The Seduction of Rhetoric

7 03 2010

Uncle Sam?“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.” Winston Churchill.

It’s true. Rhetoric speaks to most people far louder than reasoned logic. But the reasons are clear. In a world with more variables and dimensions than we can keep track of, none of us can grasp everything. Most of us don’t even try. So we hang on the soundbites. The simple explanations we can understand.

In a remarkable essay, written when he was just 23, Churchill outlined five key features of rhetoric. Eloquence, rhythm, metaphor, surprise and reinforcement all play parts in engaging an audience. Take a listen to a speech by Barak Obama, you’ll hear these elements encapsulated beautifully. And Obama is an absolute master of rhythm.

These factors appeal to your heart or gut. They aren’t about logic or reasoning. They’re designed to carry you away from them.

But if you’re trained in science, use of any of the above would be considered an over stylization. Scientists are trained to let data speak for itself. We’re trained to speak to the head, not the heart. Sure there are some natural born communicators who can do it, but there aren’t that many of them.

With 97% of scientific articles agreeing that current climate change is driven by human CO2 emissions, how come only 35% of Americans agree with this conclusion? You only need look to the power persuasion inherent in rhetoric. Even debates between scientists and denialists usually see the denialist winning. Why? Because a logical statement like “you just don’t understand the details” pisses most people off, including scientists. If you want to keep an audience on your side, you don’t call them dullards. We kid you not, this has happened in climate change debates.

There’s even a language difference. Scientists love to measure their uncertainties because you can’t be absolutely sure of anything. But the public is fed a diet of certainty. Being sure of something is considered a sign of confidence, of strength and unwavering purpose. All things that people want to grab on to in an increasingly uncertain world.

You see this time and again in politics. Remove the nuance, subtlety and intricacies of a situation. Narrow down the possibilities to two and find your good guys and bad guys. Then speak with absolute confidence. If you’re good at it, which actually takes great skill, you’ll win most audiences over.

People that are undecided or uncertain are considered weak. The “maybe’s” or “possibly’s” turn most people off. And pseudo-science knows this too well. They’ll give you a cure for your ailment. No success rate in trials, they know it works or your money back. Who actually has time to get their money back anyway? And another sale is made…

You can find this phrasing in literature denying climate change. “The Cocktail Conversation Guide to Global Warming”, issued by the Marshall Institute uses rhetoric beautifully. At the bottom of the first page it even claims “Here are the answers…”. In the following dazzlingly well-designed pages, who wouldn’t be swept up by their eloquent, humourous and distinctly devious prose? The facts are cherry picked to fit the arguments. The scientific uncertainty is falsely amplified when conclusions are disputed.

Apologizing for climate change

Scientists can improve how they communicate, but years of debating skills are not going to be miraculously learnt in a few weeks. It takes time, talent and enthusiasm for this form of communicating. In a professional environment that places research achievement above everything else, scientists really don’t have much motivation for this kind of thing. And scientists certainly don’t have time to design beautiful brochures for cocktail parties.

Next blog: Scientists communicating science.




2 responses

7 03 2010
Nathan Ackroyd

“And scientists certainly don’t have time to design beautiful brochures for cocktail parties.” You don’t leave us with a plan forward. Should we recruit Alan Alda to take the pro side of the debates? Ironically, your post about the poor rhetoric skills of scientists has really good rhythm.

“It’s true. Rhetoric speaks to most people far louder than reasoned logic. But the reasons are clear.”

8 03 2010

Thanks for the comment Nathan! We’ve got another post coming about possible solutions… should be up tomorrow. Alan Alda is great, isn’t he, but he can’t play the role of Atlas!

I’m not sure if this is a battle that gets won easily in the court of public opinion. The big tobacco analogy is particularly scary…

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