A Crisis By Any Other Name

Sounds a lot nicer!

NYT article on more effective terminology for environmental issues.  A group called EcoAmerica is trying to figure out how to talk about it to make more people care:

The answer, Mr. Perkowitz said in his presentation at the briefing, is to reframe the issue using different language. “Energy efficiency” makes people think of shivering in the dark. Instead, it is more effective to speak of “saving money for a more prosperous future.” In fact, the group’s surveys and focus groups found, it is time to drop the term “the environment” and talk about “the air we breathe, the water our children drink.”

“Another key finding: remember to speak in TALKING POINTS aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, prosperity, independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding jargon and details about policy, science, economics or technology,” said the e-mail account of the group’s study.

I’ve been interested in how to relate what good science is, and what it means, to the general public for a very long time.  Back in school, I was in a whole student group dedicated to the problem- Student Pugwash.  The nature of hypothesis and observation and testable results- that’s fun for me.  And ambiguous, which I also find kind of fun, but I get it’s not for everybody.

Facts are a lot more marketable when you can say they’re absolutes, and those are pretty rare if you’re doing science right.  Experts aren’t supposed to be reasonably sure, they’re supposed to absolutely know- or at least act like it on CNN.  But honest scientists will only tell you how certain they are about their facts, and under what conditions.  And when we get to something as big and weird as climate change, which is inconvenient to deal with anyway, talking about the levels of certainty of your results makes the results too easy to dismiss.

I do think scientists should explain their work in terms that the public can understand, after they publish all those fancy papers to impress their peers.  I think that’s a basic responsibility that everyone involved in expanding knowledge has: dissemination, communication.  But that’s not what EcoAmerica is pushing- they want communication without the sticky science.

Ah, but as a dedicated climate warrior, does it matter how EcoAmerica convinces people to believe, as long as they do believe?

Yes.  It fundamentally does.  Because if your only argument is one of feeeeeelings, then it’s easily broken by other feelings.  Like laziness and hunger and boredom.  And frustration-especially frustration.  Galvanizing whatever “undecideds” with patriotic verbage goes nowhere when they face the difficult realities of what the science actually means, how we solve the associated technical problems, and how we structure a political solution to this mess. Then we’re back where we started, only now the folks are frustrated.  We have to give people the reasons and facts they need to make informed and principled decisions- whether they want to make those decisions or not.

EcoAmerica, I applaud your intention of talking effectively to the public about this.  And I get that you feel  handicapped by the abysmal lack of science education in this country.  But give the public some credit- treat them like idiots, and you’ll lose them.  Convince them on a slippery “American ideals” basis (some of us are apparently ok with torture, so maybe that’s not the firmest foundation right now), and they’ll follow you nowhere past the sentiment.  You’ll do better by translating the difficult issues you plan to avoid to those idiots- put it in clear terms, explain what the science means, explain the problems both technological and political that we face- and the idiots will hopefully surprise you.

Easier said than done!  Always sounded that way at Pugwash, too.  But if you in the know don’t try, who will?

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1 Response to “A Crisis By Any Other Name”


  1. 1 BullMooser08 May 12, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Remember that girl at your party who came up with her fantastically rediculous theory of global warming? This tactic would probably work well with her.


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