Only a Unilever factory can save the Maldives

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The Maldives is a small island state with the unfortunate attribute that its highest peak comes in at about 2.5 metres above sea level (a metre is like a decimal-based yard – try it, you’ll like it). This means that just a little bit of melted polar ice will suffice to turn their islands into reefs. Understandably enough, they are panicking.

They should just chill out, because some bright lights from ‘Climate Communication’, a non-profit Speak & Spell for climatologists, have identified the real problem: when communicating with the public, climatologists use too many long words, discipline-specific jargon, and carefully hedged statements. If climatologists would only talk about how they ‘play with’ instead of ‘manipulate’ data, they’d have more credibility. If they’d only talk about environmental ‘plans’ instead of ‘schemes’, the public will stop imagining that Greenpeace is run by Snidely Whiplash.

You’re welcome to read the short article and notice how a good portion of it is a dogmatic sermon on their own preferred worldview, without actually testing the ostensible thesis about communication. But their proposal won’t fail because of dogmatism. It will fail because they’re too obtuse to understand how their career-climatologist colleagues actually spend their time and energy. The problem isn’t that climatologists communicate poorly with the public; the problem is that they hardly communicate with any non-climatologists at all. There’s simply no incentive to do so, other than potentially making a difference, instead of just making tenure.

Here’s a suggestion for Mr. Somerville, the first author and professor of oceanography: in the next article manuscript you submit to any ranked scientific journal, don’t manipulate your data with boot-strapped standard errors, play with the data in that special booty way; don’t talk about residual sources of uncertainty in your model, talk about how clueless you might still be after months of effort. Even if they’re right that this is the appropriate register when communicating with the knuckle-dragging public, climatologists pay their rent by racking up citations in ranked journals, which the Main Street mouth-breathers will never read. Go ahead and ask a cabbie, Joe the GenericTradesman, and your local Walmart greeter when was the last time they thumbed through an issue of a big climate journal. Their coverage of Ashton’s infidelities and Demi’s drinking is sub-standard. Atrocious, really. Then go and ask any member of the IPCC when was the last time they submitted copy to their local newspaper or spoke at their kid’s school. Ten will get you a dozen that they don’t even like discussing their work with their relatives at Thanksgiving. What would be in it for them, except the stress and grief of facing competing views held by those who don’t share their own specialized vocabulary? Wouldn’t it be more fun to just argue about whether Obama’s a socialist?

[Extended digression: To give you an idea of how widespread the misconception apparently is that 'expert knowledge' doesn't have much popular traction because of vocabulary, consider this: I only encountered this paper because I ran across a table included in the article on a blog about foreign aid and international humanitarian law [sic]. Before you think that diplomats and such do a pretty good job communicating with you, the public, tell me the most important thing you’ve ever heard from Mr. Honju-Koh or even what country he works for.]

Okay, so if most science is sophisticated enough to qualify as a faith-based initiative, then what’s to be done. The Climate Communication sales reps just miss the solution when they talk about the disinformation spread by their opponents, who are “public-relations masters” (yes, that’s a direct quote, and, shockingly, no evidence indicates that Dan Brown helped them to formulate it). A much better, more refined PR strategy would be to stop focusing so much on content, facts, and information, which is as sexy as David Suzuki’s beard, and focus instead on symbols and general impressions. Not surprisingly, a marketing executive from a different field explains the idea. Surprisingly, he’s a retentive German.

Florian Baum (yes, ‘Florian’ is a man’s name in Germany, and ‘Ute’ is a woman’s name – crazy) is the head of corporate communication at Schlecker, which is kind of a diminutive German version of Walgreens. Some armchair prescriptive linguists apparently got riled at Schlecker’s new slogan “FOR YOU, VOR ORT” (trans. “For you, on the spot/on location”) and wrote a sternly worded letter – with petition – to the company, chastising the marketeers for defiling the awful German language by borrowing from its annoying little Anglo brother. But Baum plays it cool. He explains that, even though the slogan gets on his nerves as a social scientist, Schlecker got “public-relations masters” of its own to devise catchy slogans and test them on Schlecker’s target market, i.e. the 95% of Germans who are more interested in cheap shampoo than whether their kids can properly identify genitive prepositions.

So there are two strategies to choose from:

1) preserve content and the institutional incentives that determine where it appears, but finesse the vocabulary (Climate Communication)
2) forsake content, but tell people what they want to hear to get them to do what you want (Schlecker).

How can you tell which is likely to be more effective? It’s not a foolproof strategy, but a useful indicator might be the fact that Climate Communication is non-profit, but Schlecker and Baum are for-profit. If Climate Communication’s strategy fails, Somerville and Hassol take a hit to their egos, but they preserve the self-image of tireless crusaders doing thankless work. If Schlecker’s strategy fails, Baum goes from a Mercedes to a Lada and his kids have to drink generic beer. It’s just like the idea that, if you see a naked man running as fast as he can, you run with him. If you see two parties betting on two strategies, bet with the one whose stack of chips is higher.

Sorry, Maldives, it might be selling out, but if you want diaspora to be something that happens to other people, you better start selling shampoo and hire Florian Baum.

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One Response to Only a Unilever factory can save the Maldives

  1. JohnJ says:

    Truth is best spread through reason and not propaganda.

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