Posted May 22nd, 2006 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy, Funk from the Swamp

Apparently, the Bush administration can’t even get that right. In science for policy, disagreements about science are often a disguise for disagreements about what the target should be in the first place, which brings us back to the subject of framing. (For some basics about the concept, Revere at Effect Measure wrote an excellent series of posts that summarize and comment on the ideas of George Lakoff – or you can directly visit the website of the Rockridge Institute that he founded.)

A post by Josh Trevino at Swords Crossed, that has sparked discussion in the blogosphere, and that was brought to my attention by Coturnix, describes the Overton Window, and how it is very systematically and deliberately used by right-wing think tanks to introduce unthinkable and radical ideas into the public discourse, which makes them begin to sound acceptable and sensible, while moving those already so normalized to becoming popular and finally, actual policy. The shift can occur by accident or by design – to which I would add, that strategies can also be designed to take advantage of accidents or crises, like using 9/11 for example, as a pretext for invading Iraq. This isn’t really a new idea – just a formal presentation of the rules of a game that has been played by both sides. Whatever you think of Greenpeace, they have always played an important role in making the more mainstream environmentalists sound reasonable, and they probably deserve much more credit for muckraking than they normally get, given a tendency by the news media and others to only cite authoritative sources.

Another point I would add is that this process also works the other way, to make currently mainstream ideas sound radical and unacceptable, e.g., equating Democrats with socialism or adopting what John Conyers calls “the strawman strategy of identifying a parade of horrors to come if Democrats gain the majority,” in which the Republicans project, for example, what it would be like if he actually became chairman of the Judiciary Committee. In this op-ed, Conyers speaks for himself about what he would do. Lets hear it for oversight hearings – which should be cause enough for all reasonable people of either party to band together.

A few weeks ago I heard some pundits from a right-wing think tank on CSPAN radio who conceded that the Bush administration has been a failure but then, without missing a beat, went on to bemoan that the Democratic party could not be trusted with power and with national security, because they had been taken over by the radical elements of it, i.e., Howard Dean. That anyone could believe that, after knowing how Bush reacted when informed about the 9/11 attacks – by continuing to read My Pet Goat, and how he responded to Katrina – by playing guitar, suggests something is seriously lacking in our educational system. But make no mistake – the failure is not just of the Bush administration. The prospect of “peak oil” would not have us facing as dire of an energy crisis had Reagan not slashed budgets for research on alternative energy sources that were initiated by the Carter administration after the energy crisis of the 1970s, and which forced many smart people to change careers. Most Republicans are probably not science-bashing fundamentalists, but the alliance serves them well. And some even care about the environment, but so far, not enough to take a stand and risk a hold on power made possible by shady alliances.

The Trevino post has sparked discussion in the blogosphere about the fallacy of the democratic strategy of playing to the middle for fear that they will alienate the middle if they play to their base… as Republicans, meanwhile, play to their base and shift the definition of the middle – thereby moving it to the right. In other words, according to thereisnospoon, “You win policy debates by crafting arguments for extreme positions–and then shifting the entire window of debate. You do not win by trying to figure out which position is most popular among Americans right now.”

However, an important point made by Trevino in a follow-up comment posted on Daily Kos is that this is a role played by the right-wing think-tanks rather than by the Republican party itself. What I think is often forgotten when blaming the Democratic Party for playing to the middle is the difference between the roles played by advocates and politicians. I’m not convinced that candidates for office can both frame the debate and get elected, although once elected, they can make good use of the bully pulpit. Which is what Gore is doing, now that he is not planning to run for office, and is not obligated to somebody else’s agenda, which might just make him the best candidate ever. Even if he isn’t ultimately persuaded to run, he could continue to play a critical role in shaping public discourse, and make it safe for those who are candidates to take a stand on controversial issues. Though I still think he would make the best president ever, and, given that we are at a turning point, is exactly who we really need in office – more on that later. Apart from Gore, shaping public discourse and framing debate is an important role played by advocates and real journalists, and now the blogosphere, where we can find the voices of individuals who, like Gore, are unencumbered by the positions of the organizations they work for.

What concerns me even more is the use of familiar frames and nice-sounding concepts, like sound science, data quality, CO2 is life or intelligent design to manipulate and deceive. (For more commentary on the CO2 is life ads put out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, see posts by the usual suspects: RealClimate, Tim Lambert, Chris Mooney.)

This can make it difficult or impossible to talk about some important ideas that fit almost too well into a grossly distorted and misleading narrative. For example, any talk about uncertainties in climate science inevitably gets distorted by the likes of Benny Peiser who doesn’t pretends not to know the difference between uncertainty of the magnitude and significance of climate change, and uncertainty regarding policies to address climate change, and whose debunked study nevertheless continues to be cited by denialists of human-induced global warming. And then we wind up with confused scientists blaming social theory altogether, rather than the misuse of it by those who seek to discredit the science that provides justification for environmental and other policies that protect public safety and health, and that have broad public support. Odd that they don’t blame Einstein for the atomic bomb, or Darwin for policies of Social Darwinism. Nor was Machiavelli a Machiavellian. More constructive than attacking social theory would be to provide some transparency to its misuse for purposes of social manipulation. So I’ll wrap this up with a quote from Erving Goffman’s book on Frame Analysis (1974) where he refers to the work of Gregory Bateson, who began to talk about framing in a paper first presented in 1954:

The very useful paper by Gregory Bateson, “A Theory of Play and Phantasy,” in which he directly raised the question of unseriousness and seriousness, allowing us to see what a startling thing experience is, such that a bit of serious activity can be used as a model for putting together unserious versions of the same activity, and that, on occasion, we may not know whether it is play or the real thing that is occurring. (Bateson introduced… also the argument that individuals can intentionally produce framing confusion in those with whom they are dealing…

More to come on the subject of Bateson – last week I had the opportunity to have some long conversations about him with Stephen Nachmanovich, who was once his student, and with several others, at a symposium held in honor of the Bateson Centennial (which was officially in 2004) at Concordia University in Montreal.

Then there is Roberto Benigni who, in the film Down by Law, draws a window on the jailhouse wall, and then, by looking at his predicament in a different way, finds a way to climb out. Then he has to find his way out of a swamp, but that is a different problem.

4 Responses to “Windows”

  1. Dano says:

    A-men sister:
    1. I’m not convinced that candidates for office can both frame the debate and get elected, although once elected, they can make good use of the bully pulpit.
    Nor am I. Hence our problem with leadership in this country. We should be looking elsewhere for leadership on this issue.
    2. Benny Peiser…doesn’t know the difference between uncertainty of the magnitude and significance of climate change, and uncertainty regarding policies to address climate change, and whose debunked study nevertheless continues to be cited by denialists of human-induced global warming.
    I disagree. He knows perfectly well.
    It is in the interest of those who employ him and the gratis work he does to make a name for himself in the shill industry that this obfuscation is maintained.
    [re: #2, you are right. I corrected the text. Thanks. sst]

  2. Jon says:

    The problem is that as with Israel, where despite everything else, people really do claim: “It is the land given to us by God”
    And anyone who is opposed to that, in Israel whether Christian or Secular, is dismissed as a traitor.
    I wasn’t quite aware where the deep support for Israel came from in the US. But it is clearly the Conservative Right Wing (Republican) who are Christian (or rather, think they are) and believe in God, and for some reason feel that it would be a denial of their own faith, not to support Zionism.
    Any ‘sensible’ person should be able to see the clear similarities between Zionism & Nazism.
    And any ‘sensible’ person should recognise the anachronism of the cozy love affair between the US Right Wing Conservative REPUBLICANS, and little old Britains Conservative MONARCHISTS.
    But as in Israel, in the US the price Labour, Socialist or DEMOCRATS pay for their secular humanism, is the radicalism of the Righteous (God Fearing Conservatism).
    I myself have difficulty attacking Conservatives on their faith & beliefs, though I clearly disagree with their Social Policy.
    You are one step away from going Fascist:
    YES TO WHITE Conservative Christian AMERICANS
    YES TO WHITE Conservative Christian EUROPEANS
    YES TO ‘Americanised’ ASIANS
    YES TO DUAL NATIONALITY Israeli/Americans.
    PS – Did you know that more people die everyday from Natural Causes in the UK, than were killed on 9/11. There is still NO WAR on death from Natural Causes.
    Did you know that more people are killed in road crashes than by any suicide terrorism, yet there is NO WAR on Cars in The US or Israel.
    And finally the reason Tony Blair in Britain is so Conservative (being the Labour/Socialist leader) is because he fears losing votes. Yet that is precisely what he is doing. He is haemorraging Labour votes, and losing Council Seats up and down the Country.
    He really is “The Best leader, The Conservative Party never had” – and has continued Thatcherism. Got voted in on a landslide, under false pretences. Got voted in second time because people gave him the benefit of the doubt. And the third time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually got in with the Conservative vote.
    Unless it is just that people are entrenched in Party Loyalty, and vote for the Party even if it is led by a Traitor to Socialism.
    Incidentally, if someone ever asks why Germans never criticised the Nazi Regime in world war two. They should remember that their men & sons were fighting on the Russian Front, fighting the evil of Communism. And to oppose the government in time of war is viewed as Treason.
    Just like The US & Israel (and Britain) despite denials to the contrary, it is not a war on Terrorism, but A WAR ON ISLAM, A LAND GRAB, AND WHAT IS BELOW THE GOUND.
    And The God of Israel is on the side of Christians, and Israelis of course. Yep, that is the underlying belief, though no one outside Israel would dare to say so openly.
    If the Israelis were ‘Christian’ I could perhaps understand this concept & sympathise.
    But Israelis are not Christian, nor are most Christians for that matter. Or they are a very peculiar brand of Christianism. A pre-Christian Christianity, or Old Judaism. And Zionism is overt Fascism no different from Nazism.
    The misconception is that Nazism stood for National Socialism. It did not. Nazism stood for Fascism, who else supported Germany in Europe but other Fascist States. Italy, Fascists in Austria, Fascists in France, Belgium, Holland, and of course Spain (the silent partner).
    And Conservative (Aristocratic) Britain did not support Germany in her dreams for World domination, because The British Empire thought it ruled the world, and had good relations with its rebel colony The USA.
    Incidentally since WWII, the US Republic has Colonised Britain. Now there is a twist.
    These are not anti-american sentiments. This is calling things by their name. Not pretending it is otherwise, or being blind to reality as some may choose to do. Or using double-meanings.
    But that is the success of the subtle deceits you are describing in your post.

  3. What suggestions could you provide a technical blogger (eg. me) to frame issues of uncertainty? This will be a thread running through many of my posts, and I am well aware it is a sticking point in so many issues.

  4. Jon says:

    Hi Sylvia, sorry about the typo error:
    “What Is Below The Gound” should read
    “What is Below The Ground”
    Daniel, I like your DOWN TO EARTH blog, mind if I add a link from my blog:

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