Communicating sustainability: lessons from public health

Some lessons from public health for sustainability and climate campaigners.  Our choices are largely not our own — context and norms are far more powerful forces for behavioral change than abstract attitudes.  Most people just stick with the default settings.  We need to change the default settings.

When the facts don’t tell your story

Chris Mooney was out in Boulder last week talking about his most recent book, The Republican Brain.  I went to a two day workshop he ran at Caltech with Matt Nisbet several years ago on climate communication, and it was really good, so I was interested to hear what he’s been thinking about lately.  It sounds like the basic idea of the new book is that the liberal-conservative dichotomy is fairly persistent and widespread in humanity, though it’s been expressed differently throughout the millennia in different cultural contexts.  I think that several of the underlying characteristics of Mooney points out interact in our financially driven political landscape in an interesting (and distressing) way.  Given that:

Liberals:

  • are more tolerant of ambiguity — they don’t need there to be One True Answer to every question.
  • are more open to and even desirous of new experiences, and thus willing to accept the possibility or necessity of change generally.

Conservatives:

  • are more sensitive to issues of insubordination — to anything that upsets established hierarchies or trusted authorities.
  • place a high priority on in-group cohesion, whether it be a religious community or patriotism for the nation state.

Thus, we find that liberal groups are willing to accept the need for change and innovation, but tend to defeat themselves through in-fighting — they have a hard time staying “on message”, and will often get lost bickering in the weeds of policy detail, while their conservative opposition takes a simple, one-dimensional position, sticks to it, and wins.

Conservative groups on the other hand are more defensive and cohesive.  They can effectively vote together as a bloc, because naysayers from within their ranks tend to be punished quickly and severely, even whey they’ve got the facts on their side.

These dynamics suggest to me that any time an incumbent monied interest is not well served by new facts (think Big Tobacco or King Coal), their best hope is probably to ally themselves with conservatives preferentially.  This is different than what most industries do most of the time.  Given how cheap it is to influence policies and elections through lobbying and campaign contributions — the ROI is enormous on these activities — most industries simply donate to everyone, and thus maintain their access and influence.

Why would this asymmetry be advantageous?  Because if you can frame the issue at hand it conservative terms strongly enough, then it’s possible to trick conservatives into insulating themselves against facts that threaten their cohesion around the issue.  Up to a point, they’re willing to dismiss new information if it means bucking their political in group or trusted authorities, and they’ll do it as a bloc.

Everybody is prone to confirmation bias, but it’s much harder to get liberals to take up a causeen masse simply because it sounds like something they ought to agree with.  Instead you get internal disagreement — Mooney used the idea that vaccines cause autism as an example of an issue that hits some liberal buttons, and has some passionate activists around it on the left, but which won’t be taken up broadly, because it’s not supported by facts, and the left is willing to disagree with itself.

Many policy issues really aren’t intrinsically liberal or conservative — certainly there’s no shortage of ways to frame climate change as something conservatives would want to avoid — but once a particular frame has taken hold, it’s very difficult to dislodge.  This makes it imperative for interests not served by new facts to pre-emptively frame their position in conservative terms, and to do everything in their power to make sure that frame sticks.

And then the waiting game begins.  How long can they keep the facts from overwhelming the position they’ve put forward?  How can they gracefully exit, without make it obvious they’ve duped a huge fraction of the electorate into supporting them illegitimately?  For liberals, this ironically makes it all the more important to frame fact-based issues early, in terms that are attractive to conservatives.  We need to get better at developing pre-emptive consensus.

Oh, right, and we need to amend the US constitution to overturn Citizens United too.

Links for the week of August 20th, 2009

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Framing Embeds Values in Scientific Facts

At the Sustainability Symposium last night (which was nominally about water footprints (PDF) and this paper on the international trade in virtual water) we ended up “off topic” and talking about science communication, public outreach, and how policy gets made.  Inevitably it seems like these conversations end up coming back to the issues from Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet‘s Speaking Science workshop that SASS sponsored last summer.

There is huge discomfort for scientists in the fact that the way in which information is conveyed impacts how it is interpreted.  The idea is at odds with the scientific ideal of objective facts and communication, but nevertheless it is true.  A one liter glass plus 500 ml of water equals what?  The glass is half empty.  The glass is half full.  The glass is twice as big as necessary to hold that much water.  The same objective facts, different connotations.  Different implications.  Different frames.  And sometimes, the frame ends up being a more important determinant of the listener’s reaction than the information the speaker intended to convey.

Continue reading Framing Embeds Values in Scientific Facts