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Mar 16, 2010 01:00 PM in Basic Science | 82 comments

"Neuroframing" the global warming issue won't win converts

By John Horgan

 
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Last week the Garrison Institute, a retreat center just a few miles down the Hudson River from my home, hosted an impressive symposium on “Climate, Mind and Behavior.” An organizer made the mistake of inviting me to the meeting’s wrap-up session Friday.

As a brochure put it, the symposium brought together 75 “thought leaders and practitioners from the fields of neuro, behavioral and evolutionary economics, psychology, policy, investing and social media to explore how to integrate emerging knowledge on the key drivers of behavior into solutions for solving the world’s most pressing problem: climate change.”

Basically, this was a brainstorming session on how to market “solutions” to global warming more effectively. The emphasis on packaging reminded me of the controversial proposal by journalist Chris Mooney and communication professor Matt Nisbet of American University that scientists need to become more adept at “framing” issues such as global warming to win the debate. The Garrison meeting explored whether neuroscience and other fields that probe the physiological underpinnings of human belief and behavior can help environmentalists frame issues more persuasively. Let’s call it “neuroframing.”

John Gowdy, an economist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, noted that “neuroeconomics” is challenging the conventional economics view of humans as “utility maximizers” who make choices based on self-interest and reason. MRI scans show that we assess risks and rewards with brain regions that underpin fear, suspicion, empathy and other emotions, Gowdy explained, and we make choices very differently depending on how they are framed.

The psychiatrist Daniel Siegel of UCLA proposed that we all possess two innate, brain-based “maps” for responding to the world. One is a “me-map” that underpins our obsession with our own interests, but we also have a “we-map” corresponding to our concern for others.

The implications of these presentations were spelled out over lunch for me and other journalists (including Scientific American’s David Biello) by Jonathan Rose, founder of the Garrison Institute and the meeting’s chief sponsor and organizer. Environmentalists must frame issues to appeal to peoples’ “we-maps,” asserted Rose, a green New York real-estate mogul.

I share the belief of Rose and others at the symposium that global warming is bad and we should do something about it. But I’ve always disliked “framing” as a strategy for influencing the global-warming debate. Framing is just spinning, and neuroframing is spinning plus brain scans.

First of all, we don’t need MRI studies to tell us that we’re emotional, complicated creatures. Moreover, many people already view environmentalists as self-righteous and manipulative. This is a framing problem that neuroframing may exacerbate. The message is that environmentalists will go to extraordinary lengths—seeking guidance from cutting-edge brain science!--to help the dim-witted public see the world in the same enlightened way that environmentalists do.

Not all global-warming skeptics are ignorant, irrational idiots. I teach at an engineering school, and about one third of my students identify themselves as global-warming skeptics. They tend to know more about global warming than students who accept it as a fact. Two sources at the Science Times section of the New York Times have told me that a majority of the section's editorial staff doubts  that human-induced global warming represents a serious threat to humanity.

As naïve as this may sound, I believe environmentalists should try to influence public opinion by laying out the facts as clearly and honestly as possible and refraining from rhetorical trickery. Inconvenient Truth was a framing masterpiece, but Al Gore’s linkage of global warming to Katrina, however qualified, has made it easier for wackos to  claim that single weather events, like the big blizzards that struck Washington, D.C., this winter, contradict global warming. Climategate showed that some climatologists have become so obsessed with framing that they have harmed their credibility.

Environmentalists should forget about neuroframing. And that’s my we-map talking.

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer, directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. (Photo courtesy of Skye Horgan.)

 

Image of Earth in frame: iStockphoto/eliandric

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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