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.