Luntz – just “a language guy”?

Posted April 25th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Paradox

Frank Luntz, whose infamous 1998 memo recommended playing up scientific uncertainty to avoid action on climate change, now says he is “a language guy… not a policy guy”, as if these two could be separated.  In an interview that aired last night on the Frontline series on Hot Politics, he also said his role was just “to figure out what language would work.” Since then, as the interviewer stated, “”[An] entire group of science skeptics grew up around that, who have in some ways moved the debate back to “scientists aren’t really sure,” when in fact scientists are sure. “”

Now that the context and his beliefs have shifted, Luntz is trying to make himself look “reasonable” and position himself in that elusive middle ground, blaming the lack of action on “those who have used global warming as a baseball bat to beat up the opposition.” Though he now accepts the scientific consensus on climate change, in his view, “the problem with those who advocate a change to global warming is that, frankly, they’re hysterical.” As for those who still follow his 1998 recommendations, “That’s their responsibility. They have to defend that.”

hmmm – I’ll fess up to having been, at times, hysterical, but not as much about global warming as about the impossibility of having the kind of quiet rational discussion about it – of the kind that Luntz now advocates, with seemingly intelligent people who still maintain that “the evidence isn’t all in.” Believe me, I have tried, only to have Benny Peiser quoted to me again. Which takes us back to the 1998 Luntz memo. He says he was only reflecting back the language-in-use of the day. But that isn’t quite right. Actually, what he did was misuse the language of the day to reinforce a distorted image of science as a crystal ball, as if it could ever provide certainty, and exploit (or enable others to exploit)  the fear of uncertainty and general angst about the future for political gain. He also helped give credence to arguments that lacked intellectual merit, clouded public discourse, and prevented earlier action on an issue not only of high uncertainty but also urgency and high stakes, which he now says requires preventive action!*&!%!!^@&%^&!!!

ok, following Luntz’ current advice, I’m going to just take a deep breath…. Lets talk – about uncertainty. As I said in one of the initial posts on this blog, “if science could provide certainty, decisions would just be a problem like that of rocket science. With enough research, computer models would tell us the best course of action, and the losers could all be compensated. And if you believe that is even possible, you probably also believe there was a decisive victory for Bush in the recent US election.” Like the birds and the bees, uncertainty is a fact of life, for which science can at least provide a navigational device. (the bees might need to learn science too, to make up for the loss of their navigational devices, but I digress)

I’m really glad Luntz has changed his beliefs and his tune but if he wants absolution, he needs to take some responsibility for his words and the way they are used,  just as scientists can no longer separate themselves from the intended uses of the knowledge they generate.

He also now says:

I believe in common ground, and I believe in a consensus. There has to be a way that we can be environmentally protective and not be anti-economy. There has to be a way that those who care about the future both from an economic standpoint and a environmentally responsible standpoint can be in the same room and find agreement that moves us in the right direction.

What’s the language? It’s a balanced approach; it’s a common-sense approach. It takes into account this consensus that you speak of, and you even used the word, the word “consensus.” Mark my words, the word “consensus” is going to be part of the environmental debate going forward, because it suggests that people — rational people, decent people — can come together and have an agreement, not only on what is happening in this country, but how best to deal with it in the future.

The only problem I have with these last statements is that he probably gets paid a lot more than I do to say them. It isn’t like I, and many others, haven’t said similar things.  More on that to come…

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