Eric Knight’s book on how we can solve some of the world’s trickiest problems promises much. It has its moments but fails to deliver.
I love visiting bookstores. I can spend hours reading the back covers and opening chapters of books that grab my attention. Reframe; How to solve the world’s trickiest problems, was one of those books.
A lot of the work I do is reframing debates through language. So when this caught my attention I proceeded to read the opening chapter. What I found was that the book isn’t so much about language; it’s a book focused on politics and psychology.
Its author, Eric Knight, argues that we often arrive at the wrong answers because we ask the wrong questions. He says:
My contention is that we often struggle with our trickiest political problems because of how we see them. We tend to view the world in set ways. We become so intent on analysing a problem one way that we lose all the subtlety needed to get to the best answer.
That was enough for me to buy it.
Knight includes examples of problems that have been viewed in a certain way, and to our detriment. He includes the war in Iraq, betting in financial markets, immigration in the United States and global warming. The anecdotes are interesting; his examples of earlier social experiments fascinating.
The book’s subtitle promises a lot: “How to Solve the World’s Trickiest Problems”. Essentially Knight’s thesis is that if we adjust our focus we’ll find the right solution. This is applied throughout the book and left me with more questions than it answered. In this sense the book fails to live up to its promise.
Much of the Reframe is devoted to global warming. By the end it is tiresome and Knight shows some bad judgement. He’s correct that the political strategy “followed the oscillation in public sentiment” rather than leading the discussion and that it was doomed to fail. But his assertion that reframing the debate to talk about “carbon” is wrong.
Politicians and the public in Australia have argued about carbon for years and it remains one of the most divisive pieces of public policy. Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, has expertly played on people’s fears of tax, and confusion about carbon. It’s why he constantly uses the term “carbon tax”. People don’t understand the term carbon — it confuses them. The phrase became a linguistic firecracker that Tony Abbott lit constantly. The government, led by Julia Gillard, used the phrase unwittingly and she didn’t last long enough to see them turn the debate around.
How should progressives talk about global warming? I’ll save that for another day. But Knight, who argues that talking about carbon is the right argument, is making the same mistake the Julia Gillard and her ministers made.
Ultimately Reframe promises much but fails to deliver. It’s an interesting read, but it would benefit from deeper analysis of fewer issues. The book is filled with questions. It leaves these questions unanswered and in the end I was relieved to finish it. It’s not a bad book, but if you’re expecting answers this is one to skip.