1. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    consensus vs target.
    In the recently published paper Improving Climate Change Acceptance Among U.S. Conservatives Through Value-Based Message Targeting, (Dixon, et al, 2017) the authors describe the problem of communicating established science regarding climate change to a conservative demographic.

    Conservatives have been consistently resistant to accepting that recent climate change is man made. While individual reasons for this can vary greatly, it seem that there might be a degree of motivated reasoning. Conservative are opposed to market regulation and see the regulation of carbon emissions as a vast government overreach and a possible conspiracy. Hence the need for such regulation is subject to more scrutiny than other topics.

    Ignoring the broader topic here for now, the simple question is "what works"? What approach best convinces conservatives to accept the science? And can we use the information about this to formulate approaches for other polarized groups like 9/11 Truthers, Chemtrail believers, or even Flat Earth believers?

    Dixon focusses on two approaches: Consensus Messaging and Message Targeting. Consensus messaging is simply the idea of informing people that there's a scientific consensus on the subject. With climate science this generally looks like the 97% thing, for example:


    This can work with many people, however it does not work with people who are already skeptical of science and scientists. It's easily rebutted with counterarguments such as "so what", "most scientists are paid by the government", or "I'm with the 3%!"

    That's not to say consensus messaging is not a useful tool. Most people accept that the opinion of the vast majority of a group of experts on a topic is frequently the opinion most likely to correct, so for many audiences communicating the consensus is very useful. But for the deeply polarized they already know they are against mainstream science. Showing them what they are against will often just harden their resolve based on the scale of the task, or it may have them doubt the improbable seeming (to them) one-sidedness of the consensus.

    I've had experience with consensus messaging myself, being a co-author (in a fairly minor role) on the paper Quantifying expert consensus against the existence of a secret, large-scale atmospheric spraying program (Shearer, et al, 2016). This was basically a study to measure the consensus opinions of experts regarding the evidence presented in favor of the "chemtrail" conspiracy theory. We demonstrated a similar 97% consensus that nothing was going on. This was very useful in communicating the actual science to the media and the general public, but was rejected by the majority of the more deeply committed chemtrail believers for similar reasons to those listed earlier. It's quite likely that for many it strengthened their belief in a vast conspiracy, of which I inevitably would be a part of.

    This doubling down on a belief in the face of conflicting information is known as the
    "blowback" or "boomerang" effect. Dixon describes some research into this with regard to climate science:

    So if communicating the consensus does not work for a particular group, what else should we do? Is it possible to communicate in specific, more effective manner targeting that group? Research suggests yes:

    Now I'm going to skip ahead in the paper here, as this might already be starting to sound suspicious to our intended audience. "Message targeting" sounds a bit like public relations, and our free-market (or conspiratorial) audience sees government PR as propaganda, or even some kind of brainwashing. One has to be aware of the risk of an even greater form of blowback if the audience thinks of what you are doing as "messing with their mind". Dixon says:

    It's something of a paradox. I do a lot of "debunking", where I find actual problems with things people claim as evidence, and then I communicate those problems to people using that evidence. To do this well I'm constantly thinking of the best approach. While I used consensus messaging, it's much more common for me to think about how I tailor my message to a particular individual. How do I best convince someone?

    Now since I believe what I am communicating to be correct, I do not see what I am doing as anything other than effective communication. If I tailor my message to reach a particular group or individual, then that's simply the best way of communicating something true to that group of individual. But to the person who has not yet realized that what I am saying is correct, this targeting just looks like propaganda.

    I often relate the tale of talking to a young woman at a chemtrail rally. She seemed quite friendly and reasonable. I'd asked her what her best evidence was that chemtrails were real, and she told me that it was the fact that grids of trails were seen in the sky where none were before. I started to offer a very reasonable explanation involving how there was much more regional traffic now, so hubs like Los Angeles (where we were at the time) used to be mostly inbound and outbound traffic, but now it gets more flyover traffic from shorter routes with regional jets, and hence contrails appear where there were none before.

    I explained this calmly and in a friendly manner (as I do naturally), and without really thinking about it I pitched the technical level to what I thought she would quickly comprehend, and I used the local situation as example because I thought she could relate to it. I was essentially "targeting" my message because I wanted the truth to get across. She listened, and started to nod to my points. I added some slightly more technical information, possibly about reduced vertical separation minimums for planes, and she started to nod, then caught herself and said: "whoa! You're gaslighting me".

    I was taken aback. "Gaslighting" refers to a way of covertly psychologically manipulating someone to make them doubt themselves - and specifically to doubt their own sanity. She'd basically seemed fine, and then suddenly reached a point where she felt herself being convinced by my reasonable local facts, which to her meant that I was using some kind of mind control technique, and hence she could simply ignore everything I'd just said, and immediately stop listening to me. Which is what she did.

    So imagine if someone knew in advance that you had tailored your message to their knowledge base, their ideology, even their personality. From your perspective it's effective communication of facts. For them it's gaslighting.

    So what is the message targeting for communicating climate change science to ardent believers in the free market? It's not really complicated, you just emphasise the role of the free market as a solution to the problem, rather than the cause. In a section unfortunately titled "Manipulation", Dixon explains the "message targeting" what was pitted against the "97%" message (and other approaches, like focussing on religion)

    Here, as well as presenting the Free Market as "part of the solution", they also give an example of how deregulation (i.e. a more-free market) led naturally to more environmentally friendly energy production. This is shaping the message by focussing on aspects that might not matter to a general audience, but are of key importance to the specific group being targeted.

    When I talk to conspiracy theorists I tend to engage in similar strategies (usually without really giving them much thought). What is important to conspiracy theorists is questioning of authority. So I emphasis that I think it's great that people question authority, and even that they question things like the official story surrounding 9/11, or (at an extreme) the official shape of the Earth. I emphasis that questioning is good, and that by questioning we can arrive at the truth of the matter. I then use that as a foundation to try to get them to question well, and more critically evaluate the offered answers.

    For those believers who are involved in promoting a particular conspiracy theory - on social media and sometimes out on the streets - I try to steer them towards the idea that they can use their energy and experience for real problems. Then by real problems I explain what I mean - political corruption and graft, America's endless wars, the three million Americans in prison, worldwide poverty, education, healthcare, etc. (Here obviously I have to target a little based on what they consider to be an actual problem, which might different to what I think).

    So really I'm doing the same thing as in the climate vs. free market example, except here it's facts vs. suspicion. Where they emphasis the positive role of the free markets, I emphasis the positive role of questioning authority. Where they give examples of how the free market actually leads to renewable energy, I give examples of how opposition to conspiracies can be focussed on very real issues.

    The work I do is grounded in truth, that is the only way I can do it. I oppose false conspiracies because they obscure the real conspiracies; the banally evil collusions surrounding money and power. I want to get my facts across as effectively as possible. I want to change minds. So yes, I target my message, I tailor it to specific groups and individuals based on what I know about them, what they know, what they believe, how they think. But I do it with honesty, and I hope that anyone that I might tailor a message for in the future will understand that I do it not to deceive, and certainly not to gaslight, but simply to convey the truth more effectively.
    Last edited: Jun 28, 2017
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  2. deirdre

    deirdre Moderator Staff Member

    yup. I'm not your intended audience and it already sounds suspicious to me. :)

    When being seen in public discussing what is wrong with other people, it's probably best to avoid obvious bunk statements like this. Or is the definition of 'most' different wherever Dixon, et al, reside?

    or maybe you just pushed it too hard/far and she found that suspicious. "Methinks thou protests too much" syndrome.
  3. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Yeah that's an odd mistake to make. The real comparisons from the poll were:

    So they took the wrong number, but also paraphrased a bit. And the actual report is a bit confusing (39% of conservatives, but 57% of conservative Republicans. The chart from the poll makes it a bit clearer

    So yes, if you are going to tailor your message, you'd probably want to use the right statistics.
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  4. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    I don't think so in that case. But it does raise a related point - the fact that someone actually tries hard to explain to someone why they are incorrect is often taken as an indication that they are right. Why else would someone waste their time debunking something that they thought was bunk (goes the argument).

    I'm constantly be accused of things like replying too quickly, or spending too much time and money on debunking, or simply of suspiciously being aware of something I should naturally be ignoring if it wasn't true.

    So the fact that I wrote a long post about how much thought I put into how best to change people's minds will likely be taken as some as an indication that all their suspicions have been justified.
  5. Clouds Givemethewillies

    Clouds Givemethewillies Active Member

    The vast majority of scientists don't have the knowledge, or have even looked into the issue enough, to express an opinion on climate change. All they can really do is say "it looks kosher".
  6. tadaaa

    tadaaa Active Member

    the following (short) article is interesting in the context of this thread


    it examines the arguments that led a professional "conservative" climate sceptic to change his mind

    and the killer point was the economic and risk management element - not necessarily the science

    "The first blow in that argument was offered by my friend Jonathan Adler, who was at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Jon wrote a very interesting paper in which he argued that even if the skeptic narratives are correct, the old narratives I was telling wasn’t an argument against climate action. Just because the costs and the benefits are more or less going to be a wash, he said, that doesn’t mean that the losers in climate change are just going to have to suck it up so Exxon and Koch Industries can make a good chunk of money."

    "The final blow against my position, which caused me to crumble, was from a fellow named Bob Litterman, who had been the head of risk management at Goldman Sachs. Bob said, “The climate risks aren’t any different from financial risks I had to deal with at Goldman. We don’t know what’s going to happen in any given year in the market. There’s a distribution of possible outcomes. You have to consider the entire distribution of possible outcomes when you make decisions like this.” After he left my office, I said “there’s nothing but rubble here.”

    and I think the "gaslighting" point is probably very valid too, and worth remembering - people have an inherent distrust of "know it all's"
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2017
  7. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    That's another problem with consensus arguments. They are frequently broadly portrayed as being the consensus of "scientists", which is a term that can apply to a lot of people who know zero about climate science. Geologists and chemists don't really study climate. Computer scientists and social scientist certainly do not.

    But if you zoom in on the graphic in the OP, the 97% does not actually refer to "scientists", it's
    The headline is "scientists", the small print is "climate scientists" and the really small print is "actively publishing climate scientists". Then if you dig behind the figure (and there's a few different 97%s) it's "actively publishing climate scientists who have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change."

    This is essentially tailoring the argument to the general public and the media, who prefer sound bites without confusing modifiers. This opens the consensus argument to some easy counters. You could simply survey all "scientists" (using what ever definition of scientist you like) and get a much smaller percentage. You can also attack the focussed sample size as being "unscientific". Or you could cherry pick the reported survey questions to be things like "can more than half of global warming since 1951 be attributed to human activity?". For most climate "skeptics" though the 97% has simply been attacked long enough that they "know" it's wrong without knowing the details. Similarly of course, most people who think human-caused climate change is a real problem will generally just accept that there's a "scientific consensus" without studying the details.

    This is not a discussion about climate change though. It's about the problems and applicability of the two approaches of consensus messaging vs. targeted messaging.
  8. tadaaa

    tadaaa Active Member

    I have often found it the case that sceptics/contrarians/conspiracy theorists what ever you want to call them are incredibly self important and attention seeking - and maybe subconsciously demand targeted messaging

    and that unless they get very very targeted messaging they are not interested in changing their view

    I am remined of charlie veitch, who only changed is mind re 911 trutherism, when he had 1 to 1 discussions with the actual engineers, architects, police and fire brigade personal who were not only there but closely involved with all areas of the construction of the towers and events of the day - and crucially over an extended period of time.

    I suspect if climate sceptics had that sort of 1 to 1 with say Michael Mann, Gavin Schimdt, Stefan Rahmstorf, Kevin Trenberth et al over a couple of days, talked through how Climate Models are used, then walked through how all the main temperature sets are collected and the data homogenised, shown the earlier papers and predictions they made etc - i.e. subject to real target messaging and attention

    quite a few would change their mind
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  9. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Veitch changed his mind. But if I remember correctly the other three hardened their positions. It would be interesting to follow up on them though.

    I think that approach worked not simply because they were exposed to lots of real people who were experts, but also because the fact that the BBC flew him to America, and all these people politely explained things to him, meant that someone was taking him seriously. Not that they agreed with him but they agreed his questions were worth answering.
  10. tadaaa

    tadaaa Active Member

    yeah, that was my point

    and noted, there were others that did not "get it" and maybe where the victim of the blowback effect. I suspect Vietch actually engaged with the experts, and I also suspect they (the experts) had no skin in the game - in the sense that they were not "debunkers", but just patiently went through Vietch's concerns

    obviously this sort of extreme targeting is not practical in the real world
  11. Dan Wilson

    Dan Wilson Active Member

    I think this is what many popular debunkers most often forget.
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  12. Bill Statler

    Bill Statler Member

    I think one impediment to communication is when experts appear to be speaking outside their area of expertise.

    Taking the climate change example, climate scientists are not (necessarily) experts in economics, public policy, energy, agriculture, sociology, or the umpteen other disciplines related to mitigating climate change. It's quite possible that a random well-read free-market conservative will understand economics a lot better than a random climate scientist.

    So when it appears that climate scientists are issuing pronouncements about how the economy must be restructured, how energy production needs to change, etc., they lose credibility.

    When it comes to message targeting, it's not enough to add a little emphasis on free-market economics. This used to be known as "political cross-dressing", and it does get the attention of your audience (which is good). But it's missing that last step of saying "Hey, we're just climate scientists -- maybe you guys could find someone to help us with the economics part."