Who is “Jean Goodwin”?
Pathos (emotion), logos (reasoning), and ethos (character)–for persuasion, these three; but the greatest of these (according to Aristotle at least) is ethos. Work across the sprawling contemporary discipline of communication agrees; “source factors” like knowledgeability, credibility and likeability play a key role in getting a message across.
This raises the hope that some of our bitter public disputes over science might be resolved, if only we could find the right messenger; a scientist whose conspicuous dignity, integrity and authority would make him (or her) trusted by all sides in the dispute.
Alas, even if we could locate such a scientist-saint, this communication strategy would be unlikely to work. Read on to see how my own recent blogospheric experiences suggest why.
Will the real “JG” please stand up?
Over the weekend , Judith Curry generously featured a pair of articles by myself and Michael Dahlstrom on her blog (here and here), as part of her general effort to grapple with the challenges of communicating climate change. This first article in particular was picked up on several other climate blogs (here, here, here, here and here). I’m neither a scientist nor a saint, but the construction of the ethos of “JG” in the course of these discussions reveals a consistent pattern:
Those who thought they agreed with “JG” describe her in this way:
- she teaches top-notch courses…This sounds like one Prof. who realizes that critical thinking is not the same thing as critical theory, and she makes her students tackle real problems
- professor of rhetoric
- BSc wiskunde, later advocaat en inmiddels PhD in classical rhetorical theory and contemporary public address (BSc mathematics and later become a lawyer and PhD in classical rhetorical theory and contemporary public address)
- her main areas of expertise are argumentation theory and rhetoric
- A math major who ends up studying english.
- a scholar of science communication and principles of ethical communication.
Although one sounded a note of caution:
- She is a rhetorician and that makes one fear that she might tend toward “post modern” views of science.
Those who thought they disagreed with “JG” characterized her as follows:
- designed to keep the author in the main shoal of self-congratulatory fish
- she teaches English somewhere in Iowa
- She doesn’t appear to be what I would call a “deep thinker”.
- one of the players whose self-righteousness leaves no room for self examination
So on one hand we see a stress on the subject’s official credentials, and on the other an emphasis on motives and intellectual vices apparent in the subject’s prose. (The bit about “somewhere in Iowa” is especially fine, since Iowa of course isn’t anywhere to begin with). All of these points are substantially true–well, at least they have some plausibility. But they construct two very different images of “JG.”
The limits of expertise
This anecdote provides a good illustration of Kahan et al.’s ideas on “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus.” We expect arguers with different value positions to at least share a common set of factual starting points from which to explore or even resolve their dispute–in this case, an agreement about who counts as an expert. But no. Controversy spills over (or “goes meta”); disagreement about the course we should adopt in the future is associated with disagreement over assessments of expertise.
When asked to evaluate whether an individual of elite academic credentials, including membership in the NAS, was a “knowledgeable and trustworthy expert,” subjects’ answers proved conditional on the fit between the position the putative expert was depicted as adopting (on climate change, on nuclear waste disposal, or on handgun regulation) and the position associated with the subjects’ cultural outlooks.
Basic value orientations are reinforced by cognitive heuristics like “my side bias” to produce a result that can be summarized: “If he disagrees with me, he is no expert.”
Which of these fake scientists do YOU trust?
Kahan suggests that one strategy for overcoming this tendency is to make sure that audiences receive scientific messages in contexts that “affirm their cultural values.” (Note to self: remember this for next time.) One such context is the debate, where the presence of competing experts associated with a variety of value frames paradoxically allows audiences to be more open to those they disagree with. (Note to self: that’s worth remembering, too.)