The Hoggan Blog

The Truth, Still Inconvenient

Posted on: April 4, 2011

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair could have said when his ideology depends on his not understanding it.

See the story here: The Truth, Still Inconvenient by Paul Krugman

The Truth, Still Inconvenient


Published: April 3, 2011

So the joke begins like this: An economist, a lawyer and a professor of marketing walk into a room. What’s the punch line? They were three of the five “expert witnesses” Republicans called for last week’s Congressional hearing on climate science.

But the joke actually ended up being on the Republicans, when one of the two actual scientists they invited to testify went off script.

Prof. Richard Muller of Berkeley, a physicist who has gotten into the climate skeptic game, has been leading the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, an effort partially financed by none other than the Koch foundation. And climate deniers — who claim that researchers at NASA and other groups analyzing climate trends have massaged and distorted the data — had been hoping that the Berkeley project would conclude that global warming is a myth.

Instead, however, Professor Muller reported that his group’s preliminary results find a global warming trend “very similar to that reported by the prior groups.”

The deniers’ response was both predictable and revealing; more on that shortly. But first, let’s talk a bit more about that list of witnesses, which raised the same question I and others have had about a number of committee hearings held since the G.O.P. retook control of the House — namely, where do they find these people?

My favorite, still, was Ron Paul’s first hearing on monetary policy, in which the lead witness was someone best known for writing a book denouncing Abraham Lincoln as a “horrific tyrant” — and for advocating a new secessionist movement as the appropriate response to the “new American fascialistic state.”

The ringers (i.e., nonscientists) at last week’s hearing weren’t of quite the same caliber, but their prepared testimony still had some memorable moments. One was the lawyer’s declaration that the E.P.A. can’t declare that greenhouse gas emissions are a health threat, because these emissions have been rising for a century, but public health has improved over the same period. I am not making this up.

Oh, and the marketing professor, in providing a list of past cases of “analogies to the alarm over dangerous manmade global warming” — presumably intended to show why we should ignore the worriers — included problems such as acid rain and the ozone hole that have been contained precisely thanks to environmental regulation.

But back to Professor Muller. His climate-skeptic credentials are pretty strong: he has denounced both Al Gore and my colleague Tom Friedman as “exaggerators,” and he has participated in a number of attacks on climate research, including the witch hunt over innocuous e-mails from British climate researchers. Not surprisingly, then, climate deniers had high hopes that his new project would support their case.

You can guess what happened when those hopes were dashed.

Just a few weeks ago Anthony Watts, who runs a prominent climate denialist Web site, praised the Berkeley project and piously declared himself “prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.” But never mind: once he knew that Professor Muller was going to present those preliminary results, Mr. Watts dismissed the hearing as “post normal science political theater.” And one of the regular contributors on his site dismissed Professor Muller as “a man driven by a very serious agenda.”

Of course, it’s actually the climate deniers who have the agenda, and nobody who’s been following this discussion believed for a moment that they would accept a result confirming global warming. But it’s worth stepping back for a moment and thinking not just about the science here, but about the morality.

For years now, large numbers of prominent scientists have been warning, with increasing urgency, that if we continue with business as usual, the results will be very bad, perhaps catastrophic. They could be wrong. But if you’re going to assert that they are in fact wrong, you have a moral responsibility to approach the topic with high seriousness and an open mind. After all, if the scientists are right, you’ll be doing a great deal of damage.

But what we had, instead of high seriousness, was a farce: a supposedly crucial hearing stacked with people who had no business being there and instant ostracism for a climate skeptic who was actually willing to change his mind in the face of evidence. As I said, no surprise: as Upton Sinclair pointed out long ago, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

But it’s terrifying to realize that this kind of cynical careerism — for that’s what it is — has probably ensured that we won’t do anything about climate change until catastrophe is already upon us.

So on second thought, I was wrong when I said that the joke was on the G.O.P.; actually, the joke is on the human race.

The Original Way of Living: Nomads Life

Posted on: March 29, 2011

Vancity Theatre at the Vancouver International Film Centre
1181 Seymour Street, April 2nd, 2pm (doors open at 1pm)

A benefit for the Institute for Sustainability Education and Action (I-SEA) to develop ‘Wakan Tanka,’ a new film featuring David Suzuki, James Hansen, Robert Bateman, Raffi, Paul Dickenson, Guy Dauncey and more!

……‘NomadsLife’ is a remarkable documentary about four individuals from four different countries who travel from Amsterdam in a 4×4 ex-Dutch4military vehicle to Siberia and Mongolia. They are on an adventure to raise awareness about Nomadic tribes such as the Kazakh Eagle Hunters and the Dukkah, people who haven’t strayed too far from their natural roots to understand where true spirit comes from.

The screening of ‘Nomads Life’ is a benefit for the making of ‘Wakan Tanka’, featuring lifelong activist and television personality David Suzuki; NASA scientist and author (‘Storms of my Grandchildren’) James Hansen; naturalist and painter Robert Bateman; child’s entertainer and climate change activist ‘Raffi’; climate action speaker and author Guy Dauncey; with messages from First Nation Elders from around the globe.

Wakan Tanka is being made to raise awareness about the relationship people have with their environment with messaging from our eco-hero elders. Salt Spring Island’s I-SEA has teamed up with Substantial Films Ltd. (UK) and A Purpose For Life Foundation to produce this film which in Sioux language means ‘Great Spirit’.

Set against the backdrop of a symbolic fictional journey of a thirteen year old and shot in the style of a music video, artists such as Lamb, Adham Shaikh, Dehli 2 Dublin, Trademark, Nova Nova, Wilderness of Manitoba and more are participating. Amongst scenes of both Earthly decay and beauty, this documentary will celebrate community and illustrate on the ground eco-action by the youth of today.

Tix are $12/$9 Students/Seniors at the door
Telephone (250) 653 2022 for further information


Alex Himelfarb: Crazy Ideas: Overton’s Window and the Political Imagination

Posted on: March 22, 2011

This post by Alex Himmelfarb on Overton’s Window is an imperative read for people interested in changing public perception and creating room for politicians to do the right thing.

See the blog post here: Crazy Ideas: Overton’s Window and the Political Imagination


Posted by himelfarb on February 14, 2011 · 16 Comments

A small argument about whether the government should be raising taxes broke out at a recent dinner party, quite possibly in response to something I said. Some argued that tax increases were just a terrible idea given that Canadians were already suffering tax fatigue and many were struggling from paycheck to paycheck, not to mention the supposed economic impact depending on which taxes and how much. Others argued that we had for over a decade cut taxes far too much and the wrong taxes at that, creating a structural deficit and depriving government of the resources to respond to the current challenges of climate change, deteriorating environment and infrastructure, an aging population, deepening inequality and declining productivity – take your pick. For them the issue was not whether but which, how much and who pays. And some argued that tax increases were probably a terrible idea but inevitable sooner or later, probably later.

The conversation touched on the role of government, declining trust, individualism, maybe the kind of conversation more common these days in the kitchen than in the cabinet or parliament. In any case, what was most striking amidst all the disagreement was the one area of full consensus: a politician would have to be crazy even to consider proposing tax increases on individual Canadians. While I am not sure that I agree that you would have to be nuts, I seem to be in a small minority. So just what is going on here?

We seem to have many “no go”areas in Canadian politics – taxes certainly, but Constitutional change, energy policy, maybe even health care reform seem also to be taboo. More than one pundit has worried about our failure to face these issues and wondered what it is about us that limits what we are willing to debate publicly. How can we hope to shift direction or begin to meet the great challenges if this particular brand of political correctness takes the most difficult issues off the table? But Canada is clearly not alone here. In fact, this question of how to expand the range of permissible political ideas was a preoccupation of the late Joseph Overton in the nineties when he was with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank in the U.S.

Overton’s concern was why some of the libertarian policies he and his colleagues subscribed to were regarded as on the fringe or over the top. The question, “why are good ideas (good to him, that is) sometimes treated as just plain crazy” inspired his theory of “the window of political possibility”, renamed after his death, “the Overton Window“. People, the theory goes, are typically open to only a very limited range or window of issues and options, and they don’t just disagree with ideas outside this frame, they find them outlandish, radical, foolish or “unthinkable”. And of course any politician pursuing such ideas is likely to pay a heavy price — so mostly they don’t.

Overton’s interest was how the window is opened or moved, how “crazy” ideas become acceptable. His theory sets out the degrees of acceptability as moving from “unthinkable” to “policy” through the following hierarchy:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

Of course, what’s in the window isn’t static. The competition of ideas and interests is ongoing, often in the background, and what is acceptable – or crazy – shifts over time, but within limits and slowly. And in this competition, the wealthy and powerful always have advantage – though just how much varies. As well, the government of the day always has an advantage as they can move the window through concrete actions. But, again, such change is inevitably slow especially if it seeks to go against the tide.

Governments only very rarely undertake game-changing initiatives such as Constitutional Patriation or Free Trade. Some political leaders may sometimes be able to open the window to new ideas by virtue of their charisma or courage or some combination – but this is rare, the risks high — and more than one political theorist has cautioned that it is safer and more enduring to go for the great idea than the great leader. In any case, no leader can do this alone either from within government or from the opposition. And if they try and fail it may become even more difficult to gain acceptance for their ideas – witness the Green Shift. More often, then, big change comes in small steps. We have seen this with governments of all stripes. We saw this with the freedom to marry, also a reminder of the important leveling role of the courts.

Overton and his colleagues were interested in how to change the public receptivity to ideas, how to create more room for politicians to talk about and act on the previously unspeakable. They understood not only that most big ideas originate outside of government but also that the room needed for politicians to tackle these ideas is also created outside of government. This work was part of a broader decades-long movement of free-market neoliberals and social conservatives trying to counter what they perceived to be the prevailing liberal bias in U.S. political culture. George Lakoff tracks this movement back to the seventies and an influential memo written by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to the National Chamber of Commerce. Powell expressed alarm at how students, angry about the Vietnam War, were becoming dangerously anti-business and at how universities had become hot beds of “liberalism” or “worse”. He argued that reversing the tide would need a concerted strategy and considerable investment. Today it is hard to imagine that this was ever a problem.

In Canada, one might point to the Calgary “Winds of Change” Conference in 1996 which brought neoliberals, libertarians and social conservatives together to forge an alliance of the Reform and Progressive Conservative Parties. Holding them together was a shared concern about the dominance of the Liberals and their ideas and, while the Conference did not yield a consensus for coalition, it did help create something of a movement with a commitment, similar to their U.S.equivalents, to move the policy agenda, to open Overton’s window.

While Overton comes from a particular ideological position, his work and that of his colleagues may be instructive for all of us who want our political leaders debating the real issues and the real options. Lakoff tracks their unmistakable progress over the last few decades with admiration if not envy and equally with concern about the ineffectiveness of his progressive colleagues in communicating their ideas as convincingly. People of the left and right, whatever these words might mean, all want to get their ideas into the public domain and influence the direction of our country. This is as it should be. Canadians benefit from real choices and honest debate. If politics is the art of the possible and most governments manage from the centre, the danger is that difficult options may be excluded from consideration and difficult issues, especially those remote from our experience, global poverty or climate change for example, may be ignored. Democracy is the winner when we expand the range of possibility, enlarge the window and with it our political imagination.

Thus, perhaps we can draw some insights, for better and for worse, from the successes of Overton and his colleagues for improving the quality of political discourse and democracy and for making sure that the issues of greatest importance and the competing options for addressing them are in the window.

1. Words matter

Overton’s solution was deceptively simple: Talking about “unthinkable ideas” publicly, talking about them a lot and well, will gradually open the window and allow political leaders to join the conversation. Actions may speak louder than words – but words can shape which actions are permissible.

For example, Overton understood that getting new ideas on the agenda was one of the major impacts of social movements. He and his colleagues understand how historically the fear of socialist movements fueled a lot of the social development that politicians would otherwise not likely have considered. When Powell wrote his memo, the equality movements of the sixties and seventies were having their impact. Today we are seeing a very different kind of energy in the unmistakable clout of the Tea Party. Among the most successful movements for pushing difficult but important ideas are “movement/parties” which compete politically but with a focus on “education” rather than winning. For many decades, the CCF/NDP played that role in Canada, taking the risks and paying the price for advocating controversial policies that mainstream parties wouldn’t otherwise take on. In the nineties in particular, the Reform Party played a similar role though opening the window in a very different direction. But “third” and fourth parties will inevitably shift back and forth between being movements focused on ideas to parties focused on winning or they will disappear or be absorbed. Movements are important for reinvigorating democracy but live off energy that is extremely difficult to control or even predict in the short-term or sustain for the long-term so they tend to wax and wane, come and go. At the same time, we are watching the enormous impact of new social media movements. Who knows what the future of the internet means for social action and the speed of moving ideas and windows.

Non-governmental advocacy organizations have historically also played an important role in pushing unpopular issues on the agenda and continue to do so. But even in the best of times those which try to speak for the poor and despised are constrained by their resources and the tension between advocacy and service – and these are not the best of times. In Canada, for example, some decades back, the federal government killed core funding in favour of buying services from these organizations, thus making many less independent and arguably less vocal. The absence of core funding combined with the Revenue Canada rules that restrict advocacy for organizations who wish charitable status has deprived our democracy of important voices.

In any case, those who took up Powell’s challenge and their Canadian counterparts focused their energies elsewhere; the real action has been in the world of “think tanks” and the public marketing of political ideas. We have always had think tanks where smart and engaged people explored long-range strategy, writing papers largely for other experts and policy thinkers. But for most of us, the work was obscure and largely inaccessible. But almost immediately after the Powell memo, new think tanks started springing up all over and unlike their often academic predecessors, these new outfits focused on political communications, on persuasion, and, as Lakoff documents, they have become awfully good at it. Which brings us to the second conclusion.

2. Money talks

Ok, Ok, I know, this is not entirely a novel insight but over the last three decades the amount of investment in self-styled “conservative” think tanks in the U.S. and here in Canada has been staggering. Certainly think tanks come in all political shades but the blue ones not surprisingly have most of the money. They are many, well-financed, and good at what they do. They have also been very successful at getting media attention. Have a look at the work of Thomas Frank on U.S. think tanks, though he is admittedly partisan. In Canada, University of Ottawa’s Paul Saurette, among others, has traced a similar patternparticularly since the Calgary Conference. An ongoing SFU study has found that here too think tanks such as the Fraser Institute and the Manning Centre are more successful than their progressive counterparts at getting media attention. Their reports are treated as news, pretty uncritically as if they were neutral science, often on the front page, and complemented by opinion pieces written by the think tanks themselves. One needn’t even touch the issue of media concentration and bias to understand that the luxury of resources to prepare media-ready copy combined with a huge “media hole” begging to be filled gives the ideas of well-funded think tanks privileged position. Taken together with the revelations about how much Koch brothers money is going into the Tea Party movement, this is at the very least a reminder that the extraordinary level of inequality we are seeing both in the U.S. and here is profoundly threatening to democracy.

3.” In your face” works but at great cost

Overton’s colleagues added another dimension to his ideas the results of which play daily on the Fox network and morning talk radio. Drawing on persuasion theory, and what is called the door-in-the-face technique, it soon became apparent that one could have even greater success in moving ideas into the window by escalating the discourse. By taking ever more extreme positions, even less acceptable than those you wish to promote, and doing so over and over, a new frame or reference point may be set. The ideas you really want to promote start to look moderate in comparison. The window is moved. To take an example that interested Overton himself, if one wanted to legitimize home schooling and school vouchers, why not propose that government get out of the business of education altogether. Suddenly, your proposals seem pretty tame. Simply put, the best way to sell a crazy idea is to propose an even crazier one. Interesting that last year Glen Beck who has become the poster pundit for this approach published a novel entitled Overton’s Window.

Accompanying this rhetorical escalation are constant attacks against competing ideas and their proponents, attacks that rely on caricature – elitist, socialist, death panels, leftards – and personal smears rather than debate and evidence. Indeed, increasingly the strategy
includes attacking the evidence and those who produce it, creating doubt about just what the problem may be if indeed there is one. We saw this for decades with smoking. We see this now with climate change. In this context, it’s interesting to take note of the attacks by one of our newest think tanks on Statistics Canada’s latest crime report.

The barrage of loopy ideas and attack, the constancy, the noise, must at least create doubt, and doubt may be the first step to opening the window for new ideas and probably closing the window for others. If Overton’s original thoughts help us understand how to broaden the window and open debate, his successors don’t want debate so much as victory. The over the top and in your face probably works to change what’s in the window — but it keeps the window narrow, inhibits real debate and therefore hurts the democratic process.


So where to? What are the lessons? For starters, there’s a message here for think tanks across the spectrum. As Paul Saurette has urged, it matters what Canadians are thinking and think tanks that want to influence the agenda had better get better at communicating to citizens. Of course, it is harder for those with less money, but we can already see somehopeful signs.

There’s a message for media too – stop treating think tank reports as news without context and without some analysis of the data and arguments.

For governments, in the long-term, priority number one must be to reduce the level of inequality in Canada – our democracy demands no less. In the short-term, governments need to find some way of leveling the playing field, starting with how they fund research and advocacy. For one thing, they could restore core funding for Non-governmental organizations and change the Revenue Canada rules on advocacy. At the very least, they ought to be defending and strengthening institutions like Statistics Canada and the Parliamentary Budget Office that attempt to rise above the noise and provide Canadians with information untainted by ideology.

And finally, for all of us, we ought to be saying “enough” to personal smears and caricatures masquerading as debate and we might also take advantage of some of the new ways to get directly engaged.


Hoggan PR Tip #26: Use the Language of Accountability

Posted on: March 4, 2011

In a climate of mistrust, generalities are more likely to alienate than reassure your audience.

If you’re talking about something that people cannot measure or confirm, you’re probably saying something that they won’t believe. This is particularly the case for companies trying to communicate about sustainability.

To be credible, claims must be specific and measurable.

Generalities will only expose you to charges of hypocrisy, especially if it can be argued that another part of your operation is not currently run on a sustainable basis.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

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Hoggan PR Tip #25: Set the Record Straight

Posted on: February 28, 2011

If your company’s spokesperson is misquoted or a news story contains serious errors, correct them.

Call or write the reporter directly.

Be courteous – don’t blame or scold – but be firm in asking for a correction, even if that means moving on to senior editors or producers with your complaint.

Also, ask that the Internet versions of the story be updated or removed. It is important to ensure the error does not pop up in future stories about your company. That said, don’t expect the correction to receive the same prominence as the original story. Except in the rarest of circumstances, they never will.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

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Hoggan PR Tip #24: Credibility Rests in Good Actions, Not Good PR

Posted on: January 28, 2011

Mistrust is often the obstacle to successful corporate communications.

In an age of skepticism – it not outright cynicism – the public in inclined to dismiss corporate messaging as self-serving and therefore suspect.

Communicating in such an environment is 80 percent about what you do and 20 percent about what you say.

If, for example, you are trying to distinguish yours as a sustainable company, emphasize action and avoid inadvertantly overstating your sustainable commitments.

Focus your communications on specific business practices that others can measure and judge. Credibility will build slowly, but on a solid foundation.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

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Hoggan PR Tip #23: Keep Step with Time

Posted on: January 26, 2011

When releasing news, it’s important to think about timing – to make sure that information and spokespeople are available when reporters need them, well before deadline.

This becomes complicated on national stories when you’re dealing with media in different time zones.

For example, while it’s tempting to give local reporters priority access for interviews, that could cost you coverage if you let West Coast media go first – causing Eastern reporters to blow their deadlines.

So, make a national plan, and if you have to, give priority to those whose timelines are tightest.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

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Hoggan PR Tip #22: Choose Hope, Not Hype

Posted on: January 18, 2011

Good leaders inspire hope, not panic.

If you try to motivate your audience by fear or by threat, that audience will turn off.

This applies in all business settings, but it’s especially applicable when urging action on the environment. Bleak future scenarios engender paralysis. It’s also bad strategy to shame people – to embarrass them with their own contradictions.

If you point out that what people do doesn’t align with what they say, they are more likely to change their attitude than their actions.

People want and need encouragement.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

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PR Tip #21: Be Brief and Well-Rehearsed

Posted on: January 10, 2011

Everyone appreciates brevity; no one ever complains if you take less time than you are given. Audiences also like a bit of polish – the clarify and familiarity you can only achieve if you are well prepared.


Run through your presentation alone and, then again, with someone whose feedback you trust.

See if you can make your points in less time.

Some people find it helps to write out their whole presentation, even if they ultimately use a bullet-point reminder sheet. A prepared text helps you organize your thoughts and will prevent you rambling on unnecessarily.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

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PR Tip #20: Perception as Reality

Posted on: January 4, 2011

In crisis, there is often a gap between public perception and operational reality. But if the public thinks you have a crisis, you have a crisis- no matter what your engineers say. And the larger the gap between what you know and what the public believes, the bigger the threat to your credibility.

Here is what you must do:

  • Identify why communication gaps exist (normal media skepticism, industry reputation, rumors).
  • Distribute information that addresses those gaps.
  • Recruit credible experts to confirm your facts.

Close the gap or the reputational crisis will long outlast the operational crisis.

This is part of an ongoing series of practical public relations tips taken from Jim Hoggan’s book, Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public.

See all the tips Jim has posted so far on this page here: Jim Hoggan’s PR Tips Series.

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