Saturday, February 10, 2007

Discussion: Public Relations

This is the sixth post on the presentations made at Beyond Belief 2006.

After Neil Tyson’s presentation, the moderator, Roger Bingham, had the first five presenters (Steven Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, and Neil deGrasse Tyson), at the head table and opened the room to discussion.

The first question came from Mazarin Banaji, Department of Psychology at Harvard. She asked,

Is there something about the scientific agenda that sort of handicaps us in a particular way. In other words, if the Warren Buffett, Bill Gates foundation were to give you the $30 billion that is now only half of their endowment, what would you want to do with it to bring about change in the manner to which you see it appropriate.

After a couple of panelists gave responses, Patricia Churchland (Chair, Philosophy Department, University of California at San Diego) rose from the audience and said,

[Mazarin’s] suggestion is not that you get the scientists to do this PR campaign but that you hire a PR firm and you say, ‘Look, what we want to do is make available to the public the type of story that Neil told, and do it in a way that is persuasive – you guys are the ones who are supposed to be in the business of persuading people, get the sound bites right, get the timing right, hit the right television shows . . . let’s go. . . . Give the job to people who know how to do it. Give it to professionals.

Indeed, this makes sense. If you want a medical breakthrough, you give the job to a skilled medical researcher. If you want to sell a product, you give the job to professional marketers and public relations experts.

However, Banaji asked if there was anything that is handicapping scientists in doing this, and I think the answer is, “Yes.”

That handicap is actually quite easy to express.

No public relations campaign will ever pass muster to be included in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and no peer-reviewed scientific paper will ever pass muster as a public relations campaign.

The public relations experts come to this science board and they present their campaign. Let us say that they have decided to advance the slogan, “Science saves lives.” They then present a storyboard for a 30-second commercial that looks at a few instances where science has saved lives. Let us say that they involve a child whose life was saved by some medical procedure, the scientific prediction of a hurricane’s path, and the engineering that went into a building capable of withstanding an earthquake.

Scientists, insofar as they are scientists, will immediately start to object to the campaign. First, no scientist will ever accept the idea of supporting a conclusion based on a single incident. One child’s life was saved by a medical advance. How do you know? You at least need a control group before you can make a claim like that, and enough individuals in each group to justify any generalization. You don’t look at a specific incidence and draw a general conclusion. That’s bad science. The head of the science PR committee is soon pounding his fist on the table shouting in anger, “We are supposed to be promoting science, and you stand there and give us a paradigm example of bad science!”

Public relations campaigns are, inherently, bad science. It is simply not possible to show enough evidence to scientifically support a conclusion in a sound bite.

Let me give you an example of how public relations works.

Recently, I was watching Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” with a friend. In that movie, Gore has a graph of changes in CO2 concentrations over the past 650,000 years, showing its relationship to temperature over that time and identifying the seven most recent ice ages.

Then, he showed the change to the current levels of CO2 concentrations.

One person that I was with then gasped, “It’s doubled!”

In fact, CO2 concentrations have not doubled – it has gone from a global average of about 280 parts per million (ppm) to 360 ppm, an increase of less than 30 percent. However, Gore decided to use a graph that would give an individual the impression that the increase in CO2 levels have doubled. This happened because the bottom of Gore’s graph did not start at 0 ppm, it started at 200 ppm. There was an 80 ppm difference between the bottom of the graph and the historic global average, and another 80 ppm between the global average and the current concentrations, giving the appearance that CO2 levels had doubled.

Perhaps this was an accident. However, it is quite likely that this chart was presented in this way precisely because it would then have an enhanced psychological effect on the viewer – because it will cause this sudden burst of anxiety that would cause somebody not accustomed to dealing with graphs (and ways of deceiving people through graphs) to gasp and immediately adopt a false belief about CO2 concentrations. “It’s doubled” is a false belief.

Another example of public relations versus science can be found in the testimony of four climate change scientists to the House Science and Technology Committee on February 8, 2007. In this testimony, Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA, 48th District) asked the scientists, “What percentage of greenhouse gasses are created by nature, compared to what percent by human kind?”

This precipitated a tense exchange between Rohrabacher and one of the witnesses, IPCC scientist Susan Solomon, who insisted on answering with the fact that humans are responsible for 90 percent of the change in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Of course, if you want to answer the question of who is responsible for the change in global temperatures, we want to know what is responsible for the change in CO2 levels.

Yet, Rohrabacher insisted on getting an answer to the original question. Why?

A reasonable theory is that Rohrabacher was attempting to engineer a false belief that humans are responsible for only a small change in global warming. Many people, when they hear that humans are responsible for, say, 25% of greenhouse gas concentrations would immediately adopt the false belief that we are responsible for 25% of the global warming. By engineering this false belief, one would be able to cause people to act in ways that harmed themselves, but provided a significant benefit to companies and individuals who contribute heavily to the Republican Party. Of course, that profit would enable those individuals to contribute even more to his political party, while those afflicted with this false belief would become even more impoverished by it.

Part of the evidence for this theory is that, earlier, Rohrabacher attempted to equate the temperature of Europe during the little ice age to the temperature of the whole planet that global warming scientists measure – as if a cold Europe implies a cold planet. This is another example of engineering a false belief. Any criminal investigator will agree that establishing a pattern of behavior is relevant to demonstrating guilt.

I would argue that attempting to engineer a false belief is the moral equivalent of lying. In fact, I would argue that lying is wrong because attempting to engineer a false belief is wrong, and lying is an attempt to engineer a false belief. If it were not wrong to engineer false beliefs, then lying would be permissible.

Yet, public relations firms seem to be professionals mostly in the art of engineering false beliefs. To hire an engineering firm is to hire a professional engineer of false (but useful, to the person with money) beliefs.

Of course, just as it is possible to engineer false beliefs, it is also possible to engineer true beliefs. However, even here, there is a conflict between science and public relations. Even the engineer of true beliefs has to engineer that belief in 30 seconds or less. There is no sound scientific argument that can be given in 30 seconds or less. Whatever ‘argument’ the public relations firm can fit into a 30 second commercial is one that no scientist would accept as one that ought to convince somebody to accept the conclusion.

Science depends on proving a proposition, not on engineering acceptance of it.

There is a reason why the leading public educator on the subject of global warming is not a scientist, but a politician. It is because scientists simply are not in the business of engineering beliefs.

Patricia Churchland gave the correct answer regarding what should be done to promote science. One needs to collect a lot of money and hand it to a public relations firm that will come up with the sound bits and commercials that will sway the public mind.

The problem, however, is coming up with sound bites and commercials that a scientist of good moral character could endorse, and that will still be effective in persuading a public that is substantially ignorant of the field one is discussing.

So, how would I answer this question?

I think that the answer has a moral component. Rather than join the ranks of those who are in the business of engineering false beliefs, or manipulating faulty reasoning, what we need to do is to make it a moral embarrassment to attempt to engineer false beliefs. Gore’s graph should be seen as an embarrassment, because it engineers a false belief about changes in CO2 concentration. Rohrabacher’s antics in attempting to engineer a false belief should be viewed as morally on par with soliciting sex from an underage congressional page. It certainly threatens the welfare of far more people, many of them far younger than the pages that serve on Capital Hill.

This is not a matter of engineering beliefs. This is a matter of engineering desires – of promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires. In this case, it involves engineering an aversion to engineering false beliefs sufficiently strong to require Gore to use a more honest graph, and to keep a man like Rohrabacher out of Congress.

I think that I can make an argument that hiring a public relations firm for that purpose – for the purpose of engineering good desires – would be a perfectly legitimate activity, and one that is far overdue in fact.

Since I do not have enough money to hire a PR firm, I will do what I can in this blog, and encourage you to do the same.

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