“What We Need is More Science and Less Rhetoric!”

Lynda Walsh’s advanced review introduces readers to the history and theory of rhetoric to provide readers with a few simple but powerful tools that can help them better understand and craft arguments about climate science.

“What we need is more science and less rhetoric!” Calls like these come frequently from climate scientists and policymakers alike. But they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the 2,500-year-old practice of rhetoric, which contains many tools that can generate more effective deliberation and action on the findings of climate science. Accordingly, Lynda Walsh’s advanced review entitled “The visual rhetoric of climate change” introduces readers to the history and theory of rhetoric for two purposes: (1) explaining the various and sometimes contradictory ways in which this ancient discipline shapes the communication of climate science, and (2) providing readers with a few simple but powerful tools that can help them better understand and craft arguments about climate science.

Rhetoric is the art of communication, understood both in its normal sense and in the sense of forming communities. The study of rhetoric can help people better understand the arguments others make so that common ground can be identified and common goals achieved. With this definition in mind, it becomes clear that what is needed for effective climate-science debate is not less rhetoric but more: that is, more sensitivity to the political frame within which every debate takes place and how that frame shapes deliberation; more awareness of the unstated values and assumptions supporting statements made on all sides; and more ways to link climate to people’s daily lives, values, and decisions.

Toulmin argumentation theory reveals how scientific facts are supported by probabilistic beliefs in the reliability of methods—beliefs that need to be carefully explained and justified to non-scientific audiences. Stasis doctrine explains the tendency of factual arguments about climate to be interpreted as value-judgements and policy recommendations in the public sphere. With these rhetorical tools, and an understanding of the tradition from which they came, readers should be better equipped to understand and craft arguments about climate science.

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