Toward Wiser Public Judgment

How can policymakers engage the public in constructive dialogue about complex issues like climate change? Daniel Yankelovich, a co-founder of Public Agenda and a man who has tracked social and market trends for decades, writes on that topic. Toward Wiser Public Judgment, published in 2010, is one of his books.

Simply polling public opinion is not enough to really understand how the public thinks about a complex issue, Yankelovich argues. He believes the public’s “learning curve” begins with consciousness raising, slowly goes through a stage of confronting and working through emotional resistance, including wishful thinking, and only later, perhaps after years or decades, reaches a stable cognitive and emotional resolution. An example would be the public’s evolving attitudes about gay and lesbian rights, attitudes that changed dramatically over a period of years.

Providing information to the public about a complex issue is important, of course, but new information is rarely a decisive factor by itself. People’s emotions, stories and examples they learn about, the views of family and friends, and other factors besides expert information play a critical role in the evolution of people’s opinions. Policy and subject matter experts, as well as the media, overemphasize the importance of information, Yankelovich says. They believe that laying out facts and figures for the public will be enough to change minds.

Several institutions, including Public Agenda, Viewpoint Learning, and the Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forum, have experimented with ways to engage the public in constructive dialogue about complex problems. In one approach, for example, before bringing together members of the public background materials are prepared that lay out options, such as three or four different value-based positions or scenarios reflecting a range of the public’s views, rather than presenting advocacy positions written from the perspective of experts, as in a typical debate format.

“On issue after issue,” according to two people who have used this approach (Steven Rosell and Heidi Gantwerk), “we have found that when citizens are given an opportunity to look at the bigger picture, to connect the dots, and to engage in dialogue with others from very different backgrounds and perspectives, they think and act more like citizens and less like consumers, they develop a shared community perspective, and they are ready to make and support big changes to advance the common good.”

Using these principles, there have been efforts to engage the public in dialogues related to climate change. For example, in 2013 Viewpoint Learning in partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists convened two two-day-long dialogues on the subject of sea-level rise. One conclusion was that starting with possible actions (responding to sea-level rise) is a better starting point than dialogues based on ideology or scientific argument because it more quickly moves people along the learning curve and allows participants to find more areas of common ground.

Although Americans believe that climate change is a reality, the issue still ranks as a low priority for the public. Engaging large numbers of people in face-to-face dialogue might lead to more mature judgments but would take a long time and be expensive. Nonetheless, it might be worthwhile to conduct a series of structured dialogues in one or two states, as a pilot effort, focusing on several value-based options for state policies regarding climate change. Perhaps enough influential stakeholders, such as mayors or newspaper editors, could be brought together with a wide range of ordinary citizens in an effort to move public opinion farther along the learning curve toward more mature, considered opinions. For example, would the public be willing to pay more for energy if that were one of the state’s options for responding to climate change (an option presented with explanations)? One assumes that policymakers and the public could benefit from such a carefully planned dialogue.

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