Passion and reason about climate change

datePosted on 22:15, August 6th, 2009 by Lew

While I agree with most blogging folks that John Key was a fool to try to smack down Keisha Castle-Hughes for her role in the Greenpeace climate change campaign, I do still have concerns about the specifics of how she fronts it.

BK Drinkwater posted on this recently, and then took it back after some criticism. I don’t think his first instinct was that far wrong, but it was framed poorly – in terms of expertise as granting a right to advocacy, rather than expertise as being necessary to meaningful advocacy. I don’t have concerns about Keisha’s views or her right to advocate for them, or about her position as a young mother concerned about the future of humanity rather than a scientist or a policy expert, or about her being exploited for a cause. The problem for me is that Keisha’s advocacy is apparently based entirely in passion, and not at all in reason.

Her breathless and slightly incoherent performance on Close Up (horrible flash video) the other night, while it may have been inspiring for some, left me in little doubt that she doesn’t know anything much about the topic. She completely avoided answering Sainsbury’s question (from about 01:50) as to whether she knew anything about it – saying (again and again) that she was passionate about climate change and wanted to know what she could do about it. This is the problem with celebthorities (actorvists, pseudo-experts, etc.) – they frequently substitute passion for reason, and in doing so they encourage the wider public to do the same.

While I don’t expect celebrities (or anyone, really) to be an expert before they’re allowed to advocate, their passion for a cause should be somehow proportionate to their knowledge of it. Keisha’s passion seems to far (far) outweigh her knowledge, and passion without reason is dangerous. It may be that she does know more than the first thing about it – any reasonably intelligent person can familiarise themselves with the scientific orthodoxy in a few hours and after a few days of reading will probably know more than 90% of the general population – but as a media person, having not prepared a convincing answer to that question of credibility gives me serious doubt that she has any, even as little as the average celebthority. The same goes for her published response to Key on the signon blog. At the very least she should demonstrate some knowledge of the subject matter. Perhaps she’s saving this for the proposed tête-à-tête. Extreme optimism if that’s so.

Don’t get me wrong – both passion and reason are necessary weapons in the campaign arsenal. Al Gore’s passion was instrumental in breaking the issue into the mainstream, which no amount of science or evidence could have done. But passion without reason is especially dangerous when the task, as with climate change, is to convince people to believe and accept science, reason and evidence instead of uninformed opinion, ‘I reckons’, conspiracy theories and convenient misinterpretations of the evidence which perpetuate a particular lifestyle to which they’re accustomed. The primary tactic of climate change denialism is to muddy reason with passion, and get people thinking with their gut rather than their brains, and by privileging passion so completely over reason Keisha risks weakening the strongest weapons the climate change environmental movement has – science and reason and evidence.

Advocacy is great – but let it be based on something.

L

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20 Responses to “Passion and reason about climate change”

  1. Anita on August 6th, 2009 at 22:37

    Doesn’t your argument risk concentrating power in the educated elite? Even just in the specialists in any given area?

    IMO the way to have a vibrant inclusive democratic society is to make it possible for everyone to stand up for what they believe in, and to engage in discussion. Part of the way we achieve that should be to make more information available to more people so they can form opinions, but the other part is to respect and invite the voices of those who aren’t specialists and don’t have complicated words and tables and graphs.

    That’s one of the reasons I value campaigns like the one Keisha Castle-Hughes is involved in. It’s saying that all of us have a stake, and all of us can have a say. For far too long the debate about climate change has been the preserve of people who can produce convincing science jargon and claim scientific status through their degrees and positions. It’s been nice to see role models for other people who care and want to say “climate change is real, it scares me, and we must do as much as we can to mitigate it”.

  2. Lew on August 6th, 2009 at 22:45

    Anita, I agree that, as a first premise, anyone ought to be able to express their opinion, have it heard, and advocate on behalf of it. I’m not saying that non-elites shouldn’t be involved, but there’s a cost to a cause when people who obviously don’t know the bare facts pose as authorities. That cost needs to be taken into account.

    It might well be that it’s negligible in this case – but I’m concerned that, by making the climate change debate about gut feelings and not about evidence, Greenpeace is playing into the denialists’ hands.

    The Sign On campaign has real actual scientists involved – that much-maligned, outspoken renegade Jim Salinger, for one – so I’m not criticising at the campaign in general, just Keisha’s apparent lack of preparedness to be a spokesperson on such a critical issue.

    L

  3. Lew on August 6th, 2009 at 22:47

    Perhaps what I’m saying is, if Keisha had been able to come out and answer Sainsbury’s ‘what do you actually know about climate change, then?’ question with something trivial like ‘I know that almost all of the scientists in the world who’ve studied the issue agree that it’s a major problem and needs to be solved, and that’s good enough for me’ then she would have acquitted herself. But she didn’t – she talked about her passion.

    L

  4. BK Drinkwater on August 6th, 2009 at 23:19

    Lots of interesting points here, Lew, and thanks for linking. Normally, I’d try to whip up a response, but I think it’s clear that my own views on celebrity-advocacy/culture aren’t very well-ordered. I think I’ll sit this one out.

  5. Pablo on August 6th, 2009 at 23:24

    Blind leading/arguing the blind on this one. Not worth the bandwidth allocated to the discussion. Lew is right, but wrong to give air to the issue. The actress is a tool, Key was a fool.

  6. nommopilot on August 6th, 2009 at 23:47

    While I don’t expect celebrities (or anyone, really) to be an expert before they’re allowed to advocate, their passion for a cause should be somehow proportionate to their knowledge of it.

    However Nick Smith seems to have very little knowledge himself with his recent erroneous press release regarding the infometrics report, as Keith Ng pointed out.

    His passion for setting low targets and failing to make any progress at all seems a bit disproportionate to his party’s claims of having ambition for New Zealand.

  7. morgue on August 7th, 2009 at 08:07

    Unsurprisingly I disagree. Anita makes the points I would make better than I would, but I also think your argument is founded on poor strategy. You write:

    But passion without reason is especially dangerous when the task, as with climate change, is to convince people to believe and accept science, reason and evidence instead of uninformed opinion… by privileging passion so completely over reason Keisha risks weakening the strongest weapons the climate change environmental movement has – science and reason and evidence.

    Bluntly, these aren’t the strongest weapons the environmental movement has – quite the opposite, in fact. The war for public support for climate change mitigation policies *must* privilege passion over reason.

    Of course, it would be great if KCH was able to clearly communicate the reasons behind her position, but I do not see it as a failing that she can’t, let alone a dangerous one. It does not matter that she doesn’t have the reason, as long as her passion is well-founded. (And no, reason is not the sole valid source for passion.)

  8. Scott Yorke on August 7th, 2009 at 08:11

    John Key’s own past utterances on climate change suggest he has little more expertise in the subject than Castle-Hughes. That’s why I got so irate when he told her to shut up.

    I would be the first to acknowledge that celebrity endorsements of anything, whether products or causes, need to be treated with scepticism.

    But this is a situation where the vast majority of scientists agree there is a problem with human assisted climate change. So the cause is a just one. If celebrity endorsements can be used to get people thinking about the matter, then I’m all for it.

    The movement needs to rely on celebrities, even those who may not actually know a lot about the matter. If you just make it a debate between scientists the public won’t engage. Joe Public can’t always see through the lies and nonsense put about by some of the climate change deniers. But, like it or not, celerbrities influence opinion.

  9. Matt on August 7th, 2009 at 09:28

    Passion vs. Reason. Hmm.

    History tells us that either can lead to good or bad outcomes. I’m not sure history shows that either is superior in this regard.

  10. marty mars on August 7th, 2009 at 09:36

    Actually everyone is guessing. So called scientists don’t agree so i’m not sure why celebrities should. And I am an advocate for people expressing their views even if they don’t have the detailed facts. Should she be able to answer questions on it? Not in my view. Easy enough to refer to a whitecoat to explain any detail. Is passion an adequate platform to advocate from – yes, it is probably the most honest IMO. And it is an opinion, one of many and not necessarily deemed to be authoritaive or meant to be.

  11. Tom Semmens on August 7th, 2009 at 09:39

    Right, because some earnest, unattractive no-name would have drawn a comment from the PM and got a golden ten minutes of prime time for a rebuttal?

    I don’t think so. Celebrity endorsement is are brought on board for a reason, and that is it generates publicity. Rightly or wrongly people look to celebrities for news, role models and leadership.

    Be honest. If Brangelina volunteered to front an ad campaign for the Green party’s 40% emission reduction target, who would the public been tuning into Close Up to see – Brad Pitt & Angeline Jolie or Nick Smith?

  12. marty mars on August 7th, 2009 at 10:15

    IMO Celebrity endorsement is less about content and more about perceptions. And that seems to make sense when a large part of communication is non-verbal. To get the mass of people motivated, when the science is murky, requires emotion. Celebrities with their public profile can generate that. Greenpeace have certainly got some good publicity out of their celebrities to date – good on them, and good on the celebrities for putting their heads up above the parapet.

  13. Lew on August 7th, 2009 at 12:06

    Hm, good discussion. It hasn’t really changed my mind but I can see that yous fullas see the end more clearly (as opposed to my obsessing about the means) than I do.

    I think I might have overstated my case, since some of you have read that I think passion isn’t important, facts are the only ground for passion, or that the campaign is a net bad and ought to be replaced with scientists in lab coats and hockey-stick diagrams. I don’t; I think the campaign is very good and its use of celebrities is critically important – but it risks being discounted as hot air and tight t-shirts if it’s not clearly and obviously based on firm facts.

    L

  14. morgue on August 7th, 2009 at 12:17

    Lew – useful clarification. I think our differences are probably those of degree rather than kind. I feel like I should add that I find it odd that I’ve come to the views I have on celebrity endorsements – they aren’t what I’ve have said a few years ago. Perhaps I’ve become overly cynical in the mean-time…

  15. Neil on August 7th, 2009 at 12:33

    But this is a situation where the vast majority of scientists agree there is a problem with human assisted climate change. So the cause is a just one. If celebrity endorsements can be used to get people thinking about the matter, then I’m all for it.

    I have no problem with that but when celebs start to back one particular solution – not just general raising of awareness – then they up the stakes and take on more of a political activist role. Which is fine but it does leave them open to more forthright criticism.

    In this instance a celeb was not asking Key to just think about climate change but rather demanded he adopt the policies of a particular lobby group.

    I had a very similar reaction to the celebrity campaign against Labour’s GM policies which featured some of the same faces. And I wasn’t that impressed with their understanding of the issues back then no matter how much they cared.

  16. Lew on August 7th, 2009 at 14:28

    morgue, Scott, Tom and others,

    How much do you think the moral validity of the cause means people are tending to give KCH a pass where, for another cause, they mightn’t?

    I think that’s my concern here – the best cause in the world doesn’t really justify letting unreasonable or misleading means go without critique. This begs the question of whether they’re unreasonable or misleading, though.

    L

  17. Anita on August 7th, 2009 at 16:43

    Lew writes,

    Perhaps what I’m saying is, if Keisha had been able to come out and answer Sainsbury’s ‘what do you actually know about climate change, then?’ question with something trivial like ‘I know that almost all of the scientists in the world who’ve studied the issue agree that it’s a major problem and needs to be solved, and that’s good enough for me’ then she would have acquitted herself. But she didn’t – she talked about her passion.

    Perhaps we’re agreeing that the issue is underprepared or poorly performing spokespeople, and people who speak on issues without acknowledging that both science and personal experience have valuable roles?

    A scientist could screw up an interview by answering every question about what climate change will mean for the planet by quoting incomprehensible numbers that give no clue that they understand or care about the consequences and also have no connection for people. Someone speaking from their personal experience could (and did :) screw up by being incoherently passionate and giving no clue they understand or care about the underpinning science.

  18. Neil on August 7th, 2009 at 21:23

    there’s a certain type of environmentalist that Cares For The Planet in much the same way that there’s a certain type of conservative that Cares For The Family and KCH comes across as one of those.

    newly converted, moralising and judgemental with a large dose of intolerance.

    Celebs I think if they are going to advocate for causes need to be able to leave their attention seeking egos at the door. It’s the difference between being Madonna or Bono.

  19. jarbury on August 8th, 2009 at 00:42

    An interesting issue for sure. I agree that it would be advantageous for Keisha to say something along the lines of “while I’m not climate expert, I have read quite a lot about the subject and as a result I am convinced that the balance of scientific opinion says that climate change is something we need to act on, and we need to act decisively.”

    It seems like she has been speaking not ‘as an actress’, but more as a concerned mother who wants her child to grow up in a world that has a climate that isn’t totally screwed. And good on her for doing so – the future of my 5 year old daughter is definitely a big reason why I’m so concerned about climate change too.

  20. Neil on August 8th, 2009 at 11:55

    U2’s manager gave Bono some very good advice – an artist should point out problems and not preach solutions.

    But I think some one like KCH is unable to see that she’s advocating a particular political line – the Greenpeace line. Just like with religious conservatives some environmental activists consider their solution to be self-evidently The Truth.

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