Monday, August 31, 2015

Why Johnny can't understand climate: functional illiteracy and the rise of "unpropaganda"

Image from OECD Skills Outlook 2013. These data show that most people in OECD countries have very limited capabilities of managing contrasting information. This lack of skill is the source of traditional propaganda (presenting to people a single side of the issue) but also of the rise of "unpropaganda;" that is, presenting to people so much contrasting information that they can't arrive to a firm conclusion. The result is uncertainty and inaction. Unpropaganda has been used with great effect on the issue of climate change. 

The "official" story that you normally find about "literacy" is that people all over the world are becoming more and more literate, that is, more and more able to read and write. Yet, there is another side to literacy: it is the concept termed, "literacy proficiency" that classifies people according to their ability to understand what they read.

A recent survey on this point has been published by OCSE. It is a massive document of 460+ pages that examines the abilities of understanding and processing text by citizens of OCSE countries. The result is a subdivision in 5 "literacy levels," as you see in the figure at the beginning of this post. You can find the exact definition of these levels on page 64 of the document, but, summarizing, the lowest levels, below 1, 1, and 2, are relative to people able to arrive only at the simplest levels of understanding of a text. Even at level 3, one may be able to perform inferences based on the text being read, but the texts are said to contain "no conflicting information". Only at levels 4 and 5, some capability of critically discerning data from competing information is required.
As usual, whatever you read on the Web should be evaluated with plenty of caution. What is the reliability of these data? Why five levels and not more, or less? What do these results mean? Digesting the long OECD report is not an easy task, but I think that, first of all, we can say what this classification is not: those who don't reach the highest levels are not necessarily stupid. For instance, my gypsy friends would fare very badly on the test, since most of them are really illiterate, not just functionally. But I can assure you that they are extremely smart, just of a different kind of smartness.

Then, the gist of the OECD paper is not rocket science: the tests just measure people's ability to process written text and extract its meaning And if you are classed at, say, level 2, it means that you failed the tests for level 3, for instance showing that you are able to "construct meaning across larger chunks of text". And if you are classed level 3, it means you failed the tests for level 4, for instance to identify and define "competing information". In short, it seems that, everywhere in the OECD countries, most people (typically more than 90% of the population) are not able to critically evaluate contrasting information.

The OECD report doesn't use the term "functionally illiterate", but it seems that it is normally used to describe levels 1 and 2; that is, people not skilled enough to be able to cope in full with the present complex society. It is a shocking result: nearly 50% of the population of the "rich" OECD countries are in this condition (*). Even if you limit the definition of functional illiteracy to level 1, it is still a large fraction of the population, probably much larger than most of us would have thought.

Are these results applicable to all forms of communication, including, for instance, what people hear on TV? This is not discussed in the OECD report, but I think it is hard to escape the conclusion that, yes, there shouldn't be a large difference. The data refer to people can read, and if some of them score so poorly despite being able to understand written words, why should they score differently when confronted with spoken words? Then, once you have seen these results, much of the ongoing political antics suddenly acquire a new significance. Some politicians, it seems, have attained success by tailoring their message to levels easily understandable by the large fraction of "functionally illiterate" people in their countries. Mr. Berlusconi, in Italy, is a good example; nowadays Mr. Trump seems to be using the same tactics in the US. This way of communicating is the essence of what we call "propaganda" (nowadays "public relations" or "consensus building"). It consists in presenting only one side of each issue, conveniently packaged in simple slogans: no subtleties whatsoever. It works: most people won't, normally, seek for, or consider, contrasting information.

And now let's go to the question I wanted to examine in this post: what is the relevance of the literacy proficiency data on the climate change issue? As we all know, climate change is an extremely complex subject that requires years of study to be understood in its details. However, the climate change issue can be summarized to a simple statement that says: "if we keep burning fossil fuels, we will face a major disaster". It is the same kind of statement that says, "If you keep smoking, your risk lung cancer". And to understand that, you don't need to be an expert in epidemiology. Most issues can be presented in ways which can be understood by people at all the levels of the literacy scale who, as I said, are not stupid and perfectly know what's bad and what's good for them.

The problem with the literacy scale is another one: it has to do with the debate on climate change. Here, we see the development of a communication technology that exploits the lack of functional literacy of a large fraction of the public. We may call this technology "unpropaganda." Traditional propaganda (literally, "what is to be propagated") aims at passing a message by eliminating or hiding all contrasting information. Unpropaganda, instead, aims at stopping a message from propagating by presenting a lot of contrasting information to a public unable to fully evaluate it.

Unpropaganda works, and it works wonders. The OECD data show that no more than about 5% of the population in most OECD countries can extricate themselves out of a complex debate involving a lot of contrasting information. Now, look at the "debate" on climate science and you see that the idea of presenting "both sides" of the issue is far from meaning a balanced information. It is a strategy to confuse the public. It is not so expensive; well within the reach of the lobbies that would lose money from serious action against climate change. And it is incredibly effective. Look at the Gallup polls: note how the public is confused, easily swayed by irrelevant information ("climategate") or by false information ("the pause").

So, how do we fight climate unpropaganda? For one thing, don't expect that governments will work at cultivating people's ability of reasoning. I may be a conspirationist, but I guess that most governments are perfectly happy if their citizens are not so greatly skilled in evaluating information (despite all the talk in the OCSE report on the need of more skilled citizens). Then, there is little that can be done to change a situation that has evolved over several decades of mass media development. Unpropaganda is cheap and it works very well; it will stay with us for quite a while.

Yet, understanding how unpropaganda works is a major step forward. For one thing, it is a further nail in the coffin of the so called "information deficit" model, that is the idea that if we explain to the public how things stand with climate change, they will understand and will do something about it. It doesn't work: the public does not lack information, they have too much of it! They are simply unable to make their minds. There follows that we should concentrate on producing high quality information, recognizable as such. It doesn't mean that we should retreat behind the paywall of scientific journals, but that we shouldn't engage in that kind of low level debate typical of troll-infested blog comments. In other words, we shouldn't run after deniers, trying to demonstrate that they are in error. That only generates confusion.

Then, note how the denial side has been reacting so rabidly to the finding that 97% of the working climate scientists agree with the idea that climate change exists and it is mainly human caused. The 97% meme, indeed destroys the very basis of their unpropaganda strategy. It shows that there is a broad consensus among scientists about the issue. That's something that people at all literacy levels can correctly perceive. And, let me repeat it once more, no matter what their literacy level is, most people are NOT stupid. If a doctor you trust tells you to quit smoking; you may not be an epidemiologist, but you know that you'd better quit. If 97% of the world's climate scientists (and the Pope, too) say that we should quit burning fossil fuels, then you may not be a climate scientist, but you know we'd better do something about that. So, that's another point on which to concentrate our efforts.

Not easy, I understand, but, as Sun Tzu said, if you know your enemy and you know thyself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

(*) It is some kind of a mystery why Italy, the country that once produced Dante Alighieri, fares so badly in the literacy list. On the other hand, after seeing these data, you are not surprised any more that Italy is the country that produced Berlusconi.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)