Monday, October 17, 2016

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The Spiral of Silence: Conceptual Graphic

What is the spiral of silence

The spiral of silence was first cast by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974, as a theory for the state of public opinion on Jews during World War 2 (Noelle‐Neumann, 1974). Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence was defined as the tendency for one to speak up (for or against a notion) and another (opposing individual) to be silent, which initiates the spiraling process, increasingly establishing one opinion to be the prevailing one. Noelle-Neumann identified two forces that cofunction to establish and perpetuate a spiral of silence; first, one perceives their opinion to be in the minority (which causes uncertainty and fear of isolation), second, in fear of exclusion the deviant is silent, which in turn perpetuates the majority. The spiral of science was re-cast this century by Moy and Scheufele in 2000, with a lens on science communication (Moy and Scheufele, 2000).  The spiral of silence theory may explain why the majority of the public often dissents the majority of scientific opinion on controversial scientific concepts.

Moy and Scheufele in 2000, largely concur with Noelle-Neumann. D.A. Scheufele, 2007 additionally defines three potential contributory conditions to the spiral of silence, including the “nature of the issue” (strong moral implications), “media coverage” (media influences perception of the ‘climate of opinion’) and “cross-cultural differences” (substantial differences in cross-culture personality traits influence willingness to dissent) (Scheufele, 2007).  Scheufele et al., 2001, frame the 'dependent variable' of the spiral of silence as ‘willingness to speak out' (Scheufele et al., 2001). D.A. Scheufele 2007, uses public opinion of biotechnology as an illustrative example. The spiral of silence is first ‘graphed’/visually represented in Scheufele, 2007 (Fig. 1).

Conceptual graphic

I believe the original spiral of silence graphic as initially presented by Scheufele, 2007, warrants a revisit. The original graphic is a representation of a case study on biotechnology; the graphic is limited in generalization. Here I offer a new graphical concept of the spiral of science theory (Fig. 2) as a generalized concept, based on a critique of the original graphic.

Revision: building the conceptual graphic

The original graphic, while not inaccurate, needs 3 major modifications: a visual rotation, a graphical inversion, and generalization, in order to better inform the viewer. I believe the modifications I've made here to original graphical concept will allow this visual to become functional and accessible across a broad range of 'spiraling' topics. This is a necessary revision. A strong conceptual graphic not only clarifies the concept, but becomes a tool for further research. Here I will delineate and explain the modifications I've made from a science illustrator perspective.

First, let's consider goals for a conceptual graphic. The function of a conceptual graphic: 
1) A good graphic makes a concept easier to comprehend.
How? Two ways: 
2) A good graphic naturalizes the easy parts of concept, seeks to render them nearly invisible, so that a viewer can quickly/easily focus on the heart of it. 
3) The heart of the concept should be in simplest, most direct and common terms. In essence, a good graphic should not make the viewer 'work' to understand.

With these goals in mind we can begin to edit the original graphic...

Examining the bottom half of fig. 1. This axis makes the viewer work. “High” should not be a point you have to descend to. Its like trying to read red blue purple. We can fix it by rotating the graph 90 degrees. Reading high to low, left to right, is slightly more intuitive than reading low to high, top to bottom.
The x-axis is “time”. However, in generalizing the concept (outside of biotechnology spiral of silence) we have to make room for the theoretical possibility that, though seemingly inevitable, spirals can 'change direction', spiral left or right (or up and down after rotation). A change in direction would require a large change in ‘willingness to speak out’. For example, it would require those who perceive themselves in the minority to become vocal. Or those not generally willing to speak out, to perceive themselves in the majority. At first, I thought, since you can’t go back in time the x-axis must be the absolute value of time, or something else completely. Then I realized that changing direction on the x axis is equivalent to changing the shape of the spiral over time. Conceptually, the spiral of silence may be a true spiral, but empirically the spiral of silence likely oscillates in diameter over time. But as far as ‘viewer work’ and concept accuracy goes, this observation should be noted if not in the graphic, definitely in text.
Considering the y-axis: Scheufele posits that the product of the two spiral forces, (identified by me as f1 and f2), make up the dependent variable: ‘willingness to speak out’. Let’s address Scheufele’s y-axis. In most cases a positive, rather than a double negative (as in fig.1) is easier to conceptualize, so to reduce the viewer workload we invert (and generalize).
The spiral of silence is a theory of consensus building. As the spiral progresses, consensus is found. So while I understand the intention to make the spiral of silence about silence, its really about controversy and consensus. Rather than depicting silence (and asking the viewer to jump from silence to the result of silence - consensus, on their own) its clearer to represent the final result. So the volume of the spiral should represent consensus, or rather potential for controversy. Consensus is a narrowing of views, a consolidation, so visually, it follows that as the ‘spiral of potential controversy’ progresses towards consensus, potential controversy should diminish. (Potential for controversy is inversely related to silence). In order to entertain the idea of ‘volume’ on this graph we should consider what makes the z axis. 
As we consider the volume of the spiral we should reconsider the variables. A conceptual graphic should have logical graphical variables. We now have two known variables, and a known 'spiral volume': x = time, y = willingness to speak out (f1xf2), and volume of the spiral = potential for controversy. To confirm that these variables make logical sense, we can test them mathematically. Here I approximate the volume of a spiral to the volume of a cone. Conceptually this may suffice, but we should consider that in reality, the base of the cone/spiral may not be a perfect circle. The volume of a cone with an oval base would require two base measurements, i.e. a y and z axis.
The addition of a z-axis is debatable, as the volume of a perfect cone can be calculated with only base (y-axis) and hight (x-axis). But lets also consider what this variable means conceptually. Imagine these scenarios where I solve for the volume of the spiral (with constant time), and pretend numbers to represent variables y and z.

Constant y test:
A. Great willingness to speak out (y) * a large percentage of the population (z) = 100*.8 = 80
produces a greater potential for controversy than
B. Great willingness to speak (y) * a small percentage of the population (z)  = 100*.2 = 20 
A = 80 > B = 20 -> Correct 

Constant z test:
A. A large percentage of the population (z) * very willing to speak out (y) = .8 *100 = 80 
produces a greater potential for controversy than
B. A large percentage of the population (z) * not very willing to speak out (y)  = .8 * 10 = 8
A = 80 > B = 8 -> Correct

Finally, what is consensus: What do we have at the point of consensus (and does it make sense)? 
F1) Number of people willing to express viewpoint = 0
F2) Perceived inclusion in the majority = 0
F1 * F2) Overall ‘willingness to speak out’ = 0
Percentage of the population = 0
Volume of the spiral/potential for controversy = 0
Checks out.  

Lastly, Scheufele depicts the spiral of silence as ‘linear’. A study by Asch, S.E., 1955, suggests that perceived opposition to the majority exponentially affects willingness to express opinion. Based on this study, and the growth of social media attention on viral topics, I suggest that consensus building in the spiral of silence may be an exponential phenomenon. 
(Asch, 1955)
Combining these revisions give the final Fig 2. 

Conceptual graphic as a tool

A strong conceptual graphic not only clarifies the concept, but becomes a tool. With a comprehensive rubric for the 'classic' spiral of silence in place, we can begin to ask what happens when we compare and contrast difference subjects or change specific variables or examine different cultures. We can model these changes in the conceptual graphic to clearly see how 'consensus' changes over time.
A) For example, what has conflict looked like for climate change versus germ theory? Germ theory quickly narrowed to consensus, among definable problems with  discernible solutions  like tuberculosis and anthrax. Climate change is a wicked problem. We face complex problems of global warming and challenging solutions. Climatologists face a problem that, in the absence of viable solutions, yet remains in controversy.
B) We can look at how a hard core, a vocal population that will likely never conform, affects consensus. For example, will the vaccine resistance movement prevent the US population from ever coming to true consensus on vaccination? How did conflict respond to the Andrew Wakefield study that, although rapidly retracted, suggested that vaccines cause autism? 
C) The classic spiral of silence is mostly symmetrical around the x-axis. What would cause the spiral of silence to be asymmetrical around the x-axis? What does a culture with a low number of people willing to express opinion and but strong perception of inclusion in the majority look like? Does this cause a faster spiral to consensus? What of the inverse - a large number of people willing to speak out but low perception of inclusion in the majority? If dual mentalities exist over one conflict, within one culture, you could perceivably map both to analyze average public opinion, the average shape of the spiral.
D) We can compare scientific conflicts to social conflicts as well. How has conflict moved on abortion over time? How about abortion in the US versus Europe? 
E) When looking at hard cores or unresolved conflicts it may be interesting to flip the graph and look down the x-axis. If you looked at surface area of the spiral (as opposed to volume) unresolved conflicts, from peak debate on, would have a characteristic 'hole' in their center. Could you analyze conflicts just based on this orientation, the 'thumbprints' of conflict?

The following schematics are theoretical guides only. These graphs are not accurate or empirical representations of the conflicts they depict, however they serve as examples as to how the 'spiral of silence' visual concept might be explored.
Conflict in public opinion and consensus building are burgeoning topics of research as media and big data take analysis into the empirical world. I believe this new conceptual framework may potentially hold up to empirical analysis.


Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Readings about the social animal193, 17-26.

Moy, P., & Scheufele, D. A. (2000). Media effects on political and social trust.Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly77(4), 744-759.

Noelle‐Neumann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence a theory of public opinion.Journal of communication24(2), 43-51.

Scheufele, D. A., Shanahan, J., & Lee, E. (2001). Real talk manipulating the dependent variable in spiral of silence research. Communication research, 28 (3), 304-324.

Scheufele, D. (2007). Opinion climates, spirals of silence and biotechnology: public opinion as a heuristic for scientific decision-making. The Media, the Public and Agricultural Biotechnology. Edited by D. Brossard, J. Shanahan and TC Nesbitt. CAB International, United Kingdom, 231-244.


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