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Language Intelligence – Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga: A Review

Filed under: — mike @ 20 August 2012

Any book that manages to link together the lessons of the Bible, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Lady Gaga (not to mention Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Seinfeld), can’t be all bad. With Joe Romm’s new book Language Intelligence, it is, in fact, ALL good. There are lessons galore for the scientists among us who value public outreach and communication. The book is a de facto field guide for recognizing and assimilating many of the key tools of persuasive language and speech, something that is ever more important to science communicators who face the daunting challenge of having to communicate technical and nuanced material to an audience largely unfamiliar with the lexicon of science, sometimes agnostic or even unreceptive to its message, and—in the case of contentious areas like climate change and evolution—already subject to a concerted campaign to misinform and confuse them.

Unfortunately, as Romm notes, “Scientists are not known for being great communicators”. And so you will forgive me, I hope, if I fail to convince you to read his book. But you really should read his book! You should definitely read his book! In fact, you need to read this book! Have I mentioned that you ought to read Romm’s book?

Repetition is in fact one of the key tools of effective communication that Romm emphasizes. Channeling the late Johnny Cochran, Romm tell us “If you don’t repeat, you can’t compete”. That is hardly the only lesson in this book for would-be communicators. The book is packed with great examples from history, ancient and modern, of how rhetoric (defined by Churchill, as Romm informs us, as “The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion”) serves as the scaffolding of effective communication. The materials filling that scaffolding are the ‘figures of speech’, many of which are familiar to us, even if we don’t use them as frequently or effectively as we could. They include the use of hyberbole (extravagant exaggeration, and antithesis (the pairing of contrasting words or ideas), puns, and irony in its various forms. They include the use of wit and aphorisms, and metaphors (especially, where appropriate, extended metaphors) and devices such as alliteration and chiasmus (the repetition of words in reverse order). Romm provides numerous illustrative examples. In the case of chiasmus my favorite is from the James Bond Movie “Die Another Day”. [This is, incidentally enough, the only Bond flick to talk about climate change, via an ironic comment from the main villain: "Global Warming. Its a terrible thing"]. In one scene, Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan) tells the curmudgeonly “Q” (played by John Cleese; I preferred Desmond Llewelyn. So call me old school) “You’re smarter than you look”. Q, in reply, quips “Better than looking smarter than you are”. It is the figures of speech, used in proper measure and appropriate context, that comprise not only a memorable line from a movie, but the key tools to effective writing and oratory.

Romm’s key lessons to would-be communicators, in short, are:

1. Use short, simple words.
2. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is the essential element of all persuasion.
3. Master irony and foreshadowing. They are central elements of popular culture, modern politics, and mass media for a reason—they help us make sense of the stories of our lives and other people’s lives.
4. Use metaphors to paint a picture, to connect what your listeners already know to what you want them to know. Metaphors may be the most important figure as well as the most underused and misused.
5. Create an extended metaphor when you have a big task at hand, like framing a picture-perfect speech or launching a major campaign.
6. If you want to avoid being seduced, learn the figures of seduction. If you want to debunk a myth, do not repeat that myth.

Many of you will know Romm mostly if not exclusively for his “Climate Progress” blog, and his round-the-clock, take-no-prisoners debunking of the disinformation efforts of climate change inactivists and clean energy opponents. So I suspect you, like I, will be pleasantly surprised as you are introduced to a completely different Joe Romm that you never knew existed. Joe demonstrates a remarkable intellectual breadth and depth that goes well beyond his obvious expertise in the area of climate and energy policy. His message in ‘Language Intelligence’ has a generality that extends to all areas of public discourse, whether it be politics, education, or entertainment. But make no mistake. His lessons have great relevance in the domain of climate change communication, and particular salience for those interested in communicating climate change—the science, the impacts, the risks—to a broader public audience. As a rule we don’t, for example, use metaphor–a particularly powerful tool for communicating complicated concepts in a simple and accessible way–nearly enough. Though, as Romm notes, we are getting better. One example of an effective metaphor that he provides (and indeed, which I sometimes use myself) is the notion of “weather on steroids” as a way of communicating the statistical nature of the subtle–but very real–influence that climate change is having on certain types of extreme weather events. Just as many of the home runs hit by a baseball player on steroids were almost certainly due to the taking of steroids–even if you can’t prove that any one home run resulted from it–so too is it likely that the record-breaking heat we are seeing in the U.S. this summer of 2012 is very likely due, in substantial part, to the impact of human-caused climate change and global warming.

Climate change critics have indeed understood the importance of language and rhetoric for some time. In the infamous leaked “Luntz Memo” of 2002, Republican pollster Frank Luntz advised his clients–fossil fuel interests–how they could more effectively use clever word choice and rhetoric–indeed, the figures of speech themselves–to reframe the public discourse over climate change, to help convince the public that there was no scientific consensus, that climate change was not a threat, and that any actions to mitigate climate change would themselves be dangerous. Already, the forces of climate change inaction were sharpening their rhetorical weapons in preparation for retrenchment in the war against the science of climate change–the “climate wars”.

I can appreciate this at a very personal level. I was somewhat involuntarily thrust into the center of the public debate over climate change at this very time, when the “Hockey Stick” temperature reconstruction I co-authored, depicting the unprecedented nature of modern warming in at least the past millennium, developed into an icon in the debate over human-caused climate change [particularly when it was featured in the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) of the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC in 2001]. I soon found myself at the center of concerted attacks by those who believed, somewhat cynically (and quite illogically from a scientific viewpoint) that they could discredit the entire case for the reality and threat of human-caused climate change, if they could simply discredit my work and, indeed, me specifically (this is to be distinguished from the good-faith scientific debate and give-and-take, that is to be expected–and indeed is necessary, for the progress of science). Indeed, I wrote a book about my experiences–and what I think I’ve learned from them–earlier this year (The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars).

I was forced to defend myself in the face of a well-organized and well-funded campaign by agenda driven front groups, politicians, and policy advocates to discredit me. And I had to learn the tools of self-defense–I had to acquire the sorts of ‘language intelligence’ tools that Romm describes–through a trial-by-fire of sorts. It is my hope that other younger scientists coming into this field, who too may eventually find themselves subject to politically-motivated attacks on their work, will read Romm’s book (and perhaps mine too) and learn these lessons early in their career, so that they don’t find themselves ambushed with little or no defense, down the road. So, at the (very low, in fact) risk of repeating myself once too many times, I will say it again: you really do need to read Joe Romm’s book.


171 Responses to “Language Intelligence – Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga: A Review”

  1. 51
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Those who have more money have more free speech

    Originally it was the freedom to speak your own mind.
    Hidden assumption — one mind per citizen, speaking your own voice.

    Not any more. Now that money _can_buy_ more free speech, that formerly individual opinion has become a copypasted commodity, bought and sold in the marketplace.

  2. 52
    sidd says:

    Re: prescriptivistic proscriptions

    sometimes “suggest” is exactly the word i want…

    sidd

  3. 53
    Unsettled Scientist says:

    Garry S-J, you do see the irony in your earlier comment right? The whole my suggestion is don’t use the word suggests. After you’re done writing go change it.

    FWIW, I disagree. Using a synonym for the word suggests isn’t going to change how the denialati think. For people who engage the literature honestly it is not a problem. In fact I can remember times I read the word “shows” and thought the author may have been better off using the word “suggests.”

  4. 54

    @ Jim, re: response to #37

    Jim,

    Many thing may not be illegal, but yet be deeply immoral.

    We humans know when something is wrong and we know when something is unfair. These are innate human qualities.

    Why do we even have laws in the first place?

    Could it be because we have a sense of what is just and unjust?

    And these people running fossil-fuel companies have no sense of shame.

    When it comes to trying to destroy the lives of honest, hard-working scientists, they feel no shame at all!

    Just look at what they have done and continue to do to Hansen and Santer and Mann and Weaver and Monnett.

    Charles Monnett says he’ll never write another paper again!

    Oh, but let us not speak of such terrible things here on Real Climate, this is a blog about the science, after all.

    This is not the appropriate place for discussing how the tools of rhetoric are cutting us and our descendants off at the knees and for all time.

    We’ll just have to stumble mumbling back to our own blogs and wait for them to pick us off, one by one, with the Serengeti strategy.

    [Response:I'm not in disagreement about your view of some of the tactics some used. I'm in disagreement that you believe that the solution is totalitarianism.--eric]

  5. 55
    Fern Mackenzie says:

    May I say, Michael, that you have been a very quick study, and I applaud your transition to Effective Science Communicator! I make my living writing as an advocate for abstract concepts of cultural significance. I was a TA in Art History as a grad student, and I had engineers, commerce majors and science students taking it as a “bird course”. In more than one case when I was marking their written submissions I was surprised to find that English was NOT their second language!

    It is ever more important in this era of denial that scientists step up to the mic and speak for themselves, because the bureaucrats and spin doctors are going to take the facts on a tortuous path to nowhere, or rather, to whatever burial ground their political masters specify.

    I will read Romm’s book. I have always found him to be credible and thorough. Thanks for a great post.

    [Response:Thanks Fern, very kind of you to say. like I said in the piece, it was sink-or-swim in my case. Fortunately, many more scientists (in climate change and other fields) seem committed to outreach & communication these days. Seems especially true of the younger generation of scientists. -Mike]

  6. 56
    Leif says:

    A fundamental flaw of Western Capitalism is the ability of the self chosen few to profit from the pollution of the commons. The Capitalistic “Corpro/People” then use a fraction of those parasite profits to propitiate themselves by any means both fair and foul.

    We all pay fees to dump garbage, waste water and more. Corpro/People dump tons for free and accumulate mega-bucks. Even get tax subsidies. The GOP don’t fund abortion. Fine. A precedent! Why must my tax dollars fund the ecocide of the PLANET via fossil subsidies?!!! We’re talking “MORALS” here. Try throwing 19 pounds of paper cups out the car window for each gallon of gas you burn. Who is making money here and who is losing? Toxins verses paper cups? (I bet you could be real creative about increasing your trash stream if it were paper cups.)

    I pay $150/ton to dump my household garbage. $50/T to recycle yard waste. Waste water fees, of course. I even have a rain water run of fee of $5/m. (guide lines here?) Yet Corpro/people piss all over themselves at the thought of $25/ton for TOXINS! Sweet Jesus…

    In brief:

    Stop profits from the pollution of the commons.
    Go Green, Resistance is FATAL!

  7. 57
    Susan Anderson says:

    We’ve tried being civilized and polite, and it hasn’t worked very well. Over the years, those willing to insult their way to power have almost taken over. Those of you who have followed the conversation around the internet may have noticed that whenever a particularly cogent point is made, there is a concerted and varied attempt to kill the messenger. Some names bring out the masses, such as Gore, Hansen, Pachauri, and Mann (and subject areas such as Arctic melt, which makes Neven’s civilized discussions remarkable). You will notice the variety of tactics used if you take a look.

    A favorite is to get us to attack each other.

    This circular firing squad should not be attractive to those concerned about our future. Please don’t let these Tom Sawyers get you to whitewash the nasty fences they have created around their me first estates.

  8. 58

    @ Eric, re: #54, your response: “I’m in disagreement that you believe that the solution is totalitarianism.–eric”

    OK, Eric, that must be the most bizarre leap of irrationality that I have seen in a very long time, or rather, that type of leap is what goes on on Faux News.

    I am in agreement with James Hansen, and I rather doubt he believes in totalitarianism.

    [Response: Tenney, as noted below, my apologies for my overzealous response. However, you really ought to go back through the thread of comments and see the context in which you wrote yours. Other commenters were calling for criminal investigations of so called "climate deniers", Nuremburg-type trials, and the like. I got the impression that you were in agreement with them, in which case "totalitarianism" (or "fascism" if you prefer) is the right word.--eric]

  9. 59
    Edward Greisch says:

    46 Jim: I would love to read an or several RC articles on the effect of GW on agriculture. How about a guest post by Aiguo Dai?

    Dai, A., 2011: Drought under global warming: A review. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 2, 45-65. DOI: 10.1002/wcc.81
    says drought in the midwest of the US.

    Dai, A., 2012: The influence of the Inter-decadal Pacific Oscillation on U.S. precipitation during 1923-2010. Climate Dynamics, DOI 10.1007/s00382-012-1446-5, in press.
    says flood due to Pacific Inter-decadal Oscillation

    http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/cas/adai/myself-dai.html

    So are Iowa farms going to be growing cactus under water?

  10. 60
    Edward Greisch says:

    39 Doug Bostrom: Wealth is neither an indication of intelligence nor an indication of knowledge nor an indication of wisdom. Money cannot be free speech. Saying otherwise is undemocratic, indeed Saying otherwise is elitist, plutocratic and oligarchic.

  11. 61
    Edward Greisch says:

    54 eric: Tenney Naumer is not in favor of totalitarianism. You are. Reference book: “The sociopath next door : the ruthless versus the rest of us” by Martha Stout. New York : Broadway Books, 2005.

    According to Martha Stout, 4% of all people are born sociopaths/sciopaths/psychopaths. There is no cure because it is caused by a part of the brain simply being missing. A written test, the MMPI [Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory] can identify sociopaths before they cause destruction.

    Everybody should have to take the MMPI in high school. Psychopaths should be barred from CEO positions and high political offices. Most CEOs and politicians are probably psychopaths. Who is a psychopath should be public knowledge.

    The totalitarianism of the wealthy, alias plutocracy, is anything but democracy. There is no way you can say from Tenney Naumer’s comment that she is in favor of totalitarianism. Freedom does NOT mean the rich own everything, even the government. There should be less financial inequality.

  12. 62
    Lennart van der Linde says:

    People like Chomsky have said that every post-war president should be hanged for war crimes if the Nuremberg laws would be applied. Why shouldn’t CEOs who knowingly mislead the public on global warming be tried for crimes against humanity? If this case can be made following common principles of justice, why would that be ‘totalitarianism’? Btw, if I’m not mistaken, Hansen himself has at least somewhat been inspired by the courageous example of Chomsky.

    [Response: Chomsky is talking about directly aiding and abetting genocide -- i.e. U.S. military action -- not about advertisements on TV or op-eds in the WSJ.--eric]

  13. 63
    Russell says:

    Joe’s book too much recalls an Apologetics textbook left over from from Al’s student days at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and may pose may pose similar risks.

    To paraphrase one of the perennial bestsellers Joe recommends :

    He who lies down with televangelists may get up with a flea in his ear.

  14. 64
    Mike Roddy says:

    Eric’s statement that Tenney’s comment is totalitarian makes no sense whatsoever, and bears no relationship to Tenney’s politics or her comment.

    It tells me that Eric’s politics are of the Pielke Jr./Revkin libertarian variety, where state activity should be confined to research funding, while management of our country should be left to Murdoch, Koch, Exxon, Cargill, and Georgia Pacific.

    It reminds me of the post mortem on 20th century fascism: “All that was required for evil to succeed was for good men to do nothing”.

    Thank God we have men like Mann, Hansen, and Romm, who see reality in all of its dimensions, including the political ones.

    [Response: It is pretty hard to figure out someone's politics from a short blog-commentary discussion, as evidenced by your wildly incorrect guess about my politics. Evidently, I made the same mistake as you in my response to Tenney. My perhaps overzealous response was in reaction to the overall tone of many of the comments that led up to Tenney's, calling for Nuremburg trials and the like, which is clearly over the top.--eric]

    [Response:Thanks for telling us who the real men are, and are not. We'll be sure to add that to your list of other opinions about who the real scientists are, what they should be doing in your ideal world, etc etc.--Jim]

  15. 65
    dbostrom says:

    Edward Greisch says: 22 Aug 2012 at 1:13 AM

    Money cannot be free speech. Saying otherwise is undemocratic…

    I quite agree.

    For the time being we are instructed by the Supreme Court that expenditure of money is an ineluctable feature of free speech as it is described in the Constitution. Money being unequally distributed, we must thus accept that some of us are more free than others. That is the law of the land, as Montana was recently required to understand while being made to change its campaign finance laws so as to allow those having more freedom full enjoyment of their extra privileges.

    Of course this is also the court that cannot make a cognitive leap across a comma separating two clauses of a sentence. So just as it is not formally inconceivable that one side of a room should become spontaneously warm while the other cools, it’s possible that under the right unlikely circumstances we might see freedom redistributed on a more equitable basis some day in the future. Cosmologists hint at even more improbable things, after all.

  16. 66
    Marcus says:

    #57 Susan Anderson:

    You have always tried being civilized and polite, and it worked and works very well for you.
    Just for instance.

    Cheers
    Marcus

  17. 67
    Tim Kozusko says:

    I purchased this book immediately on Mike’s suggestion and it is every bit as great as he indicates. I think rhetorical tools are much like statistical tools in that the more one knows about them the less susceptible he or she is to their abuse. And as a bonus, now I actually get the title of Zappa’s Apostrophe album!

  18. 68
    Lennart van der Linde says:

    Mike Mann in his comment above refers to the liability cases against the tobacco industry. I’m no law expert, but why couldn’t a case be made for liability of the ‘merchants of doubt’ for knowingly misleading the public on global warming? The tobacco case may give some useful insights, for example:
    http://www.vctc.org.au/tc-res/criminal_liability_paper.pdf

    I’m sure experts could give more and better places to start.

    [Response:This is a little more reasonable, but it's still a bit of a stretch in my view. The tobacco companies evidently had done research on cancer and suppressed those results. There's no real parallel with the think-tanks and such that have disinformation campaigns on global warming, because they are not doing actual research of their own -- and hence there is nothing they "know" they that could be accused of supressing.--eric]

    [Response:Furthermore, the nature of the scientific evidence and corresponding burden of proof are not the same--these are completely different kinds of systems with different levels of noise and different levels of certainty of cause and effect. This relates to the point that J Bowers made up thread, and also Tamino's. Real wisdom is required w.r.t. this issue, not just knee-jerk reactions motivated by anger--Jim]

  19. 69
    Mike Roddy says:

    To Jim and Eric:

    I realize this is a scientific blog, and the best one at that, but as long as we are talking about politics, what is the position of you and Jim on resisting (or not) the fossil fuel companies’ insistence on hiring people to lie to the public about climate science, and influencing our government to do things like maintain oil subsidies etc?

    Repeating and refining the scientific evidence is not working, because oil and coal have so much influence in our media. The United States has no effective climate policy, and partly as a consequence the rest of the world doesn’t either. Does this not get you a bit riled up, given what you know about the horrifying changes in store?

    This was more of a practical suggestion than a political one, but if you react so severely to my proposal that fossil fuel companies’ assets are seized at some point in the future, what solutions do you propose?

    [Response:Mike, there isn't any question that such a practice is wrong. No organization, or individual, of any type should ever knowingly lie to the public on an important issue that affects the public welfare (and there are many such). You can be damn sure it makes me angry; it always has, and likely always will. But the questions are (at least) two-fold here. The first is the question of the strength of evidence, how to prove definite intent by these companies in combination with the causation regarding who is being affected and how exactly. The second is the question of what is, tactically, the best thing to do, given the present situation, political reality, level of awareness of the problem etc., and on both of those questions, you are going to get a wide variety of considered answers. And on top of that, there are some of us that don't particularly care for being told we're not doing enough on this issue, don't measure up to this or that person, to put it mildly. We're all doing what we can here. It's clear from your comments over time that you don't really understand the idea that different people have different knowledege levels, abilities, interests, motivations etc. I mean, do you go down to your local fire department and tell them they're not doing a very good job of waste water treatment or law enforcement?--Jim]

  20. 70
    prokaryotes says:

    Can we please get a topic for discussing the attacks on the climate science. Given our current situation and outlook climate scientist have to speak out about this more clearly.

  21. 71
    Mike Roddy says:

    Jim, thanks for your prompt and thoughtful answer. I have great admiration for climate scientists (except for Lindzen et al), especially since you are attacked and distorted so often, and I meant no disrespect.

    I used to dream about things like scientific vigils on the steps of the Capitol, complete with handouts about media and political corruption and disinformation. Such a campaign would be more credible than one led by, say, OWS personnel.

    Maybe scientists are not temperamentally inclined to perform such actions, or otherwise forcefully take their discoveries to the people. Hansen and Mann are doing inspiring work here, but they should not be out on a limb. A group effort addressed to the media and the public- as opposed to, say, a statement from AGU or the National Academy- might actually awaken the public. Language and communication skills will be extremely important.

    Joe Romm’s thoughts could be very valuable here, whether delivered by scientists or someone else. The point is that it’s past time to act, forcefully and fearlessly, because the price of inaction is horrific beyond words.

    [Response:Thanks for clarifying Mike. I should add that I very much do want to see more scientists get out there and educate people on important issues, including a whole range of ecological issues (land and forest management, maintaining ecosystem processes (and components), agricultural practices, sustainable resource use, etc). A lot of academics are more reticent to get involved in these things than I would like. But you can't force anything. You have to try to encourage as much as possible, and you also have to remember that those people are having an important impact on people through their daily activities at their institutions.--Jim]

  22. 72
    Jim Larsen says:

    51 Hank says, “Originally it was the freedom to speak your own mind.
    Hidden assumption — one mind per citizen, speaking your own voice.

    Not any more.”

    Well, the deviation has increased, but in 1776 George Washington’s free speech was louder than Whomever Isntremembered’s was.

  23. 73
    Jim Larsen says:

    54 Tenney said, “When it comes to trying to destroy the lives of honest, hard-working scientists, they feel no shame at all!”

    Well, shame is a counter-productive emotion, financially speaking. What surprises anybody that those in charge of zillions of dollars often have no shame? The best CEO (in that regard only) is one who does as much stuff that ought to be illegal but isn’t (or the law is parsible) as possible, and as soon as it becomes illegal can find a way to continue legally doing essentially the same thing.

    [Response:This kind of discussion is not helpful. The topic of the post is how to communicate, let's stick to it. Or rather, get back to it--Jim]

  24. 74
    Tom Scharf says:

    “Nuremberg Tribunal for Climate Saboteurs”

    Really? Myself having been bore-holed enough to prevent my return on anything but infrequent basis cannot understand how this type of language passes muster on a moderated “science” forum.

    You guys are really doing yourself a disservice, and I think eric is right that this only paints you as extreme . However the proper response is clearly to not allow this type post period.

    The irony that this is on a post of “climate communication” is so thick it is unbelievable.

    Come on guys, have more respect for your opponents than that, and yourselves. You’re better than this.

    [Response: I agree, and thanks. As for comments getting through, our autofilters don't catch everything. Since that one or two got in, I felt that addressing them head on was better than boreholing them. --eric]

  25. 75
    Russell says:

    70;

    For once the prokaryote has a point– the biggest fleas are blocking the ears of some erstwhile conservative editors.

    It is unseemly for them to applaud lawyers thrashing scientists bearing unwelcome tidings, when they should be defending the political neutrality of scientific institutions agianst true believers of all stripes.

  26. 76
    SecularAnimist says:

    The effects of the anthropogenic warming now projected (e.g. by MIT and the IEA) to occur during this century will be, in the words of Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Britain, “incompatible with organized global community”.

    When the SHTF, there won’t be any “Nuremberg tribunals for climate saboteurs” for the simple reason that there will not be any functioning institutions capable of conducting such procedures.

  27. 77

    “…hence there is nothing they “know” that they could be accused of suppressing…”

    No wonder, then, that they consider ignorance to be the best defence.

  28. 78

    Conversely, others may consider it to be the worst offence.

  29. 79
    prokaryotes says:

    SecularAnimist “There will not be any functioning institutions capable of conducting such procedures.”

    If we get there, all hope is eventually gone, since we require global actions and the help of a proper global economy to phase out Co2 emissions.

    But to act internationally to outlaw “Ecocide” we could put governments and people on trial and should. For instance look at the possible largest Arctic Oil Spill and project what will happen now with the alteration of the polar currents and ice free conditions. http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=322598154503107&set=a.201065459989711.43923.196805450415712&type=1

    The destruction of environments, threaten food chains and ultimately carbon sinks.

  30. 80
    dbostrom says:

    Having just read the first chapter of Joe’s book, I was struck by this extract from Aristotle, on rhetoric:

    Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character…To express emotion, you will employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discreet reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory…This aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story.

    Taking Hansen as a proxy for all scientists bearing messages of danger, what struck me is that time and again Hansen and his ilk are chastised for any emotionally appealing content they bring to their speech, are advised to castrate their language.

    Aristotle had more to say on aptness of language (read his whole chapter here), the full quote of his words being “This aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story: their minds draw the false conclusion that you are to be trusted from the fact that others behave as you do when things are as you describe them; and therefore they take your story to be true, whether it is so or not. Besides, an emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise.

    Notice that many of those offering sanctimonious advice to Hansen are the very same who follow Aristotle’s advice themselves, the crucial difference being that Hansen is speaking from a foundation of truth, while his tendentious critics often are not. Many even of those who have no issue with Hansen’s facts would prefer him to speak in a rhetorically crippled fashion when he addresses the public square.

    This is a potentially fatal asymmetry.

  31. 81
    SecularAnimist says:

    Tom Scharf wrote: “Come on guys, have more respect for your opponents than that”

    In my humble opinion, those who have systematically, deliberately and blatantly deceived the public about the reality of anthropogenic global warming — including a coordinated, calculated campaign to demonize and vilify climate scientists, which has resulted in a number of scientists receiving death threats — and have thereby delayed action for a generation, virtually ensuring massive suffering for billions of human beings in the decades to come, do not deserve “respect”.

  32. 82
    Lennart van der Linde says:

    The topic is how to communicate the science and its implications. Metaphor, analogy, etc can be useful means for that. That’s the reason, as I see it, Mike Mann, Jim Hansen and others make analogies between the political fight against global warming c.q. the fossil industries and the fights against slavery, nazism and the tobacco industry. It tries to make clear the stakes involved. This interview with Mann in my view is great communication:
    http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2012/07/08/michael-mann-bill-blakemore-abc-news-interview-on-climate-change-and-the-global-warming-disinformation-campaign/

    Also see what Donald Brown has to say on the question of possible ‘crimes against humanity’ from an ethical point of view:
    http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2010/10/a-new-kind-of-vicious-crime-against-humanity-the-fossil-fuel-industrys-disinformation-campaign-on-cl.html

    Hansen for one seems to view the courts as potentially the most constructive, or least destructive, place to communicate about climate science.

  33. 83
    Susan Anderson says:

    Marcus (~66) will not think I’m polite when I say that the most disingenuous and insidious attacks are the disguised ones like that of Tom Scharf, who has managed to wring an apology out of people who if they investigated his work would find him an exemplar of how to mislead people. When I first encountered him elsewhere, I had to do some work to find the false premises. He is very literate and very polite, but not good.

    With the whole world at risk, it is time to stop temporizing with the truth.

    Some of us may be more able to dance delicately around all this, but regardless of whether it is a stomp or a ballet, it needs full commitment. Nothing else will do.

  34. 84
    Garry S-J says:

    Unsettled Scientist @53:

    Yes, my irony was deliberate. Thank you for noticing. :)

    I do accept that “suggests” may actually, once in a while, be the appropriate word, but I stick by the point I was making.

    If scientists are trying to communicate their findings to a wider audience, the message will typically sound tentative and inconclusive if it is framed as something merely “suggested” (or similar word) by the data.

    I am not proposing that scientists claim more certainty than the data and analysis warrant, but I think that most times the word “suggest” is used, a more forthright wording could be found without much trouble. At the very least, an indication of how strongly something is suggested would help.

    For example, how often could it be said that “the data strongly support the conclusion that blah blah blah” or “we could find no other plausible explanation” rather than “the data suggest blah blah blah”.

    The inclination of many people (journalists included) when confronted with a scientists saying the data “suggest” something or other would be to say “Well, that’s interesting. Just let me know when you’ve made up your mind.”

    This is meant to be constructive criticism, by the way.

    It isn’t the fault of scientists that their message is so routinely distorted and misrepresented by the deniosaurs, but it does make it more important to get the message across as effectively as possible.

    Making a list of wishy-washy words like “suggest” and doing a quick word search for them would be a handy place to start when polishing up your paper or speech.

  35. 85

    I am not sure, Eric, but I think you are confused.

    If someone authorizes expenditures for services of persons who illegally hack into servers and steal emails (while also hacking into Real Climate, lest we forget) with the intent to take text out of context in order to try to destroy scientists’ reputations and careers and mislead the public on the extreme danger we face, and if they pay someone to break into Andrew Weaver’s office and steal his computers while at the same time sending people to impersonate technicians and try to break into the data center at his university, do you not understand that these are people who have no regard for the law or for their fellow human beings?

    Let them keep their miserable assets, but let them be shunned by civil society, let them be booed if they show their despicable faces in public, and for all I care let them be pelted with rotten eggs and tomatoes everywhere they go.

  36. 86
    Russell says:

    Are Aristotelian congratulations due those who register their disgust with science in the service of political agendas by their discrete reluctance to utter a word about it?

  37. 87
    Russell says:

    Are Aristotelian congratulations due those who register disgust with politicized science by their discrete reluctance to utter a word about it?

  38. 88
    dbostrom says:

    Russell says: 22 Aug 2012 at 9:43 PM

    Are Aristotelian congratulations due those who register disgust with politicized science by their discrete reluctance to utter a word about it?

    If you’re referring to Lindzen, disgust is outweighed by some other muffler we can’t quite identify. Now if the man would commit a transgression having nothing to do with science, if history is any guide we can be fairly sure his peers would chastise him in an official capacity, quite severely.

  39. 89
    Steve Fish says:

    Re- Comment by Garry S-J — 22 Aug 2012 @ 7:59 PM:

    So what do you suggest when some denialist spinmeister takes some perfectly nuanced explanation of a climate finding and twists it into total irrational stupidity. This is not an unusual circumstance. Listen closely- it isn’t a problem with the message, the message is perfectly clear, it IS the denialist self serving message that is the problem. Steve

  40. 90
    Teresa Baker says:

    I look forward to reading Mr. Romm’s book. I have often wondered why in communicating the complexities of the climate system and the threat posed by global warming, scientists/communicators have not or have rarely invoked analogies to the human body: the most intimately known system to the lay public that must be persuaded. Such comparisons could drive home the potential dangers for continued procrastination in the hopes that some magic bullet will materialize to save us from ourselves. This may not change the views of the most obstinate deniers, but it could begin to shift public opinion back toward a healthy majority capable of motivating some political courage towards action.

  41. 91

    #80 dbostrom

    It remains my understanding that both sides are using the fact that the other sides emotions are overblown against the opposing side.

    Using emotion to convey science is therefore, in my opinion, an ineffective technique. I also think it inappropriate and unnecessary as well.

    I do agree of course with Aristotle, but only in the context of a give argument with a given audience. Crossing borders and boundaries is an entirely different situation.

    When I speak to audiences that are not middle of the road on this issue but simply don’t ‘believe’ that the warming is human caused, I can turn the vast majority of the audience to understanding the issue. I do this without emotion. It works, but one does have to have a particular skill in communication and be acceptable to the audience as a communicator they can trust.

  42. 92

    “So what do you suggest when some denialist spinmeister takes some perfectly nuanced explanation of a climate finding and twists it into total irrational stupidity.”

    Asking innocent questions worked well for Socrates! (Less illustriously, sometimes for me, too.) It may not seem like it on certain websites, but most people still recognize distortion most of the time. And those innocent questions can certainly point it up for them.

  43. 93
    andrew adams says:

    Re #84 Garry S-J

    The trouble is that scientists often can’t win either way. If they use words or phrases like “suggests”, “consistent with” etc. they are accused of using weasel words or it is taken to mean “we don’t really know”. But if they use stronger wording they are accused of overconfidence or understating the level of uncertainty.

    Ultimately communication is a two way process and however effectively the person trying to communicate tries to be in getting their message across it will come to nothing if the person on the receiving end is not prepared to listen with an open mind, or is even actively looking to misunderstand.

    That’s not to say that Joe Romm’s book is not of value – there are people out there who are can be reached and so effective communication is still a worthwhile objective, but when I read some of the criticism of the efforts made so far by scientists and others to communicate the dangers of AGW I feel they often fail to take the above into account.

  44. 94

    re: Tom Scharf’s comments

    There’s nothing improper about the language (“Nuremberg Tribunal”) on a science forum since the issue was how to talk about the issue.

    The question of AGW is either gravely serious or it is (as its critics claim) another musty academic notion that’s been fanned into importance by the academics who study it. If it is gravely important then many multiples of the people who died during the Holocaust could die as well. Many multiples. What do you think of the post war effort to address the Holocaust? Do your tender sensibilities swim to think of it? It sounds like you think that AGW is an academic curiosity. I don’t. I don’t think it’s “academic” at all, and serious measures need to be considered to address the inaction that we find ourselves mired in. I apologized for bringing Nuremberg up because it had already been brought up by someone far more knowledgeable and serious than I. James Hansen. Because my suggestion was redundant. Not because it was improper.

  45. 95
    SecularAnimist says:

    “hence there is nothing they ‘know’ that they could be accused of suppressing”

    In the event of any legal proceedings along the lines of the tobacco lawsuits, I think that would actually be a question of fact to be determined at trial.

    If I recall correctly, it was during the course of such proceedings that it was revealed that the tobacco companies’ own scientists had determined that tobacco was both carcinogenic and addictive, and that the tobacco companies had not only knowingly tried to suppress this information, but had actually built marketing plans around that knowledge — e.g. marketing cigarettes to younger people, knowing that they would become addicts and life-long smokers, replacing older smokers who would tend to die from cancer.

    So, for the fossil fuel corporations who funded the AGW denial propaganda campaign, the question would be “What did they know, and when did they know it?”

  46. 96
    Dan H. says:

    John,
    I tend to agree with you. Those that invoke emotions in their argument tend to be viewed as more activist than scientist, on both sides of the fence. Emotions work well to motivate those who already agree with your conclusions, but to convince those with whom you disagree, stick to the facts. I think approach works best, regards on which side on the debate you are arguing.

  47. 97
    dbostrom says:

    John, it’s a terrific situation if Aristotle is correct and the science we’re discussing is usefully true. Being able to ignite people’s hearts by an appeal to logically right reason is a wonderful rhetorical weapon, the very best.

    Ethically speaking the choice here is clear and easy, arguably does not present any choice at all: if you’ve got truth on your side and a legitimate reason to appeal to emotions consisting of a threat of the highest order, you use the faculties the Greeks were perfecting 2,000 years ago to help save lives. Doing less is Wrong with a capital “W.”

    Denskepticons only have one reliable button to push, emotions, “we’ve” got two, emotions and reason, and as well our emotions button is better because our reasoning is sound. Denskepticon appeals to emotion fail under scrutiny, “ours” don’t.

    People come equipped with few action buttons or many; the more effective buttons you know how to push, the better.

    Some time ago a study was done on lead paint mitigation in older homes. What was crystal clear from this research was the galvanizing effect children have on intentions to perform lead mitigation in these homes. There’s a situation where emotion and reason are in perfect alignment and where a distilled science message is often ineffective.

    “Lead dust is poisonous.”

    “That’s terrible. I have to watch TV.”

    “Lead dust gets on your infant children’s hands and will mentally cripple them.”

    “Aaagh! I’ll fix the problem, immediately!”

    People reading this and who have children will understand the imperative. It comes straight from the heart.

    Regarding trust, it’s key; the literature is clear on the role of trust in hazard and risk communication. But let’s not obey our denskepticon advisers and conflate emotionally appealing language with being an untrustworthy communicator. We’d be less than trustworthy if we did.

  48. 98
    Unsettled Scientist says:

    Garry S-J > I stick by the point I was making.

    And I stick by mine. There is no reason for scientist to change their lexicon when publishing a paper because of the existence of people who won’t engage them honestly.

    The media don’t care about when scientists have made up their mind, it doesn’t sell papers. I don’t think the scientific community could be any clearer that global warming is real, and that is it caused by human activity. Every major scientific society has a public statement about this. But time rolls on with the media giving “both sides” of the story.

    Just look at the recent Hansen paper. Are the people who were saying that the baseline period of 1951-1980 ignores the hot US extremes of the 30s appeased by the follow-up release by Hansen et al where they specifically include that time period? No. They just make up some other reason to dismiss it. They ignore the fact that redoing the analysis with that time period actually strengthens the conclusions of the initial paper. The problem isn’t with the word “suggests” it’s with the culture of ignorance that is not receptive to science.

    Outlawing the “wishy-washy” words from the literature is just missing the point. It’s like arguing about how we should write our 4′s. Is it one line with a triangle, or two lines with an open box. It doesn’t matter if you’re engaging the material honestly.

  49. 99
    Leif says:

    Economic inequality to the degree that is found in Western Capitalism today is Terrorism. Pure and simple. Each require the other to thrive. If there is to be a “War of Choice” let it be the “We All Win War” to stop profits from the pollution of the COMMONS. The truly existential threat to humanity and the root cause of terrorism, in that a population left without justice to address exploitation will spawn terrorists. (Or Revolutions.) It is a given, proven throughout history.

  50. 100
    CRZ9 says:

    I think you’re talking about the communication between the general public and scientific community. It seems there is nobody from the other side of the fence so I’d like to tell you my personnal anecdotal testimony.

    First, I didn’t care of warming. I though it was true just because every major scientific institutions agree with each other though I didn’t know anything about it.
    Then I encountered the debate on AGW on the net. Where else?

    They said “Consensus is not science. Science is all about facts.”. Well, I thought it was true though it didn’t sound quite wright. And about Galileo, yeah. He did suffer from the consensus. It didn’t sound quite right, though.
    “Nature produces CO2 more than 97% and less than 3% from human” Well, well again, we do produce such a small amount, I thought. I didn’t know.

    Thing is that I didn’t really change my view or was convinced but I didn’t know any facts or understandings to clear my mind. They successfully left seeds of dubts in my mind. I didn’t really trust them but I was somewhat more open to what they say a bit.
    They appeal to my intuitive common sense thus I did really need no facts or data to form my view because I already know them, intuitive common sense.

    I started to use my personnal way to see a con while I was looking up for some info on AGW. People tend be inconsistent in their logic, rational and in this case, their science when they make stuff up as they go along. And they also use a lot of big words and conplicated logic. They tend to dance around my fear of embarrassment of lack of knowledge, understanding and pride and vanity.

    “Why Greenland is called greenland?” This may sound so ridicuos to you guys but it goes right into the spot in my brain. Maybe because it rhymes.
    Until of course, I found that Greenland is almost 1,000 miles long , streching Arctic sea to North Atlantic and it is 5 times the size of Great Britain, 3 time the size of Texas. Now I could ask “What does that mean the place 3 times the size of Texas was green?”, “Do what they found one farmhouse under the ice near southern coast line in the place 5 times the size of Great Britain?”, “Why Iceland is called Iceland, then?”, “Do I also believe the streets in Chin were once paved with gold?”

    They also say 3,000 scientis don’t believe AGW. Huh? They now arguing ‘consensus’ now? What pappened to “Consensus is not science”? Isn’t that the very reason why we have ‘peer review’ in scientific field?

    This was how I went, fell their rhetrics and metaphors and came back. Here is the thing. I, one of the many general public, don’t have time to look it up or mental capacity to understand all those complicated science. So I tend to be comfortable with or relate to it if I can make an analogy to things in my everyday life and bode well with my intuitive common sense.
    My point is starting to point out how or what is wrong in science and rationl in my or sceptics’ misunderatanding before you start to explain conplicated story is better. Question them. Question their science. Ask them “What do you mean by that?” Sorry can’t explain it well.

    Thing is when you have debates in public forums, keep in mind sceptics you’re debating are not the one you’re communicating to but people, the public who are listening in or reading silently are the ones you want to convey your message to.
    Some of them have already fell into sceptics’ rhetrics and metaphors and they are empathetic and identify with sceptics. Sometimes it is not a good idea to beat up to win an argument for argument’s sake as long as you state your points and help sceptics clearly reveal their logical fallacy and irrational understanding in science. Showing some humanity toward the sceptics makes people who are empathetic more receptive to what you’ve said to take it in. Nobody likes an arrogant ruthless winner. Once it clicked in their mind they’d be willing to listen to you and a flood of underastandings would come in.

    Sometimes You do have to go 100% science when you discuss data and facts. there is no room for anything else. You could use rhetrics and metaphor when you talk about basic science in general of the science of AGW because we are usually not versatile in those.
    But keep in mind using rhetrics and metaphors is like telling a joke. You have to set up the stage and deliver them so that they’d understand exactly what you mean to mean. As powerful as they are they could backfire bad as well if it sounds somehow condescending or arrogant. Sorry, got too long and might be off main topic.


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