Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, part 2
In 2007, NPR broadcast a now-infamous climate debate on the proposition “Global warming is not a crisis.” In theory, this sounds like an easy win for the “nay” side — “crisis” is obviously the mildest of words to describe the greatest preventable existential threat to the health and well-being of future generations.
But in practice such debates are almost unwinnable, even by those who are good at debating in public, a group that does not include very many scientists. As noted in Part 1, scientists are lousy at rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Significantly, rhetoric, was discovered and developed by the Greeks and Romans in part to help them win debates, so it follows that modern debates are also won by those who are better at using the strategies and tactics of rhetoric. In his dialogue Gorgias about the master rhetorician, Plato gives him a speech that dramatizes the awesome power of rhetoric:
If a rhetorician and a doctor visited any city you like to name and they had to contend in argument before the Assembly or any other gathering as to which of the two should be chosen as doctor, the doctor would be nowhere, but the man who could speak would be chosen, if he so wished.
So a rhetorician could persuade any audience, no matter how intelligent, that he or she was more of a doctor than a real doctor. No surprise, then, that someone skilled in rhetoric can beat a scientist in a debate on climate.
The 2007 debate had, “speaking for the motion: Michael Crichton, Richard S. Lindzen, Philip Stott” and “speaking against the motion: Brenda Ekwurzel, Gavin Schmidt, Richard C.J. Somerville” — bios, audio, and transcript here, some analysis is here. The painfully inevitable result as announced by NPR’s Brian Lehrer at the end:
And now the results of our debate. After our debaters did their best to sway you … you went from, 30% for the motion that global warming is not a crisis, from 30% to 46%. [APPLAUSE] Against the motion, went from 57% to 42% … [SCATTERED APPLAUSE].
A few more debates like that and we can all buy beachfront property in Baton Rouge.
Personally, I still do one-on-one debates from time to time, although they are almost unwinnable against a sophisticated denier or delayer, like, say Lomborg. But a 3-on-3 is quite counterproductive, since the other side will just go after your weak link(s). The other flaw in this debate is the proposition. “Crisis” is a losing word — sorry Al — a word the public has grown tired of, since it’s been applied to too many (every?) major public policy problem in the last two decades.
In this post, I’ll talk a little bit about why “smart-talkers” like scientists don’t tend to win debates. I won’t critique the climate scientists in the 2007 debate, but comment instead on two of the deniers/delayers. Stott spends a considerable amount of time pushing the favorite denier narrative that just a few decades ago, scientists believed the climate was cooling but now they believe it’s warming. I will explain below why someone who has spent 10 years using “modern techniques of deconstruction to grand environmental narratives, like global warming,” would devote so much time to repeating such a long-debunked myth.
Even more fascinating is the opening statement from the one non-scientist in the debate, Crichton, who has obviously become very rich precisely because he knows how to put together (fictional) narratives that are compelling to millions of people. He adopts the classic everyman position that is classic old-school rhetoric:
I myself, uh, just a few years ago, held the kinds of views that I, uh, expect most of you in this room hold. That’s to say, I had a very conventional view about the environment. I thought it was going to hell. I thought human beings were responsible and I thought we had to do something about it. I hadn’t actually looked at any environmental issues in detail but I have that general view. And so in 2000, when I read an article that suggested that the evidence for global warming might not be quite as firm as people said, I immediately dismissed it. Not believe in global warming? That’s ridiculous. How could you have such an idea? Are you going to try and tell me that the planet isn’t getting warmer? I know it’s getting warmer … I spent thirty years in California. We used to have something called June gloom. Now it’s more like May, June, July, August gloom with September, October, November gloom added in. The weather is very different.
However, because I look for trouble, um, I went at a certain point and started looking at the temperature records. And I was very surprised at what I found. The first thing that I discovered, which Dick has already told you, is that the increase in temperatures so far over the last hundred years, is on the order of six-tenths of a degree Celsius, about a degree Fahrenheit. I hadn’t really thought, when we talked about global warming, about how much global warming really was taking place …
Bullshit? Yes. Persuasive? I’m afraid so. Crichton is identifying himself with the audience — he once believe like they did, but then, gosh darn it, he went looking for trouble and found the actual data. This rhetorical strategy, and Stott’s, is not just decades old, not just centuries old, it is literally millennia old.
Let me bring presidential politics into this because, frankly, that is the origin of much of my analysis. Scientists and progressives and Democratic politicians have historically lost debates because they made two fundamental mistakes: First, they have treated the debates as if they were high school or college debates, which are won primarily on the merits of the arguments and volume of evidence presented.
Second, relatedly, they seem to think that appearing smarter than your opponent is a winning strategy, whereas conservatives understand and have repeatedly demonstrated it is a losing strategy. This fact was very well understood by the masters of persuasive language from ancient Greece and Rome through Elizabethans like Shakespeare and by skilled debaters like Lincoln and Churchill, as we will see.
Debates are typically won by the candidate who presents the most compelling and persuasive character. If I can convince you I’m an honest, straight talker, you’ll believe what else I say. If can’t, you won’t.
Debates are not usually won on factual or policy merits, in part because listeners aren’t in a position to adjudicate sometimes subtle differences between complex positions — what exactly was the difference between Clinton’s health care plan and Obama’s? and what exactly is the difference between carbon dioxide emissions and carbon dioxide concentrations? — and because those who are undecided on an issue are typically skeptical of all advocates, especially self-style “experts.” They assume everybody exaggerates to defend their position. In any case, if I don’t convince you I’m honest, my stated positions can’t possibly matter.
The rest of this post will explain why (those who appear to be) straight talkers beat smart talkers every time, ending with a discussion of the 2004 election.
A history of faking straight talk
A core strategy of rhetoric is to avoid seeming like a smarty-pants, to avoid appearing like
Carter Dukakis Gore Kerry a highly educated (i.e. elite), wonkish speaker, but rather a plainspoken man of the people.
Shakespeare — a master of rhetoric who knew more than 200 figures of speech like all middle-class Elizabethans (why do you think they called it grammar school?) — understood that very well. That’s why he has Mark Antony say in one of the great debate speeches of all time, his famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” response to Brutus in the Roman Forum: “I am no orator, as Brutus is, But — as you know me all — a plain blunt man.”
Is it coincidental that the only ones to use the word “rhetoric” in the 2004 presidential debates were George Bush and Dick Cheney? In the Vice Presidential Debate, Cheney said to his Democratic rival, Senator John Edwards, “Your rhetoric, Senator, would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up.” In the final debate, Bush twice repeated almost verbatim the same accusation about Kerry: “His rhetoric doesn’t match his record,” and again “His record in the United States Senate does not match his rhetoric.” This was only a small salvo in the Bush team’s war on Kerry’s language.
It is a mark of wily orators that they accuse their opponents of being rhetoricians. Winston Churchill, who wrote a treatise on the use of rhetoric in political speech at the age of 22, himself once opened an attack on his political opponents, saying “These professional intellectuals who revel in decimals and polysyllables … “
Returning to the Roman Forum, Marc Antony says
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;
So Antony is a man of the people, just reminding them of what they already know. Antony was, in fact, a patrician, like Bush. Indeed, Antony was a student of rhetoric, but his repeated use of one-syllable words lends credibility to his blunt sincerity. It is a mark of first-rate orators that they deny eloquence.
Lincoln was a “plain homespun” speaker, or so goes the legend, a legend he himself worked hard to create. In a December 1859 autobiographical sketch provided to a Pennsylvania newspaper, Lincoln explained how his father grew up “literally without education.” Lincoln described growing up in “a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods … There were some schools, so called.” He offers one especially colorful spin: “If a stranger supposed to understand Latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard.” No fancy talkers here. Lincoln modestly explains the result of the little schooling he had: “Of course when I came of age, I did not know much.” And after that, “I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.” All this from a man who in the previous year had proven himself to be one of America’s great orators in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and who during the course of his presidency would demonstrate the most sophisticated grasp of rhetoric of any U.S. President, before or since.
Lincoln opened his masterful February 1859 Cooper Union speech echoing Shakespeare’s Antony: “The facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar; nor is there anything new in the general use I shall make of them.” (In Antony’s own words, “I only speak right on; I tell you that which you yourselves do know.”) These are the words of a man who had memorized Shakespeare from William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, a treatise that included Antony’s famous speech.
Does this sound a little familiar:
I myself, uh, just a few years ago, held the kinds of views that I, uh, expect most of you in this room hold.
If you want to switch people’s viewpoints, pretend like you once held their views. It is a twofer. First, you can pretend you’re just like one of them. Second, you draw people into the narrative, since they become intrigued about how someone who used to believe as they did now believes differently. Classic storytelling — you need to create a hook for the listener early on or they will tune out.
Returning to rhetoric, the master orator who denies eloquence was such a commonplace by the sixteenth century that Shakespeare resorted to it repeatedly. Consider his King Henry V, a master of oratory, who delivered the most famous pre-battle speech in the English-language:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother …
After the British triumph at Agincourt, King Henry V woos Katherine, the daughter of the French king. Yet, even though Kate’s hand was one of Henry’s conditions for peace, the master of rhetoric still treats us to his tricks.
When Kate says she doesn’t speak English well, Henry says he’s glad, “for, if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown.” He’s just like a farmer, a man of the people. He adds, “But, before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly nor gasp out my eloquence, nor I have no cunning in protestation; only downright oaths, which I never use till urged, nor never break for urging.” Like Antony, he disingenuously denies eloquence. The reason orators use this trick: Being blunt and ineloquent means they must be honest and steadfast.
Here is Bush in his Orlando campaign speech on October 30, 2004:
Sometimes I’m a little too blunt-I get that from my mother. [Huge Cheers] Sometimes I mangle the English language-I get that from my dad. [Laughter and Cheers]. But you always know where I stand. You can’t say that for my opponent …
For a blunt language-mangler, that’s surprisingly old-school — very old school — rhetoric.
Henry urges Kate to “take a fellow of plain and uncoin’d constancy, for he perforce must do thee right, because he hath not the gift to woo in other places.” Because he is not a clever orator, he must be an honest and constant man. Then Henry compares himself to an imaginary rival: “For these fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into ladies’ favours, they do always reason themselves out again.” In short, the other guys are flip-floppers and liars. They talk smarter than I do, but that’s exactly why you can’t trust them.
This is precisely why the deniers like Stott and Crichton love to repeat the global cooling myth, love to say, as Crichton has one of his fictional environmentalists climate in State of Fear, “In the 1970’s all the climate scientists believed an ice age was coming.“
This clever and popular attack tries to make present global-warming fears seem faddish, saying current climate science is nothing more than finger-in-the-wind guessing. This attack appeals especially to conservatives who want to link their attack on climate scientists to their favorite attack against progressive presidential candidates — that they are flip-floppers. It been debunked time and time again — see “Another denier talking point — ‘global cooling’ — bites the dust” and Real Climate (here and here) or William Connolley or Skeptical Science.
Consider Bush’s stump speech in Wilmington, Ohio the day before the election, discussing his September 2003 request for $87 billion in Iraq war funding and Kerry’s vote: “And then he entered the flip-flop Hall of Fame by saying this: ‘I actually did vote for the $87 billion right before I voted against it.’ I haven’t spent a lot of time in the coffee shops around here, but I bet you a lot of people don’t talk that way.” In Burgettstown, two hours later he said, “I doubt many people in western Pennsylvania talk that way.” In Sioux City, Iowa, a few hours later, “I haven’t spent much time in the coffee shops around here, but I feel pretty comfortable in predicting that not many people talk like that in Sioux land.” And in Albuquerque, he said, “I have spent a lot of time in New Mexico, and I’ve never heard a person talk that way.”
Sarah Palin, in her stump speech, makes an almost identical criticism of Obama: “We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.” He is not one of us. He’s two faced. Yes, it may seem laughable coming from the Palin-McCain team, but even laughable works when it uses the tools of rhetoric — Palin here is using antithesis — placing words or ideas in contrast or opposition, one of Lincoln’s favorite rhetorical devices: “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” And she is placing Obama into a very old narrative about liars, flip-floppers, and Democratic candidates for President.
Kerry’s self-defining and self-defaming quote — “I actually did vote for the $87 billion right before I voted against it.” — has the powerful elements of eloquence. Sadly for Kerry, this is the precise reason it stuck in the mind. It has the repetition and sound of two memorable figures found in famous political quotes, antithesis, (“voted for” versus “voted against”), and chiasmus, words repeated in inverse order (in this case, “I … vote for” and “before I voted”). Little wonder it was ripe for exploitation through repetition and sarcasm.
President Bush in 2004 had everything down cold that we expect from a master rhetorician: The repeated simple words, the repeated phrases, and the message that his opponent is inconsistent and inconstant because he’s too clever by half and doesn’t talk the way you and I do. Yet at the same time, Bush managed to leave the impression that he himself is rather slow and inarticulate. Ironically, the (all-too-many) Democrats who attacked Bush as being stupid merely gave him a free pass on all his lying and made him seem more genuine and credible to many voters.
As hard as it can be sometimes — and even I fall into the trap from time to time — it simply makes no sense whatsoever to attack your opponents as being stupid. Call them liars before calling them stupid.
Why did Kerry flip-flop? Bush had a simple answer. The President told every audience that Kerry’s most revealing explanation “was when he said, the whole thing was a complicated matter. My fellow Americans, there is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat.” Rhetoric retains the power to move real people. In a 2005 post-election analysis, Journalism professor Danner quotes one Dr. Richardson-Pinto saying to him at Bush’s Orlando rally: “It doesn’t matter if the man [Kerry] can talk. Sometimes, when someone’s real articulate, you can’t trust what he says, you know?” And Richardson-Pinto is a doctor, someone whose credibility depends on being articulate.
So, yes, being smart, talking smart, and using big words may impress some in the audience — but most likely only those who already agree with you. It may cost you credibility with the very people you are trying to reach.
I fully understand that many scientists don’t want to spend the time needed to learn how to be persuasive to nonscientists. Indeed, Part 1 discusses how scientists are punished for being popularizers. But it is a skill that can be acquired, not really more difficult than differential equations. In any case, if you won’t spend the time, or don’t want to be known as a popularizer, then simply turn down public debates. This is not an amateur’s game. The stakes are way, way too high.
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