Sunday, October 14, 2007

Al Gore Wins the Nobel Peace Prize for Framing

 
I'm a fan of Al Gore and I would have voted for him if I'd have been an American citizen in 2000. I'd vote for him today if I could. I think he's done a fabulous job of bringing the issue of global warming to the attention of the public. (I also like his latest book The Assault on Reason).

Gore's advantage is that he is not a scientist. That means that he can spin the global warming debate in a way that advances his cause. There is much that is true in An Inconvenient Truth and that's why I support him, but in order to frame the presentation in a way that resonates with the general public he has to drop some of the nuances and present the science in a way that makes it sound far more solid than it actually is.

This is why Gore will not be receiving a Nobel Prize in Science. There are very few scientists who would be comfortable making the same presentation that Gore makes in his public talks. Most scientists know that some of the "facts" are only half-truths and some of them are still disputed within the scientific community. They believe that scientific integrity requires them to be less dogmatic and more circumspect when they talk about science.

Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet would like all scientists to adopt the Al Gore method of presenting science in situations where they advocate changes in public policy. It ain't gonna fly for the reason that I just mentioned. What's so astonishing is that Nisbet and Mooney just don't seem to get it. They don't understand why scientists are leery about framing. It's because we can't do what Gore does without feeling a little guilty over being less than honest about the science.

This does not mean that we don't like Al Gore and other politicians who have learned to appreciate science and base their policy on good scientific foundations. It simply means that pushing science and pushing policy are two different things and the tactics used in the political arena do not belong in science. Some scientists may be able to jump back and forth from one arena to the other but its' going to be very difficult to maintain a scientific reputation under such circumstances. What Nisbet and Mooney are suggesting requires that scientists abandon true science in favor of political science.

I suspect they have a hard time seeing the problem because they're not scientists.


18 comments :

  1. Funnily enough, Matt Nisbett apparently isn't much of a fan of Gore's approach:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/10/50_of_americans_have_an_unfavo.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/10/nobelist_gore_contributes_to_t.php

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  2. When I heard Gore's GW talk this spring what really impressed me what that he had a depth of understanding of the topic. I've heard lots of activists talk about environmental problems. Yes, Gore was speaking as an activist, not a scientist. But he spoke with the sort of casual familiarity that you get when an experienced scientist talks about his or her own work. Gore really impressed me in 1988 and seen him speak live in both the 1996 and 2000 campaigns (he's always better live)...but this was Gore at his most impressive.

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  3. And now Nisbett's objections to Gore seem to be that he "framed" too well; that he wasn't tentative enough, like a scientist would be.

    "When you move in that direction, where the science is still uncertain, you open yourself up to the counter argument that this is just simply alarmism." (From here.)

    Go figure.

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  4. It sounds like you're actually approving of his blatant exaggerations and half-truths. Why must one be a scientist in order to feel guilty about being less-than-honest?

    Don't get me wrong, I think that Al Gore is working for a good cause, but because of his exaggerations, he has made many people that I know wary of all of science, or has at least reinforced their pre-existing belief that science likes to overstate its case. Most people don't distinguish between science and its advocates.

    I think Gore could have done much more good by actually being honest.

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  5. Remember, when Nisbet does it, it's "framing." When an opponent does it, it's "spinning." Your usage is inconsistent with this hard and fast rule set down by Nisbet.

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  6. You're not serious with this post... really?

    Just what are you suggesting when you say "in order to frame the presentation in a way that resonates with the general public he has to drop some of the nuances and present the science in a way that makes it sound far more solid than it actually is."

    ... sound more solid than it actually is?

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  7. An honest question: how does one explain technical stuff to the public without leaving off some of the nuances?

    Seriously?

    I mean, come on. When I teach freshman calculus, I don't talk about the derivative in terms of maps between tangent bundles of a manifold!

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  8. I wonder how many of the scientists here making statements about global warmng know enough about the subject to know what they are talking about.

    Biochemists, mathematicans etc. making grand statements about meterology does not give me any form of confidence.

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  9. I should have added in my comment above that scientists making grand statements about fields outside of their specialty are making political statements. They have to omit the nuances because they do not know enough to leave them in just like some politicians.

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  10. Reports of Gore's exaggerations are greatly exaggerated. There’s been lots of criticism from banana republicans and professional Gore critics, who are practically a culture in the United States, but almost all of it has been noise at best (e.g. his electric bill) and frequently just utter bullshit. The latest round of anti-Gore press is revealing as to who’s exaggerating. He surveys a lot of material in An Inconvenient Truth, it would be remarkable if he didn’t get some things wrong, and yet reviews I’ve read by climatologist who’ve seen the film praised Gore for getting everything basically right. The economics of the situation is that one Al Gore is worth 1000 of his detractors.

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  11. I agree that there has been a lot of crazy stupid lies and red herrings tossed around about Gore, but I really don't think it's debatable that he made several false claims in his movie. The 9 errors as listed by the British judge cover the ones I noticed and more.

    I admire anyone willing to take a stand for science. I just disagree with Larry's opinion that lying while doing it can be a good thing. Simplification is important, but simplification can be done without the exaggeration. Even calling all of Gore's errors "exaggerations" is probably being overly gentle.

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  12. "Let's create some buzz." said Matt to Chris.

    "Buzz, yes some buzz," chimed in Sheril.

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  13. Dum da dum dum. Sorry Larry but the creek is rising. The physical models are quite good; energy is being added to our planet at a well estimated rate. There is no such thing as an argument that will stop ice melting when energy is added. Smarting off about Gore or repeating your usual anti-"""framing""" rant will not help. Nine alleged overstatements according to a British Judge who knows less that Gore will have no effect on the melting ice. Ditto for claiming it's just politics.

    Kudos to Gore and to the Nobel Committee!

    Pete Dunkelberg

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  14. So energy is being added to our planet the ice is melting as a consequence. Of course, we are using more and more energy, the efficiency is not 100%, more and more heat is dissipated, the ice is melting and we are doomed. But how is it related to Gore? Here is my solution to the CO2 problem, inspired by recent science-news. We replace all grilled cow-protein from our diet with low cooked bean- humus-proteins, and voila, the effect of CO2 is contrabalanced! :)

    Iant

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  15. Pete Dunkelberg,

    Dum da dum dum. Sorry Larry but the creek is rising. The physical models are quite good; energy is being added to our planet at a well estimated rate. There is no such thing as an argument that will stop ice melting when energy is added. Smarting off about Gore or repeating your usual anti-"""framing""" rant will not help. Nine alleged overstatements according to a British Judge who knows less that Gore will have no effect on the melting ice. Ditto for claiming it's just politics.

    Pete, you have an annoying habit of interpreting things according to your bias and not according to what people actually say.

    What ever gave you the idea that I oppose the fact of global warming?

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  16. ollie asks,

    An honest question: how does one explain technical stuff to the public without leaving off some of the nuances?

    I don't know. I face the same problem as you when I teach undergraduate class and write introductory textbooks. What I usually say is something like, "The actual data for such-and-such suggests that the explanation is complex but here's a simplified version that will help you to think about it for now."

    When it comes to complex ideas like evolution or global warming I usually say, "When you step back and look at the big picture the evidence is overwhelming but many of the little pieces are still controversial. Don't get hung up on trivia. You don't refute an idea like evolution by finding some little piece of evidence that may not be as perfect as we once thought."

    When I'm presenting a concept in class I often say that such-and-such explanation accounts for almost all the data but there are some interesting exceptions that you might learn about in future classes.

    When I'm discussing something controversial, instead on just giving one side I try to give the other side as well. Then I tell the students what my personal opinion is and how strongly I hold it. Most students don't like this. They prefer classes where the lecturer just tells them one side and that's what is going to be on the exam.

    I'm not sure this approach will work with the general public.

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  17. anonymous says,

    He surveys a lot of material in An Inconvenient Truth, it would be remarkable if he didn’t get some things wrong, and yet reviews I’ve read by climatologist who’ve seen the film praised Gore for getting everything basically right. The economics of the situation is that one Al Gore is worth 1000 of his detractors.

    That's pretty much my opinion as well. I suspect that most scientists would have been uneasy making some of the statements that Gore makes but they're pleased that the big picture is accurate and that the public pays attention.

    The framing issue comes into play when you expect a professional climatologist to give a presentation like Gore's. I don't think a scientist can do it.

    I feel the same way about Gore's book and movie as I do about Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion." There are things in Dawkins' book that he shouldn't have said but the main idea is correct.

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  18. I've noticed some global warming sympathy at Sandwalk. Since many of Sandwalk's fans are naturalists, and I think that means they are probably also atheists, and probably believe there is no meaning and purpose to life on Earth, why would there be any concern for the future of the planet. Especially since any scientifically informed skeptics also know that the Earth and Universe are unavoidably headed for 'natural' self-destruction, even if a magic wand could eradicate so-called man-made global warming. What would cause any naturalist/atheist to care about global warming and its alleged consequences?

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