Between Scientists & Citizens

Morano Analysis #2: Hedging

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I closed the first post by noting that Maslin seems to feel that Morano is attacking him–specifically, that Morano has accused scientists (including, presumably, him) of lying. There are a variety of other linguistic markers in this brief exchange that reinforce this picture of Maslin as  the weak victim responding to another’s aggression:  the hedges with which Maslin prefaces many of his remarks.

Case:  Morano v. Maslin

Maslin’s Hedging

In the first part of the exchange (not entirely transcribed) Maslin frames the information he is providing the interviewer as what he himself thinks (or doesn’t think) about the Copenhagen process.  I count five phrases within the first two minutes or so:

I think it’s incredibly important…
Yes, well, I think that…
I think the key thing is…
And I don’t think you can separate the two…
I think you have to…

This “I think” is a  hedge which helps the speaker limit his imposition on his auditor.  In my experience, “I think” is with “I believe” among the common mitigating devices novice debaters carry over from ordinary, informal conversation. Things would get tense if I just asserted the way things are, and you disagreed–we’d have to argue.  But if “I [only] think” one thing, then of course it’s OK if you think the opposite.

Debate, unlike conversation, involves open disagreement, and I tell my students to leave their “I think”s behind.  Morano (as I’ll show below) is unabashedly assertive.  But Maslin retreats even further once Morano starts pushing back. In the middle part of the dialogue, he shifts from “I think” to a verbal marker that suggests he’s being coerced into speaking:

I have to say that…
I have to say that…
Unfortunately I have to say…

This phrase suggests the same desire to avoid confrontation as “I think,” but positions the speaker as being justified (or at least excused) in openly disagreeing.  In this case Maslin is presumably finding something so offensive in Morano’s statements that it is requiring him to act, reluctantly, in self-defense.  The final “unfortunately” seems particularly passive-aggressive, since it introduces Maslin’s first direct attack on Morano’s speech:

Mas:  Unfortunately I have to say
Mor:  the top forecasting experts.
Mas:  this is, uh, uh, a wonderful bit of spin…

At this point, the debate is well joined, and Maslin now begins to use yet a third phrase to hedge his statements:

If you look at the IPCC report…
And if you actually look at climategate…
Actually, if you look at the evidence…
If you look at this week the WMO…
If you look at the satellite data…

“If you look at…” is another oddly passive aggressive device.  On the one hand, the phrase respects the auditor’s independence;  instead of asserting the evidence, Maslin is predicting what the auditor will find if he or she looks at the evidence.  At the same time, “if you look at…” projects an auditor who has not yet (“actually”–to use Maslin’s verbal tic) looked at the evidence.  Given the importance of the subject to all citizens, such ignorance can’t be good.  The phrase also suggests that anyone who does “look at” the evidence in good faith will see the same thing.  But it’s likely that Morano has “looked at” it.  Yet he still disagrees–well, then, he must not be in good faith;  a conclusion that Maslin gets very close to drawing explicitly at the end of this passage:

Mas:  The key thing is every single intelligent person, every key
Mor:  Oh, intelligent people
Mas:  politician in the world, listens to the key scientists, they actually look at the data.

Morano ≠ an intelligent person.

Morano’s Assertions

I’m hard put to find any hedges in Morano’s arguments.  Morano asserts.  Like Maslin, he repeats phrases.  Unlike him, these phrases seem to function primarily to strengthen the cohesion of his utterances.  Consider his deft use of the classical figure anaphora, tieing three assertions together by an initial repetition of the phrase “climate models”:

Right.  So what Professor Maslin’s arguing is these climate models should scare everyone–the climate models which violate 71 out of 89 principles of forecasting, according to the experts;  climate models that the UN says aren’t predictions but merely emissions scenarios;  climate models that are used to fulfill a political narrative when real-world data’s failing.

Now, Maslin is capable of making simple assertions;  he asserts, for example, that this year is the fifth warmest, and that a supertanker has been able to take the Northwest Passage.  But much more commonly, Maslin takes the information he’s putting forward, and wraps it in language both weak  and aggressive.  So it’s no surprise that at the end Maslin actually apologizes, while at the same time simply rejecting everything Morano says:

I’m sorry! Your ideas [that] the science is wrong are completely false.

In closing

Hedges weaken assertions–they’re often aimed at softening the injury adverse information can impose on an auditor.  But weak assertions are generally out of place in a debate, since the debaters are going to be held responsible for what they say, hedged or not (more on this in an upcoming post). What if Maslin swapped his hedges for something stronger?  Like:

I have to say that…  –>  In reply to Mr. Morano’s first point, …
If you look at…  –>  As Mr. Morano knows, …

But it gets worse:  Maslin’s constant hedging not only undermines the strength of what he is saying, it also makes evident again his view of the transaction he’s found himself in. He presents himself as acting in self-defense (i.e., is the victim of an attack);  and as debating with (and perhaps, before) non-“intelligent people” who either have not “looked at” vital evidence, or having “looked at” it, wilfully misconstrue it.

Undoubtedly, some of Maslin’s sense of victimhood arises from his frustration at having to take up yet again a debate he’d been “having…for twenty years” (64).  How did he get dragged into it?  I’ll “look at” that myself, in my next post.

Written by jeangoodwin

March 8, 2010 at 8:56 am

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