"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Invisible Audience Problem

Fergus Brown asks, in a comment to "frames and frames":

This idea [writing to your audience] might work well enough when you are considering the context of a speech or presentation, but how does it map into the blogosphere? Who is our audience here? Do we define them by our position, or do they define our position by their response? In other words, how does the idea of a frame work when the sudience is (in principle) arbitrary?

This is a timely question considering my disappointment with Coturnix's essay; see "More on the framing frame" (OK, OK, I've used that too "frame" frame too much...) and comments thereto.

I think what I am realizing is that the advice "frame for your audience" has to be tempered. You also have to frame for whomever else might wander by.

If we are trying to attain trust by projecting authority, we must minimize the number of people we irritate and confront. Of course if you irritate nobody ever, you achieve nothing. (It used to be you could sell a lot of colorful and vapid magazines, but I think those days are drawing to a close. There: I irritated magazine writers.)

So while I agree with N&M, I also need to say something that must be obvious to journalists but seems far from obvious to scientists. In a public communication, you have two framing tasks.

In the past, this didn't apply to scientific papers. Dr. X. might "disagree with the IPCC's assessment in Section" and not worry about it. Now Dr X needs to recast his statement lest his statement be turned into "Dr X disagrees with IPCC" and "Dr X disagrees with so-called climate consensus" and "Dr X is among the many scientists who think this product of the UN bureaucracy is unjustifiable" (and this is even before it crosses into outright misstatement.)

In the present environment, everything you say in public can come to the attention of anyone.

The overall effectiveness of the communication is not dominated by its evidence or logic, but by how effectively we build and maintain social networks of trust. This is much harder because people are deliberately trying to break that trust. This makes it all the more urgent that we pay attention to the whole thing.

In summary, what I am coming to is:
  1. Identify and address your primary audience. Serve their needs.
  2. Think about who else might be most negatively affected if they see it, treat them as a secondary audience, and if possible do what you can to soften the blow and avoid making enemies unnecessarily
  3. When you are done think about whether what you say will do more harm then good. Once in a while be willing to throw the whole thing away. Substitute some dry lecture on Clausius-Clapeyron and be done with it.
This is no different for the web than it was in the days of paper. If anything, while it's easier to get published, it's also easier than ever for your words to reach someone they might offend. The intrinsic formalism of public communication exists for a reason.

In the end we are all in the same boat.


Anonymous said...

Michael: Thank you for your substantial response to my question. I don't know yet whether I exactly agree with you, but one thing occurs to me: if scientists are to use the 'two audience' approach, they may be compelled to end up talking like politicians, who are familiar with this idea. This would both dilute their message and increase uncertainty about the value/validity of what they are trying to say.

One of the principle reasons that many people do not trust politicians is that they do not appear to say what they mean and they often divert attention away from difficult questions to discuss what they have prepared. This is understandable in the context of the politician's job, though often misunderstood as being simply mealy-mouthed or even deliberately deceiving.

If a scientist starts to consider his 'two audiences' in the way you suggest, I worry that she/he may end up being seen as a procrastinator rather than trying to take all views into account. I am not sure that this would be a desirable mode of communication for the scientist.

Perhaps it is better, after all, that scientists put their point across as clearly as they can, then prepare themselves for the counter-response; in this way, the essential message is not compromised and the credibility of science is maintained.

Michael Tobis said...

The error you refer to is sometimes called Broderism, after a prominent Washington columnist who can be relied upon to split the difference between the democrats and the republicans, no matter how bizarre the republican side may get.

I am not advocating Broderism.

I am not a Broderist on climate. I am on the invisible wing of informed opinion, outside the "window" of socially acceptable opinion. I think the IPCC systematically understates the risks of climate change for a whole slew of reasons.

I am mistaken for a Broderist because I try to be polite and respectful and open-minded.

The fact that I try not to be rude doesn't mean that I am inclined to split the difference. The fact that people do that is the whole problem we are discussing. The dishonest side merely has to assert a position more extreme than they want the public to take, and the lazy press will split the difference.

I am polite and respectful because I am trying to leave a way for people who might be inclined against my position to find a way to reconsider.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply. I read it as a response to your 'hidden audience' as well as a direct response to my concern. I've heard Broderism referred to frequently, but being British, it hadn't fully registered on the brain..

I don't think you are a Broderist; I also try to maintain good manners in my posts, but this is an indicator of reasonableness (is that a word?) which allows for others to judge one as 'fair-minded'.

The media reaction is a bit more complex than you are suggesting here, though. there appear to be three broad lines of provocation used to stimulate reader/viewer reaction; some media (The Independent in the UK, for example)take the high line and tend to push a strongly 'catastrophic' line; others play the US admin line of procrastination and appeals to self-interest (Washington Post?); the third approach is your 'split the difference' line, which appears to aim at establishing the 'battle lines' to create a notion of where the debate lies. I'd say most of the media responses fall into one of these three categories.

I am also a bit concerned about the apparent assumptions about the 'public view' on CC, in the sense that the Overton Window idea implies that the range of public attitudes is a subset of the full range; I am not sure that this is true, so I am testing it on the weather forum I subscribe to, and have posted about it here: http://fergusbrown.wordpress.com/
As my comment rate is so tiny, perhaps you'd like to give a response there, too?

Michael Tobis said...

Will follow up later; for now let me note that the dynamics on this side of the pond are different.

Excessive and ill-informed panic (this is a very big problem but is a very slow one as well) is around here almost as much as there, but is much less visible in the press here.

The 'window' (Overton window) is narrower and skewed off to one side here.

Anonymous said...

This is interesting