Four ways to assemble the evidence on climate change

How it is possible to persuade people who just don’t want to be persuaded?

The answer, from a Cultural Theory perspective, is fairly straightforward. People and institutions with different cultural biases create, fund, support and pay attention to four very different types of evidence. What matters then, if you want to persuade large numbers of people, is to produce and shape a variety of evidence. Here are some suggestions for what climate change might look like, viewed four different ways.

Just before we begin, note that science communicators seem to be ridiculously bad at doing this. Their so-called evidence and so-called solutions are almost always heavily weighted towards the Egalitarian version of climate change alone, which is why their views are contested. As we’re about to show, there’s much more to life than egalitarianism, but since that’s how much of the climate discourse is presented, that’s where we’ll start.

Egalitarian Climate Change:

On this view you should demonstrate with science and/or emotive rhetoric (whichever appeals best to hearts and minds, the Elephant and the rider as Jonathan Haidt would say) that our very civilization is in danger unless we change our profligate ways. Changing our energy sources is to be depicted as only a preliminary step to changing our values. Peter Preston said we need an ‘eco-prophet’ to show us how to believe but this is emphatically wrong. Such Egalitarian eco-prophets as have arisen – Al Gore in the US, George Monbiot in the UK, and many others – have been shot down in flames, derided as extremists.

Egalitarian authority comes most authentically not from prophets but from the masses. Common sense, what everyone knows, is what is true. That’s why ‘scientific consensus’ is so much more important to Egalitarians than it is to scientists themselves (scientists themselves rather like arguing and starting feuds).

Individualist Climate Change:

From an Individualist perspective you should provide information and examples on how to make a profit from climate change, appealing all the while to visceral self-interest. If it turns out you actually can make a profit from climate change, and do so better than your competitors, then climate change must surely exist.

Alternatively, and inversely, demonstrate concrete (not hypothetical or future) impacts on the bottom line of those institutions that have ignored Climate Change.

On this view scientists who make photovoltaics competitive with coal fired power stations are doing more to combat climate change than any amount of hand-wringing by the likes of James Hanson, who is simply discounted as a crypto-religious or crypto-communist ‘fanatical environmentalist’. A figurehead Individualist expert would be someone like Shi Zhengrong, China’s first solar billionaire. Money doesn’t lie.

Hierarchical Climate Change

Paying attention to the Hierarchical perspective you should develop and promote management theories of climate change. If you can reconfigure governance to take account of climate change in ways that enhance management functions, and if it makes evident sense to have a Minister for Climate Change, then climate change must certainly exist.

Alternatively, demonstrate (perhaps by means of case study) real and damaging governance failures of those institutions that have ignored Climate Change in their management structure. What risks demonstrably increase when you don’t have a Minister for Climate Change or a framework for global climate change governance? Ideal Hierarchical experts will be at or near the top of the tree. It will be their status that speaks loudest. If Prince Charles and the Pope both worry about climate change, who are we to argue? Failing the biggest guns, the Head of the Royal Society will do at a pinch, unless you can find someone more senior.

Fatalist Climate Change

With reference to the Fatalist perspective you should demonstrate the randomizing impact of climate change on the status quo. Fatalism thrives by enhancing and systematizing the luck of the draw and turning it into policy (explicit or, more often than not, tacit), or reward (the lottery). Fatalists tend to say ‘climates change!’ with the twin implications that it was always like this and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Fatalist institutions tend to make a virtue of doing nothing about it, and try to make sure no one else does anything about it either.

What not to do

If you keep using only one of the four perspectives described by Cultural Theory, your message will appeal to some people but deeply antagonise many others. It will be welcomed in some social settings but shunned in others. Don’t keep doing this, because so far it hasn’t worked.

There is nothing wrong with professing the view that in light of dangerous climate change problems what the world needs now is global governance. But to expect that this will not be seen as politically inflammatory is to be naive in the extreme. The global governance line works well before Hierarchical audiences (bureaucrats and some heads of state, for instance), but really badly before audiences with the other three cultural biases.

Simply put, any media release about a new piece of climate research could do with not one but four different versions, each targeted at a different cultural bias. A more sophisticated version of this would be to develop a communications strategy which includes interaction with all four cultural world views, not just with one or two, as at present.

A little help from Aristotle

But that’s not quite enough. Prof Dan Kahn at the Cultural Cognition Project has suggested that any message about science really has two channels: the content itself, and the cultural meaning attached to that content. He rightly suggests communicators need to be aware of both. But his model reminded me of Aristotle, who thought there were three, not just two, channels of communication.

In presenting an argument, Aristotle’s classic rhetorical concepts of ethos, pathos and logos still have a great deal to contribute (Gottweis in Fisher, Miller and Sidney, 2007: 237-250). Too many presentations rely almost exclusively on logos, the actual ideas and concepts, the contents of the presentation. This is certainly important but in some ways overshadowed by the other two. Pathos refers to the emotions evoked and ethos refers to the character of the person delivering the message. These are both highly important but often underused. The implication of Cultural Theory is that all three, ethos, pathos and logos, are configured according to the main cultural biases. An egalitarian logos, for example, may work best when it is supported by Egalitarian pathos and Egalitarian ethos. On the other hand, a speaker trying to appeal to an Individualist audience may keep some of the Egalitarian logos, while appealing to an Individualist pathos and using an Individualist ethos.

More reading:

The dark side of Cultural Theory

Edit: changed the title of this post from ‘make up’ to ‘assemble’. See the discussion in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Four ways to assemble the evidence on climate change

  1. The article is BADLY titled. It makes it look like you’re going to show four ways to *invent* evidence for climate change, and that CC isn’t real.

    1. Thanks for your comment Christopher. I agree. I meant ‘make up’ as in ‘assemble’, so should clarify that. However I do think the cultural positions described by Mary Douglas’s writing go all the way down. There isn’t a bedrock to reach beneath them where the real facts are to be seen. My views on the reality of climate change aren’t likely to carry much weight compared with the determination of people and their institutions to defend and extend their cultural worldviews and to shape the evidence accordingly. I live in Australia, where there have been unprecedented drought, unprecedented bushfires, unprecedented high temperatures, unprecedented coral bleaching and unprecedented floods. The federal government continues to behave as though this statement of fact is just alarmist. That’s partly because, I am claiming, it has successfully depicted climate change as a Trojan horse for egalitarian policy which it strongly opposes.

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