In the Clamor Over George Will, Pundits Win But Public Loses
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Back in January, Desmog blog noted what they dubbed a "troubling" trend online, plotting a rise in mentions of "global warming + hoax." The graph was construed as evidence of growing strength for the climate skeptic movement.
At the time I observed to a few colleagues that the graph probably also reflected the intense interest in so-called "denialism" among the liberal climate netroots. By constantly responding to and attacking the climate skeptics in blog posts and comments, liberal bloggers were only bringing additional attention to their claims.
The same observation currently applies to the clamor over George Will's recent syndicated column on global warming. As I detail in a cover article at the March/April issue of the journal Environment, Will's column is part of a decade-old message playbook on climate change, effectively (and falsely) framing the problem in terms of lingering scientific uncertainty.
The irony of this latest netroots clamor is that dozens of bloggers are just feeding the George Will beast, sustaining and amplifying attention to his false claims about climate science while providing easy cues to the public that the issue can be readily interpreted through the lens of partisanship and ideology. (Sound familiar? As I wrote at Skeptical Inquirer, the same thing happened in the initial response to Ben Stein's anti-evolution doc Expelled.)
The conflict and heat generated not only focuses more attention on Will's preferred uncertainty interpretations, but it also distracts from the narratives and frames that are actually likely to build broad-based support for action. As I note in the Environment article, these frames include an emphasis on the moral and religious imperative to action along with a focus on the public health and energy innovation dimensions of climate change.
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