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Who is the Audience? What to Do ? (2)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 11:15 PM GMT on September 01, 2010

Who is the Audience? What to Do ? (2)

At the bottom is a short Pakistan update.

In the previous article I argued that much of the “opposition” to climate change was politically motivated or politically aligned. With such political positioning a communications and education strategy motivated by the opposition only feeds the political argument. This is especially true in “crisis situations,” where reactions to the crisis serve to build and perpetuate the crisis. Then some become vested in maintaining the crisis, including those whose primary goal is to seed doubt – which is the purpose of the political argument. Casually, therefore, it makes some sense to step back from the argument and, perhaps, seek to do no harm.

More generally, if the way scientists, individually and collectively, decide to communicate is based upon and focused on the points raised by political opposition, then this seriously compromises the ability to move forward with knowledge-based action. Why? As argued and substantiated in the previous article, the correction of factual misstatements often does not make things better and can make things worse. This means that the energy expended in making the arguments of correction is largely wasted, and the messages that enter into the public dialogue are largely defined by the political opposition. This does pose a dilemma, which I will get to below.

I return to the research of Anthony Leiserowitz and colleagues who investigate how the public perceives climate change. This research divided the U.S. into Six Nations as indicated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: From Center for American Progress, Global Warming’s Six Americas. Here is a June 2010 update and more figures.

Focusing only on the “Alarmed” and “Concerned” communities, together, they provide an actual majority. This suggests that, in fact, the science-based study of the Earth’s climate, projections of climate change, and the potential consequences have been communicated and accepted as substantive. On top of this, it is reasonable to add to this informed group the people listed as “Cautious,” yielding quite a large majority of people who have at some level heard and are receptive to the issue of climate change. The “Cautious” group is split across Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Not only does this suggest “success” from the point of view of “the scientist,” but it has implications for communication strategies as well as moving forward.

With regard to communication strategies, the target of communication might naturally be those in the “Cautious” group. Therefore, rather than reacting to the message of the “Doubtful” and “Dismissive,” it is perhaps worthwhile to respond to the questions of “Cautious.” Hence, we need to know the questions of the “Cautious,” and these will not be only questions about scientific investigation.

With regard to moving forward, the results in Figure 1 show a majority of people are “Concerned” or “Alarmed.” Under the assumption that these people do not hang on in quiet desperation, there should be a substantial amount of actions and intellectual energy focused on developing and implementing solutions. Therefore, the extraction of knowledge from these evolving activities serves not only to promote creativity and accelerate the development of solution paths, but also to diversify the base of people who are advancing climate change as an important issue. This takes climate change out of the realm and culture of scientists, making the message more broadly concrete, and revealing more and more opportunity that comes from addressing climate change as a societal value.

Above, I mentioned a dilemma. On one hand I am advocating that scientists (perhaps others) disengage from the political argument. I base this argument on the idea that participation in the public political argument often makes the problem worse; this includes the correction of untrue information and errors. Yet aren’t we required to make these corrections? It is important to assure that there is knowledge-based information, and that this knowledge-based information is regularly refreshed. It is important that there is education, both formal and informal. It is important that we constantly improve the ability to communicate the essence and the substance of complex problems. Explicitly, the dilemma is both the need to “correct” incorrect information, with the realization that the correction of incorrect information does not lead to knowledge-based reconciliation of disagreements.

What is required to bring some rationalization of this dilemma is, again, the recognition of the political motivation to the opposition, and to set that political opposition into its proper context. It exists; it can be identified, and the level of response is then tailored to what it is. If the political opposition is continuously engaged; if it is allowed to define the strategies of communication and education; then it serves to erode the science-derived knowledge base. This is, perhaps, a generalization of Edwin Friedman’s Fallacy of Empathy, which is that an excess of empathy towards an individual propagates through an organization and exaggerates the (usually negative) influence that that person has on the organization. Success requires the containment of the political (and emotional) argument, and the separation of the education and communication functions from this political and emotional argument. This is a difficult, but necessary and doable, proposition. And, as argued above there is a ready audience for this message. (Do I dare invoke the Silent Majority …. No.)

The point of this blog is that to move these issues forward it is necessary to avoid the lure of the political argument and the personal attack. It is critical to identify the receptive audience, and it is critical to target substantiated information to this audience. On the flip side it is important to minimize the harm of participation in the political argument, and it is important to avoid having the political argument define the communication and education mission of the importance of climate change.

At least 2 more in this series.


Previous entry in series: What to Do (1): Politics and Knowledge

Pakistan: Update My youngest sister Elizabeth is in Peshawar and sent me the following link to a blog of a 17 year old from Pakistan, Report From a Pashtun Teen: The Flood by SHER BANO. Elizabeth said this was an excellent description of how it was.

Attention to the Pakistan flood is moral imperative, a humanitarian imperative, and a security imperative. (Pakistan Flooding: A Climate Disaster)

Here are some places that my sister has recommended for the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. Organizations she sees.

Doctors Without Borders

The International Red Cross

MERLIN medical relief charity

U.S. State Department Recommended Charities

The mobile giving service mGive allows one to text the word "SWAT" to 50555. The text will result in a $10 donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Pakistan Flood Relief Effort.

Portlight Disaster Relief at Wunderground.com

Elizabeth says that it is better to send money to the organizations doing the relief work than to try to organize shipments of goods.

Figure 1. MODIS Image of Indus River on August 11, 2010 from NASA Earth Observatory. Follow the link to NASA sight for more images, including a pre-flood image of the same scene.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.