Things that are effective but dangerous (in our quest for science literacy)

So, as mentioned previously, I got the chance to hang out with Chris Mooney this past week, and gracious as he is, he also took time to meet and greet a few of the local gang of science scouts. Anyway, his visit was great as a number of interesting topics were broached both in casual conservation as well as the public panels that he was involved in.

A big theme that seemed to be reoccuring was the issue of public relations, branding, and the role of overall aesthetics in getting folks to notice things - um big things like the issue of global warming or general scientific literacy for instance.

Here, I got the chance to also hang out with the team from desmogblog.com, a really interesting social responsibility PR concept, whereby an online forum for global warming skeptic examination can take place. Basically, their team is more or less mandated to scout the press and media for instances where such and such say "words" that contrast the consensus put forth by the IPCC report and the like (i.e. Dude, you should give a shit about global warming). In general, it's a great place to put some context in the words of "experts" saying what might be tantamount to dangerous things.

One of the notions that came up in all of this was the fact that in Canada, there really does seem to be this paradigm shift in the public perception of environmental issues. Paradigm is not a word I use lightly, but it's been more than striking here in Vancouver, where literally, you can feel a groundswell shift in public opinion in the last few months. Suddenly, the environment is a particularily hot (pardon the pun) topic. So much so, that government is noticing, and tunes are changing.

The question of why this so, is of course, an interesting one. Is it due to things like Gore and his mother of all powerpoint presentations (technically Keynote presentation), where folks are actually flocking to learn a little science? Or is it more to do with some crazy-ass weather we've been having in Vancouver, and indeed the crazy-ass weather that is occuring in other parts of this planet.

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Parking lot in Stanley Park after the December 2006 Storm (slideshow here)


My sense is that the latter is really what's driving this sway in opinion. It's visual and visceral in tone. It's "holy shit, did you see the trees just fall down like toothpicks" powerful. It's also experiential in the sense that it's occuring in people's communities. But as Chris and others have pointed out, it's a dangerous brand of persuasion. Really, it's the ultimate form of spin: and one that takes advantage of a lack of scientific literacy. The sort of literacy where cogniscent minds know that select weather events do not at all neatly translate to an concept as large as global warming.

But here's the dilemma. As dodgy as the rationales created by such discussions are, it turns out to be getting people to think (at least holistically) in the right kind of ways. So what to do, what to do?

Here, I can't help think of similar circumstances in the genetic technology arena, namely the Monarch butterfly, and it's plight against GM crops. Now there's a great iconic image - what could represent the prettiness of nature better? It worked in creating this buzz around the issue of genetic manipulation, but in the long term, I'm not sure whether its use as a kind of "brand" worked in the movement's favour (basically, the science behind the monarch's story was riddle with some serious caveats).

In any event, it again all speaks to the power of visuals and aesthetics. Interesting to me (as someone who examines the boundaries between the Sciences and Arts) since these things are normally thought of as reigning supreme in the humanist side of things. A convergent theme I might add, because I also had a chance to recently interact with Kim Phuc, A UNESCO Goodwill Ambassor for Peace. I think she would agree on the visceral power of aesethics. She is, afterall, the girl in this most famous of famous photographs.

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There may be a couple of less "dangerous" ways to use such an event.

(1) Most peolple in modern societies don't see the weather/climate as something that really affects them, so an event like Stanley Park, reminds them that that isn't really true.

(2) If AGW is expected to increase the worldwide incidence of extreme weather events, if not likely extratropical events such as this one, it is at least an illustration of the types of disruptions our actions might be subjecting others to.

The problem of overstating the case is a real one. A lot of people (have been manipulated to)feel burned by past over-reactions to environmental problems--The Population Bomb and Alar come to mind--so they are less willing to trust scientists and environmentalists when they say that bad things are going to happen.

The opponents of science have used these exaggerations to great effect. I work in a pretty conservative (politically, that is) office and every time I bring up climate change I'm bombarded with "in the '70s they said the earth was cooling," "it's a normal fluctuation" and "it's all due to sunspot activity." They don't come up with these ideas on their own. The other side's spin machine is whirring at full speed.

You're right about the value of aesthetic appeals--global warming could use a cute face (a polar bear stranded on a tiny iceberg?). Smokey the Bear has deterred me from wandering away from campfires, and I recall the pictures of seagulls trapped in soda can plastic holder whatchamacallits being fairly effective. Maybe it's time to bring back the crying Native American.

Who's promoting the Alar pseudohistory again all of a sudden? Election year, ya think? For the record:

July 2005, Vol 95, No. S1
American Journal of Public Health S81-S91
© 2005 American Public Health Association
DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2004.044818
PUBLIC HEALTH MATTERS
Regulatory Parallels to Daubert: Stakeholder Influence, "Sound Science," and the Delayed Adoption of Health-Protective Standards
http://www.ajph.org/cgi/content/full/95/S1/S81

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