“Sowing doubt works.” Science communication and sustainability

September 9, 2015 | 0 comments

This guest post comes from Dr. Lee Ahern, Associate Professor of Advertising and Senior Research Fellow at the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication. He is the co-editor of Talking Green: Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications. In this post, Dr. Ahern explains how the rise of mass media and propaganda has affected decision-making and how we might conceive of climate science communication as sustainability communication, instead of the other way around, is a step in the right direction. Tonight, he will be on our panel following the screening of The Merchants of Doubt at the State Theatre in State College at 7 pm.

One of the most important developments of the 20th century was the dawn of a new age of mass communication and propaganda. From the very beginning, professional persuaders understood the power of technologically enhanced media — starting with the telegraph and radio — to move public perceptions, beliefs, knowledge and opinion. Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations” (and a nephew of Sigmund Freud) captured the mood of the time with the title of his 1947 essay “The Engineering of Consent.” This was what media scholars call the “hypodermic needle” model of mass communication. The idea that you could, with a great deal of precision, inject the ideas you want to take hold into the body politic. While PR practitioners had a vested interest in promoting the idea that they held the keys to the communication kingdom, the idea that public acceptance of policy could be “engineered” through clever communication never really panned out. It turns out people are quite complex when it comes to how they consume and respond to mass mediated messages.

Over the ensuing decades, however, powerful political and economic actors promoting specific points of view discovered a set of best practices and tactics for creating the most advantageous communication environments for their interests. Sometimes it is best to have no news about an issue; to simply operate under the radar. Sometimes it is best to engage early and often with audiences to win them over to your side. Sometimes it is best to use informational messages (when talking to people who already support your point of view and just need more specifics), and sometimes emotional communication campaigns are more effective (when you’re trying to reach a less sympathetic audience and you want to indirectly nudge them in a certain direction, not grab them by the collar).

Beyond the broad categories of informational and emotional messages, there are a number of other useful implements in the communications toolbox. For example, sometimes it is most advantageous to just have people throw up their hands and give up because of the ongoing conflict and confusion surrounding an issue — to create doubt. This approach is particularly useful when scientific discoveries and policy solutions run counter to a group’s socio-political goals and objectives. The goal is not to directly change public opinion but to obstruct change in public opinion. For a variety of psychological reason, this is pretty easy to do.

People have a very hard time dealing with probabilities, and it is not very far (in peoples’ minds) from “small chance of error” to “error is possible.” At the end of the day, people don’t usually base judgments on rational calculations of probabilities but on how well one explanation or description of the situation fits their mental model of the world. This makes perpetuating doubt a simple but effective communication strategy. Defining the situation as full of uncertainty fits a mental model of a complex world. No probabilities required.

Although using absence of certitude as a rhetorical device has been around since the Greeks, in a mass-media context, in Merchants of Doubt authors Oreskes and Conway mark the beginning of their exploration of this communications tactic with the war on tobacco. The rest as they say is history — sowing doubt works. Whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing depends on your perspective. If you’re trying to stop policy progress in order to preserve an economic interest, then the doubt strategy is instrumentally “good” because it achieves its objective. But it is hard to make the case for this strategy on an ethical basis.

There is no such thing as a non-moral communication. In particular, the motivations of the message sender are always relevant. In the case of doubt-creation, we can assume that these types of deliberate message strategies with clear objectives have persuasive intent. We can then attempt to determine if the sender of the message is using some means to impede the audience’s persuasion awareness. This is the classic distinction between persuasion and propaganda. While the first is considered ethically acceptable, the second is problematic. One of the most common ways to impede persuasion awareness is to obfuscate the source–using front groups (this practice is well documented in Merchants of Doubt). Less obvious methods are also available. Emotional advertising is, it can be argued, designed to impede persuasion awareness. These are messages that “sell without selling” in the words of legendary ad man David Ogilvy. In defense of advertising, people understand that all advertising is designed to persuade, so while an emotional message might distract the audience from this fact, it is unlikely to make them forget it.

Doubt-selling, however, typically goes to great lengths to impede persuasion awareness. The level of uncertainty is used to divert discussion from the actual political policy at issue. Front-groups are employed to obfuscate the source of the arguments. “Objective” news formats are chosen to divert attention from the strategic nature of the communication. Merchants of Doubt peels back these impediments to persuasion awareness to lay bare the cold, calculating way doubt has been marketed into the minds of information consumers in the service of specific, historic economic interests.

The next question then, is what do to about it? A tempting answer is to eliminate the uncertainty and therefore the basis for the rhetorical attack. While appealing, this approach is a fools errand for two main reasons. Central to the nature of scientific theory is the idea of falsifiability. If something can’t be proved wrong, it’s not scientifically useful (think about it). That means there is always some level of “chance” that a theory is wrong. The next-best approach along these lines, then, is to reduce the probability that a theory is wrong as much as possible (to minimize alpha error), and/or to emphasize the high degree of overall consensus among scientists (the current climate-change rallying cry of 97%!). In the minds of many audience members, this is still just an argument about “if” climate change is happening.

Merchants of Doubt does an excellent job chronicling how the marketing of doubt can stultify public understanding of science. But the solution is not to fix the public, it is to fix the communication. Even with perfect public understanding and knowledge about the science of these issues (an impossibility), there are no clear answers. This is because at the core of science debates is not the science itself (and the confidence and consensus around it), but how the science will impact society. What are the legal, ethical and social consequences of science-driven public policies? These are not scientific questions. They are complex social issues with political and economic implications. Decisions are driven by values and worldviews, not just “facts.” It is no wonder, then, that science communications are seen though a socio-political lens. People have no other way of looking at them. In this context, communication campaigns designed to show how “science” has all the “answers” make no sense. The real questions people need answers to are not scientific ones, but social ones. It is less about specific science and more about general sustainability. Thinking of science communication as sustainability communication, instead of the other way around, is a step in the right direction.

If you are interested in using the film in your courses we also have a discussion guide from the Poynter Institute, a discussion guide from Interfaith Power and Light, course materials on psychology and doubt from Dr. Janet Swim and a previous blog post where you can learn more.

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