Word gets around

The damaging disinformation recently put out by the IPPR continues to trickle steadily out into the public domain.  According to a recent story in the Financial Times:

“[One] study, by the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, found people were “tired and bored of hearing about climate change”, cynical about government motives in pushing for action on climate, and dismissive of “self-righteous” environmentalists.”

Indeed it did, in a literal sense – but which “people”? “People”, as in a broadly representative sample of the UK public? Or “people”, as in a sample of the most materialistic and consumer-oriented 10% of the population?

Meanwhile, here’s how the well-meaning but hopelessly hoodwinked Eleanor Mills puts things in the Times:

“I know, I know. I am bad. But I am also not alone. A new report details how many of us have switched off from climate change doom-mongering. The Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, in an exhaustive tome called Consumer Power, states baldly: “Many participants expressed a weariness and fatigue about the subject of climate change … some found the issue very boring and became noticeably less animated when the topic was introduced . . . others dismissed it as ‘faddy’ and ‘trendy’ … while many also saw people who engage in environmentally friendly behaviours as ‘self-righteous and smug’.” …

“Why, if the time frame is so tight, the reductions so crucial and climate change the big issue for our lifetime, are so many of us so bored by the problem?”

“Many participants” in the IPPR’s study becomes “many of us”; becomes “so many of us”. But who were the “many” participants in the IPPR’s study? Extrapolating the views of the British public on climate change from a survey of “Now People” makes about as much sense as gauging our feelings on multiculturalism from a sample of belligerent white supremacists. Yet no-one seems to have noticed the absurd sleight of hand the IPPR have just pulled.

Update: Well, maybe not quite no-one. Some of the attention the report has been gaining has been striking, in fact (and some of it a wee bit flattering). The Guardian’s admirable Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre recently cited the critique posted here, which he called a “[c]racking takedown … of some IPPR data”. Nick Davies, investigative journalist for the same paper and author of a rather good recent exposé on mainstream journalism, called it “[a] thoughtful and revealing account of a slightly dodgy press release producing thoroughly dodgy media coverage – in other words, a classic example of Flat Earth news”.

Most encouraging, perhaps, has been the support of the Australian ecologist Clive Hamilton, author of the brilliant Growth Fetish (an absorbing, thought-provoking and highly recommended book incidentally). As Hamilton commented in response to the piece:

“Thank goodness someone has exposed IPPR’s deeply deceptive report. The writing up of the results violated basic principles of good social research and one can only wonder why IPPR would so damage its credibility by this sort of media whoring.”

More significantly, Hamilton appears to have been on the same track already. At a recent panel discussion at the Environmental Change Institute’s “4 Degrees and Beyond” conference (available as an audio file here) BBC journalist James Painter fed his audience a familiar line on public opinion:

“Then we had the IPPR report on the British public, saying the UK public is tired, bored of hearing about it, resentful of being made to feel guilty and cynical of Government motives …”

Once again, this misrepresentation went completely unchallenged – until Hamilton piped up during the floor debate:

“I completely disagree with the sort of argument of the IPPR, I mean that was a ridiculous report – if you read it, they interviewed the most materialistic, the shallowest, the most self-focused marketing demographic in Britain …”

Richard Hawkins of the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) quickly joined in:

“It was 57 people from a sub-set of a very consumerist section of society …”

Hamilton continued:

“They were the worst sort of consumers.”

Amid the nervous laughter of the audience and the diplomatic efforts of the chair to intervene, at this point of the recording, the speech becomes extremely unclear. What is clear is that Hamilton is directly criticizing Painter for presenting the IPPR data as a reflection of public opinion. Extraordinarily, Painter responds, “Well, wait a minute, don’t misrepresent me …”; but is ultimately forced to concede: “I don’t know enough about the IPPR report.” A journalist who regularly contributes to the BBC cites, completely unprompted, a report he later reveals he hasn’t read, and has to be corrected on its contents by a member of his own audience. That has to be embarrassing. But it is at the same time symptomatic of the “churnalism” Nick Davies describes in Flat Earth News. Under the pressures of the ever-increasing workloads, budget cuts and tighter deadlines that have inevitably resulted from news organizations’ subordination to corporate profits, it has simply become the norm for journalists to skim through press releases for information (perhaps cross-referencing them with other ill-informed, PR-driven media reports). The echoing of the IPPR’s misrepresentation in the press and elsewhere represents only one instance of a near-universal phenomenon. And if it distorts the way we perceive the issues surrounding climate change, we can be damn sure it will impact on the way we respond to it.

TAKE ACTION

If you think the IPPR shouldn’t be allowed to get away with promulgating this kind of distortion, you can write, email or phone them via the contact details listed here.

Please be firm but polite, and non-abusive.

 

Well, maybe not quite no-one. Some of the attention the report has been gaining has been striking, in fact (and some of it a wee bit flattering). The Guardian’s admirable Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre recently cited the post, which he called a “[c]racking takedown … of some IPPR data”. Nick Davies, investigative journalist for the same paper and author of a rather good recent exposé on mainstream journalism, called it “[a] thoughtful and revealing account of a slightly dodgy press release producing thoroughly dodgy media coverage – in other words, a classic example of Flat Earth news”.

Most encouraging, perhaps, has been the support of the Australian ecologist Clive Hamilton, author of the brilliant Growth Fetish (an absorbing, thought-provoking and highly recommended book incidentally). As Hamilton commented in response to the piece:

“Thank goodness someone has exposed IPPR’s deeply deceptive report. The writing up of the results violated basic principles of good social research and one can only wonder why IPPR would so damage its credibility by this sort of media whoring.”

More significantly, Hamilton appears to have been on the same track already. At a recent panel discussion at the Environmental Change Institute’s “4 Degrees and Beyond” conference (available as an audio file here) BBC journalist James Painter fed his audience a familiar line on public opinion:

“Then we had the IPPR report on the British public, saying the UK public is tired, bored of hearing about it, resentful of being made to feel guilty and cynical of Government motives …”

Once again, this misrepresentation went completely unchallenged – until Hamilton piped up during the floor debate:

“I completely disagree with the sort of argument of the IPPR, I mean that was a ridiculous report – if you read it, they interviewed the most materialistic, the shallowest, the most self-focused marketing demographic in Britain …”

Richard Hawkins of the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) quickly joined in:

“It was 57 people from a sub-set of a very consumerist section of society …”

Hamilton continued:

“They were the worst sort of consumers.”

Amid the nervous laughter of the audience and the diplomatic efforts of the chair to intervene, at this point of the recording, the speech becomes extremely unclear. What is clear is that Hamilton is directly criticizing Painter for presenting the IPPR data as a reflection of public opinion. Extraordinarily, Painter responds, “Well, wait a minute, don’t misrepresent me …”; but is ultimately forced to concede: “I don’t know enough about the IPPR report.” A journalist who regularly contributes to the BBC cites, completely unprompted, a report he later reveals he hasn’t read, and has to be corrected on its contents by a member of his own audience. That has to be embarrassing. But it is at the same time symptomatic of the “churnalism” Nick Davies describes in Flat Earth News. Under the pressures of the ever-increasing workloads, budget cuts and tighter deadlines that have inevitably resulted from news organizations’ subordination to corporate profits, it has simply become the norm for journalists to skim through press releases for information (perhaps cross-referencing them with other ill-informed, PR-driven media reports). The echoing of the IPPR’s misrepresentation in the press and elsewhere represents only one instance of a near-universal phenomenon. And if it distorts the way we perceive the issues surrounding climate change, we can be damn sure it will impact on the way we respond to it.

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