Saturday, March 6, 2010

Late last month, Benjamin D Santer, one of the scientists under attack in the "Climategate" affair, wrote a thorough and reasoned rebuttal as a guest contributor on In the comments responding to his article, many were very supportive as would be expected. What was a bit surprising was that many contributors observed that climate scientists were losing the debate and climate science was losing credibility just because of this kind of reasoned argument.

For example, FishOutOfWater wrote:

"You need to read George Lakoff’s work on framing a political argument. You should never repeat a derogatory allegation in an effort to refute it. Repeating the allegation reinforces it.

"The attacks on climate scientists are political, not scientific. Attempts to respond to political attacks by a scientific approach will not be successful in the public arena. The public in the U.K. is losing trust in climate scientists because scientists are responding in a way that reinforces the negative framing of the attackers."

Framing the argument. Scientists are reluctant to appear to be making their case with anything other than pure reason but Dr Santer is naive if he thinks that is even what he is doing. The whole passage is written as a response to an article, a story by Fred Pierce in the Guardian. He has accepted and implicitly reinforced the framing of the argument presented there. He has already lost.

George Lakoff has studied the framing of debates for many years and strongly advocates the analysis of basic 'stories' as a way to understand how people understand and accept persuasive arguments. For example he interprets the deep split between liberal and conservative values in Amercian politics as based on two distinct family metaphors: conservatives believe in a strict authoritarian father figure who imposes tough discipline to raise responsible offspring who, once they have proven themselves, deserve to be free of interference to lead their lives as they wish. Liberals prefer a more conciliatory and cooperative view of parenting with all involved in decision making and all continuing to be responsible for each other throughout life. The problem for liberals, as Lakoff describes it, is that they attempt to persuade with reason (listening, Dr Santer?) while conservatives, beginning in the era of Ronald Regan, have consciously taken control of the discourse and succeeded in having the p0litical debate framed in their terms. Barack Obama won by refusing to be drawn into the conservative frame, instead creating his own framing vision. Lakoff says he has struggled since his election because he has fallen back into the of liberal habit of arguing by reason.

Lakoff looks for the powerful framing stories in the primitive human brain, in the cognitive foundations of our metaphors. For example, he wrote with Raphael Nunez a cognitive history of the development of mathematics.

So what is a climate scientist to do? What is the right frame? Mostly, the climate change community, when they have seized control, have framed the issue as apocalyptic: "Mitigate or disaster follows. Adaptation will be needed. An inconvenient truth." Not attractive. Distasteful.

If you've been reading along looking for the BIG BREAKTHROUGH frame, sorry to disappoint. But we had better find one soon or climate change will get the opportunity to make its own case. And it will be persuasive, if inconvenient and maybe apocalyptic.

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