Tag Archives: rhetoric

What might appear to be common sense is not always based on scientific evidence

The Conversation

File 20180419 163995 ztaab2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The quest for scientific evidence can trace its roots back to the classic masters of rhetoric. AboutLife/Shutterstock

James A. T. Lancaster, The University of Queensland

The term “evidence” has a fascinating linguistic and social history – and it’s a good reminder that even today the truth of scientific evidence depends on it being presented in a convincing way.

As recent climate change scepticism shows, the fortunes of scientific evidence can be swayed by something as fleeting as a tweet.


But what does it even mean to speak of “scientific evidence”?

The art of persuasion

History reveals that scientific forms of evidence have rarely, if ever, been detached from rhetoric. In fact, the very idea of evidence has its origins within the context of classical rhetoric, the art of persuasion.

Read more:
How do you know that what you know is true? That’s epistemology

Our modern term originates from the ancient Greek ἐνάργεια (enargeia), a rhetorical device whereby words were used to enhance the truth of a speech through constructing a vivid and evocative image of the things related.

Far from independent and objective, enargeia depended entirely on the abilities of the orator.

In the hands of an exceptional orator – such as the ancient Greek poet Homer – it could be deployed so effectively that listeners came to believe themselves eyewitnesses to what was being described.

Before the court

Aware of its utility to the law, the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero brought enargeia into forensic rhetoric during the 1st century BCE, translating it into Latin as evidentia.

For Roman orators such as Cicero and, in the 1st century AD, Marcus Fabius Quintilian, evidentia was particularly well suited to the courtroom.

Here it could be used to paint the scene of a grisly murder: The blood, the groans, the last breath of the dying victim. Recounting the scene of a murder in vivid language brought it immediately before the mind’s eye, affording it the quality of evidentia (“evidentness”) in the process.

Such detail was of paramount importance. The more detail the orator could furnish, the more likely it was that his account would convince the jury of its truth.

From its inception, then, enargeia/evidentia was a device that was used by one person to convince another about a particular reality that might not otherwise be evident. There was an art to it.

Scientific evidence

We can be forgiven for forgetting that the idea of scientific evidence originates in the art of rhetoric, for early modern scientists went to considerable lengths to disassociate the idea from its classical past.

Through their efforts, the meaning of evidence was shifted from a rhetorical device to denote something sufficiently self-evident that inferences could be drawn from it.

Adopting the English translation of evidentia from the common law in the 1660s, Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and other practitioners of the new science situated “evidence” as the end result of unbiased observation and experimentation.

Unlike classical evidentia, scientific “evidence” was objective because it spoke for itself. As the motto of the newly-minted Royal Society of Londonnullius in verba – stressed, its members were to “take no one’s word for it”.

Just like forensic evidentia, the truth of scientific evidence was based on its immediacy.

Hooke’s microscope, to give an example, permitted the viewer to witness first-hand the compound eye of the dronefly in such marvellous detail as to leave him or her without any doubt of its reality – a “see-for-yourself” mindset that was crucial to the success of science.

An illustration by Christopher Wren of the compound eye of a drone fly, contained in Robert Hooke’s book Micrographia: or Some Phyſiological Deſcriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses. With Observations and Inquiries Thereupon. British Library

Yet in practice, because most people were unable to peer through the eyepiece of a microscope, the evidence Hooke collected remained largely reliant on testimony.

Whether one accepted Hooke’s evidence for a previously unknown, microscopic world depended more on the painstakingly detailed illustrations and descriptions he gave in his 1665 Micrographia than the observations themselves.

Contrary to the Royal Society’s motto, it was not the things themselves but the way in which they were presented – and their presentation by a morally upstanding expert – that ultimately did most of the convincing.

The same holds true today. The invisible structures, processes and interactions that scientists train for years to observe remain unobservable to most people.

The temperature changes, sea level rises and acidification of the ocean that comprise some of the vast and complex evidence for climate change require, in many cases, expensive equipment, years of monitoring and specialists trained to interpret the data before climate change becomes evident.

Even when evident to scientists, this does not make climate change evidence evident to the average person.

Climate change sceptics

US president Donald Trump’s scepticism about climate change is a potent example of just how intertwined scientific evidence and rhetoric remain.

So far the Twitter Trump Archive has recorded 99 mentions of “global warming” and 32 mentions of “climate change” (both appear in some tweets) by @realDonaldTrump.

Situating his tweets as evidence against climate change, Trump poses rhetorical questions to his 50 million followers:



In marked contrast to the complex evidence for climate change, Trump positions his tweets as common sense evidence against it. In this, immediacy is on his side. Freezing weather is readily apparent to everyone, not just to scientists.

Trump’s followers are made direct witnesses to the truth of climate change by appeal to that which is most evident to them and thus, by implication, that which is the best evidence.

Even if a record cold and snow spell is not, in reality, evidence against climate change, its capacity to convince is greater because, unlike genuine evidence for climate change, it is both simple and immediate.

Read more:
Science isn’t broken, but we can do better: here’s how

Evidence for climate change, on the other hand, requires trust in the scientific community, a trust that is meant to offset its lack of immediacy and which asks us to suspend our senses.

Trump’s tweets aim to delegitimise this trust, empowering his followers by telling them to trust the evidence of their own senses, their own expertise.

As scientific evidence has become increasingly complex, so too has the idea of “clear scientific evidence” become an oxymoron. If anything, Trump’s assault on climate change should serve as a reminder that making scientific evidence evident enough to convince the public is an art that needs to be embraced.

The ConversationScientific evidence can’t always be expected to speak for itself.

James A. T. Lancaster, UQ Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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‘I’m entitled to my opinion’

(An edited version of this article was published in
“The Skeptic” Vol 37, No. 2, June 2017)

The claim ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ or ‘I have a right to my opinion’ is a logical fallacy in which a person attempts to reject objections to their argument by claiming that they are entitled to their opinion.  This claim is usually uttered by people in disagreement when they have hit the wall in defending their point on its merits. It is a last ditch rhetorical device that attempts to rescue their position by defending their right to hold an opinion, no matter how ill-founded or wrong that opinion might be.

The claim exemplifies a red herring. The right to have an opinion is not what is in dispute. Whether one has a particular entitlement or right is irrelevant to whether one’s opinion is true or false. To assert the existence of the right is a failure to provide any justification for the content of the opinion. The claim also implies that all opinions are equal, which exemplifies the relativist fallacy.[1]

The entitlement claim would be relevant only if it guaranteed the truth of your opinions. But it can’t do that, because it is an entitlement supposedly enjoyed by everybody. And people disagree.  Two debaters are both entitled to their contradictory opinions about a given issue, but they can’t both be right. [2] So insisting that you are entitled to your opinion cannot possibly give you any logical advantage in a debate.


[1] The relativist fallacy, also known as the subjectivist fallacy, is claiming that something is true for one person but not true for someone else. The fallacy rests on the law of noncontradiction. The fallacy applies only to objective facts, or what are alleged to be objective facts, rather than to personal tastes or subjective experiences.

[2] In classical logic, the law of non-contradiction (LNC) is the second of the three classic laws of thought. It states that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time, e.g. the two propositions ‘A is B’ and ‘A is not B’ are mutually exclusive.


Harding, Tim ‘Who needs to Know?’ The Skeptic magazine, September 2015, Vol 36 No 3 p.36.

Stokes, Patrick., ‘No, you’re not entitled to your opinion’. The Conversation. October 5, 2012.

Whyte, Jamie (August 9, 2004). ‘Sorry, but you are not entitled to your opinion’. The Times. News UK.


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In an age of rhetoric, Australian politics is missing the American flair

The Conversation

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

The busy schedule of elections and plebiscites in the Anglophone world has brought with it an increased interest in rhetoric – the art of public speaking. In particular, the recent Democratic convention in Philadelphia saw some major speeches, not the least by Barack and Michelle Obama, and others including Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg.

The notable speeches at the convention, including Hillary Clinton’s own serviceable contribution, helped to get her a bump in the polls at the right moment. The stakes were high, following on from the Republican Convention, where Trump’s long speech had a mixed response, but the controversial speeches of Melania Trump and Ted Cruz, in particular, held the nation’s attention. Trump himself is no mean orator, with a kind of aphoristic, syntax-free style, and an unrivalled capacity for getting his message and profile across.

The Australian political scene of 2016 could scarcely be more different. Campaign launches used to provide an important opportunity for a flurry of rhetoric on a political leader’s part, as Gough Whitlam’s did in 1972. But these events have lost much of their prominence now because election campaigns are constructed differently.

Party launches now occur nearer to the end of campaigning than the beginning, because the parties have to fund themselves after their launches. In the 2016 election the two main political parties launched their formal campaigns with only two weeks (ALP) and one week (Liberal Party) to go before the vote. After six weeks of three-word slogans about policies which had already been announced, interest was minimal in the speeches at the official campaign launches.

Indeed, as far as the speeches were concerned, the main interest was election night itself – that is, after the voting, not before it. Malcolm Turnbull offered up a rather graceless speech on the night of July 2, one which he probably regretted. Bill Shorten did somewhat better on the night, and in the campaign generally, although that was partly because expectations were so low.

It is worth reflecting on the ancient origins of “rhetoric”, which is a Greek word for the art of speaking in public. It developed in a very significant way in Greek antiquity with the rise of democracy.

Political power was a great stimulus for learning how to craft an impressive speech. Pericles, for instance, most famously, held the reins of power in democratic Athens by virtue of his great powers of persuasion. His prominence was such that, according to Thucidydes:

in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.

Pericles’ own speeches have not survived but we get a sense of them in the pages of Thucydides, notably his Funeral Oration, for fallen Athenian soldiers. His actual speeches must have been magnificent, given their impact within a city-state that was so focused on political rhetoric.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz, 1852.

But it is important to stress that, even before the advent of democracy, speaking well in public was an important ancient Greek virtue. For instance, the main Greek princes in Homer’s Iliad, our earliest European text, were expected to fight well, but also to speak well in the various assemblies.

And there were significant competitive elements to both activities. Some heroes in the Iliad are good speakers, but others are not. Achilles is a wonderful fighter, but he is ill-at-ease in the gatherings of the princes; whereas Odysseus, the wily craftsmen of words, is much more at home in the assemblies.

The greater level of interest in rhetoric in modern American political life is paralleled by its profile in the tertiary sector there. For instance, The University of California, Berkeley, has a Department of Rhetoric offering a full undergraduate program and graduate program. It describes itself as “committed to the study of rhetorical traditions from the classical to the contemporary eras”.

The University of Texas has a Department of Rhetoric and Writing offering a diverse range of courses focused on rhetoric and rhetorical traditions. Harvard has an endowed chair, the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory, once held by John Quincy Adams, although it has a poetic focus these days (and was duly held by Robert Fitzgerald and Seamus Heaney).

Many other American universities offer rhetoric within other disciplines, like English, Composition, or Communication Studies. There is some interest in the study of rhetoric in Australian universities too, although not usually as a discreet area of study.

On the whole, Australian political culture is far less concerned with rhetoric than ancient Athens, or the contemporary United States (which is not to say that we haven’t had some fine political speeches). There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Indeed, some people would see it as a positive virtue, given the extended history of good speeches leading to bad policy.

Paul Keating’s 1992 speech on Aboriginal reconciliation is widely admired as a great speech.

But one wonders whether some great political opportunities are currently being missed more than they were in the recent past. Gough Whitlam, a scholar of Greek as it happens, and an admirer of Pericles, set his campaign on track for victory with a memorable speech at Blacktown in November 1972. It ended,

I do not for a moment believe that we should set limits on what we can achieve, together, for our country, our people, our future.

It was uttered by Whitlam, but it could easily be Pericles.

There is no reason why our political leaders couldn’t have benefited from major speeches in the recent election, in the mould of Whitlam or Pericles or Obama. They might indeed have captured the imagination of the voters. But this would have required far more attention to speechcraft, and laying out an imaginative vision for the future, and far less to the costs of running a campaign.

The ConversationChris Mackie, Professor of Greek Studies, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Wind turbine studies: how to sort the good, the bad, and the ugly

The Conversation

By Jacqui Hoepner, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

Yesterday, The Australian ran a front-page article about what it called a “groundbreaking” new study on wind turbines and their associated health impacts.

The study supposedly found a trend between participants’ perceived “sensations” and “offending sound pressure”.

The Australian’s environment editor Graham Lloyd claimed the (non-peer-reviewed) study shows that “people living near wind farms face a greater risk of suffering health complaints caused by the low-frequency noise generated by turbines”, adding that it may help to “resolve the contentious debate about the health impact of wind farms”.

Carried out by Steven Cooper of The Acoustic Group, the study was commissioned by energy company Pacific Hydro near its Cape Bridgewater wind farm in southwest Victoria.

But this study is an exemplary case of what we consider to be bad science and bad science reporting. Far from “resolving the contentious debate”, it’s much more likely inflame an already fractious and fraught situation.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you read this and similar studies.

Is it a good study or a bad study?

This study asked six specifically selected participants from three houses in the Cape Bridgewater area, all within 1.6 km of a wind turbine, to keep a diary of “perceived noise impacts”. Objective sound measures were also taken inside and outside homes. Though Cooper has said he is “not qualified in any shape or form to discuss the illness side”, the symptoms described in the diaries were assessed against the sound measure differences between periods when turbines were in normal operation and shut down. All participants had previously complained to Pacific Hydro about health effects related to the nearby wind farm.

So what do we have?

We have a study with a very small group of specifically selected participants, with no control group for comparison and based on self-reported data – without medical research supervision – when participants were well aware of the experimental conditions (that is, when turbines were turning or not).

And what does this mean?

It is virtually impossible to validly extrapolate these findings to other residents of Cape Bridgewater, or to those living near other wind farms around Australia.

It is impossible to meaningfully compare their experience with a control group of other residents.

Even if all six of these participants experienced their symptoms legitimately, we can’t establish cause and effect. Though Lloyd reported Cooper as claiming his study showed a clear “cause and effect” relationship, it just can’t.

But most importantly, you can’t trust the data. These participants were all clearly unfavourably disposed towards the wind farm beforehand, and were motivated to perceive and report symptoms in line with the wind turbine syndrome theory.

This is not to say that the participants – and perhaps others – do not experience adverse health effects when close to a wind turbine. But it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this type of diary-style data. Last year, New Zealand researchers found that almost 90% of the general population experienced many of the common symptoms associated with wind turbine syndrome within a given week.

When a study is designed with a specific, motivated sample group and a clear hypothesis from the outset, it is a bad one.

It’s a study that wouldn’t have done very well if put up for peer review – or submitted for assessment in an undergraduate science degree. So how did it make it to the front page of a major Australian newspaper?

Crucial context

The context of any study is crucial, particularly when commissioned and conducted by private companies.

In this case, there appears to be a level of motivated reasoning, both in the findings of the study and in its coverage by The Australian.

Statements from study participants are revealing. One called it “confirmation of the level of severity we were and are enduring”; another felt “absolute relief” at the results. It suggests that their feelings of anger, distress and injustice have been brewing for a long time. Despite the poor quality of the study and the limited findings, they feel vindicated.

Lloyd has been a long-time critic of wind farms and has repeatedly reported on studies that claim to show a link between wind turbines and ill health.

Division, personal attacks and vitriolic rhetoric from both sides have marred this issue for many years. So it is also important to note that although Pacific Hydro has since gone into damage control, with external relations manager Andrew Richards keen to emphasise the small sample size and complexity of the issue, the company deserves respect for commissioning this study and allowing The Acoustics Group full access to its wind farm operation.

Yet any steps to build a bridge to those who are opposed to wind turbines must be taken very carefully. Giving unfettered and un-reviewed methodological control to someone endorsed by anti-wind-turbine groups is a bit like giving Dracula the keys to the blood bank. It should be possible to work with opponents to investigate a shared problem scientifically – but this is not the way.

Final tip

If a credible, scientifically rigorous study were to show a link between wind turbine operation and health effects, it should absolutely be taken seriously. There are people throughout Australia who genuinely believe their lives, health and well being are being affected by living near wind farms.

If good science can prove them right, then we must take it into account. But no one benefits from bad science.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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Straw Man Fallacy

by Tim Harding B.Sc., B.A.

A speaker commits the Straw Man Fallacy (known in the UK as an ‘Aunt Sally’) whenever she falsely attributes a weak position to her opponent that he wouldn’t have proposed himself and then proceeds to attack the weak position. The opponent is a real man with a real argument; the weak position is an artificial one held by an artificial person —the “straw man” or a scarecrow that the speaker has created as a debating tactic. It’s easier to attack a straw man; nevertheless, the attack is irrelevant. It is a diversion from the main issue.[1]

You are not committing the straw man fallacy simply by drawing a consequence from what the man says that is not what he himself would draw. It must be clear that you are also misrepresenting what he did say.

The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:

  1. Debater 1 has position X.
  2. Debater 2 disregards certain key points of X and instead misrepresents X as the superficially similar position Y.
  3. Debater 2 attacks position Y, concluding that X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This reasoning is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position does not address the actual position.  This argument doesn’t make sense; it is a non sequiturDebater 2 relies on the audience not noticing this.

Christopher Tindale presents, as an example, the following passage from a draft of a bill (HCR 74) considered by the Louisiana State Legislature in 2001:[2]

Whereas, the writings of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, promoted the justification of racism, and his books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man postulate a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. . . .Therefore, be it resolved that the legislature of Louisiana does hereby deplore all instances and all ideologies of racism, does hereby reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology that certain races and classes of humans are inherently superior to others, and does hereby condemn the extent to which these philosophies have been used to justify and approve racist practices.

Tindale comments that “the portrait painted of Darwinian ideology is a caricature, one not borne out by any objective survey of the works cited”. That similar misrepresentations of Darwinian thinking have been used to justify and approve racist practices is beside the point: the position that the legislation is attacking and dismissing is a Straw Man. In subsequent debate this error was recognized, and the eventual bill omitted all mention of Darwin and Darwinist ideology.

[1] Bradley H. Dowden (2012) Logical Reasoning. public domain/fair use. pp. 247-249.
[2] Christopher W. Tindale (2007). Fallacies and Argument Appraisal. Cambridge University Press. pp. 19–28.


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