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The NRA's "expressive-rope-a-dope-trick"

The NRA gets science communication.

In fact, it understands something that many groups that at least purport to be committed to promoting constructive public engagement with the best available scientific evidence don’t.

Of course, it uses what it understands for a purpose very distinct from promoting such engagement. Indeed, it uses its knowledge about how diverse, ordinary people ordinarily come to know what they know about decision-relevant science in a manner that effectively impedes their convergence on evidence essential to their common welfare.

This makes the NRA a truly evil entity—a kind of syndicalist element subversive of the Constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science

But one can still actually learn something from seeing what it knows and what it does.

The point the NRA gets—and that many other groups that I think have admirable aims don’t, and that makes them tend to do a bad job—is that effective communication of decision-relevant science depends on the quality of the science communication environment.

The science communication environment is the sum total of cues, influences, and process that enable people to recognize as known by science so many more things than they could possibly form a meaningful understanding of for themselves. The number of things that fit into that category is immense—from the contribution that antibiotics make to treating diseases to the validity of modern telecommunications technologies they rely on to transmit data, from the reliability of their vehicle’s GPS systems to the public health benefits of pasteurization of raw milk, from the nontoxicity of pressed wood products manufactured subject to state and federal formaldehyde limits to the nutritional value of food products (massive amounts of them in the US) that are prepared with GM technology.

One of the most vital constituents of the science communication environment is the existence of authoritative networks of certification.

I’m talking, really, just about the role that the utterly ordinary, every-day communities individuals inhabits—the ones that comprise their neighbors, their friends, their trusted coworkers, and myriad professions they rely on, from doctors to auto mechanics to accountants to insurance adjusters.

These communities are flush with reliable, valuable guidance that individuals can use to determine what’s known to science.  Of course, they are also coursing with bogus information too—unsupported and unsupportable claims about the dangers of everyday products (“watch out—cell phone radiation causes brain tumors!”) and absurd claims about health remedies (“ach—don’t do chemotherapy for your breast cancer; yoga will do the trick!”)

People sort out one from the other—again, not because they are experts on the claims that are being made what science knows, but because they are experts at something else: figuring out who actually knows what they are talking about, and can be relied upon to transmit the best available evidence in a reliable and accurate manner.

This is the key to understanding why the transmission of knowledge tends to have a culturally insular quality to it.

The communities of certification people tend to resort to orient themselves appropriately with respect to decision-relevant science are ones made up of people who share basic outlooks on the good life.  People enjoy spending time with people like that and tend to form important projects with them. They can read those people more easily—and distinguish the genuinely knowledgeable from the bullshitters among them more readily—than they can when they are engaging people whose cultural orientation is very different from their own.

We live in a society that tolerates and celebrates cultural diversity (a fact that is actually essential to the progress of scientific discovery), and therefore the number of communities people rely on to perform this certification function is large.

But that’s generally not a problem.  These communities are all in touch with what science knows.  They all generally lead their members to the same conclusions.

Indeed, if there was a community that consistently misled its members on what science knows, the members of that group, given how important decision-relevant science is to their own well-being, wouldn’t last very long.

Nevertheless, every once in a while a risk or other policy-relevant fact becomes engaged in antagonistic cultural meanings that convert positions on it, in effect, into badges of membership in and loyal to opposing cultural groups. 

When that happens, members of diverse cultural groups won’t converge on the best available evidence.  Instead—using the very same normal, and normally reliable cues to ascertain what’s known to science—they will polarize.

The stake that any ordinary person has in protecting the status of, and his or her standing in, one of these groups tends to exceed the significance of the stake that person has, as an individual, in forming scientifically informed personal beliefs. As a result, individuals, in this circumstance, will predictably engage information in a manner more reliably geared to forming beliefs that match the ones the position identified with their group than the ones most supported by the best available scientific evidence.  

Indeed, in these circumstances, individuals endowed with the capacities and dispositions most strongly associated with science comprehension will use these abilities in an opportunistic fashion to serve the goal have to conform the evidence the encounter or actively seek out to the position that is predominant in their cultural group.

These antagonistic meanings can be likened to a form of pollution in the science communication environment.  Their existence disables the faculties that ordinary members of the public use to recognize what science knows. 

That’s what the NRA knows.  That’s the insight into the science of science communication that it ruthlessly exploits—not to promote convergence on the best available evidence but to cultivate a state of persistent, knowledge-disabling antagonism.

The NRA is in the business of science miscommunication.  And its most potent weapon is not the dissemination of studies that purport to show that crime rates go down when people are allowed to carry concealed handguns. 

It’s the steady stream of pollution that it emits into the science communication environment through actions calculated to sustain and invigorate the culturally antagonistic meanings that surround guns in American society.

Really, the NRA is an ingenious science communication environment polluter.

It’s most creative, successful, and insidious technique involves what I will call the “expressive-rope-a-dope” maneuver.

This trick involves proposing a law that in fact has zero behavioral consequence but that is bristling with cultural meanings that one can expect to antagonize another cultural groups.  The effect is achieved, though, not by antagonizing the other group (I suppose the NRA or some other group using this tactic might take pleasure in that) but by provoking the opposing group into denouncing the law in terms that are similarly suffused with culturally assaultive language.

The result of the violent collision of these meanings is a mushroom cloud of toxic, culturally partisan recrimination that blankets the public in the radiation of identity threat.  Whatever science content is being transmitted by anyone’s messages is drowned out but the much clearer, much more intense, much more consequential signal that the positions at stake here are ones that are symbols of membership your group; deviate from that position at your peril!

Consider two examples of the NRA using this trick.

The first involved its campaign to push for adoption of “stand your ground” self-defense laws.  These laws state that a person needn’t retreat before using deadly force to repel a threat of death or great bodily harm.

From the beginning, the enactment of these laws has drawn high profile, incensed denunciations of “wild west,” “shoot first,” “vigilante justice”—along with completely untenable, absurd claims about how this “sharp turn in American law” increased homicide rates.

The simple truth is that these laws were not a departure, radical or otherwise, from existing law. The right to “stand one’s ground” had been the majority rule in the U.S. for over a century, and was already on the books in most of the states that adopted them!

The absurdity of media reports blaming “relaxation” of self-defense standards for increased homicides was comically inflated by the incompetence of publicity-hungry scholars pedaling econometric models purporting to quantify how much “reducing the legal price” for homicide in states that never changed their law increased the “return” on resorting to deadly violence!

The aim of getting states to enact them wasn’t to create a legal safe haven for individuals who forgo a physical one in lieu of blowing away a deadly attacker—a scenario that one is hard-pressed to find instances of except in lawschool hypotheticals.

Rather, as I’ve discussed previously, the effort was a calculated strategy to reactivate the focus of a long dormant, largely sectional conflict between proponents of opposing cultural styles—one stressing values such as individual honor and self-reliance and the other the democratic ideal of reasoned, nonviolent resolution of conflict and the duty of universal concern, on the other—who saw the contest over enactment of these laws as symbolic contest between their competing visions.

Mission accomplished for the NRA, which has parleyed the recurring attacks on “stand your ground laws”—the most recent in connection with the Trayvon Martin case, in which that law played no role in the defense theory—into a sense of indignation and defiant pride on the part of those who recognize in the tone and idiom of the critiques contempt for their identities.   

The second involves legislation now pending in Missouri that would make it a crime for federal agents to enforce federal gun legislation in the state. The NRA is not playing an open role in backing the legislation, but it frequently orchestrates symbolic legislation of this sort behind the scences. Predictably, the law has provoked a ear-splitting clang of alarm bells from NRA critics in the national media warning that the legislation, if passed, will become a model for “nullification” of federal gun laws across the Nation. 

They should save their breath.  Such laws are a dead letter under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  There is zero likelihood that any state prosecutor would even try to enforce one, much less that a federal court (to which any such prosecution would be subject to “removal” or transfer under federal law) would uphold its constitutionality.

But of course, the contrived panic is music to the NRA’s ears.  It supplies them with even more vivid and dramatic materials with which to feed the sense of cultural encirclement that drive those whose identities are promiscously assaulted by gun-control advocates to donate money to the organization. 

The biggest threat to the NRA isn’t gun legislation. It is apathy.

Gun ownership is the strongest predictor (not surprisingly) of resistance to gun control legislation.  Over time, the percentage of Americans owning guns as declined.

Halting that trend, the NRA recognizes, depends on sustaining the vitality of the cultural meanings that have always made guns so popular with a large segment of the American public.

The surest way to do that is to manufacture dramatic instances of expressive conflict over guns, thereby reinvigorating opposition to gun control as a symbol of cultural identity and bombarding the communities in which that cultural style is prevalent with the signal that having a strong position against regulation of guns continues to be something that those whom they interact in their daily lives will use to judge their character.

But there is in fact a way effectively to oppose this strategy.

The expressive-rope-a-dope maneuver requires a dope—a loud, aggressive, ill-informed opposition that doesn’t get that the laws its attacking are purely expressive, or that the contribution those laws make to maintaining the gun as a symbol of identity depends on attacking them in culturally assaultive way.

Don't do that. Don't take the bait. Don't give the NRA what it wants by pretending symbolic gestures have real and dire consequences and then making opposition to them the occassion for amplifying the signal of cultural hostility that fills otherwise ordinary citizens with resentment and fury.

There’s no meaningful political theater if only half the cast shows up.

Indeed, this is something that lots of groups that are committed to promoting constructive engagement with decision-relevant science could benefit from learning.  The NRA isn't the only group that knows how to rope dopes.

This assumes, of course, that the groups getting roped really want to protect the quality of the science communication environment from culturally partisan meanings.

Some of them likely value the chance to engage risk issues in a manner that fills the science communication environment with culturally partisan meanings.

If so, then they aren't being dopes when they snap at the bait and make their own contribution to the toxic fog of cultural recrimination surrounding the American gun question or other issues that feature persistent polarization over decision-relevant science.

In that case, they are being tapeworms of cognitive illiberalism, just like the NRA.


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Reader Comments (14)

I wasn't aware that the NRA was purporting to be a scientific organisation, communicating science? I thought they were always openly a political lobby group? Was I wrong?

September 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


I don't suppose they would characterize themselves that way.

They wouldn't likely characterize themselves as a science communication environment polluter either, but that is how I see them & meant to characterize them.

Certainly, though, too, as an advaocy group, the NRA is involved in disseminating empirical information favorable to their position -- and blocking the funding of studies that they feel might disclose facts contrary to their position

September 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Many lobby groups are.

I suppose the NRA are as good an example as any. And I don't expect they'd be averse to the publicity. Controversy of any sort raises passions.

But my immediate reaction on reading the article was that 'liberal academic slams NRA for polluting science environment with cultural meanings' pushes quite a few 'culture war' buttons too. Nicely ironic, I thought. :-)

More seriously, however, I was wondering if there isn't a division in culture between the scientific and non-scientific spheres. Not everything in life is treated as scientific, or is expected to meet its exacting standards. Science journalism, yes. Science classes in schools, yes. Technology and engineering, yes. Political controversies where both sides claim the mantle of science, citing scientific papers and reports and principles, yes definitely. But there's a lot of stuff that doesn't fall into that class - movies, music, plays, paintings, politics, sports, celebrity gossip, religion, ... Nobody expects scientific rigour, and they generally don't get it, either.

As a science geek, I do sometimes think injecting a little scientific pedantry into the latest conversation on, for example, action movie physics to be both interesting and appropriate. (Not all my friends agree - but what do they know? :-) ) Culture can surely only be improved with a bit of science. But even I don't expect it of other people, not all the time.

However, you're probably right. The NRA are not particularly scientific, and they hit all the partisan cultural buttons in their advertising campaigns to drum up active political support for their issue. For those people who hate the NRA, it's surely a good example to illustrate the evils of cultural toxins. I suppose that's what you mean by tailoring the message to appeal to the cultural preconceptions of one's target audience? You're talking here to the anti-gun crowd? I'll be interested to see if it works.

September 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


Sure, yes, if someone tuned in & saw me unloading on the NRA they could typecast me that way.

But I've unloaded on the pro-gun side for this same sort of behavior; indeed, they are the "dopes" here. And they aren't the only ones (and this isn't the only issue where "roping" is beign effectively deployed)

September 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Dan - your work and this particular post remind me of the “Overton window” – “theory that describes as a narrow ‘window’ the range of ideas the public will accept”. Probably one of many such concepts familiar to your academically trained readers but new to me in last couple years working with conservation non-profit. We talk in some of our brain storming sessions about trying to educate the public and promote our cause not just by working within the Overton window but trying to move the window itself to try and accomplish some of our objectives.
Unfortunately the NRA and their ilk seem to be better at this than more progressive organizations. And some climate change deniers better than some scientific communicators.
Thanks also for reference to “The Righteous Mind” which I read over summer.

September 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterColin

@Colin-- I don't know that much about the overton window, except that I sometimes hear people describe it as a form of manipulation (I know Glen Beck wrote a novel by that title).

I did write a paper once, though, that described various psychological mechanisms through which modest policy shifts initiate changes in norms and subsequent bigger policy shifts etc. A lot of time this is an accicent -- and a huge disaster! Like drug laws.

September 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

"This makes the NRA a truly evil entity—a kind of syndicalist element subversive of the Constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science."


Here's another explanation:

( number of times I hear about guns / number of times I hear about guns AND horrible violence )

Gun control advocates run the numbers and get something close to 1. Gun control opponents (ie, those who use guns recreationally) see a number very close to 0.

There are some good faith arguments you could make to bridge this gap, but the NRA isn't deviously brilliant at advocacy, it just kind of sucks at it.

Never attribute to evil genius what you could just attribute to stupidity.

September 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThomas B

The NRA is interesting. More interesting is to consider your 3rd, 6th and 7th paragraphs which is a starting good point. Your 4th paragraph misses the point, and sucks to boot. You end up looking like the liberal dope you take to task at the end of your post.

One concept I find missing in the discussion from those of the prototypical liberal position (apparently dmk38 ;) ) is the equability of the NRA and ACLU. The groups use the same tactics, and appeals. They target different cultural groups. Both use science or culture-speak, as not only a method to keep their base active, but also go to court as well. Though you may have to wonder how either of them could be considered friends of the court with the constant battle they engage against laws or findings they dislike.

Just as there are those who believe in civil liberties, there are those who believe in the right to bear arms. I hear that some persons even dare to believe in a supreme creator. Go figure.

The right to bear arms and other civil liberties is definitely a cultural war, and more important, a cultural expression. I live in South Carolina, and I know many respectable, educated, and for the area, liberal persons who consider the right to bear arms in the same light as other rights such as to a fair trial. In other words Democrats and Republicans in this area support the right to bear arms. Many were part of the civil rights movement. Many were probably racists. I know some who were.

So Dan, I fear you miss the real point. It is not about the science for the NRA, it is about the law. And as good lawyers are wont to do, if you can win in the press before the battle in court, if nothing else, you are more likely to have a war kitty for continuance of the suit.

One item you may not be aware of, the NRA is good at setting up dopes on the international level. In particular the small fire arm mandate of the United Nations and the way the NRA played Hillary and the UN against the right to bear arms. A classic pre-emptive misdirection and cultural airstrike. A good smart play to their constituents and all it cost was some ink and a couple of air line tickets to wave the flag. If you are not familiar with the way it played in the South or West, you missed a good one.

September 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman


The laws I'm discussing are symbolic. They do not protect anyone's rights. But they do rile people up; that is their aim. I'm sure some of the opposing groups appreciate the chance to counter-rile their members.

Do you agree such activity is worthy of condemnation?

If so, then I think the only question about paragraph 4 is whether I'm right to see the NRA engaging in it, no?

September 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Do you agree such activity is worthy of condemnation?

As typical in a poisonous atmosphere, the finger pointing game and rousing the troops tends to supersede civility. From an objective frame, I think one needs neither condemn nor condone. Unless, one also condemns or condones the other side. The problem I see, is that one can claim the laws are symbolic and lose sight of that the fight is over a right, not a law.

As stated, consider the UN mandate to make the ownership of small firearms illegal. The NRA is engaged in advocacy. Though I am sure they have several excellent lawyers, they are advocates. I cannot blame them anymore or less than those who oppose the right to bear arms. I understand the nature of the advocacy.

Let me pose this to you: Would it pay for NRA to engage in such advocacy if they did not have a target (opposition)? My opinion is that it would not.

September 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman


I'm not sure if you've understood the question Dan is asking.

Dan believes that we ought to live in a liberal republic of science where policies are decided by civilised, rational, and honest debate of the scientific data. We instead live in a society of politicians, political parties, advertisers, vested interests, pressure groups and lobbies, who don't. Rather than jointly seeking truth with their opponents, they instead engage in a war of cultural memes to try to win at any cost.

Dan's question is, do you agree that this is bad? A secondary question might then be, do you think this makes the parties who do so individually evil, or are they forced into it by the political system we have and it is only a collective evil, like the tragedy of the commons, or is it somehow not evil at all? Dan seems to think this makes them obviously individually evil, (although I don't see the logic myself).

We seem to have got distracted because instead of asking this question in the abstract, Dan instead picked the liberal shibboleth of the NRA as his illustrative example, thus polluting the debate with strong partisan cultural meanings. Those who support gun rights are not going to be happy about being asked to describe the NRA as 'evil', and are therefore going to try to find things wrong with his thesis.

I haven't made my mind up yet whether this was an oversight, a clever bit of ironic humour, an attempt to frame the argument to appeal to anti-gun liberals, or a test to see if pro-gun conservatives would be able to overcome their cultural antagonism to his framing and support the abstract logic, or would instead succumb to partisan motivated reasoning.

I get the impression that your objection is that by picking out the NRA specifically, it gives the false impression that this applies only to the NRA, rather than to the entire political system. You're saying that you could only support a politically neutral way of expressing it - e.g. to condemn both NRA and ACLU together. That to use an argument about the evils of partisanship to construct a partisan attack on only one side is precisely the sort of evil we just argued we shouldn't be using. Agreed. But as a result, you're not quite clear on whether you do consider it an evil.

If you was asked the question in the abstract, would you agree?
(As I said earlier, I don't, but everyone should be able to give their own opinion.)

September 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV, I understand the question, but think it is more complex. Granted that if I only considered the liberal republic of science, I would say both are evil. But that is an ideal form. What is missing as I tried to develop is the concept of rights. Rights and our interaction, culture,and approach to rights, does not fit too well with LRoS, IMO. There are less than ideal situations that we do accept because of the weighting given to rights. In that context, what the ACLU, and the NRA do is an acceptable endevour. The cultural or emotional context of human discourse is as valid as a rational discourse. Where, when, and by who matters for both rational and emotive discourse.

So is it bad? I do think it matters not only who, where, and when, but includes why. Such as why is the UN trying to enforce what they see as a scientific liberal policy that is aimed at an indivdiual nation's rights. This fight between rational objective observance and why, has been a part of our culture and our law for good bit of time. In fact, the supremcy of a right over a objective pusuit is recognized.

Perhaps, that is why Dan chose it. I note on his C.V. his course on the Supremem court.

September 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

Here's one for you.

What if the Sarah Brady's of the country stop attacking law-abiding gun onwers? How evil would the NRA be then? All they do is respond to attacks.

December 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Lewis

This makes the NRA a truly evil entity—a kind of syndicalist element subversive of the Constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science.

The problem is the biases that occurred in the studies. Seriously, anti gun rights advocates spent federal money "proving" that gun owning homes are more dangerous to their occupants. When in fact, given that between 8/10 to 9/10US gun murder victims are criminals, and that at most 5% of gun suicides represent an elevated rate (ie if your remove guns between 100% to 95% of those gun suicides by gun owners or family members would occur by other means) , and when control for those factors it turns out gun owning homes of non criminals are SAFER than non gun owning homes. And the researchers refusing to even entertain defensive gun use that did not include firing the gun, when we know over 99% of DGU don't involve firing. That is the reason why the studies were defunded.

Secondly are planned parenthood and the ACLU "truly evil entity(ies) and "kind of syndicalist element(s) subversive of the Constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science. "???

They both opposed federal funding of certain research affecting rights. Planned parenthood has vigorously opposed fund on "gendercide" in the US -- even while women rights groups around the world are concerned about abortions occurring simply because a fetus is female. Planned parenthood opposes federal funding (or even release of anonymzed data for researchers).

The ACLU strongly opposes using crime prevention based on science on the fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth amendments. Persons on bail commit violent crimes at 14x the rate of the general population. Also shall we have federally funded studies on the health costs of the fourth or fifth amendment, given they do release otherwise convictable criminals to cause additional crime?

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKC

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