Between Scientists & Citizens

Morano Analysis #5: The adverse witness

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As a second way in to assessing the arguments in this debate, let’s examine how the two debaters deal with one bit of testimonial evidence they actually share.

Case:  Morano v. Maslin

Will Dr. James Hansen please take the stand?

Maslin’s very last argument picks up a cue from Morano’s first statement in the opening minute of the debate:

Mas:  And you’ve quoted Jim Hansen.  Jim Hansen may want eh,
Mor:  That’s right.
Mas:  Copenhagen to fail for some reason.  But are you actually taking
Mor:  For some reason.
Mas:  him literally? [?].  Jim Hansen actually said, this is the most important thing on the planet, and we have to deal with it.  And actually American coal and Chinese
Mor:  Sure.
Mas:  coal is the biggest problem.

So: Morano quotes NASA scientist Dr. Jim Hansen as saying that Copenhagen ought to fail;  Maslin quotes him as saying that AGW is the world’s most pressing issue.  What’s an average audience member like me supposed to conclude?  Do we have to go and do some web research, weighing all Hansen’s statements against each other to reach a reasoned judgment about what Hansen really thinks?

It’s unlikely that audiences are going to do that work.  Luckily for us, the debate itself can provide us some new information.  We in the audience expect each debater to be a zealous advocate for his cause.  And this presumption makes it a little easier to figure out what we can trust.

For example, this presumption means that we can trust without further checking that Hansen did in fact say something like these two things. After all, if one of the two statements was being misreported, the advocate for the other side would have pointed that out. Since both Maslin and Morano let each others’ Hansen quotes go by, we can, too. (Note that our trust is defeasible–with more information, we could change our minds.)

Does that mean that the two quotes just cancel each other out? Not quite.  Audiences of a debate are as Klonoff and Colby have put it, “hungry for concessions.”  (They’re talking about jurors at criminal trials, but the idea is the same.)  We know we can’t fully trust the evidence an advocate produces for his position–of course the defendant says he’s innocent;  of course the used car salesman says the car is in perfect shape;  of course Marc Morano says that climategate has knocked the wind out of the IPCC.  Instead, we in the audience  are on the lookout for the slightest signs of weakness.  When a zealous advocate surprises us and brings forward some evidence that tends against him, that we believe:  the defendant’s confession, the used car salesman’s admission that the car had been in an accident, and for James Hansen…

Hansen has been, Cassandra-like, preaching the existence of AGW for thirty-plus years.  He is inevitably associated with Maslin’s side in this debate;  he is one of Maslin’s “witnesses.”  So Maslin can’t gain any points by calling on his testimony–of course Hansen says what Maslin needs him to say!  By contrast, Morano calls him as an “adverse witness.”  The audience can reason:  ‘Wow!  Even James Hansen admits (against his apparent interest) that this Copenhagen thing is a mistake! That is something worth noting!’

The Art of Advocacy

How serious a blow is Hansen’s “admission” to the case Maslin is trying to build?  Not much, I think–it’s a minor point.  Instead, I’m interested in this small exchange because it suggests that Maslin is not yet thinking like an advocate–while Morano is.

One of the core skills of advocacy is to build one’s case on the commitments (concessions, admissions) you can force from the other side–to turn their evidence. Given the complexity of the issues, the limited knowledge of the audience, and the limited time for debate, such (noncooperatively) ‘shared’ starting points are key resources for getting anything accomplished.

Maslin’s final return to Morano’s first “witness” suggests that he does realize this.  Unfortunately, Hansen is really his “witness”–he can’t be turned. What Maslin needs to do instead is to pull some admissions from Inhofe, Limbaugh or the like.

Morano, by contrast, is alert to his opponent’s commitments, as is shown not only by his use of Hansen but by the way he instantly jumps on Maslin’s statement that “five thousand” scientists were involved in the IPCC.  Morano first demands that Maslin take responsibility for this slip, and then calls on the moderator to hold Maslin responsible–both strong methods for driving this commitment home.  Remarkably, Morano seems to have been prepared to attack Maslin on just this point.  He has up his sleeve a previous admission of “four thousand” scientists Maslin made “four days ago,” plus a precise assertion of the real number:  “if you include delegates, … 2800.”

Here’s a question to consider:  How many scientist-spokespeople are willing to do this sort of prep?  Are they following the discussions of “skeptics” and “deniers” with the hyperfocused attention advocates need to bring to their opponents’ statements? Is Maslin going into this exchange, for example, having reviewed every word Morano’s published over the past few months?

Of course, another question is whether Maslin’s commitment to “five thousand” scientists really  matters.  That takes us to the next topic:  Maslin’s appeal to the authority of the IPCC.

For more:  see bibliography:  advocacy:  argumentation in uncooperative settings

Written by jeangoodwin

March 13, 2010 at 10:30 am

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