Saturday, March 17, 2007

Undermining the Global Warming Message

Never mind the facts, opponents use tactics to spread doubt about global warming. Joe Brewer shows how misuse of language can undermine the credibilty of scientific studies.

When Climate Message is Strong, Attack the Messenger
by Joe Brewer

An article published today in the New York Times clearly demonstrates the importance of framing when discussing important political issues. William J. Broad's article "From a Rapt Audience, a Call to Cool the Hype" in the science section already ranks as one of the most popular articles of the day. This widely read article is filled with misuses and abuses of language designed to undermine the credibility of Al Gore as a messenger for global warming.

As an individual trained in both the atmospheric sciences (I have a masters degree from the University of Illinois) and cognitive sciences my skills are well suited to the task of demonstrating Broad's misrepresentation of human-caused climate change through clever manipulations of language. Through the analysis that follows, we shall see that he has worked very hard to spread doubt and skepticism about one of the most important issues humanity must face in the days and years ahead.

Before jumping into the offensive assertions plaguing the article, it may be helpful to elucidate his agenda, which is to undermine Al Gore's message by attacking the credibility of the messenger. In chapter 3 of Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision, George Lakoff discusses the message frame as an important way of structuring information. Common elements of all message frames are certain semantic roles: messengers, audience, issue, message, medium, and images. Crucial to the message is the messenger. The messenger must have both integrity and credibility. People will not give merit to messages that come from dubious sources, even when the message itself is trustworthy.

Plant Seeds of Doubt and Watch What Grows

As we shall see below, William J. Broad has worked long and hard to cast shadows over Gore's credibility. I suppose when the message is this firmly grounded in truth, albeit an inconvenient one, the only way to discourage people from taking action is to redirect attention away from the facts. He starts by stating that part of Gore's "scientific audience is uneasy." This is his central claim, which we shall see does not correspond very well with reality. He goes on to say that "Mr. Gore's central points are exaggerated and erroneous" (emphasis added) and that many scientists are " what they call his alarmism." He sets the whole thing off in this way to establish a basis for concern that Gore is not supported by scientists.

He then quotes Don J. Easterbrook, a geology professor at Western Washington University and critic of the human causes of global warming, as saying "there are a lot of inaccuracies in the statements we are seeing" (emphasis added). It is interesting to note two things here:

No actual inaccuracies are mentioned anywhere in the article
Even Professor Easterbrook doesn't directly confront Gore's message. We are left to ask ourselves whether "we are seeing" the message presented by Gore or the message presented in the media (which is often exaggerated and erroneous!)
A great way to strategically plant seeds of doubt is to suggest that a piece of work was revised after something was found to be wrong and then not tell anyone where the revision was made. Broad applies this technique when he tells us that Gore "perceived no general backlash among scientists against his work," but that he "received some comments about items that should be changed." Then Broad goes on to say "he gave no specifics on which points he revised" to leave the reader with the impression that all of Gore's points are suspect. Instead of increasing our confidence by realizing Gore was open to suggestions by experts, we are left with suspicion that any one of his points might be the fateful secret mistake.

Build a Strawman So You Can Burn it Down

The next thing Broad does is tell us that "although Mr. Gore is not a scientist, he does rely heavily on the authority of science." This is a pivotal strategic move because he can now transfer the role of messenger from Gore to an unnamed authority of science, which is a role that can readily be filled by people who hold radical views or by people whose comments are taken out of context. If the authority of science does not support Gore, his message loses its validity. (Contrast this with an alternative framing where the focus is on climate change standing its ground regardless of who talks about it)

Two examples of radical mis-representatives of science in the article are Professor Easterbrook (who stands at odds with the strong consensus of the scientific community by not believing in global warming) and Richard Lindzen who is a well known climate skeptic and, according to Harper's magazine, has ties to the oil industry. Lindzen is quoted as accusing Gore of "shrill alarmism."

Technical Scientific Points Easily Muddled

When attempting to introduce doubt where it has no rightful place to be, it is helpful to have subtle technical points at your disposal that are easy to misconstrue. Luckily for Broad, climate science is complicated and nuanced such that is easy to misunderstand. For example, when quoting Kevin Vranes, a climatologist at the University of Colorado, we are told that Gore is "overselling our uncertainty about knowing the future." If you pay close attention while watching An Inconvenient Truth you will find that Gore never once claimed to know the future. Climate scientists (and weather forecasters) never predict the future. The physical processes involved are incredibly complicated and defy prediction. Instead, scientists use their vast knowledge of these processes to explore scenarios to see how likely different outcomes are to occur.

Another instance of misquoting comes when we hear a climatologist from the University of Alabama, Roy Spencer, tell us that An Inconvenient Truth did "indeed do a pretty good job of presenting the most dire scenarios" but that "all we really know is that we are warmer now than we were during the last 400 years." This combination of quotes frames what we know as being much more limited than Gore suggests. Piecing information together in this way is very misleading because it excludes all forms of knowledge that are not observable data. This framing would exclude the bulk of scientific knowledge because most of what we learn from science comes from inferences drawn from the data. Theories, principles, and laws of science are left out entirely when the situation is framed in this way.

Divide and Conquer

While people all over the world are coming together to tackle global warming, tactics are still being used to try to divide us. Gore is described as being "a very polarizing figure in the science community" by Roger Pielk, who is presented as an environmental scientist (he is actually a policy analyst at the University of Colorado). Gore has polarized people, but not in the way we are being lead to believe here. He compels people to take the decisive stance of standing strongly in solidarity. This does create a stark contrast between those who are committed to addressing global warming and those who are committed to meddling with public perceptions of it. In other words, he polarizes us against many members of the conservative community! Though not all, since we now know that many evangelical fundamentalist Christians have come around.

Message Comes Away Unscathed

Despite all of these attempts (and many more that I left out of this analysis) Broad has not managed to make a single claim against the message. After bleeding my highlighter all over his article I came away with no reason to dispel the conclusion we are meant to draw from An Inconvenient Truth. The conclusion we are meant to draw (and we have the "authority of science" to back it up!) is that our planet's climate system has been altered in harmful ways that we as a community need to address. Greenhouse gases have polluted our atmosphere and major changes need to be made in the way we structure our societies to minimize the harm from this pollution.

Each day we fail to take responsibility for the mess we are in compromises our communities. Each day we fail to empathize with all creatures great and small we damage the health of our planet. Each day we fail to recognize our common good reduces the common wealth we have to share with each other. Why isn't this message printed in the New York Times today? That's what I want to know.

Isn't it finally time to transcend this kind of madness?

Joe Brewer is a Fellow at the Rockridge Institute.

Read it all HERE

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