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Messaging, Recycling, Headlines

Being involved in an activist group, being (I think) highly rational, and being somewhat resistant to becoming part of social collectives, messaging is something that comes up often.  So reading On Left Straussianism from the Point did stoke up thoughts.

I'll disagree with one part right off.  This isn't all about elitism.  Talking about messaging doesn't only have to involve elites.  It's small group/large group, but it's not always about level of education, it's often about intensity of connection.  When "messaging" in public, the bandwidth is limited, especially in terms of feedback loops.  If someone misunderstands your message, it's hard to correct.  Attention wavers, so key distinctions can be lost.  And then there's the telephone game.  Those dynamics are true no matter what level of education your public has.

A second distinction, before you even start to talk about withholding or twisting the truth, we should think first about caution.  Broadcasting a message without considering the audience, how it will be interpreted, how it might be misinterpreted, is foolish.  Taking some caution here isn't a lie at all, it's respect for the audience's time, and a simple recognition that in general the public will not have the capacity to engage on an issue you've committed yourself to in the same way you have.  That's not elitism, it's specialization.  Specialization might lead to elitism, this is true, but that risk does not merit abandoning the idea of specialization.  There are other ways to keep elitism in check that are better.

How does this relate to me personally?  Here's an example that hopefully brings this closer to the ground.  In Chicago, we have a very poor overall recycling rate.  9% of what houses/businesses dispose of is recycled.  For comparison, close by Naperville reaches 30%.  A recent report by the Better Government Association messaged this in a way I disagreed with.  Why?

The reason is that while the report was looking at a real problem, it suggested this problem was the cause of Chicago's poor recycling rate.  But it's not.  It does not come even close to explaining this.  The problem they looked at was that one of the three providers was tagging bins as contaminated at a rate 20 times higher than their competitors.  But this was only 2.5% of all recycling bins, meaning it explained a difference between 9% and 9.215%.

The real reason Chicago has a poor recycling rate is what people choose to put in their bins.  Most recycling bins in Chicago are empty.  The cities recycling system, without any changes, if utilized by the public, has the potential to recycle 30-40% like Naperville.  The best way to change this is to incentive the public using a Pay-as-you-Throw system, where residents are charged for the volume of waste sent to the landfill, and charged less for recycling.  This incentivizes not only use of recycling bins by efforts to reduce waste overall.

BGA's report however got a lot of press, and I saw numerous misinterpretations of the data.  Several people I had discussions with wondered if it was even worth putting items in the blue bins as they had gotten the completely untrue impression that 90% of what they put in the blue bins was being sent to a landfill.  I'll repeat, that is completely untrue.  This message then had the exact opposite of the effect intended.  How did they get this impression?  From a callout in the article "accounting for nearly 90 percent of all recycling bins diverted to garbage dumps.", taken out of context leads to the untrue assumption.

This is the kind of caution I think is reasonable.  Avoiding messaging of this nature is hard.  Me discussing this seems like I'm defending the city (which everyone loves to hate).  I may have what (I think) are more balanced opinions of the city, but my motivation is not to defend them, but to avoid mistaken interpretations.

Another similar issue in the same vein is Chinese changes to recycling.  These have not significantly changed that what you can recycle in the US.  There are some changes, but it's a quite common belief that nothing is recycled anymore as a result.  This is also completely untrue.  The Chineses haven't even stopped accepting recycling materials, they've only required less contamination.  This does mean some extra costs for sorting facilities, and it does mean some rejection, but overall, if you're concerned about recycling, the place to start is by putting it in the bin.

Instead the public has used these two sets of information, to come to the completely wrong conclusion?  Should this information have been withheld?  I wouldn't favor that.  But I would have thought more about how to avoid the confusion that has emerged.  And many headlines, quotations, etc. have not done this.

I'll add one last point here to stay true to what I'm saying.  BGA is a good organization.  I don't write this to harm their reputation.  The problems of messaging of this issue run a lot deeper.  A lesser form of the Straussianism view could repair some of those problems.  Discuss the issue within your private group first.  Realize the limitations of the public (time and attention more than education).

I don't know what to do about headlines, as it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation.  The public does not unlimited capacity for attention, and there is lots of competition for that capacity.  But using misleading attention grabbing headlines merely wastes that time, and does harm in the process.


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