Ambivalence about “messaging”

From correspondence with a reflective person & friend who asked my opinion on how one might use “message framing” to promote public engagement with specific climate-mitigation policies:

A couple of things occur to me; I hope they are not completely unhelpful.

1. I think one has to be cautious about both the external & operational validity of “messaging” & “framing” studies in this area.

The external validity concern goes to the usual problem w/ measuring public opinion on any particularly specific public policy proposal: there’s likely no opinion to measure.

People have a general affective orientation toward climate change. You’ll know you are measuring it if the responses they give to what you are asking them are highly correlated with what they say they “believe” about climate change.

But people know essentially nothing about climate change in particular.  For or against it (as it were), they will say things like “human carbon emissions are expected to kill plants in greenhouses.” Seriously.

Accordingly, if you start asking them specific things about policy, very soon you’ll no longer be measuring the “thing” inside them that is their only true attitude toward climate change.  This is what makes it possible [for some researchers] to say ridiculous things like “70% of Republicans want to regulate carbon emissions!” when only 25% of Republicans say “yes” to the question “are human beings causing climate change.”  What’s being measured with the policy questions is a non-opinion.

In sum, the point is, as soon as you get into specifics about policy, you’ll be very uncertain what you are measuring, & as a result whether you are learning something about how opinion works in the real world.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to do studies like the one you are proposing, only that it’s much easier to do invalid than valid ones.  Likely you are nodding your head saying “yes, yes, I know…”

The “operational validity” point has to do with the translation of externally valid lab studies of how people process information on these issues into real-world communication materials that will effectively make use of that knowledge.

To pick on myself for a change, I’m positive that our framing study on “geoengineering” & open-minded assessment of climate science has “zero” operational validity.

do think it was internally & externally valid: that is, I think the design supported the inference we were drawing about the resutls we were observing in the experiment, and that the experiment was in turn modeling a mechanism of information-processing that matters for climate-science communication outside the lab.

But I don’t think that anything we learned in the study supports any concrete form of “messaging.” For sure it would be ridiculous, e.g., to send our study stimulus to every white hierarchical individualist male & expect climate skepticism to disappear!

There almost certainly is something one can do in the real world that will reproduce the effects that we observed in the lab.  But what that is is something one would have to use empirical methods, conducted in the field & not the lab, to figure out.

Knowing you, you are likely planning to test communication materials that will be actually used in the real-world, and in a way that will give you & others more confidence or less to believe that one or another plausible strategy will work (that’s what valid studies do of course!).

But I feel compelled to say all of this just b/c I know so many people don’t think the way you do — & b/c I am genuinely outraged at how many people who study climate-science communication refuse to admit what I just said, and go around making empirically insupportable pronouncements about “what to do” (here’s what they need to do: get off their lazy asses & do some field research).

2.  I myself have become convinced that “messaging” is not relevant to climate-change science communication.  Or at least that the sort of “messaging” people have in mind when they do framing studies, & then propose extravagant social marketing campaigns based on them, is not.

For “messaging” to work, we have to imagine either one of 2 things to be true.  The first is that there is some piece of information that people are getting “wrong” about climate change & will get right if it is “framed” properly.

But we know that there is zero correlation between people’s positions on climate change & any information relating to it.  Or any information relating to it other than “this is my side’s position, & this theirs.”  And they aren’t wrong at all, sadly, about that information.

The second thing we might imagine, then, is that a “messaging” campaign featuring appropriately selected “messengers” could change people’s assessment of what “their side’s” position is.

I don’t believe it.

I don’t believe it, first, because people aren’t that gullible: they know people are trying to shape that understanding via “messaging” (in part b/c the people doing it are foolish enough to discuss their plans  within earshot of those whose belefs they are trying to “manage” in this way).

I don’t believe it, second, b/c it’s been tried already & flopped big time.

There have been multiple “social marketing campaigns” that say, “see? even Republicans like you believe in climate change & want to do something! Therefore you should feel that way or you’ll be off  the team!”

There has been zero purchase.  Probably b/c people just aren’t gullible enough to believe stuff like that when they live in a world filled with accurate information about what “their side” “believes.”

To make progress, then, you have go into their world & show them something that’s true but obscured by the pollution that pervades our science communication enviornment: that “their side”already is engaging climate change in a way that evinces belief in the science & a resolve to do something.  

That’s the lesson of SE Fla “climate political science …”    I’ve seen that in action.  It really really really does work.  

But it really really really doesn’t satisfy the motivations of those who want to use the climate change controversy to gratify their appetite to condemn those who have different cultural values from theirs as evil and selfish.  So its successes get ignored, its power to reconfigure the political economy of climate change in the U.S. never tapped.

As always, & as you know, this is what I think for now.  One knows nothing unless one knows it provisionally w/ a commitment to revising based on new evidence. You are the sort of person I know full well will produce evidence, on a variety of things, that will enable me to update & move closer to truth.

But for now, I think the truth is that “messaging” (as normally understood) isn’t the answer.

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