Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Useful Object Lesson

So, I assume everybody saw the AEI guy, Chris Horner on Jon Stewart. He was trying to claim that global warming is some kind of huge conspiracy. He didn't have much luck; Jon shut him down pretty thoroughly, and it wasn't exactly a huge moment in climate change policymaking.

That said, it WAS a great object lesson in that bugaboo of political discussion: talking points. Horner's comments were a textbook example of someone trying to obfuscate the issues by using deceptive talking points. Being textbook examples, I figured they'd be useful for a little friendly tutoring on both talking points and how to shut them down.

So beginneth the lesson.

Talking point the first: Global Cooling. He pulled out the idea that people have been going back and forth between saying that the Earth is cooling and the Earth is warming for a long time now. Like all good talking points, it included a specific and easily understood example: that people used the example of the Titanic, back in the turn of the century, to argue that the Earth is cooling. He then mentioned the idea that people thought that the Earth was warming back during the "dust bowl" period, then cooling in the 1970's, and now saying it's warming.

It's an effective talking point. It reveals a specific and abundantly silly example, and then quickly rattles off every switch subsequently, without even discussing the validity of the underlying ideas and science. He can't do that, because he's still pretty weak on that score, but by dropping that one example he can paint all the rest with the same brush.

How to shut it down? Simple: break down that connection. Jon Stewart did that by bringing up the science; that's how you break down the "we used to believe in global cooling" people too, by saying that the fact that that prediction was wrong does not mean much for the accuracy of this prediction. Indeed, if you know anything about science, you know that wrong predictions are part of the process, and the "global cooling" theory wasn't anywhere near as sound as global warming was. Once you've broken that connection, you can get to the science, and you're on far better ground. Fortunately, you can do it pretty much simply by mentioning the science, so it's not hard.

(If you wanted to mock it, you could say that we used to believe that there were only four elements. Should we chuck out atomic physics because alchemists were wrong then?)

Talking Point the Second: Jon asked how such a huge conspiracy to defraud the public about global warming could exist; were the scientists lying? Chris responded by saying "oh, no, not the scientists", but then started talking about how Enron was massively enriching itself through emissions markets. The goal here is to try to pull a reversal on global warming critics by claiming that they're the dupes of big, corrupt businesses, and used Enron as an example.

(One could call this the "guilt by association" trick. All of these use that theme of course, but this one focuses on name-dropping anything immoral even tertially related to the subject at hand.)

This is a kind of "defense through offense" talking point- he was preemptively insulating himself and his "side" against charges of being dupes of big business by saying that the OTHER guys are the dupes of even worse businesses. It plays on liberals' anti-corporate sympathies and makes them wonder whether maybe the (supposedly brave and individualist) anti-warming activists are simply "speaking truth to power". Of course, this is all wrong; Enron's failing was in deceptive accountancy, and has nothing at all to do with energy markets themselves.

How to shoot it down? Just press on the "uh, and this matters because..." idea, just as Jon did. All the organizations and scientists that AREN'T Enron have exactly as much credibility as they ever did, no matter what Enron did with their books. I don't even believe that highlighting Enron is necessarily a bad thing; it's intended as a quick, almost subliminal jab, and isn't supposed to be fully aired out. It's ridiculous, and even Chris knows it's ridiculous, so he tries to slip it under the radar. Pull it out, make fun of the "so, what, Enron's crooked accountants made all the scientists discover global warming" bit, and he'll lose credibility and likely get defensive... just as Chris did.

Getting defensive provoked talking point the third: "I heard this one guy say..." Chris, when pressed on the supposed communist nature of environmentalists, brought up a German environmentalist that said that "he wanted to see the day where you'd be punished more harshly for cutting down a forest than selling a child into slavery". Nasty stuff, right? Except for one thing: it's just one guy. You can find nuts supporting ANY cause, and Chris gave no indication that this guy was in any sort of leadership role. It's much like the other ones, in that it uses one specific case to tar a whole class of attitudes, but I see this as a specific type precisely because it's so common and allows for such a wide variety of uses. It's a VERY common and pretty effective rhetorical tool; people like it and journalists LOVE it when complicated issues are drilled down to interesting personalities, so they'll latch onto these personalities all out of proportion to their actual importance.

(Ferreting out comments for this purpose is the entire raison d'etre of MEMRI, by the way.)

Jon showed how to shut this down, too: point out that it's just one guy. Unless you can prove a bunch of people believe this or that he's in a real leadership position (ie, not a "community leader", but someone people actually derive opinion from) he's useless as any kind of an indicator. Again, doing this properly (with assertiveness and a touch of bemused humor) will play merry hell with the other guy's credibility; he'll try to save it by saying that this guy is representative, at which point he'll either go too far fighting back (as Chris did with a stupid Hitler comparison that torpedoed his credibility) or you can simply pull out somebody, ANYBODY else who has a different opinion, and all of a sudden their "representative" isn't representative of anything.

In any case, you get the idea. It's a good idea to keep an eye out for these sorts of games; when you find them, shut them down. Do it with humor instead of indigation, though. Jon is effective precisely because nobody can call him "shrill" and being castigated on his show doesn't give you the "politically incorrect" cred that comes from being criticized by a progressive in some circles. If you laugh at them, they'll realize you don't take them seriously; and above all else, these guys desperately want to be taken seriously.

So just laugh at them, while pointing out just how goofy their talking points are. THAT, they're not equipped to handle.

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