Is Name Calling an Effective Communication Strategy?
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."
A few bloggers have registered their reaction to last week's PRI radio segment that questions the wisdom of calling climate change and evolution opponents "deniers." Most notably Orac, Mike the Mad Biologist, and Mark Hofnagle argue that their preferred brand of name calling remains the best communication strategy.
But Orac, Mad Mike, and Mark overlook that the key audience in these rhetorical fisticuffs is not the small group of so-called "denialists" but rather the wider spectator public who may otherwise be ambivalent about a complex, seemingly remote issue such as climate change.
As I explain in a recent interview with Big Think, snarling, finger-in-the-eye responses to opponents in these debates risks alienating middle-ground publics, or at a minimum keeps the debate locked in a conflict frame, missing the opportunity to more persuasively connect the issue to commonly shared values.
This same theme has been picked up by several commenters at this blog. For example, Jeremy writes:
This may sound cliched but that detract from its truth in my opinion. Using words that puts each side of a debate into neat little categories might be fun, like in a zoo. "Ooh. Look at that little denialist in his little box." But it doesn't help bridge gaps. When I manage to get through to people who believe in pseudoscience or the paranormal, it's not by emphasizing how we differ but what we have in common. I'll agree it's hard with the most far out extremists and maybe nothing can bring those people back, but when you're talking to your old-fashioned dad who think that climate change isn't happening, it's not constructive to call him a denialist. Trust me on that one.
Besley also articulates this point:
I wonder if those of you (which seems to be many you) who insist on terms like "denier" are clear on who you are talking to when you use the term. The person you are calling names certainly doesn't care; indeed, you're just as likely to give them material with which to paint science as absolutist and uncaring.
The real audience we need to think about is those people who are observing the debate from the sideline who may use a range of heuristics or schema (and not necessarily full arguments) to decide whom they support. If your side gets pegged as ideologues, I would expect your odds of support dimninsh substantially.
The point is to use the opportunities created by public forums to speak PAST the ideologues towards the people with whom you truly want to communicate; the people who have not yet staked a position.
Ignore the bait. Think about your audience. Craft a message that appeals to the broad middle. Or, of course, you could just yell at each other.
So instead of engaging in the same self-defeating name calling, what is an alternative strategy?
Two video segments from the Big Think interview explain the basics of the research and the arguments I have published in recent articles and book chapters. The first segment is on communication and framing generally. The second segment on climate change specifically.
These topics and more will be the focus of my talk next Thursday at the New York Academy of Sciences. The event is free to the public. Already more than a 100 attendees have signed up. It should prove an interesting discussion with reception to follow.
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