The Wedginess of Communicating Statistics

by Michael Erard on February 14, 2013 · 0 comments

in Framer Reads the News,Metaphor Man

You may have noticed that scientists – as well as other professionals – frequently point to, write, talk, think about, and argue in terms of graphs, charts, and other visualizations of data. Sometimes, these visualizations are complex enough that they need to be explained, and in some cases, those explanations themselves give shape to the debate.

Take, for instance, the climate change “wedge.”

The wedge was introduced by Princeton University physicist Robert Socolow and ecologist Stephen Pacala in a 2004 Science article as a way to communicate about approaches to reduce the effects of climate change. Originally they proposed fifteen “wedges” – specific ways to reduce global CO2 emission output using existing technologies that would take a wedge-shaped chunk out of the ever-rising line marking carbon emissions. Such wedges represent the carbon emissions that would have to be halted in order to stop temperature increases and “stabilize” climate change. Pictured here is a graph from the National Resource Defense Council that show six of these “stabilization wedges.”

NRDC-wedges

As a way to communicate about carbon emissions and interventions to reduce them, how successful has the “stabilization wedge” been? Using Google hits as one measure, we might say not very; that exact phrase and related ones (such as “climate wedge”) barely get 100,000 hits combined. Neither is “wedge” a very frequent word in English, and it’s most often used in golfing contexts (for example, “sand wedge”) or in cooking (“lemon wedge”). We might also say that carbon emissions have not, in fact, decreased, nor has public or international will to reduce carbon emissions shown much progress. Using these sorts of hard measures, “stabilization wedge” hasn’t done very much.

On the other hand, Socolow himself has suggested that “stabilization wedge” has been very successful – maybe too much so, because it made carbon emission reductions so easy to think about that people assumed it was easy to do. In a 2011 talk, he said that he regrets the term:

 ”With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn’t impossible, so it must be easy,” Socolow says.  ”There was a whole lot of simplification, that this is no big deal.”

He said his theory was intended to show the progress that could be made if people took steps such as halving our automobile travel, burying carbon emissions, or installing a million windmills. But instead of providing motivation, the wedges theory let people relax in the face of enormous challenges, he now says.

(This reporting on Socolow’s disavowal created a micro-controversy, because Socolow responded immediately after his remarks were quoted to say that he stands by the 2004 paper’s call to action. Later, he published another commentary in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that affirmed the 2004 paper as well as the concept of wedges.)

Rather than focus on the carbon emissions debate itself – or what Socolow thinks about wedges – I want to make some observations about the wedge as a communications device.

What is a wedge?  From a FrameWorks perspective, the wedge is something between a metaphor and social math. It’s a metaphor because it describes the phenomenon of emissions stabilization using another domain (here, a very simple geometric figure). It’s also a kind of social math because it’s transforming numbers (or a mapping of numbers) into something concrete that people will more find more usable.

You could say that that “stabilization wedge” is a tool for making the emissions reduction graph sticky – as well as achieving some other effects.

Are wedges good? The “stabilization wedge” seems to defuse crisis types of thinking about climate change issues, and from FrameWorks perspective, that’s a good thing.  Our communications tools work because they change people’s posture, from being frozen in crisis to leaning into action. Clearly, “wedges” have that effect.

Is wedginess good? “Wedginess” is my neologism for the way that “stabilization wedge” works – that is, it’s a word or phrase that describes a geometic or spatial quality of a line on a graph as a stand-in for the phenomenon. The wedgy is also a stand-in for metaphors that are directly related to that phenomenon. Maybe it seems odd to have to explain a graph. But you give people a powerful communications lever when you enable them to grasp a graph automatically, point to it, talk about it, and use it to generate other ideas.

There are other wedgy phrases out there. It turns out that scientists aren’t the only wedgy communicators:

Peak oil. Here the “peak” refers to the fall-off in petroleum extraction, not increases in petroleum depletion. The fall-off occurs because the price of extraction has risen too high. As a term, this is highly sticky, despite the fact that it’s easily misinterpreted as oil depletion.

Headstart fadeout. Here the “fadeout” refers to the apparent decline in cognitive, affective, and social benefits of Head Start programs for poor children.

Fiscal cliff. Contrary to the way “fiscal cliff” was wielded in recent US Congressional debates, the “cliff” originally described a line on a graph: a drastic drop in government revenue. “Fiscal cliff” was used this way by Henry Waxman in 1991 to describe a voter initiative in Oregon that limited property tax increases.

Does your organization have a single chart or graph that captures the dilemma or problem that you’re working on, and how do you talk about that graph? Do you have wedgy ways of communicating about it? 

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