Monthly Archives: October 2009

Global Warming and the Problem of Public Opinion

We hear references to “public opinion” all the time but we rarely reflect on what it is, and why it’s important.

Political thinkers have struggled over the meaning of public opinion since antiquity. Plato was deeply distrustful of the public, while Aristotle believed “the many … may yet taken all together be better than the few.” To Macchiavelli, “public opinion” had no moral value, yet strategically it was crucial for political leaders to pay attention to it as a failure to do so could imperil one’s rule.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the political commentator and journalist Walter Lippmann argued that public opinion has little conceptual utility because most citizens have neither the time nor interest to truly understand issues in their complexity. The philosopher John Dewey disagreed, arguing that citizens are perfectly capable of understanding their world – nevertheless, their ability to do so is subjected to different forms of “organized manipulation” (i.e. advertising, PR, etc.).

All of these thinkers were writing about “public opinion” long before polling became a ubiquitous feature of the political and media landscapes.

Whether we are talking about environmental issues, foreign affairs, health-care reform or national security, actors on all sides commonly deploy “public opinion” as a weapon to advance their arguments, as if to proclaim that they speak on behalf of “the public” where others do not. Most agree upon the strategic benefits of such an approach, but has anyone considered the consequences?

Take the issue of climate change.

In 2008, Health Canada commissioned the polling firm Environics to survey Canadians about their understanding of climate change. The resultant report suggests that climate change will have a direct effect on the health of Canadians. Given that “most Canadians” believe climate change is taking place and that “a significant proportion” can see evidence of it in their own communities, the time for the agency to act is now.

Such findings are routinely challenged by others claiming to speak for the public. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente argued recently that citizens are “cooling” to the notion of global warming and that politicians ought to carefully pay attention to public opinion in advance of meeting to discuss binding international agreements. Wente cites several polls that show, for example, how concern for the environment in Canada has fallen relative to other issues (e.g. crime, the economy). She then proceeds from the national to the international scale, arguing that citizens around the world have acquired weak appetites for action, especially for endorsing what she calls “Kyoto-style” international agreements.

The environmental community also uses “public opinion” for its side. Take for example Jim Hoggan, a well-known Canadian PR professional, environmentalist, and author. In March 2009, Hoggan argued that “over 90 per cent of Americans agree that the U.S. should act rapidly to combat global warming, including 34 per cent who feel the U.S. should make a large-scale effort even if it costs a lot of money.” The David Suzuki Foundation (on whose board of directors Hoggan serves as chair) reported in 2006 that Canadians were totally confused about the causes of climate change, attributing the problem to the hole in the ozone layer more than any other factor. A big part of the problem with public understanding about climate change, Hoggan asserts, is that citizens get unreliable information and no longer know whom they should trust. In his recent book, Hoggan reports survey data that shows that 82 per cent of people polled trust scientists, while 66 per cent trust environmental organizations and television weather reporters equally. By contrast, only 47 per cent trust the mainstream media. For Hoggan “the media—print or broadcast—have not succeeded in transmitting even the most rudimentary explanation of the actual cause of climate change.” Hoggan also notes that a whopping 81 per cent of people believe that PR experts deceive the public. Surely this can’t be good news for a PR man on a mission to change public perceptions about environmental issues.

What is one to do in the face of such competing claims about the state of public opinion? I suggest that the best thing we can do is ignore the polls altogether. Indeed, the fundamental problem with the debate about public opinion is that it’s a zero-sum game that only leads us down a path to ambivalence.

In a provocative critique, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued, “public opinion does not exist.” By this he did not mean public opinion does not come to have objective qualities – rather, his instructive point was that public opinion is a social construction, and a dangerous one at that. Bourdieu’s chief concern was with how polls are reported and the fact that they often carry more weight than they should. This happens, he argues, not only because the media are incapable of dealing with complexity, but also because we do not reflect carefully enough on how “public opinion” is shaped and represented. In other words, his concern is not with the inherent worth of polls but with how they are used. For Bourdieu, “public opinion” is at best a projection of what the media and political elite think about. At worst, it is a rhetorical tool that organized groups (in politics, the economy, and civil society) wield in their respective efforts to exert power and control over public discourse and policy.

I do not believe that polls have absolutely no role to play in how we talk about urgent issues like climate change. Nor do I endorse a nihilistic argument that we ought to just tune out entirely and let the chips fall where they may. The problem is that “public opinion” has been invested with a scientific power that obscures its social and political context – it has been granted far more value and authority than is deserved.

As the sociologist Earl Babbie might have put it, the idea of “public opinion” is probably useful in the context of scientific research, but in the world of culture and politics it could only ever be a “figment of our imaginations.” He did not mean that such concepts are entirely useless, just that we need to remember that the important question is: what do we do with our concepts?

Rather than assenting to what “public opinion” data tell us citizens want our political leaders to do, I think we desperately need to generate new forms of public expression, to raise critical questions about climate change instead of simply responding to those questions posed by others. Until we do so, we are liable to be governed only by the polls, and by those who sponsor them.

** Note: this column also appears under a different title in The Mark News here

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Back to the blog

After several months away it’s time to get back to blogging – it’s not that I’ve been lazy or disengaged, just distracted by other things. Here’s a summary of what I’ve been up to since (gulp) my last post in February.

In late May, I was the conference program co-chair of the Association for Nonprofit and Social Economy Research (ANSER), which met during the 2009 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities. The build-up to the meeting was particularly intense with more than 200 conference participants from academia and the voluntary sector — we had Canadians, Americans and conference participants from as far away as Australia. The keynote address was delivered by Michael Edwards, formerly of the Ford Foundation and now with progressive think tank Demos in New York City. I also hosted an event to celebrate the publication of my latest book, Surveillance: Power, Problems and Politics (UBC Press, 2009), which I co-edited with my long-time friend and collaborator Sean Hier from the sociology department at University of Victoria.

I spent most of my summer enjoying holidays with family in beautiful British Columbia and at our cottage in Algonquin Park. Vancouver was especially nice in late July where the temperature stayed consistently in the low 30s and the sun was always shining (quite in contrast to the misery of Ottawa, where it rained the entire time we were away).

I did get some writing finished this summer, including the final touches on a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication on public relations, co-edited with Graham Knight from the communication studies and multimedia department at McMaster University. This project was a long time coming, starting way back in 2008. See the  TOC here and check out the editorial and research paper I contributed. I am very pleased with how this issue turned out – lots of excellent contributions by scholars and media professionals from Canada and abroad on such timely issues as risk communication, journalist/PR relations, political campaigning, PR education, professionalism and nation branding, among many others. Post your comments below or send me a note if you have a chance to read any of the articles or reviews.

Toward the end of August I did a little bit of consulting, working with some local public health and housing advocates to help them deal with a particularly thorny NIMBY problem. My involvement in this case piqued my interest in further exploring the literature on communication ethics, deliberative democracy and theories of “public consultation”. It was clear from this experience that communities, politicians and social service providers all operate with different understandings of what consultation really entails and how it can be achieved. All cities (large, medium, even small) face important challenges in dealing with poverty, homelessness, addictions, mental illness and other structural social problems. These are not, as C. Wright Mills describes them, problems of the individual milieu – they are structural issues that require both structural and community solutions. Yet too often the stakeholders in these debates speak around or, more to the point, shout over one another – it becomes a battle geared toward winning rather than achieving mutual understanding. Communication researchers can play an important role in identifying the means and ways in which power relations operate in and through the language community stakeholders use to frame understanding of these issues, and in facilitating a process by which they can, at minimum, agree on the terms of their engagement if not on the outcomes.

It’s already October and I can’t believe the fall term is a month old. I was appointed to be the supervisor of undergraduate studies in our program and for the final weeks of August and the first few weeks of September I was very busy dealing daily with student registration issues, attending recruiting events to entice the country’s best and brightest to come to Carleton, and in getting my own course (MCOM 5204: Media, Culture and Policy) up and running. It’s a graduate level seminar that introduces students to key issues in the study of communication and public health policy (our substantive focus): theories of public policy; media advocacy; impacts of ‘new’ media on the medical and health professions and on health promotion; audience segmentation; risk and crisis communication; framing; and program evaluation. So far it’s going very well – I have a group of 8 really engaged MA and PhD students and we are “collaborating” again this year with the city of Ottawa’s public health department on some of their current and emergent issues.

I have also been actively promoting From Homeless to Home, a film I co-produced about homelessness in Ottawa, first to a meeting of academics, then a coalition of housing and other service providers, and later to the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat, a division within the federal government. I understand the film will be screened by Cinema Politica in Montreal sometime in November. When I know the details, I’ll post them here.

In December I’ll be attending the UN Climate Change Conference to examine how environmental activists and NGOs are using traditional and ‘new’ media to campaign for a new international deal to confront the problem of global warming. This is part of a larger project which you can read about on the blog’s Projects Page. I’ve never been to the Scandinavian countries so intend to take a little time for tourism and site-seeing while I’m there. Anyone with “must do” recommendations for my time there, please leave me a reply below! I’m also getting ready to head off to Atlanta at the end of October where I’ll be participating in a crisis and emergency-risk communication training session at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I was just awarded a small amount of funding to look at how public health agencies in Canada and the U.S. engage the nonprofit sector in emergency planning and response, particularly their means and methods of ‘consultation’. The trip to CDC will be informing some of that research (again, see the Projects Page for more details).

On a personal note, I love this time of year. The colours have turned very quickly and the green of summer has given way to beautiful hues of gold and red. We were recently at the cottage where my family convenes every Thanksgiving and had a stunning drive through Algonquin Park. The smell and sound of falling foliage always puts me at peace. I’m gearing up for a last outing of cycling this coming weekend in Prince Edward County with some good friends. It’s our last grasp of a season we know has already passed us by. I realize that winter is not far off. The episodic flecks of snow encountered this past weekend appear to have followed me home, even if they made only a brief appearance this afternoon. Writing now in my home office, with the dogs at my feet and a steaming cup of coffee, I don’t seem to mind.

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Filed under Health Promotion, Higher Education, Public Health, Public Relations, Voluntary Sector