On the crucial importance of rhetoric

IMG_8164As is well known, we officially live in an era of post-truths and alternative facts. Even though we have arguably always lived in it, to an extent, the current cultural and political climate has moved even scientists, a group of people notoriously shy when it comes to social and political engagement, to get to the streets and protest in defense of science. Who would have thought.

A recent Gallup poll showed that — despite the overwhelming scientific evidence — only 45% of Americans are seriously worried about climate change. But the worst news comes when one looks at the details: the partisan split is incredibly sharp: 66% of Democratic voters are worried (wait, only 66%??), and a mere 18% of Republican voters are. When we add to that the likely observation that even those who are concerned with climate change express the feeling more as a badge of identification with the party line than because they genuinely understand what the problem is, we are in dire straits indeed.

This is why I found an article by Tim Requarth in Slate to be a breath of fresh air. Even though, as I’ll explain in a bit, it’s actually very, very old news. The title of the piece says it all: “Scientists, stop thinking explaining science will fix things.” Requarth actually studies the science of science communication, and he thinks it’s ironic that many scientists and science communicators insist in endorsing a model of public understanding of science that has been shown to be empirically false.

“The theory many scientists seem to swear by,” says Requarth, “is technically known as the deficit model, which states that people’s opinions differ from scientific consensus because they lack scientific knowledge.”

The problem is that the theory, always somewhat unconvincing, has been falsified by research conducted back in 2010 by Yale psychologist Dan Kahan. He surveyed a large sample of people, classifying them (on the basis of appropriate questionnaires) along a “cultural worldview” scale that roughly mirrors the conservative-liberal continuum in the US. He also assessed each person scientific literacy on the basis of politically neutral questions, such as “True or False: Electrons are smaller than atoms.” The last step was to ask his subjects about their opinions on climate change.

The expectation, if the deficit model is correct, was that the higher the scientific literacy the more people should agree with consensus scientific opinion on climate change, irrespective of cultural worldview. I probably don’t have to tell you that that’s not at all what happened. “Kahan found that increased scientific literacy actually had a small negative effect: the conservative-leaning respondents who knew the most about science thought climate change posed the least risk.” The higher the scientific literacy, the more likely one’s view are to be polarized along a political dimension. (The probable explanation is that smart and educated people are simply more capable to rationalize away discrepancies, or to come up with reasonable-sounding explanations for why the scientists are wrong.)

Here is an interesting twist, however. Kahan also asked his subjects their opinion about what climate scientists actually believed. In this case, people with higher scientific literacy — regardless of cultural worldview — were more likely to correctly identify the dominant scientific opinion. The polarization had disappeared, but this showed that even when people do understand the scientific consensus they may not accept it because of cultural-political reasons.

And it gets worse. Psychologists have also amply demonstrated what they call the backfire effect: the more you present facts contrary to someone’s worldview, the more the person in question digs in. (And before you begin to smugly think that of course only stupid or ignorant conservatives do it, think again, the effect cuts across the political spectrum.)

This is no news to me at all. Back in the mid- and late ’90s I did a number of public debates with creationists, when I was a faculty in evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee. (Curious? Here is one against Ken Hovind; and here is one against Duane Gish.) One of the things I discovered quickly, especially by observing the creationists I debated, was that the whole thing had relatively little to do with arguments and evidence, and a lot to do with personalities and emotions.

One of my big scoring moments was against Jonathan Wells of the infamous Discovery Institute, when I revealed to the audience that — contra Wells’ statement from a few minutes before — he had embarked in a PhD in molecular biology not out of genuine curiosity for the science, but under direct order to destroy “Darwinism” from the inside, an order given to him by the Reverend Moon, whose church he belonged to. The gasp in the audience — mostly of Evangelicals with little or no sympathy for Moon — was audible, and my opponent lost credibility. Someone would say that was an ad hominem attack, and I’d say that it was, and I’m pretty damn proud of it. (My intention was to expose the lie, but it turned out that his church affiliation was more important even than that. Go figure.)

Now, Requarth isn’t saying that scientists shouldn’t explain the science, just as I kept on explaining evolution to my audiences. But that’s not enough, and by itself is actually counterproductive. Research shows that one needs to make a personal connection with the audience and gain their trust. Requarth therefore suggests that “it may be more worthwhile to figure out how to talk about science with people [scientists] already know, through, say, local and community interactions, than it is to try to publish explainers on national news sites. And they might consider writing op-eds for their local papers, focusing on why science matters to their particular communities.”

Requarth quotes Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy, who says: “a better approach is to reframe the issue. Don’t just keep explaining why climate change is real — explain how climate change will hurt public health or the local economy. Communication that appeals to values, not just intellect, research shows, can be far more effective.”

Requarth concludes: “the obstacles faced by science communicators are not epistemological but cultural. The skills required are not those of a university lecturer but a rhetorician.”

Indeed. Which brings me to Aristotle. Regular readers know that for a while now I’ve been on a quest to revisit the value of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, not because I think the ancients were infallible (they were obviously wrong on a large number of issues, especially scientific ones), but because we have a tendency to reinvent the wheel out of an unfounded sense of superiority of the modern view on anything that preceded it.

Aristotle would have not been surprised in the least by Requarth’s remarks, and indeed anticipated and discussed in detail the whole issue in his famous book on Rhetoric, which is still the obligatory reference point for the modern discipline that goes by that name. Rhetoric has gotten a bad wrap these days, and unfortunately is no longer taught in schools. It should be, especially to wannabe science communicators.

Interestingly, Aristotle begins the book by saying that rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic, and both rely on logic. The idea is that logic is necessary to make sure one has gotten things right. But then dialectic is used by experts in philosophical and scientific dialogue, while rhetoric is used to communicate to a public of non experts. This isn’t talking down, it’s an accurate and pragmatic assessment of reality.

Aristotle tells us in book II (and goes on to elaborate later on) that the rhetorician needs to use three tools to persuade her audience: correct patterns of reasoning (logos), establishing credibility (ethos), and a good understanding of the emotions and psychology of the audience (pathos).

The mistake of many modern science communicators is to rely almost exclusively on logos, and especially of ignoring pathos. If you make the converse error, then you are essentially a sophist, like Republican Chair of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith of Tennessee, who recently told an audience at the Heartland Institute that he will begin referring to climate science as “politically correct science,” in a naked attempt to taint scientific expertise with political partisanship and arouse the emotions of his constituents.

In chapter 1 of book II of Rhetoric, Aristotle observes that people change their mind largely for emotional reasons, hence the importance of pathos. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on logos because he devoted other works to it, but notes that ethos is comprised of three characteristics of the speaker: wisdom (in particular, phronesis, i.e., practical wisdom), virtue (arete), and good will (eunoia). I can think of very, very few science popularizers in recent times who can be said to possess such characteristics at least in part, perhaps Carl Sagan being one of the exceptions. (And sure enough, I’ve met people back in Tennessee who told me that the beginning of their long journey from fundamentalism to science had started by reading a Sagan article in the low-brow Parade magazine, which many of Sagan’s colleagues dismissed with disdain.)

In chapters 12-17 of that same book Aristotle goes on to explain ethos in more detail, how one actually goes about adapting one’s speech to the character of her audience. He tells us, for instance, that young people are afraid of being belittled, because they long to be taken seriously; old people, instead, are more cynical and distrustful, probably — he says — because the horizon of their future is much smaller. Consequently, young people pay more attention to arguments focused on their future, older people to arguments highlighting short-term gains.

Finally, Book III discusses the notion of virtue in a rhetorician, and warns that it is inappropriate to speak by hyperbole, because that’s a willful attempt to deceive one’s audience, which is not a virtuous course of action. (I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to identify at least three contemporary science popularizers who often use hyperbolic language…) The same book also reminds us that we still need logos, that is, we need to make sure that we do have good arguments. We can’t (or, rather, ought not to) just bullshit people via ethos and pathos.

Learning from Aristotle as much as from Requarth, we science (and philosophy, and everything else) communicators need to pay attention to the three components of rhetoric. Failing to do so will not only condemn us to a frustrating ineffectiveness, but it would be rather ironic for people who pride themselves on reason and evidence to disregard both in their very attempt to defend them.

153 thoughts on “On the crucial importance of rhetoric

  1. wtc48

    Sounds like a variant of the perpetual motion machine, a remote descendant of the philosopher’s stone.


  2. Robin Herbert

    If I had two boxes taped back to back with a hole between them and in the hole a fan attached to a tightly wound rubber band then I would have an autonomous system in which the heat flowed from the cooler part to the warmer part.

    It sometimes seems to me that when someone claims to have a ‘Maxwell’s Demon’ they have just such a system together with an elaborate story to conceal the fact.

    I am not saying I am right but it is an example where I am not accepting a scientific claim and the more I learn about it the more I am not accepting the claim.

    How would this be explained to me so that I would accept it?


  3. Robin Herbert

    I might also ask if the temperature differential achieved by the movement of one electron is greater than could have been achieved using the work required to change the state of a switch three times. Again, I don’t know but it seems prima facie unlikely.


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