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Lessons in Newspeak: How to make a sociologist sound Orwellian

  • 03 Apr 2012, 13:00
  • Ros Donald

"If you don't believe in climate change you must be sick': Oregon professor likens skepticism to racism", according to an article published on the Daily Mail's website over the weekend. But this Orwellian news of a villainous conspiracy to cure dissenters looks like little more than one more example of the Mail's willingness to add skeptic blog The Register's, shall we say, selective reporting to its daily churn.

Professor Kari Marie Norgaard, to whom the views are attributed, presented a paper at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London last week. Norgaard and her colleagues had conducted a study to examine "cultural inertia as a social process" in the case of the policy measures that are needed to tackle climate change. She says that the climate change message damages our perception of ourselves because it raises "fear about the future, a sense of helplessness and guilt".

It is a little bit difficult to know where the Mail got its claim that Norgaard "suggest[ed]  that doubters need to have a 'sickness'" - but it appears to be attributing it to a sentence in the press release:

"Resistance at individual and societal levels must be recognized and treated before real action can be taken to effectively address threats facing the planet from human-caused contributions to climate change."

Treated! As in sickness - get it? We were at the pr ofessor's talk at the Planet Under Pressure conference last week and heard no suggestion Norgaard considers skeptics to be sick. It looks rather more like some bright spark at The Register (which incidentally left out the other half of the sentence, therefore divorcing it from the context) made that connection. The paper itself isn't yet available but you can see some of Norgaard's previous work along similar lines here and here.

The University of Oregon has since removed the offending word from the press release, along with Norgaard's email, prompting hue and cry at the skeptic website Watts Up With That. There, the thought is briefly entertained that she may want to avoid receiving unpleasant emails, before being brushed aside in favour of dark murmurings about a Communist plot.

The second press release quote exercising The Register and the Mail is:

"'This kind of cultural resistance to very significant social threat is something that we would expect in any society facing a massive threat,' she said. The discussion, she said, is comparable to what happened with challenges to racism or slavery in the U.S. South."

Is this the same as "comparing skepticism to racism"? In the press release, Norgaard used the example of attitudes to race, but taken in context it looks far more likely that she is making a comparison to historical instances when societies resisted fundamental changes, not the attitudes themselves . As her abstract says:

"Using ethnographic and interview data we describe the powerful processes that work at the psychological, institutional, and societal levels to maintain the current orientations and ensure social stability in spite of the evident imperative for change."

Memewatch

The sickness analogy is an interesting demonstration of the blogosphere's role as a test bed for skeptic  memes.

It appears that the repackaging of Norgaard's research as a Clockwork Orange-style call to re-educate the masses first appeared in the information technology blog The Register (which has a curious skeptical line) on 30th April.

The Mail appears to have borrowed heavily from the piece, judging by the similarity in the first paragraphs of both pieces. James Delingpole of the Telegraph also reproduced comments from The Register - without linking to Norgaard's work.

How an IT blog became the Mail's source of choice when it comes to skeptic framing of climate change issues we don't know, but the same food chain process was evident in last week's Mail story about the Medieval Warm Period. Now, with a hat tip to the Mail article, US skeptic stalwart Rush Limbaugh is also repeating The Register's framing - with his own fruity brand of speculation about everything from Norgaard's political leanings to her love of camping.

Skeptic blog Prison Planet - also quoted in the Delingpole piece - encapsulates the extent to which Norgaard's words have been exaggerated:

"The effort to re-brand legitimate scientific dissent as a mental disorder that requires pharmacological or psychological treatment is a frightening glimpes [sic] into the Brave New World society climate change alarmists see themselves as ruling over".

Quite. And lo, by the power of inference, a sociologist from Oregon turns into Big Brother or, according to Delingpole, controversial Soviet pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko.

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