Between Scientists & Citizens

Morano analysis #8: repeating oneself all over again

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Let’s return one last time to the Morano v. Maslin debate.  I’ve been saying some favorable things about Marc Morano’s skill as an advocate.  But what about the fact that he–and in fact this whole debate–is boring?  Haven’t we heard all these arguments before, over and over again?  Yes–and it’s a good thing, too.

An arguer isn’t a romantic poet.  Originality and inspiration aren’t necessarily prized in a debate;  in fact, in an extended controversy like that about climate change, all the arguments that can be made  probably have been made already. Instead, what counts in a debate is argument craftsmanship:  taking a general idea that may have been expressed a thousand times before, adapting it to the immediate situation, refining it to its logical core, and expressing it in language that is as strong as the logic allows, but no stronger.

In ancient times, the teachings of rhetoric helped debaters by providing them some argumentative raw material with which to work–sets of what were called in Greek topoi. Topos just means “place;”  a set of topoi was (according to the Roman orator and theorist Cicero) a set of places–pigeonholes–in which matter for arguments could be found.  The material itself wasn’t new–in fact, our word commonplace was originally a translation of the technical rhetorical term koinos topos.  But while the material might be recycled, the orator’s expression of it in a particular case was not.

Our educational system no longer includes training in the use of topoi, but skilled debaters reinvent the practice for themselves.  Morano certainly has;  let’s walk through one passage to see how he works.


Morano starts off, giving himself a breath before he launches in:

So what Professor Maslin’s arguing is these climate models should scare everyone–
[1] the climate models which violate 71 out of 89 principles of forecasting,

according to the experts;

[2] climate models that the UN says aren’t predictions but merely emissions scenarios;
[3] climate models that are used to fulfill a political narrative when real-world data’s failing.

We can see Morano finding his groove between [1] and [2]–eliminating the unnecessary initial “the”  and not repeating the final “according to the experts,” which spoiled the rhythm of the first clause.  What’s left after these are stripped out is a fine set of three clauses with parallel syntax and roughly equal length (a tricolon), bound together by the initial repeated “climate models” (an anaphora).  In fact, if we hear the series [1]-[2]-[3] as making increasingly serious charges, what we have here is a classic ascending tricolon or klimax.  (See the very useful Silva Rhetoricae for definitions of all these rhetorical terms.)

This is a remarkable bit of oratory. How does Morano pull it off, apparently extempore in a complex debate?  Because it’s not extemp.  Let’s check his writings at Climate Depot:

[1] violates principles of forecasting–11 hits
[2] not predictions, emissions scenarios–11 hits
[3] political narrative–10 hits

Here, for example, are the same three ideas–the same three topoi–stuck together in a slightly different order:

Eilperin glosses over the fact that this latest UN climate “report” is a [3] strategically timed political document peppered with unproven computer climate models that [1] violate the basic principles of forecasting and that [2] even the UN does not call “predictions.”  (source)

Not quite as well crafted–I think Morano shines in oral, as opposed to written, discourse.

A similarly fine display of skill occurs towards the end of the debate, where Morano starts off by saying “Let’s go one at a time,” and then picks off the three arguments Maslin had made in a minute-long speaking term, in precise reverse order:  arctic sea ice; temperature increases;  and 5000 climate scientists. Each of these topoi can again be confirmed repeatedly on his blog.

Final comparison

Maslin’s fine Very Short Introduction shows that he’s very skilled at explaining climate science–that is, he’s a great teacher.  The problem: debating is not just two teachers competing for the audience’s attention. The audience of a debate is not cooperative;  they’re not just curious to hear an explanation.  The presence of two opposing advocates makes doubts and objections obvious. To survive in this unruly context, the debater has to have his knowledge organized into small but forceful chunks–into topoi.

There are certainly arguers on the AGW side who recycle arguments with the same enthusiasm that Morano does:  Joe Romm would be a likely candidate, and I may take a look at Climate Progress at some point.  But Maslin may be burdened by having too much knowledge, too well organized.

So get yourself some topoi!–that’s one of the bits of advice I’ll offer in my next and final post on the Morano v. Maslin debate.

Addendum:  I find that Skeptical Science has a very nice collection of commonplace arguments–a great topoi set, that could be made even better by further comments.

Second addendum:  Here’s another topoi set:  How to Talk to a Skeptic.

Written by jeangoodwin

March 22, 2010 at 11:44 am

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