Sunday, June 19, 2016

If Facts Don’t Matter, What Does?

This is an excerpt from DeSmog founder Jim Hoggan’s latest book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot:  The Toxic State of Public Discourse, published by New Society Publishers.

I'm Right Book Cover (Image Credit: George Lakoff) Click to Enlarge.
I first began reading the works of linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff about 15 years ago and I was struck by the Berkeley professor’s now famous ideas about what he calls frames.  In public relations our stock in trade is messaging, because our role is to create understanding by combining maximum clarity with supreme brevity.  We work in the world of sound bites and elevator pitches that are designed to be short and pithy, and we rarely have the time or budget to delve into frames or deeply moving narratives.

When I started writing I’m Right and You’re and Idiot I wanted to better understand the difference between messages and frames, so I would know how frames work and be able to explain how to manage them.  I wanted to better understand how they relate to the mechanics of public debate, and especially how frames impact facts and scientific evidence in public discourse, or when shaping opinion.

When we met, Lakoff described frames as metaphors and conceptual frameworks that we use to interpret and understand the world.  They give meaning to the words we hear more than the other way around, because words don’t have objective meanings independent of these metaphors.  Frames are structures of thought that we all use every day to determine meaning in our lives; frames govern how we act.  They are ultimately a blend of feelings, values and data related to how we see the world.

We can’t think without frames, Lakoff explained.  “Every thought you have, every word is defined in terms of a frame.  You can’t say any word that’s meaningful without it activating a frame.”  Frames permeate everything we think and say, so the people who control language and set its frames have an inordinate amount of power.

Lakoff stressed that if you do a bad job of framing your story, someone else will likely do it for you and his comments reminded me of something my mentor in the PR business, Mike Sullivan, once said:  “If you don’t tell them, someone else will—and it will be bad.”  What Mike meant was if you are an unwilling or ineffective communicator, you leave yourself wide open to someone else doing serious damage.

A frame is a way of looking at the world that is value laden, and like a metaphor it conjures up all kinds of thoughts and emotions.  Jackie Kennedy used a frame when she referred to her life as Camelot.  “Ethical oil” and “tax relief ” are also frames.  Such words evoke subconscious images and meanings, as opposed to factual statements such as “10 million scallops are dead,” a headline that appeared in February 2014 in a Vancouver Island newspaper.

What came to be called Climategate was an international campaign to discredit scientists on both sides of the Atlantic just before the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change.  It took the momentum to set targets out of the conference.  I was astonished to see how a group of legitimate climate scientists, with stacks of peer-reviewed evidence on their side, could lose debates to a group of people who had none — all because of a lens created by mischief-makers.  Clearly, Climategate was a battle of frames versus facts, and the frames won.

The truth is, facts alone don’t change minds, said Lakoff, who wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant, which explains how to frame political debates in terms of values not facts.

He believes that the progressive community contributes to confusion in the public square because of an outdated understanding of reason and consequent lack of persuasive communication.  During our interview, he told me that progressives need a mental model that goes beyond cold, logical messaging that’s directly correlated to reality — a model which should embrace metaphors, a marriage of emotion and logic.

Read more at If Facts Don’t Matter, What Does?

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