[This blog focuses on climate and energy issues from the perspective of science, solutions, and politics. Nothing will be more important to the future of climate and energy policy than the 2008 presidential election. And rhetorical strategy is one of my favorite subjects. So very occasionally I will focus more on rhetoric than the policy. I'll keep the content below the jump. Nonetheless, this post does have direct relevance to the climate debate.]
You can tell that while Obama is a terrific rhetorician, he and his ad team don’t understand a core principle of rhetoric. Never repeat the word your opponent is trying to push. Never say things like “They’re going to say I’m a risky guy. What they’re going to argue is I’m too risky.” All that does is plant in the listener’s mind the word “risky” associated directly with Obama. It’s like saying, “I’m not a crook.”
Never say things like “You can’t be a maverick when politically it’s working for you and not a maverick when it doesn’t work for you, when you received your party’s nomination.” Never run an ad with a picture of your opponent that opens, “He’s the original maverick” and ends “The original maverick?” That’s especially true because “maverick” is such a strong word.
When voters go into the voting booth, especially the key voters the campaigns are targeting with these ads that don’t actually pay close attention to the race, they focus on just a few key thoughts and words. The last thing you want to do is repeat and reinforce your opponent’s message.
The bottom line is you can’t debunk a myth by verbally repeating it. This is actually quite basic stuff, not just a long-standing principle of rhetoric, but something demonstrated by numerous recent psychological studies, as a Washington Post article from a year ago explained, see “Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach.”
By the way, this has important relevance for climate messaging. When speaking or communicating to the public, you should not repeat myths in order to debunk them, but rather focus on the facts of the problem and the solution. Yes, some people believe that all debunking is counterproductive (see “Chris Mooney: Does refuting Deniers only strengthen and empower them?“) But obviously some debunking must occur, or else the myths go unchallenged. The trick is as much as possible to focus on the truth and not on repeating the lie. This is sometimes a difficult principle to live by, and so it always bears repeating.
Let me review a little of the psychological literature:
In one 1990 study, undergraduate students observed sugar from a labeled commercial container as it was poured into two bottles. They then labeled one bottle “sugar” and the other “Not Sodium Cyanide.” Students avoided eating sugar from the second bottle even though they had watched it being poured and “even though they had arbitrarily placed that label on it” and knew the label was accurate–that it was not sodium cyanide. Such is the power of words or, rather, the insidious lack of power of the word ‘not.’
Even more insidious, “when people find a claim familiar because of prior exposure but do not recall the original context or source of the claim, they tend to think that the claim is true,” as noted a 2005 journal article, “How Warnings about False Claims Become Recommendations,” which concluded
Telling people that a consumer claim is false can make them misremember it as true. In two experiments, older adults were especially susceptible to this “illusion of truth” effect. Repeatedly identifying a claim as false helped older adults remember it as false in the short term but paradoxically made them more likely to remember it as true after a 3 day delay. This unintended effect of repetition comes from increased familiarity with the claim itself but decreased recollection of the claim’s original context. Findings provide insight into susceptibility over time to memory distortions and exploitation via repetition of claims in media and advertising.
As explained in a Washington Post article from a year ago explained, “Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach“:
Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.
Another useful article is ” ‘I am not guilty’ vs ‘I am innocent’ ” by Ruth Mayo et al in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2004, which found that for many people, the “negation tag” of a denial falls off with time:
“If someone says, ‘I did not harass her,’ I associate the idea of harassment with this person,” said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. “Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person’s name again.”If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind,” she added. “Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11.”
Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth.
The last one is I think the key point for messaging. Don’t repeat the false claim.