Posts Tagged ‘Communication’


The illusion of the reasonable centre

4 February 2013

Republican strategist Karl Rove in 2002 notoriously disparaged “the reality-based community [who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. He continued: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

That quote has become a symbol for the Republican Party’s detachment from empirical reality, like Mitt Romney’s recent declaration “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”. I’m a proud member of the “reality-based community”, in that I try to base my views as much as possible on observed facts rather than instinct or ideology. Yet Rove understood something his political opponents don’t: “political reality” is an illusion.

Campaigners who pride themselves on being “political realists”, and voters who pride themselves on being “centrists”, make the fundamental mistake of assuming the political centre is a real thing fixed in one position. Although political scholars talk about an objective centre halfway between the most extreme possible ideological orientations, it has no influence on political debate. In practice, the political centre is a perception that can be manipulated by various political forces. Thus it is possible to shift the political centre, or “political reality”, without deluding as the Republicans do – you only need to change the perception of where the centre is.

Here’s another way of looking at it. The “Overton window” is the range of political positions considered to be the scope of reasonable debate. The perceived political centre is in the middle of the Overton window. Positions toward the edges of the Overton window are considered radical, and positions beyond the edges are considered unthinkable.

A third way of conceptualizing this is “Hallin’s spheres”, three nested ideological spheres illustrating the implicit bias of ostensibly objective media coverage. In the centre is the “sphere of consensus”, consisting of propositions considered by the journalist (or other observer) to be self-evident to all reasonable people. The intermediate shell is the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, matters considered suitable to be debated among reasonable people; journalists generally strive for balanced coverage of the views in this shell. The outer shell is the “sphere of deviance”, positions considered to be outside the range of mainstream debate. In this metaphor it is journalists who (consciously or otherwise) decide which ideas belong in which sphere, and they tend to make those decisions based on the thinking of the political establishment. Read the rest of this entry ?


Is Tony Abbott a liar, or just plain stupid?

25 August 2012

It’s taken them two-and-a-half years, but it looks like the Australian media is finally beginning to cotton on to the blatant dishonesty of Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberal Party and Opposition. His latest mistruths are debunked here. What better time than to recall some highlights from his ever-growing litany of false, misleading, and contradictory statements?

“Liar” is an inflammatory term which I used to get your attention. Of course, I have no way of knowing the motivations of Abbott or his party; they may believe themselves to be sincere. But if “liar” means “one who makes false statements”, then Abbott is a habitual liar. In fact, I can logically prove to you that Abbott is a liar. This is possible because if a politician promises one thing to one audience and a contradictory thing to another audience, it logically follows that one of those promises must be untrue.

Abbott claimed in July 2011 he had been consistent: “I once used some colorful language describing the so-called settled science of climate change but look, climate change is real, humanity does make a contribution to it and we’ve got to take effective action against it. I mean, that’s my position and that’s always been my position but I’ve never been in favor of a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.” But in October 2009, he had said: “We don’t want to play games with the planet so we are taking this issue seriously and we would like to see an ETS.” And he is on video advocating a form of carbon tax immediately after denying climate change:

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Politics isn’t bad; it’s the reporting

19 July 2012

As people in other parts of the world fight for the right to vote, too many Australian voters dismiss politics as boring, unimportant, even irrelevant. 15% of Australians believe “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s not politics that is the problem; it’s the way it’s reported.

I don’t believe in such a thing as a “national spirit”, but there does appear to be some truth to the idea that Australians tend to be apathetic. There are probably multiple reasons for our apathy. Perhaps our economic fortunes have made us complacent. I suspect the Liberal Party may be deliberately trying to trash the reputation of politics to win support for reducing the size of government. But I think the most fundamental reason voters believe politics is irrelevant, unimportant, and boring is because political reporting focuses on the aspects that really are irrelevant, unimportant, and (while often superficially attention-grabbing) unable to hold long-term interest.

Politics is reported as though it were a sport or a reality show. Lazily, formulaically, brainlessly, journalists slot every event into a narrative which says one party or person is going up or down in popularity. It’s a “bad week” for some political party or leader; there’s a “good poll” for another; someone is “ahead” in the race; someone is “behind” in the game. The Prime Minister’s latest speech appeared “Prime Ministerial” (whatever that means), but in yesterday’s speech she appeared “weak”, and another speech she will make tomorrow will be a pivotal event because she will “assert her authority”.

The headline political events are not policies but parliamentary stunts, leadership spills and plots, and scandals about individual MPs. For example, on 30 May, the House of Representatives passed legislation to create a Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Also, in an unrelated and unimportant procedural vote, Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott realized he was on the same side as an MP whose vote he considers illegitimate, and ran for the door. The latter event became the day’s major political story. Read the rest of this entry ?


Climate change explained in 15 minutes

5 July 2012

The other day I found this great TED video where blogger David Roberts explains the significance of increasing degrees of global warming:


Stop saying yes: “Political reality”

11 June 2012

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

Global warming is not just another issue; it is an urgent threat to human civilization. To avoid passing tipping points for dangerous climate change, humanity must rapidly phase out fossil fuels to cut emissions to zero or near-zero as soon as possible. Starting now, we must cut global fossil fuel emissions by 6%/year, and the longer we delay, the steeper the required rate will become.

Despite this inescapable reality, pragmatists argue we must keep our demands within “political reality”. The necessary actions are considered not “realistic”. But when “political reality” clashes with objective reality, only the former can give. Objective reality is a world of facts and physical laws, which cannot be changed. “Political reality” is a world of political power and human laws, which can be changed.

I believe the “political realists” misjudge our opponents, misunderstand how politics works, and overlook the nature of the climate crisis.

The opponents to whom I refer are, primarily, the fossil fuel industry, and by extension, whichever political forces do their bidding. The former is inherently unmovable on climate action. It is no use appeasing the fossil fuel industry, because they will never agree to their own demise; no amount of negotiation will change that. For the same reason, the practicality of compromise with other political groups is inversely proportional to their degree of association with the fossil fuel industry. (There are grey areas in applying this latter principle, however. In an Australian context, it is fairly straightforward to place the Liberal Party in the category of “unmovable ally of the fossil fuel industry”, but is Labor in the same category or was it worthwhile for the Greens to negotiate with them?)

Wishing for unanimous agreement on climate action is naïve, because it will never happen. We are, after all, dealing with the biggest issue confronted by humanity; there’s inevitably going to be some political conflict. Read the rest of this entry ?


Stop saying yes: Bright-siding

10 June 2012

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

David Spratt at the blog Climate Code Red has recently spoken out against what he calls “bright-siding”: a misguided tendency for climate activists (and governments) to campaign on the arguable side-benefits of climate policies (eg. green jobs), rather than explain the urgent necessity of phasing out fossil fuels to avoid dangerous global warming. I generally agree with Spratt’s arguments, which are worth reading in full.

Spratt suggests the motivations for bright-siding include beliefs that people will respond best to messages about clean energy, climate change science is too depressing, and/or positive thinking is inherently beneficial. There is a misconception that dire warnings about climate turn off listeners, but this is based on one small study which has been misinterpreted (in fact, the message which didn’t work was that global warming is dire and unsolvable, and the message which did work was that global warming is dire but solvable). A related idea is that the public is constantly exposed to negative messages about climate change, but this is a myth.

A recent overseas study concluded “media coverage of climate change and elite cues from politicians and advocacy groups are among the most prominent drivers of the [US] public perception of the threat associated with climate change”. Astoundingly, US media coverage of climate change peaked in 2007 (following the release of An Inconvenient Truth and the IPCC AR4). Anecdotally, as media coverage has declined in amount it also became less negative. Americans’ concern about climate change has declined accordingly (though it is now rebounding). In an Australian context, the number of Australians who agree with the statement, “Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”, has fallen from 68% in 2006 to 36% today. Read the rest of this entry ?


Stop saying yes: What went wrong?

9 June 2012

This is the third in a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

In 2011, Australian climate activists united under the lowest-common-denominator “Say Yes” campaign. The focus was, above all, on supporting a carbon price, apparently any carbon price that might be negotiated by the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee (MPCCC). (See the previous posts in this series for background on the MPCCC negotiations and the resulting policy.)

The movement said “Yes” to a policy that hadn’t even been negotiated yet, in other words before we knew what we were saying yes to. Leading up to the policy’s announcement in July, no demands were made of the Government other than some sort of carbon price, and no criticism of the inadequacy and fundamental flaws in Labor’s known policy positions – even though by all accounts, in the MPCCC talks Labor was arguing for the weakest possible outcome. After July, the movement uncritically supported the policy as drafted and campaigned for it to be legislated, with no mention of its myriad flaws and the obvious gaping contrast with the action urgently required to address the climate crisis.

“Say Yes” TV ads were so uncritical they could easily have been perceived as Government ads:

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