the Americans rebelled against in the first place, but never mind that. Or the guys we've been propping up, apparently quite against the national will, in the petro-states. But never mind that either. Suffice it to say that most grownups would prefer adults to be holding these positions, and the fact that they aren't comes from the replacement of politics with the techniques used to sell detergents.

So who came along first? About the time I started blogging, Matt Nisbet starting pushing his "framing" meme. I have to say I bought it and in a way I still buy it. It seems sensible to target different communications to different audiences. But what ended up happening is that it turns out that Nisbet has absolutely no clue what the message of science is supposed to be. He is looking at it like an election; asking binary-valued questions of huge demographics. This is hopelessly clueless.

What we want is general understanding that there is a crisis, general trust in a cohort of problem solvers, and a cohort of problem solvers that deserves that trust. This is not about Tide vs Cheer. This is about collective decision making. I don't need help selling a meme. I need help starting a serious conversation.

Sweeping Uncertainty Under the Rug

As if that weren't bad enough, also stepping up to the plate is Randy "I used to be a scientist and you shouldn't act like one either" Olson. His claim to fame being a couple of documentaries that had zero influence, that is nevertheless two more than most scientists have mustered. So what should we do if we listen to Olson? That's simple. We should lie.
This has become one of the central points of my talks lately. EVERYONE wants to know, “How can we best communicate elements of uncertainty?” My answer is, “Very carefully, if at all.”

I say this because of simple logic with regard to storytelling. We know that the most effective means of mass communication is through storytelling. What we also know is that the teller of a story is expected to be all-knowing — i.e. omniscient. So what kind of omniscient voice is uncertain about what is being told?

This is a problem. It isn’t even about whether the warnings come true or not. This is long before that. This is about if you even MENTION something for which you are not certain, you’ve already entered into a realm of decreased credibility.
...

And I know that is precisely what is not happening with the mass communication of science and environmentalism, as evidenced by the countless blunt statements saying over and over again, “There MAY BE a crisis.” When people make those statements they are showing no clue of how the perception of environmentalism has changed in the past decade.
Dude, first of all, we are not "environmentalists". In fact, this leads directly to a much better article by Olson that makes the distinction clearly and well.

But if we have to think collectively under uncertainty, what is there to do but faithfully convey the uncertainties, the pretty scary expectations, the terrifying worst cases, and the not entirely eliminated relatively moderate outcomes. Including the questions of which disciplines and subdisciplines deserve the most trust, be they scientific, economic, or political.

The good news is that all this is very interesting. The bad news is that it is all very confusing, and only intelligent people enjoy confusion. To people who doubt their own intelligence, confusion is just an assault on their ego. To people who trust their own intelligence, confusion is a sign of a problem worth working on.

There is no way around it. We have a whole tangle of difficult and confusing problems. Until people understand that, they will keep proposing simpleminded answers and frat-boy practical jokes at the expense of their opposition. We can't afford that anymore.

What the PR Types are Missing

The thing is, it's a new world. If we try to control information that just makes it easier for our opponents to make shit up. And the past two years shows that they have a considerable talent for the job. We don't need packaging. We don't need spin. We need to tell the truth.

We don't need stories. We need the story.

24 comments:

Dan Olner said...

Here's Feynman on the 'terrible uncomfortable feeling called confusion'. And here's a great little paper on 'the importance of stupidity in scientific research' - "actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid."

25d8ff52-4641-11e0-a287-000f20980440 said...

I think it boils down to two questions:

1) Is someone who knows what they're talking about who has also learned how to be good at PR going to be more persuasive than someone who is blowing smoke who has also learned to be good at PR?
2) Is there a style of communication where those who have learned that style and know what they're talking about have an advantage over others who have learned that style?

I don't think there is necessarily one inherently superior, most persuasive style of communication. Cultures change, right now we glorify PR/marketing more than we should, and getting everyone to speak that way only reinforces the cultural attitudes. But if there is a less truth-neutral style, then people can learn to be suspicious of slick PR types and more trusting of people who speak like people who know what they're talking about.

The overreliance on PR bugs me too, though. I'm amazed at how much TV news turns to political advisers for commentary -- whether Karl Rove or James Carville, I just never understood why they get TV time. I get what must be going through booker's heads -- these guys teach politicians to state their views in soundbytes, but why not get the soundbytes straight from the source from the people who are best at giving them? Because I have no reason to care. When I get soundbytes from politicians, I at least have reason to believe that those politicians might believe and act on those views, which is useful information. It isn't useful to know what James Carville would do if he were a Senator, even if he has a better command on the issues than anyone he advises. Interview politicians because we need to know where they stand, and interview subject matter experts because it might better inform us on where to stand, and let the political advisers stick to coaching the politicians.

- Eric L

bluegrue said...

Swiftboating is easier by far than being productive and honest. A swiftboat needs to deliver one hit only that can be spun to the public to look damaging. Heck, a hit with a gotcha marker on a battle ship can be painted as fatal by a skilled spin doctor. If that fails, send another. And another. And another. And another. And ....

I'd say, not W. happened, but Rove et. al. happened. It's negative PR that brought us into this mess, IMHO. And as you noted, lying is not an option for scientists, unlike other folks.

bluegrue said...

I think the dark side of PR is more important than the side of PR that you are describing.

Swiftboating is easier by far than being productive and honest. A swiftboat needs to deliver one hit only that can be spun to the public to look damaging. Heck, a hit with a gotcha marker on a battle ship can be painted as fatal by a skilled spin doctor. If that fails, send another. And another. And another. And another. And ....

I'd say, not W. happened, but Rove et. al. happened. It's negative PR that brought us into this mess, IMHO. And as you noted, unlike other folks lying is not an option for real scientists.

bluegrue said...

Here's another contributing factor, why GWB was reelected.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/13/politics/13covert.html

Nescobar said...

Brilliant post. But why do we constantly bang on about uncertainty when the key issue is risk - and how we handle the risk? And how do we communicate risk?

Oale said...

Hearing you have some wildfires about. What do you think, with the rising solar activity, what does this mean for any rains coming your way (if any?)? 800 square km of burnt ground is starting to sound quite large. Is there a possibility of a repetition of conditions during the 'dust bowl'?

Martin Vermeer said...

What we really need are resources. The reason we're not managing is simply the vast resource disparity. Sad but true, in this sense justice can be bought.

I'm dreaming of a world in which a scientist can write an email, or anything, without having to think how it will look on the Internet after having been professionally distorted and misrepresented. And where a journalist can write something for publication while ignoring the distorters and misrepresenters, without even having to think about it.

guthrie said...

Olson had a good reputation for his film on evolution/ creationism stuff a few years ago.
The problem that i see is that scientists are damned if they say things with certainty and damned if they don't say things with certainty. There are situations where it works, and where it doesn't work, and ideally I suppose the pr people would be able to tell which, and be able to articulate proper responses when denialists take, say, blog posts as being statements of scientific position, or a page in a textbook as somehow representing the IPCC.

Nisbet appears totally clueless when it actually comes to communicating, see his spats with P Z Myers.

Martin Vermeer said...

I think that the focus on argumentation is misplaced. Yes, I know that's what scientists do; but it's the hammer calling everything a nail.

In fact, we have won the argument, resoundingly; only, the losing party hasn't conceded, and the public never noticed :-(

It's not about arguments but about interests. What we should be doing is
putting a price on mendacity; this requires resources, leverage and discipline. In a society like the American one with profit-based media it works by denying advertising revenue; or by denying sales revenue from advertisers that don't listen. E.g., ethic pressure groups do this quite successfully, giving them
leverage way in excess of their numbers.

(There are other ways of doing this: I like what DeepClimate is doing with
Wegman, as either Wegman, or -- as it looks more and more, George Mason
University -- will end up paying a price. I like that: if you cannot outlaw it, tax it :-) )

Truth doesn't come into it, except in being the glue of our community; we
shouldn't be arguing, we should be sculpting the reward landscape on which
free speech lives. A landscape already heavily sculpted by vested interests. Was it Nixon who said: grab them by the balls, and their hearts
and minds will follow?

Michael Tobis said...

"What we should be doing is
putting a price on mendacity; this requires resources, leverage and discipline"

A very elegant suggestion of which I wholeheartedly approve.

Any recommendations as to how to begin?

manuel "moe" g said...

Martin Vermeer's post is very good.

"We have won the argument, resoundingly; only, the losing party hasn't conceded, and the public never noticed..."

"What we should be doing is
putting a price on mendacity..."

I think the answer to MT's reply is that "putting a price on mendacity" starts off, at first, as very personal and very localized. How could it be otherwise?

Moving forward, beyond the very personal and very localized, "putting a price on mendacity" will be enabled by social structures for honest workers where the price of admission is honoring the truth and honoring the moral responsibility - arguments and persuasion about these fundamental "first day of kindergarten" type of things is best left elsewhere.

[Notice here, in this thread, the progress made in developing thoughts, enabled by the absence of Fuller and Kloor and other concern trolls.]

I am glad, even acknowledging the very low probability of success when implementing honest forms of communication, that MT hasn't entertained cheap techniques of persuasion.

Dishonest communication and "framing": maybe deceptively quicker in the very short term, but fatal in the long term, because you have thrown away exactly what you claim to hold dear.

Michael Tobis said...

Moe, with all due respect and gratitude for your participation, the swipe at people who aren't present is only likely to bring them around, don't you think? If they do show up, the person who derailed the topic would be you, not them...

Otherwise, yes, we are at a disadvantage in the short game, and mustn't be distracted by it.

It's the long game we must win, and that's not just convincing everybody that we are discussing real problems, but also that there are real costs we should incur sooner rather than later.

ijish said...

MT, I think the crux of the problem isn't PR, but rather it's the rule of law.

-- frank

David B. Benson said...

So far I haven't enjoyed this century very much and the situation doesn't appear to have a positive slope; the opposite in fact.

Martin Vermeer said...

Michael, Frank is referring to almost (though not exactly precisely) the same thing. And certainly to the same attitude.

Instead of answering directly, I'll answer with an example. There is this little booklet originating over a century ago called 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion', of which you may have heard. You could try to buy it from an American bookshop, and you would fail. You could try to find it advertised in any American paper or magazine or other mainstream media product, and you would come up empty. That in a country calling itself, mostly deservedly, the home of free speech. Why? Think about it.

We have to work to create a similar situation for climate lies. Yes, the usual suspects will still continue telling them, but mainstream journalism won't offer them a forum: the price for them would be too high.

How to create that price tag is the interesting question, and not easy. Without generous resourcing, likely impossible.

Michael Tobis said...

Martin, when people blame resource constraints I generally propose a gendanken experiment.

Suppose that the resource constraint were lifted: Somebody (Boone Pickens, George Soros, Al Gore's foundation, Steve Jobs, Leonardo diCaprio, whoever) offered you a billion dollars, no strings attached, to attempt to achieve your goal of making mendacity in climate issues socially unacceptable. How then would you proceed?

Martin Vermeer said...

Michael, hire the best people. They exist, you just have to find them. _Not_ scientists, that much I know. Top lawyers. Top lobbyists. Top communication strategists (_not_ communicators!). That's how you start. Note that money isn't the lacking resource: people is another. You need to form a network of knowledgable, motivated citizens throughout society that you can call upon, and that are positioned to do the leveraging of consumer or advertising revenue. I didn't claim it would be easy or quick...

...and, as anti-intellectualism and antisemitism have a thing or two in common, you could do a lot worse than chat up with some folks at AIPAC or the Anti-Defamation League :-)

Martin Vermeer said...

Michael, let me add still that at this point, one (1) climatologist is suing for libel, a Canadian; and one (1) climatology blogger is bringing, in his free time, an academic fraudster to justice, also a Canadian. Nobody (0) is organizing an advertisers' boycott against the Wall Street Journal -- or any other paper giving comfort to the enemy, like the Australian or the Daily Telegraph, among many others.

There's a lot of monetary resources you can add into this picture before something else places itself on the critical path.

Steve Bloom said...

Figures. It all being so easy to wire, why not wire it?

Of course a willing audience is still a requirement.

Martin Vermeer said...

Another interesting data point is Glenn Beck recently apologizing (being _made_ to apologize) for comparing a group (of which I know next to nothing, but who appear to be decent people and good citizens) of Jews to al-Qaeda.

Same Beck has made similarly outrageous statements about climate scientists, and never apologized.

Folks that can make Glenn Beck apologize, are worth chatting up to, don't you think? They offer _proof of principle_: it can be done. Stop despairing, start finding out how.

John said...

Mr Tobis,

Why do you feel compelled to proclaim: "Dude, first of all, we are not "environmentalists". (bold and italics not reproduced.)

Correct me if I'm wrong but you seem to be deflecting an otherwise neutral title/description only made unacceptable by the immense disinformation machine you are trying to determine how to combat.

Again, if I'm correct, I'd say start by refusing to cringe when they say "cringe."

John Puma

Michael Tobis said...

Identifying and communicating a set of problems is my interest. I am relatively unideological about how to handle it.

Most scientists, myself among them, are happy to accept nuclear power as part of the mix; most environmentalists are not.

Advocating reason and numeracy in public policy is not the same as having a policy agenda. These are distinct objectives.

I prefer when people actually take account of the evidence, whether they are "green" or not.

I myself an an unabashed liberal and globalist of the Pierre Trudeau school, and I understand what you are complaining about. I hate that people have made a dirty word of "liberal".

I am just trying to make the point that the interests of climate science (and climate science driven advocacy) are not identical with the interests of environmentalists.

Martin Vermeer said...

Not the first to say so:

http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2011/02/zero_tolerance_for_pseudo-scie.php