When Is Reality “Reality”?: Media And Progressive Issues

Randy Olson of The Benshi has a point to make and it’s an important one. Unfortunately it is easy to lose it in what is otherwise a pretty garbled and incoherent posting. That would be unfortunate, so what I hope do is underscore his core point while critiquing some of the incoherence as a way of examining the problem in more depth.

The issue in question is the matter of public perception of progressive issues, in this instance climate change. The context is the media cooperation in burying the real story with inconsequential and irrelevant tangents, allegedly because it makes for a more sensational, or at least marketable story. This is a problem that bedevils most of the movement, so it’s worth discussing.

The specific incident that sparked this furor was a letter in Science Magazine “Climate Change and the Integrity of Science“  in which 255 scientists talk about the trivialization and dismissal of the science for political and ideological reasons. This real concern was immediately trivialized and ignored because the article included, purely as window dressing, a stock image of a polar bear on an ice flow.

Well it turned out the image had been photo-shopped.  Even though the image had nothing to do with the letter or its content, and had been included by the journal purely for aesthetic reasons, the Deniers and some of the media jumped on it as evidence that climate science is a fraud. For relevance they may as well have picked on the font or the border widths, but then neither the Deniers nor many in the media have a reputation for rational thinking.

Olson’s take on the incident is to hold the scientists responsible for the ensuing debacle. He notes that “perception is reality”, ie what people believe is true is truth for social and political purposes. Given that, scientists need to be more sophisticated in their communication strategies, specifically by hiring PR professionals to handle their media.

According to Olson the reason that scientists do not employ the professional PR people that the Deniers do is “Very simple: Because scientists are cheap skates. “ followed by an anecdote where the point is made that the scientists don’t actually have any money for PR campaigns in the first place.

Without missing a beat, he then switches his point from scientists being cheap skates to being gullible, which is only tangentially relevant if one assumes that by this he means they are naïve in thinking that they don’t need the help of PR professionals that they can’t afford, so the whole thing is moot anyway.

“Take some of your millions of dollars you have for climate research and hire yourselves a competent publicist. “ Olson claims to have been a scientist, but I find that hard to believe. Any one who has ever had research funding knows you have to document every dime as having gone to research related, legitimate expenses. Hiring publicists instead would be one way to ensure you are never funded again, never mind that the media would have a field day with the ‘story’ that ‘scientists are using PR people instead of relying on scientific evidence’.

It is interesting that in Olson’s framing journalists are treated almost as objects. That is to say he passes no judgment on their distortion of the story, nor suggests that they might have acted differently. They are objects in the sense that they are predictable, amoral, and immutable. Instead he holds the scientists responsible and it is they who must change their behaviour, not the media. It is true that the media are almost certainly not going to change, but it is still worth pointing out that they too are allegedly adults with brains and free will, and hence are culpable.

Did you follow that? The original is even less coherent. He seems to feel they should spend money that they don’t have on a strategy that would be disastrous for them if they did, and they don’t do so because they are cheap and gullible. Excuse me? For the most part the rest of his analysis is no better.

In fact Olson is on to two points and they are both important despite the incoherence of his analysis. The first is that our opponents will jump on every error, the second that our communications have to be “a story” in the sense that the media understands that. A letter from a group of scientists affirming the science and decrying the lies and distortions of the Deniers is not a story (eg dog bites man), whereas the use of a photo-shopped image by scientists is (albeit a mind numbingly lame one).

The pretense that there are easy and obvious answers to this problem is a way to rationalize victim blaming such as Olson indulges. Under the guise of constructive critique Olson piles on with the Deniers by adding a number of additional imaginary failings to the list. The facts are that there is no perfectible system, we do not have the resources for PR, and constantly sweating minutia is another time suck that under-resourced progressives can ill afford.

Yet his core points remain, the cards are stacked against us and it is necessary to recognize that. There is no easy answer … if there was the progressive movement would have solved this problem many decades ago. We are held to an entirely different, much higher standard than our opponents by both the media and the public; to pretend or expect otherwise is folly. Any errors or contradictions will be made the basis for dismissal no matter how trivial or irrelevant.

However, it is possible to minimize the damage and turn the attacks against our opponents to some extent. In the first place it is necessary to to be accurate, consistent, and meticulous in our communications and actions. This will not stop the criticisms and dismissals, but the more obviously trivial and irrelevant they are, the more mileage we can get from documenting it as evidence of our opponents lack of substance. This does influence the more rational members of the public.

Secondly, our communications need to tell a story in the way that engages the media. That may mean profiling the plight of one homeless family rather than putting out a barrage of statistics on rising homelessness, framing a science story within a more engaging narrative, or simply recognizing that there is no ‘story’ that the media is going to pick up on and investing our energy in some other form of public outreach.

It’s not fair and it’s not right, but it is reality.

Image Credits:

Beautiful bear! by ucumari

A big beautiful polar bear by ucumari

Polar bear by mape_s

Just us cute little polar bears freezing our little buns off! by Just Being Myself


One Response to When Is Reality “Reality”?: Media And Progressive Issues

  1. Vote -1 Vote +1Martha
    May 26, 2010 at 6:18 am

    I don’t think this is an unusual reaction to Randy Olson. Ironically, his commentary is often misunderstood by other scientists, for the very reasons he cites.

    The media is part of modern science activity and his approach to this reality involves challenging science education. Of course much of his commentary uses humour to re-frame problems.

    He is very active encouraging and teaching scientists to use film as a motivational rather than informational medium.

    His book is a discussion of the social influences of the 1980’s that may have led to academic science failing to teach science communication, as well as public education’s loss of responsibility-taking regarding science knowledge.

    The comments regarding hiring PR firms can be seen as part of challenging the development of bureaucracy in science education and activity. In 2010, universities and research projects have many different types of bureaucratic costs related to the activity of research. The suggestion that science administrators and workers either teach (and learn) how to communicate or create jobs by hiring others to do this for them, is both amusing and realistic. Yes?