James Hoggan's blog

If Facts Don’t Matter, What Does?

This is an excerpt from DeSmog founder Jim Hoggan’s latest book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse, published by New Society Publishers.

I first began reading the works of linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff about 15 years ago and I was struck by the Berkeley professor’s now famous ideas about what he calls frames. In public relations our stock in trade is messaging, because our role is to create understanding by combining maximum clarity with supreme brevity. We work in the world of sound bites and elevator pitches that are designed to be short and pithy, and we rarely have the time or budget to delve into frames or deeply moving narratives.

When I started writing I’m Right and You’re an Idiot I wanted to better understand the difference between messages and frames, so I would know how frames work and be able to explain how to manage them. I wanted to better understand how they relate to the mechanics of public debate, and especially how frames impact facts and scientific evidence in public discourse, or when shaping opinion.

Why I Wrote a Book About How to Clean Up Toxic Debates

I wrote my last book, Climate Cover-Up, because I wanted to take a deeper look at the science propaganda and media echo chambers that muddied the waters around climate change, fuelled denial of facts and stalled action. The book was a Canadian best seller, was reprinted in Spanish and Mandarin and became the basis of many lectures, panel discussions and presentations I have given around the world since it was published in 2009.
 
I continued to be perplexed and frustrated by the spin doctoring swirling around the global warming issue, making it easy for people to refute the reality of what’s going on and ignore this critical collective problem. But as time went by I became even more concerned and alarmed by the crazy state of debate today in general — the toxic rhetoric that seems to permeate virtually all of the important issues we face, whether it’s a discussion about vaccinations, refugee immigration, gun control or environmental degradation.

How Propaganda (Actually) Works

clean coal propaganda

Political Propaganda employs the ideals of liberal democracy to undermine those very ideals, the dangers of which, not even its architects fully understand.
 
In the early years of DeSmog’s research into environmental propaganda, I thought of industry PR campaigns like “junk science,” “clean coal,” and “ethical oil” as misinformation strategies designed to dupe the public about the real issues.
 
Although there is obvious truth to that view, I now understand that propaganda is far more complex and problematic than lying about the facts. Certainly propaganda is designed to look like facts that are true and right, but not in a way we might think. What’s more, the consequences are far worse than most people consuming and even producing it realize.

Recommended Reading: The Agony of Frank Luntz in The Atlantic

This is a worthwhile read about a morally confused guy who would, if he continues to do what he does so well, make the problem he is distressed about worse. He seems unable to see his own hand in all of this polarization and promotion of goofy ideas.

I suspect that most of us looking at what Luntz has done would say finding cracks in public thinking and figuring out how to use them to get people elected is going to take us down a dark road.

With his advice to Republicans in 2002, Luntz turned climate science into one of the most partisan issues in American politics.

“The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

The public was mistaken about this and Luntz either knew or should have known they were mistaken.

He knows there is something wrong but doesn't know it is him.

Head over to The Atlantic to read The Agony of Frank Luntz.

Ethical Oil Doublespeak Is Polluting Canada's Public Square

“Like any other tool, language can be abused, used not to build but to destroy, not to communicate but to confuse, not to clarify but to obscure, not to lead but to mislead.” 
- William Lutz⁠

Retired American linguist Dr. William Lutz spent much of his career at Rutgers University studying how language is abused in public conversations. He pointed to government and industry as the worst offenders in a practice known as Doublespeak, which Lutz described as “language designed to evade responsibility, to make the unpleasant appear pleasant … language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. Language designed to mislead while pretending it doesn’t.” 

Dr. Lutz worried that doublespeak has invaded public discourse about important issues. When killing innocent men, women and children is called 'collateral damage', torture becomes 'enhanced interrogation' and the dirtiest fossil fuel becomes 'Clean Coal', public conversations lose meaning. We struggle to make sense of things. These euphemisms sanitize language and steer important issues below the public’s radar. 

Communicating for Change: Anthony Leiserowitz on Climate Change Psychology

When it comes to climate change, Yale's Anthony Leiserowitz says, “you almost couldn't design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology”; an insight that is all too apparent. 

In spite of the dramatic increase in extreme weather events and growing scientific concern, climate change is seldom mentioned by politicians, business leaders or the news media in Canada and the US. While public concern is on the rise, public pressure to fix the problem is flagging. 

In this recent interview, Bill Moyers asks Leiserowitz to explain the state of public opinion surrounding climate change and what might be done to improve climate change communications.

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