Equal (not always) rights

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Graham Linehan is an Irish writer most famous for the TV comedy series Father Ted, The IT Crowd, and Black Books. He has recently written a stage version of The Ladykillers playing in London. He was recently invited to debate it’s merits on BBC Radio 4’s Today show – the UK’s flagship national breakfast debate and politics show. He critised the ‘binary style of debate’


It is common for interviews on Radio 4’s Today programme. Binary debate is a critisicm that can be levied at the US news industry’s reporting of climate change in the 2000s, because it affords parity to both sides irrespective of their true relationship.


But, sometimes, equality isn’t very equal at all.


The relationship between the needs of balanced reporting and scientific discourse is a tricky one, particularly in reference to climate change, as Maxwell Boykoff of Oxford University will attest. He wrote a paper called ‘Flogging a dead norm?’ (PDF instant download)where he examined newspaper coverage of climate change in the US and the UK. Newspapers are required to report in a balanced and fair way by giving all sides of an argument a voice. This is a good thing. However, in the mid-2000s, while scientific consensus stated that climate change was human-influenced – and the UK press were reporting this in a fairly representative way – reporting in the US lagged by continuing to report anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic arguments in an equal proportion even though that didn’t represent the scientific community who were increasingly in favour The-Ladykillers-stage-pla-007 of crediting anthropomorphic influence as the driver of climate change.*


But does disproportionate billing really matter?


Yes, as it turns out. Unrepresentative information continually presented is not without consequences – it’s partly explained by The Mere Exposure/Measurement Effect. It sounds like a terribly twee, insipid little weasle of an effect described by an equally spineless formulation of words. But don’t let that fool you. In Morwitz & Fitzimonds’ (PDF instant download) study of the effects of The mere exposure effect they asked 40,000 people a simple question about their intention to purchase a new car. The actual rates of car purchase for the following 6 months increased by over 35%.


And 35% is a lot of percent for such a small question.


There’s some evidence this effect might be responsible for killing people by questioning heavy and serious drug addicts about their drug use in order to pinpoint where help is most needed because it increases the propensity to indulge.


There are no innocuous bits of information – and there are no inconsequential ways of presenting them. A binary debate – while sometimes relevent – isn’t ‘one size fits all’. That is all.



* Interestingly, one of the biggest problems with reporting climate change is that there’s scientific uncertainty with the dates and severity of climate effects. This is terrifically effective at undermining authority. Shackley & Wynne have defined ‘boundary-ordering devices’ that minimise this problem. ‘Quantifying’ and ‘locating uncertainty’ helps, as does scheduling reductions in uncertainty on expectation of more precise data. These make the problems more tractable. (They sound a little like Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘Know-knows’, ‘Know-unknowns’, ‘Unknown-unknowns’, post-Iraq invasion speech.)

• Oliver (LinkedIn) is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
• Member of the Influence Advisory Panel
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network Meetup group
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network on Facebook


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