In 2007, NPR broadcast a now-infamous climate debate on the proposition “Global warming is not a crisis.” In theory, this sounds like an easy win for the “nay” side — “crisis” is obviously the mildest of words to describe the greatest preventable existential threat to the health and well-being of future generations.
But in practice such debates are almost unwinnable, even by those who are good at debating in public, a group that does not include very many scientists. As noted in Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1, scientists are lousy at rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Significantly, rhetoric, was discovered and developed by the Greeks and Romans in part to help them win debates, so it follows that modern debates are also won by those who are better at using the strategies and tactics of rhetoric. In his dialogue Gorgias about the master rhetorician, Plato gives him a speech that dramatizes the awesome power of rhetoric:
If a rhetorician and a doctor visited any city you like to name and they had to contend in argument before the Assembly or any other gathering as to which of the two should be chosen as doctor, the doctor would be nowhere, but the man who could speak would be chosen, if he so wished.
So 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.
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].
A few more debates like that and we can all buy beachfront property in Baton Rouge.
Personally, I still do one-on-one debates from time to time, although they are almost unwinnable against a sophisticated denier or delayer, like, say Lomborg. But a 3-on-3 is quite counterproductive, since the other side will just go after your weak link(s). The other flaw in this debate is the proposition. “Crisis” is a losing word — sorry Al — a word the public has grown tired of, since it’s been applied to too many (every?) major public ploicy problem in the last two decades.
In this post, I’ll talk a little bit about why “smart-talkers” like scientists don’t tend to win debates. I won’t critique the climate scientists in the 2007 debate, but comment instead on two of the deniers/delayers. Stott spends a considerable amount of time pushing the favorite denier narrative that just a few decades ago, scientists believed the climate was cooling but now they believe it’s warming. I will explain below why someone who has spent 10 years using “modern techniques of deconstruction to grand environmental narratives, like global warming,” would devote so much time to repeating such a long-debunked myth.
Even more fascinating is the opening statement from the one non-scientist in the debate, Crichton, who has obviously become very rich precisely because he knows how to put together (fictional) narratives that are compelling to millions of people. He adopts the classic everyman position that is classic old-school rhetoric: