2011-02-22 02:56:13Why scientists are not more persuasive


Here are a few notes on persuasion, public speaking and rhetoric, from Joe Romm's Blog.

I think these techniques are only intended to apply to the general public, not expert audiences!

Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1

The ever-worsening reality of human-caused global warming is driving more and more scientists to become desperate about our future (see “Desperate times, desperate scientists“). Yet poll after poll shows that scientists and those who accept scientific understanding as the basis for action on climate change are failing to persuade large segments of society about the urgent need to act (see “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP” and “The deniers are winning, especially with the GOP“).

Anyone who wants to understand — and change — the politics of global warming, must understand why the deniers, delayers, and inactivists are so persuasive in the public debate and why scientists and scientific-minded people are not. A key part of the answer, I believe, is that while science and logic are powerful systematic tools for understanding the world, they are no match in the public realm for the 25-century-old art of verbal persuasion: rhetoric

Identify with your audience, make them think you are one of them.

use simple language

repitition, repitition, repetition

use metaphor and irony (i.e. "the nation is addicted to oil") 

Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”

....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.

....Crichton 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.

....appearing smarter than your opponent....conservatives understand and have repeatedly demonstrated it is a losing strategy.....

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

appear as a direct plainspoken man of the people, blunt and ineloquent

2011-02-22 03:51:23

As someone once said, the most important thing is sincerity. Once you can fake that, the world is your oyster.
2011-02-22 05:24:58
Rob Honeycutt


This is exactly the kind of stuff that was on my mind this morning in the wake of the Denominator thread and the Kick in the Ice thread.

Specifically related to debating deniers in comments sections here is my thinking: 

You will never convince the denier of anything.  They are lost to their ideology.  Your (my, our) job is to use that individual as a foil to convince the broader reading audience.

It's not about the denier.  Everyone needs to remember the audience, which is hard because you can't see them.  Out of sight, out of mind.  But within that larger audience are people who might become convinced this is an important issue.

I'm not always a shining example of this myself, but I try to think about that broader audience when I write comments.  How do I make it obvious to everyone else that this person is deeply wrong?  Sometimes it's coddling them a bit.  Sometimes it's just asking a question they are going to answer poorly or answer with a viewpoint that it is so extreme it will turn off most of the audience. 

It feels good to crush a denier with scientific facts but sometimes I think that doesn't play as well with the audience.  This is why I think Poptech is a godsend.  Sometimes it's a little hard not to get sucked too far into his stupidity but his evasive, manipulative nature plays very poorly with a larger audience.  All you have to do with him is, not crush his position, but just continue to politely prick him with a needle.  

This reminds me of when I was young, I studied Kung Fu for a number of years.  I remember the story of one Kung Fu master whose fighting technique was to pull hairs.  He would never throw a punch.  He would only avoid the attackers punches and find a bit of arm hair or leg hair to pull out.  Just inflict a tiny bit of pain here and there.  Over and over.  Drive the attacker crazy.  He would never draw blood.  Just make the person crazy. 

I think there are a lot of less scientifically technical ways to use language against deniers as a tool to sway the audience. 

2011-02-22 06:23:33
Rob Painting
Rob, what would a casual reader make of that Poptech fiasco?. Those who frequent climate blogs would soon realize he was full of shit, but those that don't frequent climate blogs?. I reckon they would have given up reading quite quickly. In fact that thread reminded me of "Deltoid", Tim Lambert's blog. I think Poptech succeeded in his mission. He exists purely to clog up comment threads with nonsense.  
2011-02-22 07:01:48
Rob Honeycutt


Rob, I think Poptech is genuinely trying to defend his work.  He's just insane in the way he goes about it.  The result is the train wreck of 650 comments.  I just think that often both sides end up in the wreck and our side doesn't really need to.  He is a train wreck all unto himself.

I actually think these are incredibly valuable opportunities.  It's just a matter of how to best use the other side against themselves.  Poptech is the perfect opportunity because he's so tenacious.  He just keeps coming back. 

The mistake that gets made from our side is that we let ourselves get angry (me included) and it's not necessary.  I think all the metered, matter-of-fact responses that point out his fallacies without anger are the best response.  Those are golden.  And his responses are so predictable.  Our side loses when we get frustrated and angry, which is all too easy with that guy.  THAT is what he wants.

I'm certainly not encouraging the idea of doing a "Denominator 2."  But I do think that there are valuable lessons to learn about how to communicate better.

I think RW1 is another good example.  Not quite as nuts at PT but equally as dogmatic in his denial.  When we gang up and crush him at every turn it feels good but from the audience perspective he becomes the victim.  People identify with the victim.  He wins.  Whereas if we take a little more time to think about the audience, think about what is going to move THEM, then it's possible to use his dogmatic stance against him.  Then we win.

Science is great.  I love the science of climate change.  It's what makes all of us know that we are on the right side of this debate.  The challenge is how to allow the science to be the foundation and build framework of communication on top of it to tell the story.  To tell a story in a way that the general public can readily absorb. 

2011-02-22 18:22:46


So what is the conclusion here, that Joe Romm is wrong or preaching to the wrong audience?

Where is the evidence that we ever have an audience sensitive to the ‘science’ listening in the background? Are we not over-estimating the true intellect of influential people? During the time scientists have been developing their skills, so have those with communication and political skills, and it is these who find their way into the top jobs. Orators will be highly persuasive to the people who matter in society, such as the rich, the captains of industry and the media.

I recall that Monckton among others, won at the Oxford Union Society debate that we should ‘put economic growth before combating climate change’ by 135 votes to 110.

From Joe Romm’s second article:

…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].
2011-02-23 02:18:23My Take
John Hartz
John Hartz
In my opinion, the average person's eyes glaze over when reading, hearing, or watching a "debate" over science. The average person does, however, pay attention to reading, hearing, or watching how climate change impacts both the physical world and people's lives.  
2011-02-23 02:59:37


I think that was Al Gores approach in an Inconvenient Truth.  Whilst it was hardly the most scholarly work on the subject, it is full of images and soundbites. This is one reason why the Deniers try to denigrate him so much.  They know he is a good communicator and is therefore more of a threat to their politics than most scientists.

Perhaps we miss a Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman, who have the science credentials and communicate the science well?

2011-02-23 04:09:34
Rob Honeycutt


Perseus...  Exactly.  That's why I think some of the best work happening right now is both the Peter's.  Peter Sinclair and Peter Hadfield.  They're not dumbing down the science so much as they are repackaging it into a palatable form that the average non-scientist can enjoy and understand.

SkS plays an important part too.  I'm not a scientist but I've been researching the topic for several years now.  Still, sites like Real Climate and Science of Doom often leave me scratching my head realizing just how little I actually understand about this subject.  But I come to SkS and I can find excellent synopses of issues backed up by the peer reviewed literature.  And usually a hardy debate going on below in the comments.

The broader public is starting to understand, albeit slowly, that this actually is an important issue.  It's very important to find ways to encourage people who are new to the issue to look deeper.  My fear is that we sometimes chase some people away from the issue when we are too aggressively pounding down troublesome denier nails.

2011-02-23 15:23:32Is proving a denier comment wrong a waste of time on a path to 4C?
Stephen Leahy


Kevin Anderson, the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research message to fellow climate scientists knowing we are on a path to 4C:

"Against such a backdrop, is it therefore not time for those of us who work in climate change to refrain from finessing our analysis, and instead be as blunt and direct publicly as we are prepared to be privately?"


It amazes me the amount of "finessing" that goes on in the comments here and other good climate blogs. It seems a great misuse of time and energy (and somehow defensive...'see... here's another piece of evidence that proves we're right...'). 

As others point out here most if not all deniers are ideological and not rational despite all their "open mind" protestations. Innocent passers by get confused and leave.  

How does this "finessing" help us avoid 4C? This is not a critique of SS or its purpose but there is something going wrong here. Responding to deniers is strangely addictive but it is negative. Surely we need to use all our time and energy to build co-operation and mutual understanding if we're going to avoid 4C?