Between Scientists & Citizens

Who is “Jean Goodwin”?

with 10 comments

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
  • Dr.
  • 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
  • shallow
  • she teaches English somewhere in Iowa
  • Ms.
  • 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.)

Written by jeangoodwin

July 18, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Posted in discourse analysis

Tagged with ,

10 Responses

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  1. Jean, I am one that agreed with you and found you refreshingly articulate but couldn’t the whole topic of figuring out how to gains someones trust be a tad Machiavellian?


    July 18, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    • Hi, Kermit: You’re raising a very important point; probably needs a whole blog post. One short answer: This is why I like the distinction between (#1) highly fallible but fast & easy “heuristic”/”peripheral” mental processing and (#2) more reliable but also slow & effortful “central” processing (i.e., critical thinking). Persuasion–especially hidden persuasion–that aims to get the audience to make unwarranted “heuristic” jumps (#1) may indeed be machiavellian. But persuasion addressed to an audience’s critical thinking (#2)–that can’t be manipulative, can it?

      Put concretely: a used car salesman who echos your speech patterns may be trying to gain your trust through manipulation. But one who offers a guarantee can *earn* your trust, right?–you now have a good reason to trust him, since he wouldn’t offer the guarantee unless he was pretty sure that the car was OK.

      Here’s another test: manipulative persuasive techniques when noticed are unpersuasive–indeed, they make the audience mad. But the more a good reason is noticed, the more persuasive it is.

      Basically, I’m interested in ways of earning trust that appeal to the audience’s critical thinking capacities (#2). These communication methods are going to be hard work, and slow, and they won’t 100% succeed. But if people who disagree deeply (and not just about AGW) are going to live on this one small world together, we need them!


      July 18, 2011 at 11:01 pm

  2. […] played the three characteristics of persuasion: Pathos (emotion), logos (reasoning), and ethos (character)–for persuasion, these three; but the […]

  3. Hi Jean, glad to see that you have resumed blogging!


    July 19, 2011 at 12:44 pm

  4. Again, if a communication strategy does not start with, focus on and deliver integrity and truth, the rest is just distraction.
    I am amazed at how little academia seems to focus on this.


    July 19, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    • Hi, Hunter: I think you’re right–especially over the long haul and in controversial settings, falsehoods and bad character will be found out. So any communication strategy not based on saying true things and living up to one’s responsibilities is likely not only to fail to persuade, but even to backfire.

      Here’s one central question for communication theory, though: Assume that you’re an expert of good character in possession of some important knowledge. What can you do to make your good character and knowledge apparent to people who don’t know you, who don’t share your expertise, and who may even already disagree with things you’re going to say? I’m studying communication strategies which aim to do that.


      July 20, 2011 at 8:23 am

      • Sometimes there are more than one way to do something(“skinning a cat” as the saying goes) and the same is true for truths. Sometimes two things can seem contradictory but still true. For example take getting consensus on standards by ISO and the IETF. They take input from many different and competing sources but end up with a consensus because moving forward will be served by a single standard even though a competing standard may be just as good or even turn out better later on. The IPCC and the cAGWers are not open like those organizations and so have exacerbated their problems.


        July 20, 2011 at 10:57 pm

      • Jean,
        Thank you for your kind words and excellent question.I would think that the answer will lie in being scrupulously and transparently honest.
        To be prepared to call out others on my side who are failing to uphold high standards. To grant the legitimacy of those who disagree. To live as if the message was personally applied to myself.
        The promoters of AGW fail at this consistently.


        July 26, 2011 at 7:26 pm

  5. Jean,

    Academics tend to be overly impressed with the idea of credentialed expertise. People with real world experience are more likely to already understand the lessons of Philip Tetlock’s work — experts’ predictions are no better than chimps throwing darts. Read Future Babble, by Dan Gardner.

    Experts will be outclassed by the distributed intelligence of the crowd — see Wisdom of Crowds. Especially when facillitated by the communication available throught the web, see An Army of Davids.

    If you get up to speed on the history between Steve McIntyre and Michael Mann (see Hockey Stick Illusion) with the amateur auditors vs. supposed experts, you can get a good illustration of the foolishness of the notion of credentialled experts. Or check out the rank silliness of Stefan Rahmstorf’s “worse than we thought” study (the 2d most referenced scientific study by journalists behind Mann’s hockey stick). Rahmstorf’s co-authors include some of the biggest names in climate science and the stats errors are so egregious that they induce laughter [ ]

    For another interesting example, see the lightning fast demolition of Dan Rather and the fake documents used by 60 minutes in an effort to smear Bush. People from all walks of life, communicating on the web and sharing ideas, manage to figure out in a matter of hours that the docs are bogus and how they were created. A lonely document “expert” was out of his league.

    It isn’t just a question of whether the expert agrees with us. Some of us just laugh at experts and hubris in general. Even those of us with our own doctorates.


    July 26, 2011 at 9:51 am

    • Hi, Stan: In addition to some of the works you mention, I’d strongly recommend Collins & Evans, _Rethinking Expertise_.


      July 26, 2011 at 1:44 pm

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