The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Climate Change’

Motivated Ignorance

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 20, 2011

From EENews:

For many people, ignorance is bliss when it comes to vexing issues like climate change, according to a new study.

Published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the report shows that people who know very little about an issue — say the economic downturn, changes in the climate or dwindling fossil fuel reserves — tend to avoid learning more about it. This insulates them in their ignorance — a pattern described by researchers as “motivated avoidance.”

Faced with complicated or troubling situations, these people often defer to authorities like the government or scientists, hoping they have the situation under control.

“Our research suggests that this kind of overwhelmed feeling, and feeling that an issue is ‘above one’s head’ leads people to feel dependent on the government, and this dependence is managed by trusting the government more to deal with an issue, and this is managed by avoiding the issue,” explained Steven Shepherd, a social psychology doctoral student at the University of Waterloo in Canada and an author of the report, in an email.

“This is psychologically easier than taking a significant amount of time to learn about an issue, all the while confronting unpleasant information about it,” he added.

The report used survey data from 511 participants between 2010 and 2011. “In four studies we manipulated how we framed a domain like the economy or energy (e.g., simple or complex), and in the one study, we manipulated whether or not a future oil shortage was said to be an immediate problem, or a distant future problem,” Shepherd said.

The researchers found that people who received complex information on an issue felt more helpless and more trusting in government compared to those who received relatively simple explanations. In addition, people who felt ignorant on a certain topic — especially issues with dire consequences like fuel shortages or climate change — would reject negative information.

But researchers say there’s more to it than just plugging your ears and saying “la la la.”

The trust-and-avoid ploy

Motivated avoidance stems from a phenomenon known as system justification. “It refers to a motivation that most people hold to believe that the systems that they function with are legitimate,” explained [Situationist Contributor] Aaron Kay, another author. Kay, who is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, explained that people working within a government agency or large institution can’t really influence the collective group on their own.

So they are inclined to conclude the group largely knows what it’s doing. “It doesn’t always imply that people think this is good, but they think it’s better than the government not being in control,” he said. To maintain this view, he noted, people will deliberately avoid information that contradicts it.

“Climate change is a global issue that, seemingly, is beyond the efforts of any one individual. … I think a lot of people feel unable to do anything about it,” said Shepherd. “The next best thing is to either deny it, or defer the issue to governments to deal with it. … In our research we find that one easy way to maintain that psychologically comforting trust that an issue is being dealt with is to simply avoid the issue.”

The authors also speculate that political leanings play into whether people want to trust politicians handle climate change. “I think we see this in the recent ‘Occupy’ movements, and among those pushing for governments to do more about climate change,” Shepherd said.

“People who simply distrust the government to begin with, or libertarians who prefer to have as little government involvement in their lives as possible, are also unlikely to respond to feeling dependent on the government by trusting in them more.”


Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Education, Environment, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Psychological Situation of Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2011

Situationist friend, Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, describes the psychological impulses that make it difficult for humans to confront the threat of global warming.

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Posted in Emotions, Environment, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Warming World or Just World?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 27, 2010

From UCBerkeley News:

Dire or emotionally charged warnings about the consequences of global warming can backfire if presented too negatively, making people less amenable to reducing their carbon footprint, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.

“Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming,” said Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of a study to be published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.

“The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it,” agreed Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology and coauthor of the study.

But if scientists and advocates can communicate their findings in less apocalyptic ways, and present solutions to global warming, Willer said, most people can get past their skepticism.

Recent decades have seen a growing scientific consensus on the existence of a warming of global land and ocean temperatures. A significant part of the warming trend has been attributed to human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the mounting evidence, a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year found that 48 percent of Americans believe that global warming concerns are exaggerated, and 19 percent think global warming will never happen. In 1997, 31 percent of those who were asked the same question in a Gallup poll felt the claims were overstated.

In light of this contradictory trend, Feinberg and Willer sought to investigate the psychology behind attitudes about climate change.

In the first of two experiments, 97 UC Berkeley undergraduates were gauged for their political attitudes, skepticism about global warming and level of belief in whether the world is just or unjust. Rated on a “just world scale,” which measures people’s belief in a just world for themselves and others, participants were asked how much they agree with such statements as “I believe that, by and large, people get what they deserve,” and “I am confident that justice always prevails over injustice.”

Next, participants read a news article about global warming. The article started out with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. But while half the participants received articles that ended with warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming, the other half read ones that concluded with positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions.

Results showed that those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and had more faith in science’s ability to solve the problem. Moreover, those who scored high on the just world scale were less skeptical about global warming when exposed to the positive message. By contrast, those exposed to doomsday messages became more skeptical about global warming, particularly those who scored high on the just world scale.

In the second experiment, involving 45 volunteers recruited from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist, researchers looked specifically at whether increasing one’s belief in a just world would increase his or her skepticism about global warming.

They had half the volunteers unscramble sentences such as “prevails justice always” so they would be more likely to take a just world view when doing the research exercises. They then showed them a video featuring innocent children being put in harm’s way to illustrate the threat of global warming to future generations.

Those who had been primed for a just world view responded to the video with heightened skepticism towards global warming and less willingness to change their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint, according to the results.

Overall, the study concludes, “Fear-based appeals, especially when not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of messages.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Value-Affirmation, and the Situation of Climate Change Beliefs,” Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial,” “Al Gore – The Situationist,” The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification,’” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Abstracts, Environment, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Value-Affirmation, and the Situation of Climate Change Beliefs

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 26, 2010

On NPR’s All Things Considered, Situationist Contributor Dan Kahan and Donald Braman were interviewed this week by Christopher Joyce regarding their important work on cultural cognition.  Here is an excerpt.

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Over the past few months, polls show that fewer Americans say they believe humans are making the planet dangerously warmer, and that is despite a raft of scientific reports that say otherwise. And that puzzles many climate scientists, but not social scientists.

As NPR’s Christopher Joyce reports, some of their research suggests that when people encounter new information, facts may not be as important as beliefs.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The divide between climate believers and disbelievers can be as wide as a West Virginia valley, and that’s where two of them squared off recently at a public debate on West Virginia Public Radio.

Coal company president Don Blankenship is a doubter.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy Company): It’s a hoax because clearly anyone that says that they know what the temperature of the earth is going to be in 2020 or 2030 needs to be put in an asylum because they don’t.

JOYCE: On the other side, environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr.

Mr. ROBERT KENNEDY JR. (Environmentalist): Ninety-eight percent of the research, climatologists in the world say that global warming is real, that its impacts are going to be catastrophic. There are 2 percent who disagree with that. I have a choice of believing the 98 percent or the 2 percent.

JOYCE: For social scientist and lawyer Don Braman, it’s not surprising that two people can disagree so strongly over science. Braman is on the faculty at George Washington University and a part of a research group called Cultural Cognition.

Professor DON BRAMAN (George Washington University Law School/The Cultural Cognition Project): People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their worldview.

JOYCE: Braman’s group has conducted several experiments to back that up. First, they ask people to describe their cultural beliefs. Some embrace new technology, authority and free enterprise – the so-called individualistic group. Others are suspicious of authority, or of commerce and industry. Braman calls them communitarians.

In one experiment, Braman then queried his subjects about something unfamiliar: nanotechnology, new research into tiny, molecule-sized objects that could lead to novel products.

Prof. BRAMAN: These two groups start to polarize as soon as you start to describe some of the potential benefits and harms.

JOYCE: The individualists tended to like nanotechnology; the communitarians generally viewed it as dangerous – all based on the same information.

Prof. BRAMAN: It doesn’t matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom on to the positive information.

JOYCE: So what’s going on here?

Professor DAN KAHAN (Yale University Law School/The Cultural Cognition Project): Basically, the reason that people react in a close-minded way to information is that the implications of it threaten their values.

JOYCE: That’s Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University and a member of Cultural Cognition. He says people test new information against their preexisting view of how the world should work.

Prof. KAHAN: If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way.

JOYCE: And if the information doesn’t, you tend to reject it.

In another experiment, people read a United Nations’ study about the dangers of global warming. Then the researchers said, okay, the solution is to regulate pollution from industry. Many in the individualistic group then rejected the climate science. But when more nuclear power was offered as the solution…

Prof. BRAMAN: They said, you know, it turns out global warming is a serious problem.

JOYCE: And for the communitarians, climate danger seemed less serious if the only solution was more nuclear power.

Then there’s the Messenger Effect. In an experiment dealing with the dangers versus benefits of a vaccine, the scientific information came from several people. They ranged from a rumpled and bearded expert to a crisply business-like one. And people tended to believe the message that came from the person they considered to be more like them – which brings us back to climate.

Prof. BRAMAN: If you have people who are skeptical of the data on climate change, you can bet that Al Gore is not going to convince them at this point.

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You can listen to, or read the rest of, the interview here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts related to cultural cognition, see The Situation of Scientific Consensus,” Dan Kahan on the Situation of Risk Perceptions,” Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk.” For still more  Situationist posts discussing cultural cognition, click here.

For more Situationst posts on perceptions of climate change, see Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial,” “Al Gore – The Situationist,” The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Ideology, Legal Theory, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Scientific Consensus

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 15, 2010

Situationist Contributor Dan Kahan, Hank Jenkins-Smith, and Donald Braman, have just posted another fascinating paper, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Why do members of the public disagree – sharply and persistently – about facts on which expert scientists largely agree? We designed a study to test a distinctive explanation: the cultural cognition of scientific consensus. The “cultural cognition of risk” refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values. The study presents both correlational and experimental evidence confirming that cultural cognition shapes individuals’ beliefs about the existence of scientific consensus, and the process by which they form such beliefs, relating to climate change, the disposal of nuclear wastes, and the effect of permitting concealed possession of handguns. The implications of this dynamic for science communication and public policy-making are discussed.

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You can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Broader Situation: A Case Study of Cop Car Cameras,” Whose Eyes are You Going to Believe?,” Dan Kahan on the Situation of Risk Perceptions,” Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk,” To still more  Situationist posts discussing cultural cognition, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Cultural Cognition, Education, Ideology, Legal Theory, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Getting a Grip on Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 25, 2009

Casion ChipsLast month, Adam Corner wrote a worthwhile editorial, “Time to Gamble on a Post-Carbon World,” for the Guardian. Here are some excerpts.

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That we engage in tactics of diversion, avoidance, and denial has been documented extensively on these pages. But as if our natural tendency to stick our heads in the sand wasn’t bad enough, the global recession further undermines our confidence. And when we lack self-confidence, facing up to the immense challenge that climate change represents is made all the more difficult.

One of the trickiest aspects of getting to grips with climate change is acknowledging that some of our beliefs about the world – say, for example, that private car ownership should be encouraged because it enhances personal freedom – might have to be reconsidered.

[Situationist Contributor] Geoffrey Cohen . . . has demonstrated that when people feel threatened or lack confidence they are less receptive to evidence that challenges their existing beliefs. In a study involving opinions about capital punishment, people reacted defensively when their beliefs were challenged, and new evidence failed to alter their existing opinions. But when the participants in the study were made to feel good about themselves – when their self-confidence was enhanced – they were more willing to take on board new evidence and reconsider their beliefs.

Climate change challenges us all to think differently and question our assumptions. The last thing we need is financial uncertainty to unsteady our nerves. But the doctrine of continual economic growth requires great risks to be taken in the hope that great gains will be achieved. Can we get to grips with climate change within an economic system that demands we live life on the edge?

Herman Daly, a former economist at the World Bank, has proposed a radically different system – a steady state economy. Rejecting the assumption that a market-based economy must continually grow, a steady state economy starts from the position that any economy will be constrained by the finite limits of the earth’s ecosystems. Noting that the earth is in a naturally steady state (that is, its natural systems are not expanding) Daly suggests that a steady state economy should allow qualitative development but not quantitative growth. According to Daly: “Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff.”

While the quality of life of millions of people in the developing world is fundamentally contingent on increasing their financial wealth, the developed nations have stormed past the point at which there is any correlation between additional wealth and happiness. Certainly, this masks gross inequalities in per capita income but as a nation we have more money than we need. Should we keep on getting richer? Or should development take priority over growth?

Daly proposes that a steady state economy means a global redistribution of wealth and a fundamental revaluation of what constitutes ‘value.’ But as well as its incredible potential for social transformation, a steady state economy removes the instability of a system of perpetual growth. It both requires and ensures that we live within our psychological and ecological means.

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To read tbe entire article, click op-ed. For some related Situationist posts, see “Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part V,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” “The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Morality, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The Situational Consequences of Consumption

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 5, 2008

Douglas Kysar and Michael Vandenbergh have just posted a fascinating paper, “Climate Change and Consumption,” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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To achieve the level of greenhouse gas emissions reductions called for by climate change experts, officials and policy analysts may need to develop an unfamiliar category of regulated entity: the consumer. Although industrial, manufacturing, retail, and service sector firms undoubtedly will remain the focus of climate change policy in the near term, individuals and households exert a greenhouse footprint that seems simply too large for policymakers to ignore in the long term. This paper, written as a foreword for the Environmental Law Reporter’s symposium issue, “Climate Change and Consumption,” emerges from an interdisciplinary conference of the same title held at Vanderbilt University in April 2008. The paper begins by providing an overview of the limited role that consumer behavior and decision making has played in environmental law to date. It then describes theoretical and empirical frameworks for understanding the consumer and consumption that could be deployed to inform law and policy if, as we predict, the consumer becomes a much more significant target of environmental regulation. The paper concludes by summarizing the symposium articles, which range widely across disciplines and areas of focus, but which reflect a common belief that the carbon-constrained consumer is worthy of significant academic and policy attention.

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For some related Situationist posts, see ” The Situation of Ethical Consumption” and “The Need for a Situationist Morality.”

Posted in Abstracts, Life | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Without the Filter

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 21, 2008

Governor Sarah Palin wants “to talk to Americans without the filter” of the “media elite.”  As she explained in the vice-presidential debate, she aims to cut out the middleman in conveying information to the public: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you [Senator Joe Biden] want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.”

Those statements reflect a radical challenge to our American system: the elimination of an institution—the press—that has traditionally been championed as a vital check on the abuse of power and distortion of the truth by politicians.  In the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, historically, “[t]he free press meant organized, expert scrutiny of government.  The press was a conspiracy of the intellect, with the courage of numbers.”  For Palin and her coterie, it is simply a conspiracy: a loose amalgam of distorters, liars, and opportunists.

It is tempting to see the Palin proposal as a tailored response to a particular set of circumstances—after recent criticisms from the press and in the context of declining poll numbers for the Republican ticket, attacking journalists might seem to be nothing more than an isolated political expedient.  In fact, Palin’s call for a purge of the “media elite” is a central part of a broader project of knowledge management that has been practiced for decades and perfected during the Age of Rove.

That expansive approach has borrowed tactics directly out of the playbook of some of the most successful corporate campaigns of the last half century or so and has allowed the Bush administration to forge ahead on weak policies—like the war in Iraq—while stymieing potentially strong ones—like a coordinated effort to fight global warming—by controlling the information the public receives.

For many years, the cigarette industry made billions selling a product they knew to be dangerous to human health, while evading costly regulation and litigation.  They accomplished this improbable feat by keeping information necessary to make educated choices out of the hands of the public, while convincing individuals that they possessed all the relevant data and were, in fact, coming to freely made decisions.  Thus, big tobacco hid evidence of the negative health effects of smoking and spent millions on selling the image of cigarette smokers as empowered, independent-minded, sovereign consumers.  Marlboro Men didn’t need scientists or bureaucrats telling them what they needed to know to adequately assess risks; they had their common sense and their freedom to guide them.  When cancer deaths and outside studies began to suggest the great danger of smoking, cigarette companies fought vigorously in court to prevent insider documents that revealed the full extent of the problem from being released.

The McCain-Palin ticket has taken just such an approach.

Although understanding the sources of a candidate’s income is critical to assessing whether that candidate has acted independently in the past or may have vested interests going forward, for months, Cindy McCain refused to disclose key information about the McCain’s family’s wealth.  In May, after serious criticism from the media concerning the lack of transparency, she finally released part of her 2006 tax returns.  However, only her IRS Form 1040 was released, so there was no reference to the sources of her income.  And even this information was disclosed in a way meant to avoid its dissemination to the public: the release was put out on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend.  As Republican strategist Dan Schnur joked, “Christmas Eve would have been ideal, but that would have been a problem given the election calendar.”

Moreover, the ticket has denied members of the media access to the McCain and Palin, except in prepackaged snippets, and has ensured that both of them stick to their vague talking points.  When Palin went to New York City in September to meet with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the campaign initially refused to permit any producers or reporters to go along with the network pool camera recording pictures of the meetings and, after strong objections from the press, relented only slightly, allowing extremely limited and superficial coverage.  McCain, who once decried “stale soundbites, staged rallies, and over-managed messages,” now marches to a metronome.  Between mid-August and the end of September, he went over five weeks without holding a single press conference.

The aim has been to limit severely the information that voters encounter about the candidates and their policies.  Speaking in generalities in the lead up to a general election is standard practice and, in many ways, the Obama campaign provides no exception; yet, the McCain team has taken the practice of evasion and distraction to new levels.  As Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, explained in a moment of candor: “This election is not about issues.  This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”  In the wake of the global financial debacle, a top McCain aid made a similar point to the Daily News: “If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose.”

Preventing the public from having the details necessary to make an informed decision has occurred at the same time that the campaign has emphasized how accessible and open it is—and how it remains utterly committed to “straight talk.”  Indeed, in the October 16 presidential debate, McCain went to great lengths to portray Obama as the remote and opaque candidate, emphasizing how Obama had rejected “his urgent request to sit down, and do town hall meetings, and come before the American people.”  Just as with big tobacco, the message from the Republican campaign has been twofold: first, that the campaign has been completely forthright in providing voters with all the information they need to make a knowledgeable choice; second, that Americans are empowered, independent-minded individuals with common sense who don’t need middlemen—like the press—to tell them which way the wind blows.

The strategy has a proven pedigree.  It worked, not only for the tobacco industry, but also, more recently, for the Bush administration, as it duped the American people into invading Iraq by failing to provide the public with the whole picture concerning the potential risks and costs of the war, while acting as if the calculus were utterly clear and that people knew everything they needed to know to make an informed decision.  Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and we would be embraced by the Iraqi people as liberators.  The conflict would be cheap and largely bloodless and would help stabilize the region.  Only fools and cowards would wait to act.

The same was true with respect to the administration’s approach to global warming: as Bush appointees publicly declared that they were being utterly candid and that the setting of environmental policy by the administration was transparent, they denied the public access to the facts it needed to assess the causes and destructive effects of climate change and the information concerning the impact of industry lobbying efforts.  Key reports were sanitized of language affirmatively declaring that human activity was causing global warming; administration lawyers battled in court to prevent access to records of energy executives’ private meetings with government decision-makers.  As with efforts to prevent the disclosure of documents in the context of the war on terror (including administration policies on torture, extraordinary rendition, and wiretapping), the Bush team couched its withholding of key information in terms of executive privilege and argued that, regardless, the implicated information was not relevant to anything that the public actually needed to know.

Those who said otherwise, were attacked as not only wrong, but biased and a direct threat to our country: wacky tree huggers who would hurt small businesses and destroy American competitiveness; out-of-touch liberals willing to put American lives at risk in their misguided mission to protect terrorists bent on our destruction; ardent ideologues recklessly disparaging government policy during time of war without a concern that it might endanger our troops.

The strategy of denigration of adversarial information sources in the administration’s management of public information was another proven technique borrowed from big tobacco.  For many years, the industry worked hard to cast public health advocates offering evidence of the destructive nature of cigarettes as meddling nannies who wanted to take away the freedoms of regular Americans.  Similarly, plaintiff’s-side lawyers pushing for disclosure of internal company documents were cast as malingering schemers willing to do anything for a buck.

These accounts of corrupted dispositions and grave consequences had a profound impact on the way that the information coming from these sources was viewed, a lesson that the McCain-Palin ticket has taken to heart.  By repeatedly assailing the “liberal media” as unfair and unbalanced, the campaign has both called into question each and every story critical of the Republican candidates and has forced journalists to be more cautious in their criticisms, even where they are extremely well founded.  The claim of ideological distortion on behalf of the media has also served as an excuse for the McCain campaign to refuse to participate in more open forums, which has proven to be a great boon for the campaign, given that Palin is unprepared, at this point in her political career, to answer unscripted questions where outright evasion is foreclosed.

After Palin’s devastating interview with Katie Couric at the end of September, the McCain campaign realized that they could not afford another free-form session with the press.  Thus, as both a means of damage control and a way to defuse future criticisms of the governor, they had Palin go on the offensive against the CBS News anchor: “I did feel there were a lot of things she was missing in terms of an opportunity to ask what a VP candidate stands for, what the values are that are represented in our ticket . . . . I guess I have to apologize for being a bit annoyed, but that’s also an indication about being outside that Washington elite, outside that media elite also . . . .”  Because Palin is just like you, Joe Six-Pack Hockey Mom, when the biased media attacks Palin, they are really attacking you.  As Steve Schmidt, one of McCain’s senior advisors, put it, “She’s not part of the Washington, D.C., cocktail circuit.  Elite opinion looks down with contempt at people who are not part of their world.”

Another central lesson of knowledge management coming from the tobacco industry is that truth and accuracy are irrelevant if what you primarily—or exclusively—care about are “ends.”  You do not have to prove your position; you only have to move the needle enough to make things look like a debate.   Where no information exists to support your position, you simply create it.  Thus, cigarette companies funded rival studies to draw into question arguments that cigarettes were addictive and harmful and hired experts to ensure that there was “credible” counterevidence.

The Bush administration has masterfully followed suit.  With few expert pundits supporting the Iraq war efforts, the administration simply went out and got its own to offer seemingly objective—and uniformly positive—analysis on news programs.  The “message force multipliers” or “surrogates,” as they were referred to in internal Pentagon papers, were used to amplify successes, downplay mistakes, and refocus debates for millions of Americans.  When a study by Seton Hall University School of Law and two lawyers who represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay was published, finding that just eight percent of detainees were classified as al Qaeda fighters by the military and a majority had not been found to have perpetrated any acts of hostility against American targets, the Pentagon sprung into action, commissioning a counter study from a terrorism research center at West Point that, unsurprisingly, offered a frightening portrait of a detainee population made up of dangerous jihadists.  Explaining the motivation for the rebuttal report, one of the authors offered a candid summary: the Department of Defense “had been getting a lot of inquiries related to this previous study.  They had a lot of concerns with the conclusions, but they did not have another study.”

Just as with the tobacco industry, the benefits of such an approach in the context of the war on terror were to forestall any action: with the ultimate verdict still out, it seemed ill-advised to change course or break from the status quo.  Since there was a debate over the dangerousness of the detainees, Guantanamo had to be kept open.  Since there was not utter consensus that coercive interrogation methods amounted to torture, they had to be continued.  Since there was an active dispute over the legality of government wiretaps, they had to remain undisturbed.  Making things look like a debate meant that feet could be dragged for months, if not years.

Nowhere was this truer than with respect to the administration’s policy on climate change.  The aim for the Bush appointees at the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and elsewhere was never to prove that global warming had its origin in natural causes, but rather to sew a seed of doubt so that inaction could take root.  In February 2007, when a report by top climate scientists from 120 nations was released explaining that global warming was unquestionably real, man-made, and required immediate responsive action, Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a response worthy of an expert defense lawyer for Philip Morris: “We’re going to see a big debate on [climate change] going forward . . . the extent to which it is part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it’s caused by man . . . [It’s] not enough to just sort of run out and try to slap together some policy that’s going to ‘solve’ the problem.”

For the McCain-Palin campaign, the goal has been to move what should be settled points of fact into the realm of confusion and dispute such that existing negative stereotypes respecting the Democratic presidential candidate can persist.  That status quo is that a black man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama is going to be viewed by many with suspicion, fear, and distrust.  Hence, you don’t have to conclusively prove that Barack Obama is a Muslim; you only have to allow your surrogates to repeatedly raise such a claim.  Nor do you need to prove that Barack Obama is an al Qaeda operative; you only have to emphasize, at rallies and in television commercials, that he pals around with terrorists.  You don’t have to prove that Barack Obama wants to mandate teaching kindergarten students how to use a condom; you just have to insinuate it enough that it sticks.  If we aren’t absolutely sure that Obama isn’t an Arab spy bent on corrupting our children, we can’t possibly elect him president.

The same is true with respect to attacks by the McCain campaign playing on existing notions about “tax and spend” Democrats and elitist, leftist professors.  You don’t actually have to prove that Obama would raise taxes; you just have to assert again and again that Obama wants to spread the wealth around, pitting the haves against the have-nots and favoring the latter.  You don’t have to prove that Obama is out-of-touch with mainstream America; you just have to hammer on how he held a campaign event with celebrities in Hollywood and how he believes that rural voters cling to guns and religion out of bitterness.  Given the dire economic situation, if it is an open debate whether or not Obama will take more out of our pay checks, voting for him would be reckless; if there is a chance that he doesn’t understand us, our beliefs, and our struggles, it would be foolish.

As a number of writers have pointed out, this strategy of muddying the waters has been especially effective because of the press’s tendency to try to appear balanced: when pointing out untruths propagated by the McCain campaign, many writers and commentators have felt compelled to also mention significantly less-erroneous claims by Obama.  The result being that members of the public are liable to come away mistakenly convinced that both sides bend the facts equally to suit their needs.

To its credit, in recent weeks, the press has been far more disciplined in calling out McCain and Palin for their deceptive claims and pressing for more details, but much damage has already been done.  With one-third of voters, in a recent survey, sure that Obama is a Muslim or open to the idea that he could be, and over fifty percent believing that he would raise their taxes (despite the fact that his tax plan would reduce taxes for 95% of Americans), Palin’s proposal to excise the media from the presidential election conversation is particularly disturbing.

We deserve to know what our candidates think so that we can determine what types of leaders they will be.  Despite Palin’s arguments to the contrary, we are not going to learn those critical facts if we just listen to what they want to tell us.  Filters keep us safe and healthy.  Sure, you can have a drink right out of the East River, but in the end all you’re going to get is a bad pain in your gut.

* * *

To read some related Situationist posts, see “A Convenient Fiction,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” “The Situation of University Research,” “The company “had no control or influence over the research” . . . .,” ” Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Industry-Funded Research,” and “Industry-Funded Research – Part II.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Al Gore’s Situationism and Call for Urgency

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 28, 2008

Vodpod videos no longer available.

For a related post, see “Al Gore – The Situationist.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Education, Geography, Politics, Public Policy, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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