TCS Daily

PowerPoint Politics

By James Pinkerton - May 26, 2006 12:00 AM

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a moving picture worth? You know, as in Al Gore's new movie, "An Inconvenient Truth"? That motion picture is powerful and effective, and so it must be worth a lot to the environmental cause. Some viewers might dwell on the irony of cine-technology -- all those celluloid-y chemicals! all those kilowatts! all those people driving their fossil-fuelmobiles to the theater! -- being harnessed to aid the cause of Greenery, but in fact, the techno-irony gets twistier than that. The heart of the film, and the true source of its effectiveness, is Gore's lecture on the grave danger of global warming, in which he uses the latest high-tech tools to present a brainful of quantitative information.

Say what you will about Gore the man, but there's nothing stiff or boring about his lecture. As he says, it's "like a major hike through the Book of Revelation." And speaking of revelation, the former vice president has sure had his epiphany. In the film, he recalls asking himself, "How should I spend my time on this earth?" As we well know, the answer for him was environmental salvation: "It's almost as if a window was opened, and the future was visible." And what was visible was "not so much a political issue as a moral issue."

However, to help the rest of us come along, there's PowerPoint. I'm no scientist, so I will leave it to others, including Arizona State's Robert Balling, Roy Spencer, and others here at TCS, to wrestle with the actual skull stuff. But I do know a visceral good show when I see one. And "Inconvenient Truth" is just that, a good show, because PowerPoint is its own kind of guaranteed spectacle. It's like putting men in black tie -- everyone looks good in a tux.

As meeting-attendees everywhere know, what works about PowerPoint is the seductive combination of high tech and high touch. That is, someone is in the room with you, as a reassuring stage presence, but he or she has a pretty good arsenal of slam-banging special effects, too. So you are lulled along by the voice, even as you are pulled along by the charts and graphics, in which all the risers and trendlines invariably move in the desired direction. It's hard to argue with a good PowerPoint -- how d'ya think the Pentagon convinced itself that it was going to win in Iraq with so few troops?

Indeed, the weaker the underlying argument, the more one needs PowerPoint. Microsoft knows this truth; it asks on its website, "Got the presentation jitters?" Not to worry: "Use headlines, graphics, and your spoken words to gain confidence and engage your audience." Phew!

So maybe now we know how Gore got so good. People might remember him as the unctuous yet supercilious politician who blew the 2000 presidential election (how could the White House incumbent, or vice-incumbent, lose when 60 percent of voters said that the country was going on the "right track"?), but the Gore of "A Convenient PowerPoint" -- oops, make that "An Inconvenient Truth" -- is easy and genial. He says in the film that he has given this lecture a thousand times, and it shows. No presentation jitters for him. PowerPoint has made perfect.

Come to think of it, though, Gore visibly uses an Apple, so most likely he's using Keynote, which promises, "captivate any audience." Indeed, the software grabs us with this come-on: "Grab and hold your audience's attention with Keynote 3, the latest generation of Apple's stunning presentation software. . . . Whatever your story, make it into an exquisite presentation with laser-sharp graphics."

Unfortunately, the movie isn't all stunningly exquisite Keynote -- some of it is movie. And those parts drag, as when Gore rusticates back in Tennessee (you know, his home state), being soulful as he looks out across post-card-y landscapes: "You hear the leaves whispering in the wind... you hear the birds." There's some intense personal monologuing, as when he talks about his son's near-fatal car accident, or his sister's death from lung cancer. This would surely be affecting if heard in person, friend to friend, but on screen, it comes across as, well, like a show. Maybe it would have been more effective as a Keynote presentation.

Still, the film, as is, manages to get by. Gore has pulled in some heavy Hollywood hitters, including director Davis "Deadwood" Guggenheim, celebrity-wife-turned-activist Laurie David, and Jeff Skoll. Who's that last person? Jeff Skoll never did much of anything in Hollywood till he made a few billion from eBay, whereupon his film career took off; he and his money have been welcomed by the makers of such films as "Good Night and Good Luck" and "Syriana." With that sort of ideological pedigree, it's hard to see "Inconvenient Truth" as being a big hit financially, but it's hard to see how it can fail to be a darling of the critics. This is a message movie about greenhouse gases, and it's going to be judged on its message, not its technique.

And so before "Inconvenient Truth" enjoys its inevitable rendezvous with Oscar next spring, let me say a little bit about its message. I wrote earlier that I'm no scientist, but I do read the paper, and so I have at least an inkling that global warming is not the only issue confronting the planet, and so I can't make a final consideration of the film without earnestly considering the film's political impact. In the movie, Gore compares the threat of CO2 to the threat posed by Hitler, and so it's clear that he wants us to drop just about everything else in order to focus on the global-warming threat. But for my part, I don't agree, and I am not so sure that many others do, either. That's what's inconveniently missing from this film: a sense of scale, a sense of tradeoffs. If we choose to get more action against global warming, what will we get less of?

Bjorn Lomborg, to cite one person who is a legitimate academic, is happy to concede that global warming is a problem, caused by human action, and is happy to consider steps to remediate that problem. However, Lomborg insists that we consider other problems, too, and establish a system of prioritization. Is global warming a more serious threat to well-being than global AIDS? Or global drinking water? And what of other global issues, from nuclear power to nuclear war? Everything has a cost, or at least an opportunity cost, and yet "cost" doesn't fit into Gore's presentation; evidently we need other presentations to compare what we might gain to what we might lose.

Gore's unwillingness to grapple with costs takes us to the real problem of his style of politics: In his unwillingness seriously to consider tradeoffs, in his high-pressure Keynote-ing salesmanship for one view of the world, we sense that Gore the Environmentalist is really Gore the Moralist, more determined to scold us than to help us. The window of truth opened to him, and he's willing to let us look through it, too -- but we'd better care, or else. For Gore, the personal is the environmental; he's out to legislate eco-morality, an eco-morality in which glaciers and the snow atop Mt. Kilimanjaro matter more than any other concern.

Some people will savor Gore's Harvard-bred elitism, his Walden-like rhapsodies about trees and birds and polar bears. And who knows? Maybe "An Inconvenient Truth" will carry him back to the presidential arena on a Green carpet, as New York magazine suggests.

But at least for the time being, Gore won't succeed in making his case to anything resembling a majority of the population. "An Inconvenient Truth" has won over Hollywood and likeminded places, but it won't have much effect on voters, for the same reason that candidate Gore didn't have much effect on voters -- he hasn't found an issue that clicks with real people.

But he does have that Keynote-d lecture, and it's a pretty darn good show.

James Pinkerton is the TCS media critic and a fellow at the New America Foundation.



No Subject
... "An Inconvenient Truth" has won over Hollywood and likeminded places, but it won't have much effect on voters ...

I think it might, just not the effect Gore intends. Like MM's F911, AG's movie will likely energize conservatives who were feeling a bit neglected by Republicans lately.

Pinkerton's point is?
Gore's point, in approximate dollars: If we spend about a trillion bucks preventing global warming, we will avoid about ten trillion bucks of consequences. Pinkerton complains that Gore doesn't mention the costs, then he minimizes the consequences.

Pinkerton does not want to debate the "technical" issues, leaving those debates to TCS hack GW deniers and a political scientist (Lomborg) with no discernable training in physical sciences. Maybe he should play investigative reporter: The full weight of the world's top scientists believes human caused GW.

Pinkerton can't refute Gore's message, so he tries to obscure it by blowing smoke. He belittles Gore (ad hominem) first by deriding Power Point (digressing to compare PC and Mac versions). Then he describes the careers of others involved in making the movie. Then he discusses the 2000 election.

Gore's spokesman caught in his own arguments!
>"Gore's point, in approximate dollars: If we spend about a trillion bucks preventing global warming, we will avoid about ten trillion bucks of consequences."

Where did you find this? I couldn't find anywhere where Gore actually consistantly states the cost, approximately or otherwise, or where you, or Gore, got the notion that of the 1:10 ratio of prevention. Can you honestly expect anyone with any degree of intelligence to believe this just because Gore says so?

I also find it funny that you regard real scientists, the "TCS hack GW deniers", and Lomborg, a statistician, as unfit to comment on AGW while you defend Gore's pontification on the subject.

Tell me, where did Al Gore get his climatology degree from?

What's a trillion between friends?
According to the third IPCC, a adoption of Koyoto will result in an overall loss of 1.5% in GDP for a net cost $150 billion per annum, to achieve a net reduction in temperature of 0.07deg C by 2050. (This only takes in EU, Japan and Canada.)

By my math, that's $6.75 trillion spent over the next 45 years to save diddly.

But then Power Point is just the thing you want to use if you want to hide the math.

Dilbert says...
"PowerPoint gives the sweet, sweet illusion of productivity."

Gore as usual, is lieing
There aren't 10 trillion dollars of damages to be avoided.
$10 is more like it.

Bjorn Lomborg
"Bjorn Lomborg, to cite one person who is a legitimate academic, is happy to concede that global warming is a problem, caused by human action, and is happy to consider steps to remediate that problem."

See, that wasn't so hard to say was it? Now we can get on with the REALLY MEANINGFUL discussion about remediation.

Good job!
It only goes to show that years of political intimidation, academic black-listing, and physical threats of violence can bring even the most stubborn critic of AGW into the light of "reason"

Please include the rest of the quote that talks about priorities. You are quite dishonest and this casts a long shadow over your integrity.

Why should Wall Street be so concerned?
Sure thing:

"However, Lomborg insists that we consider other problems, too, and establish a system of prioritization. Is global warming a more serious threat to well-being than global AIDS? Or global drinking water? And what of other global issues, from nuclear power to nuclear war?"

And what is the cost of Global Warming? Well, here's one economically derived opinion:

A better shade of green for Wall Street
The Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 2006

...Why should Wall Street be so concerned about global climate change? Munich Reinsurance, the world's largest reinsurance company, has PROJECTED LOSSES TO CLIMATE IMPACTS WILL APPROXIMATE $300 BILLION PER YEAR OVER THE NEXT TWO DECADEES. Given the intensifying impacts of an unstable climate, it is obvious to many financial leaders that the ultimate viability of the global economy depends on government intervention to promote the necessary changes in the world's energy infrastructures. If government fails to intervene, insurance losses and defaulted business loans are the ultimate outcome, leading to a very damaging shrinkage of markets for goods and services, especially in developing countries...

PowerPoint Engineering
PowerPoint makes it possible to dazzle 'em with brilliance AND baffle 'em with BS. What a great tool! And a roomful scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and computer programmers aren't immue to its intoxicating power either. I've seen it happen again and again and it still surprises me how so many technically competent people can miss details when they're overwhelmed by the Pink Floyd light show.

The problem with all so many non-experts weighing in is that we're mostly only capable of posing very shallow arguments in the debate. We can only repeat what someone else has told us. And climate science is incredibly complex (even for scientists) so we are really at the mercy of the explainer to help us understand what all of the graphs and tabular data means.

This is really a debate for climatologists. However, panicking is perfectly within the capabilities of most of the rest of us. So go right ahead and freak out. For that, you're qualified!

Go here to see what an idiot Rhaptom is...

Don't feel like typing it again but it shows the source of the numbers that Rhampton is pushing. They are from an insurance company that sells envirnomentally friendly investment funds. No bias there, eh?

No, Munich Reinsurance is the world's largest REINSURANCE company. You do know what reinsurance is, yes?

Point one, I'm guessing that Rhampton is getting confused about the difference between remediation and avoidance.

Point two, if you read Lomborg what he says is that he is agnostic on whether or not GW is happening. His argument is that the proposed solution, even assuming the worst case scenario, is more costly than remediation.

He never conceeds that the worst case scenario is valid.

"His argument is that the proposed solution ... is more costly than remediation"

I do understand this, but a great many investors and economists are just beginning to grapple this problem.

And there is no "one" solution. I don't accept that we either follow the Kyoto Accords or do nothing. There's a vast middle ground that skeptics are desperately trying to avoid.

Also, keep in mind that for every 1c rise in global temperatures, theres is a corresponding 2c rise in the most northern and southern climes.

Oh, so very sorry.
They help risk management of insurers. In other words, they insure the insurers.

Same thing buddy but nice try.

Does the fact they invest and do risk management for insurers at all change my point? Does it not send up a warning flag that those in the insurance industry and SRI business are making financial amount statements when no one has attributed dollar one to any climate change disaster? Please show me which disaster was caused by climate change?

A few points:

1. C'mon Mark you know that lieing should be lying! Spellcheck!

2. 1C global = 2C high latitudes? What crap! Define "most."

3. Anyone who would use an insurance company or reassurance company as a source for climatic science
is probably a sucker waiting to purchase a bridge in NYC.
These companies are playing the game. All they are looking for is taxpayer bailouts if and when their sorry butts get called to the carpet for undercharging
all these years. Other corporations like GE and BP are also playing the game, hoping to keep the activist wolves from targeting their businesses.

4. This entire scenario(AGW)is 100% political. Scare the little people - grab the power. Al "the sky is falling" loser Gore is on an ego trip to end all ego trips. In a few years he'll be nothing more than a footnote. His "religious" followers will have to find a new cause.

5. The TCS forum is very entertaining and I look forward to more enlightning discussion.

Have a good day.

"The full weight of the world's top scientists believes human caused GW."
The "consensus" is that global climate is changing; and, that there is "some" human contribution to the change. The "consensus" is also that there are other factors, including a very active solar cycle, which are contributing to perceived global climate change.

"TCS hack GW deniers" - what a respectful and modern-day liberal way of dealing with those who do not agree. I suspect Gore could similarly be referred to as a "political hack GW promoter". He certainly has "no discernable training in physical sciences." However, it appears that his brief "touch and go" at divinity school may have had some lasting impact.

Uncompensated Plug
I would encourge all to read some of the books by Edward Tufte or better yet, attend a seminar on presenting information.

Here is a link to a short book on Power Point.

" Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations? "

I stand by what I wrote
If you travel in scientific circles or even read scientific journals, you know that atmospheric scientists believe that humans are causing catastrophic global warming. There was a period of uncertainty and there were many famous holdouts at top institutions (Kerry Emmanuel from MIT is a famous example). But now the only holdouts seem to be people on the right wing noise machine payroll (hacks).

Gore may not be a gifted politician (loooock boooox), but this time he's telling the truth. He's not claiming to be a scientist, only that he believes what the world's scientists are telling him.

that's what the models say
1) The real world has stubbornly refused to follow the models.

2) The models say that we should have seen 2 to 5 degrees in temperature rise. We've only seen 0.6, the majority of which can be blamed on the sun.

3) We've should have already seen most of the warming that is going to occur for a doubling of CO2.

yeah but ...
I'm not a scientist, but what I've read is ... yes, there is consensus that humans are causing some amount of global warming. The consensus appears to end, however, when discussions of 'how much' begin. The estimates range from not much to catastrophic.

By the way, what exactly is a hack? Someone who doesn't agree with you?

this may be true if you limit your search to Harvard
but out here in the real world, very few scientists believe that AGW is going to be serious, much less catestrophic.

Even the IPCC is not pushing that nonsense anymore.

Visibly using an Apple?
How do you visibly use an Apple? As opposed to visibly using a PC? And why does this matter?

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