Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is adapted from Rupert Darwall’s new book Green Tyranny: Exposing the Totalitarian Roots of The Climate Industrial Complex. It appears here with permission.
Solitude many men have sought, and been reconciled to: but nobody that has the least thought or sense of a man about him, can live in society under the constant dislike and ill opinion of his familiars, and those he converses with.
— John Locke, 1690
It is not so much the dread of what an angry public may do that disarms the modern American, as it is sheer inability to stand unmoved in the rush of totally hostile comment, to endure a life perpetually at variance with the conscience and feeling of those about him.
— Edward Alsworth Ross, 1901
In August 2014, the Pew Research Center, an offshoot of the Pew Charitable Trusts, published the results of a survey on people’s willingness to discuss contentious issues on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. “An informed citizenry depends on people’s exposure to information on important political issues and on their willingness to discuss these issues with those around them,” Pew explained. If people thought friends and followers on social media disagreed with them, they were less likely to share their views, the survey showed. “It has long been established that when people are surrounded by those who are likely to disagree with their opinion, they are more likely to self-censor.” These findings confirmed a major insight of pre-Internet-era communication studies: the tendency of people not to voice their opinions when they sense that their view is not widely shared. The report’s authors, led by Keith Hampton of Rutgers University, wrote, “This tendency is called the ‘spiral of silence.’”
The Spiral of Silence, published in 1984, was written by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, West Germany’s foremost pollster. There was more to Noelle-Neumann. As the first sentence of her Times obituary put it, Noelle-Neumann moved from working as “a Nazi propagandist to become the grande dame of opinion polling in post-war Germany.” A cell leader of the Nazi student organization in Munich, she met Hitler at Berchtesgaden. “She found him sympathetic, lively and engaging.” Thanks to a scholarship from Joseph Goebbels’s Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, she went to the University of Missouri to study journalism. Her 1940 doctoral thesis on George Gallup’s polling techniques brought her to Goebbels’s notice, and he gave her a job writing for Das Reich. “To reach into the darkness to find the Jew who is hiding behind the Chicago Daily News is like sticking your hand into a wasp’s nest,” she wrote in June 1941. Dismissed a year later, she distanced herself from the Nazi regime, and after the war she and her husband, also an alumnus of Goebbels’s propaganda ministry, established the Allensbach Institute. Turned down by the SPD, Allensbach’s services were offered to the CDU. She was soon having tea with Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor.
Noelle-Neumann claimed that her thinking about the spiral of silence had been triggered by the 1965 German election, though this was far from the whole story. Polls had shown the CDU–CSU coalition running neck and neck with the SPD, while expectations of the outcome shifted dramatically in favor of the CDU–CSU coalition, accurately forecasting the actual result. Others’ opinions might influence one’s own behavior, Noelle-Neumann hypothesized. When a population is continuously exposed to a persistent and consistent media account of current events on controversial issues, the primary motivation of a person will be to conform, at least outwardly, to avoid discomfort and dissonance. “Over time there is thus a spiraling of opinion change in favor of one set of views,” Noelle-Neumann argued.
The intuition that had led her to the spiral of silence lay outside opinion polls. “The fear of isolation seems to be the force that sets the spiral of silence in motion,” she wrote. Historians, political philosophers, and other thinkers provided corroboration. Alexis de Tocqueville had written in 1856 that people “dread isolation more than error.” The quotations at the head of this chapter appeared in a lecture given by Noelle-Neumann just two months after the 1965 election. People can be on uncomfortable or even dangerous ground when the climate of opinion runs counter to their views. “When people attempt to avoid isolation, they are not responding hyper-sensitively to trivialities; these are existential issues that can involve real hazards,” she wrote in The Spiral of Silence. It could be proved
that even when people see plainly that something is wrong, they will keep quiet if public opinion (opinions and behavior that can be exhibited in public without fear of isolation) and, hence, the consensus as to what constitutes good taste and the morally correct opinion speaks against them.
Evidence came from surveys designed to simulate the threat of social isolation. Respondents were asked questions designed to reveal their willingness to engage in a discussion on a contentious topic with a fellow traveler on a train journey.
One can see how, as the spiral of silence runs its course, the standpoint that it is unconscionable to smoke in the presence of non-smokers can become dominant to the point where it is impossible for a smoker publicly to take the opposite position. . . . What is being expressed here is quite evidently a cumulative effect; step by step, through hostile responses of the environment, one becomes unnerved.
Train journeys had featured in earlier surveys of German public opinion. Nor was it the first time that Noelle-Neumann had written about opinions expressed on train journeys. The Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Nazi party’s internal-security service, monitored German public opinion and devised innovative methods to overcome Germans’ fear of speaking frankly to strangers. These included sending trained interviewers on long train trips. The surveys were treated as highly sensitive and kept within an extremely tight circle. There are no known links between Noelle-Neumann and the SD, Christopher Simpson, professor of journalism at American University, wrote in a 1996 paper, but at least five of her articles in Das Reich derived entirely or in part from anonymous interviews on train rides across Germany and coincided with the SD’s top-secret train-carriage interviews.
Simpson used this implied connection to discredit the idea of the spiral of silence, but as the 2014 Pew report shows, the model is generalizable beyond totalitarian regimes. “My scholarly work was indeed influenced by the trauma of my youth,” Noelle-Neumann responded. Indeed, her painfully vivid description of the spiral of silence could hardly have been written by a person who had not lived and worked in a totalitarian regime:
Climate totally surrounds the individual from the outside; he cannot escape from it. Yet it is simultaneously the strongest influence on our sense of well-being. The spiral of silence is a reaction to changes in the climate of opinion.
After all, Noelle-Neumann worked for a man widely acknowledged as the greatest propagandist of all time. In short, her experience in the Nazi period led her to a truth about the human condition. Public Opinion—Our Social Skin is the subtitle of The Spiral of Silence.
Niccolò Machiavelli, John Locke, and David Hume had featured in her 1940 dissertation. James Madison was added to The Spiral of Silence: “The reason of man, like man himself is timid and cautious, when left alone; and acquires firmness and confidence, in proportion to the number with which it is associated.” She argued that Madison would have shared her characterization of public opinion as a fearsome tribunal.
Because only the menace, the individual’s fear of finding himself alone, as Madison so emphatically described it, can also explain the symptomatic silence we found in the train test and in other investigations, the silence that is so influential in the building of public opinion.
The articulation function of the media helped explain why people holding a majority opinion express unwillingness to engage in conversation in the train test — what one might call the silence of the Silent Majority.
The media provide people with the words and phrases they can use to defend a point of view. If people find no current, frequently repeated expressions for their point of view, they lapse into silence; they become effectively mute.
Media opinion, which reflected the views of a small section of the social elite, was not the same as public opinion. In the long run, the observed majority opinion would not change media coverage, but media coverage would change the observed majority, a process that could happen over weeks, months, and years. The problem, as Noelle-Neumann saw it, was not media manipulation as such, “for journalists only reported what they saw.” The antidote to the risk of systemic media bias was ensuring a diversity of views: “The apparent consensus arising out of a one-sided media reality can only be avoided if reporters of various political persuasions present their points of view to the public.”
One-sided media reporting is a striking feature of the climate and energy debate. “Climate denier” and “tool of malign fossil-fuel interests” are epithets used to delegitimize dissent and quash diversity of opinion. “Climate change is a fact,” President Obama declared in his 2014 State of the Union address. As philosopher Stephen Hicks argues in Explaining Post-Modernism, the post-modern Left uses language primarily as a weapon to silence opposing voices, not as an attempt to describe reality. To close the debate down, science masquerading as impartial judge is deployed as lead prosecutor. Dissenters and skeptics are derided as Flat Earthers and scientific ignoramuses. Yet the most stupid utterance on the science of global warming goes without a breath of criticism from scientists who regularly furnish the media with hostile quotes on skeptics’ views. “This is simple. Kids at the earliest age can understand this,” Secretary of State John Kerry told an audience in Indonesia in 2014. For someone who confessed that he’d found high-school physics and chemistry a challenge, climate science was easy. The science was “absolutely certain.”
It’s something that we understand with absolute assurance of the veracity of that science. No one disputes some of the facts about it. Let me give you an example. When an apple separates from a tree, it falls to the ground.
Fact conflated with theory; certainty where there is pervasive uncertainty and lack of understanding; simplicity where there is unfathomable complexity; climate-model predictions of warming elevated above observations. The biggest distortion of climate science is unscientific in its premise and authoritarian in its consequence: “The science is settled. We must act.” When systemic media bias is purposed as a tool of state manipulation and social control, a democracy extinguishes its democratic culture.