Facts and Fears

In “Fear Mongering and Fact Mongering” (Issues, Fall 2018), Adam Briggle notes that he was a graduate student in one of my classes some 15 years ago. In fact, he was much more than that; he remains one of the most talented thinkers and writers whom I have had the pleasure to teach in my career. So, when he writes, I read with interest.

Briggle argues that we should consider augmenting the standard definition of research misconduct (falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism, or FFP) with a new category of misconduct, which he calls the “responsible rhetoric of research” (RRR). To illustrate violations of RRR, he cites two researchers whose work, in his view, illustrates irresponsibility.

The first is Bjorn Lomborg, whose “sins” are well-documented. His book The Skeptical Environmentalist, published in 2003, argued that the state of the environment was better than often portrayed. Like Julian Simon before and Hans Rosling since, Lomborg is part of a longstanding academic and political tradition. Lomborg’s book met with fierce opposition, including demands from other academics and scientists that his publisher drop his book, an investigation by a Danish investigatory body, and demonization by many of his peers, continuing today. Briggle joins with Lomborg’s many critics to express concern about the political implications of his writing, worrying that Lomborg’s views could “cause irrational calm and complacency.”

As his second example of irresponsibility, Briggle targets me. I’ve long argued that the world has seen a dramatic drop in lives lost to disasters, and that as poverty around the world has been reduced, the economic toll of disasters has not increased as fast as increasing global wealth. This is indeed good news. These are hardly controversial views, as they are also conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which produces periodic assessments of climate science, impacts, and economics, as well as being indicators of progress under the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Briggle notes that my work is, from his position, “logically, or empirically, flawless.” He then offers a cartoonish characterization of my political views: “Pielke is not a climate denier. In fact, he advocates for a carbon tax.” Despite these apparent virtues, Briggle views my writing as presenting a “danger” because political actors who he apparently opposes might “make hay” with “good news facts.”

As with Lomborg, here as well Briggle is late to the party. In 2014, my research related to disasters led a group of climate scientists and journalists to campaign (successfully) to have me removed as a writer for Nate Silver’s website FiveThirtyEight. The following year a member of the US Congress suggested that I might be taking secret money from fossil fuel companies and had me formally investigated by my university. Of course, the investigation cleared me of the baseless smear, but even so, severe damage was done to my career. Nonetheless, I continue to write and publish in the peer-reviewed literature, in popular outlets, and in policy settings.

I welcome Briggle’s disagreement with the substance, focus, or rhetoric of my writing. His sharp mind and incisive writing can help us all to become smarter. However, Briggle’s suggestion to equate judgments of RRR with FFP represents yet another effort from within the academy to silence others whose views are deemed politically unwelcome or unacceptable. At most research institutions, the penalties for researchers who engage in FFP are severe, and often include termination of employment. Of course, Briggle is not alone in sending a powerful and chilling message about which views are deemed acceptable and which are not.

Briggle says these are “vexed matters, and not amenable to easy answers.” To the contrary, the answer here is simple.

Let me simply point to an article by Lomborg’s editor, Chris Harrison of Cambridge University Press, published in 2004 in Environmental Science & Policy. In it, Harrison cites an editorial in the March 8, 2002, issue of Science by its editor, Donald Kennedy, on responsible behavior when it comes to publishing views that some may object to: “I have been asked, Why are you going forward with a paper attached to so much controversy? Well, that’s what we do; our mission is to put interesting, potentially important science into public view after ensuring its quality as best as we possibly can. After that, efforts at repetition and reinterpretation can take place out in the open. That’s where it belongs, not in an alternative universe in which anonymity prevails, rumor leaks out, and facts stay inside. It goes without saying that we cannot publish papers with a guarantee that every result is right. We’re not that smart. That is why we are prepared for occasional disappointment when our internal judgments and our processes of external review turn out to be wrong, and a provocative result is not fully confirmed. What we ARE very sure of is that publication is the right option, even—and perhaps especially—when there is some controversy.”


University of Colorado

Adam Briggle calls our attention to the rhetorical choices scientists face when they make public arguments about climate change. He asks, “has the climate science community hid behind neutral facts and insufficiently scared the public?” Using examples from Roger Pielke’s rhetoric about climate change, he suggests that sticking to the facts and remaining neutral may mislead publics.

As a rhetorician who studies scientific and medical arguments, I applaud Briggle’s attention to the integral roles that rhetoric plays in science. I agree that facts alone may not compel change, and that sometimes a healthy dose of fear can promote a much-needed sense of urgency. Yet I am compelled to point out the sometimes counterproductive and unethical uses of appeals to fear, particularly when it comes to talking about climate change.

The field of communication has produced a body of research about the efficacy of using fear appeals. Results about the effectiveness of fear appeals related to climate change are mixed, with some studies showing fear appeals to be effective catalysts for attitudinal or behavioral change and others finding fear appeals ineffective. Other research reveals a “boomerang” effect of fear appeals that produces the opposite of the intended effect. Still other research suggests that a saturation of fear appeals can also diminish the public’s engagement with climate change issues, leading to apathy and issue fatigue.

We might instead ask whether fear is an ethical and appropriate way for scientists to communicate the risks of climate change to varied publics.

Fear appeals attract attention, to be sure, but from an ethical standpoint, their corrosive effects on public life are readily apparent. As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger aptly summarized in the New York Times in 2014, “More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism, and polarization.” Fear appeals can further induce a sense of helplessness in the face of “catastrophic” and “unprecedented” climate change, which can seem to be so large as to exist outside the realm of human intervention. In short, scholarship from communication and related fields repeatedly suggests that appeals to fear are inadequate to sustain long-term engagement with climate change.

Our democracy, not to mention the future of life on this planet, depends on robust engagement with scientific and technical matters. To facilitate such engagement, scientists must find ways to communicate with publics and politicians in ways that connect data with the everyday experiences and lived concerns of a variety of people and groups, ways that create both a sense of concern and a belief that effective change can be made. Focusing on productive solutions to the challenges posed by climate change is one means of fostering engagement. Narrative, imagery, metaphor, and making active links to daily life are other rhetorical tools besides fear appeals that can engender climate change concern and encourage attitudinal and behavioral change. Together, these provide productive platforms on which to build and sustain both public—and planetary—life.

Chair, Department of Communication
University of Colorado Denver

One of the great ironies of the national conversation on climate change is that it forces scientists, who are supposed to seek truth about the world, to become experts in lies. When we speak in public, we confront a vast landscape of untruth for which we were never prepared. These lies come in different flavors, each requiring a different strategy to counteract. There are brazen falsehoods (“coal ash is good for human health”) designed to shock you into silence. There are willful misinterpretations where something true (“water vapor is a strong greenhouse gas”) is used to support something patently false (“so carbon dioxide cannot be responsible for global warming”). Attaching a lie to an incontrovertible fact forces you to concede part of the point, and you risk looking pedantic or desperate in countering it. There are lies that pretend to accept the facts but deny their consequences (“the worst-case warming scenarios won’t be so bad”) and lies that hide in the uncertainty that always accompanies discovery. The continued existence of science can always be used as an argument against science by those who maintain that if we don’t know everything, we must know nothing.

Then there are the criticisms leveled at our own truthfulness. Speak in precise technical language, and you must be concealing something from the nonexpert public. But adopt a metaphor to explain something complicated, and the inexactness of the comparison means you must be lying. Scrub your communications of all emotion, and lose human connection. But reveal anger or fear, and destroy your credibility as an objective observer. In our scientific training we learn to write for our peers and, sometimes, to clearly state the broader impacts of our work. But at no point do we learn to anticipate the half-lives of public statements, how our words can be turned against us, taken out of context, and passed around to justify attacks on us, our colleagues, or science itself.

The truth, to paraphrase the poet Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. But untruth contains more. For every true story that can be spun from existing facts, there are thousands more lies that use, ignore, or twist the facts in myriad ways. We learn quickly not to engage with the blatant lies, because when one is cut down, many more arise to take its place. Once facts are added to the mix, though, we struggle. Where is the boundary between true and false? When does incompleteness become misunderstanding, and when does misunderstanding become obfuscation? We’re not taught to know the differences.

The best thing about science is that it doesn’t have all the answers. Scientific expertise and training can’t prepare us for the landscape we face. We need help—from our colleagues in the humanities and social sciences, from artists and writers, from members of communities on the front lines of climate change. Despite our lack of training, scientists are beginning to find our voices and to speak out. We need to remember to listen too.

Associate Research Scientist
NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Department of Applied Physics and Mathematics
Columbia University

In response to Adam Briggle, I’ll note that the ancient Greek sophist Gorgias, in the dialogue Plato named after him, claims that his art of rhetoric allows practitioners to captivate audiences with their eloquent speech. Gorgias asserts, for example, that he persuades patients better than his brother, the doctor. And in debates about infrastructure the rhetors, not the engineers (he says), are the ones who get their proposals adopted.

Even if Gorgias’s claim to persuasive omnipotence is true—and given his lackluster performance in the dialogue, it likely isn’t—the power to displace experts and enslave citizens is not one welcomed in any well-constituted republic. A Gorgianic rhetoric of effectiveness inevitably arouses resistance in those subjected to its control; a focus on persuasion destroys the conditions of trust that make persuasion possible.

Later theorists learned from Gorgias’s embarrassment. Rhetoric, the art of civic discourse, must provide norms for conduct, not just tips for effectiveness. Rhetoric is bound in some way to be good. But good how? One leading proposal is that the art of rhetoric provides a framework of the Latin term officia, or “offices”—roles in civic decision-making that rhetors can take, each with its own set of responsibilities. The persuasive effect of fulfilling any role can vary widely depending on circumstances far beyond a rhetor’s control. But rhetors will be judged as successful if they do what they can to fulfill their responsibilities.

The expansion of expertise and the broadening of democratic participation have opened new roles for experts beyond those available to Gorgias’s doctors and engineers. Advisers take responsibility for helping decision-makers make the right decision. Advocates take responsibility for justifying the right decision—right according to them. Reporters (that is, report writers) take responsibility for empowering audiences to make well-founded assessments of complex topics. Arbiters take responsibility for issuing authoritative pronouncements on matters submitted to them. Translators take responsibility for making scientific results truly available to publics. Prophets take responsibility for calling the people back to the righteous way. In all these roles, and others, scientists contribute to a flourishing ecology of civic discourse.

There is no rhetoric without responsibilities. Briggle’s call for wider recognition of what he calls the “responsible rhetoric of research” is therefore welcome, especially in the current rush to develop a science of effective science communication. And his newly coined category for judging misconduct should both help scientist-rhetors become more aware of the responsibilities they can undertake and provide them with the resources they need to meet them—the traditional rhetorical tools of personal character, reasoned argument, and, always, appropriate emotion.

Given the variety of available roles, there can be no single standard of fact or fear regulating scientists’ rhetorical performances. What we can say is that no scientist in any role is responsible for resolving our civic controversies. Demanding that scientists be able to captivate a congressional committee means focusing not on their responsibilities but on their persuasiveness. And as Gorgias found, the single-minded pursuit of effective science communication self-destructs.

SAS Institute Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric & Technical Communication
Department of Communication
North Carolina State University

Cite this Article

“Facts and Fears.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 2 (Winter 2019).

Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Winter 2019