We are what we think

We are what we think: Why the press fails us and how to fix it

* Michael Tobis
Posted 8:32 PM on 24 Jun 2009
by Michael Tobis

We are what we think. With our thoughts we create the world.—Buddha

OK, first, let me hasten to say that I find myself, as most any physical scientist would, irritated by the ancient quote above.

I expect a modern person to know, though the Buddha may or may not have known, that the logic of the physical universe is so intricate and so precise that mere human thoughts are grotesquely insufficient to create it, that some objective reality must exist.

What You Think About Determines What You Think

There is another sense, though, in which it is precisely true that we create the world with our thoughts. We live in a world both of artifice and of nature. Our environment shapes our minds and our minds shape our environment. What we are thinking about matters.

Consider the matter of Iran, for instance.

By now everybody’s talking about Iran, but early last week there was immense frustration directed at the major media in a small niche community, for ignoring the story entirely. That niche community was Twitter users.

It was an unusual week among Twitterphiles. We were experiencing the world much as one did when the Berlin Wall was coming down, with a sense that noble events of great and auspicious consequence were happening in the world, that one should at the least fervently wish for the success and safety of those of pure heart, and that little else could possibly have comparable relevance, not even climate change or health care or the economic, um, thing.

But if you were not the sort of person to use Twitter to get news, you might have barely registered that something was going on in Iran. You may have had a mild interest in the events but you are still a bit confused about who possibly stole what from whom, and what Twitter could possibly have to do with it.

This fact in itself is an interesting part of the story. Not only was Twitter an important player, your level of interest in Twitter was at one point a strong predictor of your level of interest in the outcome of the whole crisis in Iran!

Isn’t that strange?

Perhaps not. The ideas that fill our minds are the ideas we are exposed to every day. One reason we were upset was because we saw events of immense importance taking place, and a press that was treating it as a non-story. Recall the substantially similar events in the Republic of Georgia six years earlier. There was some news coverage, but it didn’t take over our consciousness, because none of us were watching media where the story was pervasive.

What we think about is determined by what we experience, and what we experience is determined by what we think about. As a result, we live side-by-side in different worlds.

Idea Clusters

Comparisons of how different groups, be they professional or ethnic, construe related ideas are usually revealing. Trouble and misunderstanding often arises when the habits of mind of different communities of interest are brought to bear on the same subject.

These ideological clusters emerge from habits of mind. The habits of mind emerge from language, and from the accessibility of concepts. Russians, who have no word for blue, but rather two separate words for light blue and for dark blue, apparently are quicker to distinguish light blue from dark blue objects than speakers of other languages. And then there is the infamous precision of Inuit with regard to snow and ice, which may or may not be apocryphal, but I suspect there is something to it. Have you ever listened to a conversation about snow among skiers?

It can be stunning how differently different subcultures address related ideas. Economists vs energy providers, reporters vs bloggers, cat lovers vs bird lovers, industrialists versus environmentalists, ecologists versus climate physicists, scientists vs politicians, journalists vs entertainers, engineers vs economists. The consequences of differing vocabularies and habits of thought are everywhere and are increasing as the world becomes more crowded, complex and interdependent.

Economists’ faith in eternal growth as opposed to the environmentalist’s fear of imminent doom is a case in point. It leads me and a few stalwart others to a synthesis position: an intent to find patterns of thought and action that avoid the doom associated with compulsive growth, and instead create a reasonable steady state economy. This is the idea cluster that I’m trying to participate in building.

An idea cluster (or maybe let’s call it a “meme complex”… ideas?) is much bigger than a meme. It is sometimes identical to an ideology, but it isn’t always that. It is a cultural predisposition to notice certain things and think about them in certain ways.

Where Idea Clusters Come From

To see where we’re going it often helps to consider where we’ve been.

In the past century, the century of mass media, it was the media that mostly provided the language, the Lego blocks, the molecules of thought for most people. Tiny little cultural clusters coalesced under the pressure of very powerful aggregators and distributors of information, not just through news but even through entertainment.

In America, the news media developed a set of scruples that reporting and commentary functions should be kept very distinct. The reporting people in particular were taught this as a bedrock ethical principle, and continue to defend it fiercely. A news medium is an economic entity, but its success depends on public trust, so the thinking went. Thus the reporter should be scrupulously “neutral”. Because the ownership wanted an outlet for its own ideas, the “editorial” sandbox was set up for them.

So the raw materials for thought, the mindsets, the idea clusters, become 1) the world of commerce, trade, profit, wealth, “free enterprise” to give it its triumphal name 2) the world of strife, controversy, secrets kept and secrets breached, objectives baldly stated and objectives obscured, speech honest and speech mendacious, in other words the gritty world of “muckraking”. Even the opposition to these ideas was framed in the same terms: “the workers control the means of production”, “power to the people” “el pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” etc.

For a long time, this model served well enough. When there is a local question, say a road bond or new convention center, the tension between fiscal conservatism and boosterism is very well suited for this constellation: there is a horse race of two ideas, both resonate with the values of the community, no special expertise is required to understand the issues, and eventually, one side or the other will win. (Then, if the project is approved it will be executed well, indifferently or badly, again stories which the traditional media are well suited to examine.)

In the past, even national questions were somewhat more disjoint than they are now. Everything wasn’t deeply enmeshed in everything else, specifically because the American landscape wasn’t very crowded. So for the most part, even national issues had a local, parochial flavor; a public dance of debate, a backstage drama of arm twisting and intrigue, and on the whole, an increasingly homogeneous national character that matched circumstances well enough.

Thus emerges our habitual mental model: “there are two sides to every story”. Everybody bends the
truth in their direction. The public interest is the sum of every individual’s self interest. Some people are especially influential because they control large institutions or large pots of money. Decisions are based on cultural affinities, alliances, and exchanges of political capital.

But the questions we face now are very different. Try to map this habit of mind onto questions of managing the earth as a tightly coupled and disrupted system and what do you get?

There’s an nerdy joke among scientists, that a mathematician who knows what to do when confronted with a burning building will set non-burning buildings alight, thereby reducing it to the previous problem. When there is only one side to a story, the press will manufacture another.

The press has a natural cultural affinity for politics, especially the brawling, sometimes cynical and always entertaining world of local and state politics. The vocabularies and intellectual maps of the press and the politicans are closely entwined. Propositions have winners and losers, advocates and opponents. Eventually they are either enacted or defeated. Is that how we have managed to find ourselves in a world with people who are willing to be called “anti-environmentalists”? With our “friends” at Climate Depot, whose response to existential uncertainty on a planetary scale is mockery with a side order of cherry-picking?

I think so. This “opposition” is partly political opportunism of course, and it’s partly entertainment for a certain sarcastic and defensive state of mind, but ultimately it is a creation of the media, which given an issue of importance goes off in search of an opposition. And so we have reached a pretty pass. We’ve managed to create a constituency which stands in opposition to the persistence of a viable planet.

We are thinking about our circumstances as if we were in opposition to each other, but it is in the interest of everyone on a ship at sea, be they communist or jihadist, butcher or vegan, that the ship not sink. Why are the words we use to think about our collective future so adversarial?

They didn’t start out that way. If the issues came from the deliberations of scientists and academics, the discussions would remain polite, truth-seeking and unpolarized.

The polarization may not originally come from the press, but it is maintained by their conceptual maps, idea clusters, meme complexes. Polarization is embedded in their model of human activity as economic activity, of politics as contention. As a result, the words and ideas and conceptual maps that the public draws upon date from the industrial revolution: workers against capitalists, rich against poor, centralization of decisions versus distributed decision making, nation vs nation, lifestyle vs, lifestyle, sect vs. sect. Of course these problems have not gone away; of course they only make our new problems that much harder.

But our new problems do not look like that. And what we need is a new cognitive map.

A Better Word for Doom?

All of this is by way of addressing one of my perennial questions, which Andy Revkin again raised recently in a Dot Earth column:

If the science pointing to a rising risk of dangerous human interference with climate is settled, the thinking goes, then why aren’t people and the world’s nations galvanized?

People are casting about for the right words to describe our moral and existential quandary, words that will galvanize “action”.

Revkin points out an article on Seed where several very appropriate people (myself oddly excluded, hrmph) take up the topic with varying degrees of success. I am most sympathetic to Ann Kinzig’s approach. She concludes “If we accept that language is never neutral, why not adopt the terms that resonate with a broader swath of the public?” And indeed, I think language is never neutral, despite the protestations of people inculcated in journalistic culture. But what language should we use?

In the Seed article, Matt Nisbet, whose article with Chris Mooney is often credited (somewhat to my personal irritation since I’ve been going on about this stuff for fifteen years) with starting the conversation about how these ideas are communicated, starts off on the right foot but then stumbles into a rather feeble pair of examples:

The point is not to “sell” the public on climate change, but rather to use research on framing to create communication contexts that move beyond polarization, promote discussion, generate partnerships and connections, and that accurately convey the objective urgency of the problem. If the public feels like they are being marketed to, it will only continue to fuel additional polarization and perceptual gridlock. In shifting the frame on climate change, the goals should not be to persuade, but rather to start conversations with the public that recognize, respect, and incorporate differences in knowledge, values, perspectives, and goals.

In one prominent example of re-framing the debate, strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger have led the way by advocating that climate change should not be defined as a pollution problem that requires additional regulation but as an energy problem that provides an opportunity for growing the economy and creating jobs around clean technology. This reframing moves the debate beyond a narrow constituency of environmental advocates and opens the doors for a broader climate movement that includes labor, business leaders, and the investor class. The frame was a major emphasis by both presidential candidates in the past election, is emphasized in Al Gore’s “Repower America” television ads, and continues to be a dominant focus of the Obama administration.

A second framing strategy to move beyond perceptual gridlock is offered by scientists such as E. O. Wilson and Evangelical leaders such as Richard Cizik who frame environmental stewardship in terms of morality and ethics, engaging an Evangelical audience who might not otherwise pay attention to appeals on climate change. This frame is more than just a talking point or a rebranding of the issue: When scientists and religious leaders join together around shared values to work on a common problem, it builds bonds of trust that enables long-term collaboration and that breaks down prejudices.

Sorry, a shallow appeal to the fading paradigm of personal greed as one example, and a scolding from an evangelist on the other? Out of the frying pan and into two fires? What sort of help is that? Does that help you? It doesn’t help me, and it apparently doesn’t help Revkin who ends on a note of futility:

So what’s your view? Is the climate challenge one of communication style, of inadequate energy choices, of the hard-wired aspects of human nature?

My sense is there’s a big dose of the latter in this arena. Humans remain mainly focused on the here and now, and the worst outcomes in a warming world remain someday or somewhere. There’s still scant evidence we’re able to invest against inevitable shocks even when the danger is clear and local …

Stop the Presses!

Stop the presses, Andy. You missed the point. Of course you missed the point, or pretended to, because the problem is you.

No, not you, Revkin, personally. Revkin, (despite my constant harping about you) you are among the best of a bad lot, trying to bring a journalistic sensibility to a set of problems that do not map onto the intellectual style of the journalist. The point is that that style is serving us badly.

If f the science pointing to a rising risk of dangerous human interference with climate is settled, then why isn’t the press galvanized? Why do the stories run on page 13?

What we need is not a noun phrase, a new name for doom. The qeustion of “global this” or “climate that” is not going to help. We need a noun phrase embedded in a new way of thinking, an
approach to planetary maturity on a suddenly depleted world. You can call it Mrs. Renfro’s Corn Relish for all I care; it’s the context that matters.

The Sustainability Mindset

Sustainability on a crowded and finite world is a fundamental challenge to every culture and ideology that ever emerged on the growing and open world. Humans are vastly adaptable, but the cultural matrices in which we find ourselves are not. The buildings of Rome are mostly not new, but they are much newer than the routes that the streets take through them. The main street through Bastrop TX carries little sign of the Spanish empire but is still called El Camino Real.

Most of us don’t have a sustainability mindset.

Those few that think they do, mostly don’t. The green movement have a Luddite view, a romantic view perhaps workable on a planet with a tenth of its present population. They are, I think, good people with much to teach us, but they aren’t really facing up to the scale of the problem any more than most other people are, and their culture is actively suspicious of quantitative thinking. So much as I love greenies, as much as I hope the agrarian ideal eventually pans out, this isn’t the time for it. We have big, collective problems to solve and we need a big, collective way of thinking about it. And not even a Woody Guthrie-esque “one big union” is big enough. Big government, big business, these are part of the solution.

The press isn’t giving us the vocabulary to think about our circumstances.

Where the media are bored by a topic, the public is implicitly informed that the topic is unimportant. My experience of understanding that events unfolding in Iran were important before the press caught on was sadly familiar to me.

Just as early last week, when non-Twitterphiles were not thinking about Iran, most people aren’t thinking about a way out of our quandary. People may think there is no quandary, or they may think there is no way out, or they may think that some other “They” have everything under control. What they don’t think about is which approaches they would tolerate, what the menu of scenarios, getting uglier by the month, looks like. There’s little awareness of the nature of the choices we face, and hence little support for people in the position to make the decisions/

The media are, in fact, bored. Sustainability, for the most part, doesn’t map onto what excites them. Read my lips Andy Revkin.

There is no proper word for doom when that word only appears on page thirteen.

Even running the same old stuff on page 1 won’t do. The entire way we organize ourselves, not just our cultures and our subcultures, but everybody else’s too, have to change in ways that lack any precedent. And they will change, too. There is no maybe about that. The only maybe is how much suffering we will have to endure before our thoughts adequately conform, to the world we actually end up with. All of which depends, as Buddha says, on our thoughts.


I only know what to do in the broadest sense. We need to start thinking about the things we need to think about. All of us, not just a few wonks and nerds.

The new nominee to be head of research and development at EPA, Dr. Paul Anastas, puts it this way: “It’s not enough to simply care about the environment, you need to learn about the environment and understand it deeply.” I think this is precisely what I am saying. We need to develop a vocabulary of understanding; habits of mind that are planetary in scale and scope. We need to think globally.

We don’t need a friendlier name for doom. We need a 24 hour doom channel. God knows it’s not boring once you actually get the picture.

It’s the future. The press, or whatever replaces it, needs to read more like science fiction. Let’s talk about scenarios, about what problems nature will present us with, and about coalitions, how we will address them. Let’s talk about social organizing tools. Let’s look backward from 2400 AD and describe how we overcame the nation-state, the porliferation of mutually hostile religions and ideologies, and the ethic of greed. Let’s think about how to extract unity from hostility and fear. Let’s try to understand why surplus feels like poverty.

Let’s not wait for “Them” to rescue us. There is only us. And whatever ends up serving the purposes of the “front page”, let’s put the “stuff that matters” on it, and not just “what’s fit to print”.


(This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Republication in whole with attribution to “Michael Tobis, Austin TX” is encouraged.)

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