Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1

Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king…. The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to very few…. [T]he student of rhetoric may indulge the hope that Nature will finally yield to observation and perseverance, the key to the hearts of men.

So wrote a 23-year-old Winston Churchill in a brilliant, unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.”

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.


Logic might be described as the art of influencing minds with the facts, whereas rhetoric is the art of influencing both the hearts and minds of listeners with the figures of speech. The figures are the catalog of the different, effective ways that we talk — they include alliteration and other forms of repetition, metaphor, irony, and the like. The goal is to sound believable. As Aristotle wrote in Rhetoric, “aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story.”

The figures have been widely studied by marketers and social scientists. They turn out to “constitute basic schemes by which people conceptualize their experience and the external world,” as one psychologist put it. We think in figures, and so the figures can be used to change the way we think. That’s why political speech writers use them. To help level the rhetorical playing field in the global warming debate, I will highlight the three rhetorical elements that are essential to modern political persuasion.

First: simple language. Contrary to popular misconception, rhetoric is not big words; it’s small words. Churchill understood this at the age of 23:

The unreflecting often imagine that the effects of oratory are produced by the use of long words…. The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal with greater force to simple understandings than words recently introduced from the Latin and the Greek. All the speeches of great English rhetoricians … display an uniform preference for short, homely words of common usage….

We hear the truth of his advice in the words that linger with us from all of the great speeches: “Judge not that ye be not judged,” “To be or not to be,” “lend me your ears,” “Four score and seven years ago,” “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” “I have a dream.”

In short, simple words and simple slogans work.

Second, repetition, repetition, repetition. Repetition makes words and phrases stick in the mind. Repetition is so important to rhetoric that there are four dozen figures of speech describing different kinds of repetition. The most elemental figure of repetition is alliteration (from the Latin for “repeating the same letter”), as in “compassionate conservative.” Repetition, or “staying on message,” in modern political parlance, remains the essential rhetorical strategy. As Frank Luntz — the bane of climate progressives (see Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.”) but an undeniably astute conservative messaging guru — has said:

There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.

Third, the skillful use of tropes (from the Greek for turn), figures that change or turn the meaning of a word away from its literal meaning. The two most important tropes, I believe, are metaphor and irony. “To be a master of metaphor,” Aristotle writes in Poetics, is “a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” When Bush said in 2006 that the nation was “addicted to oil,” he was speaking metaphorically. Curing an addiction, however, requires far stronger medicine than the president proposed (see “Bush State of the Union Addresses on Energy: Yada, Yada, Yada….”).


SCIENCE, CLIMATE, AND RHETORICRhetoric works, and it works because it is systematic. As Churchill wrote, “The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to very few.” Unfortunately, the major player in the climate debate, the scientific community, is not good at persuasive speech. Scientists might even be described as anti-rhetoricians since they avoid all of its key elements.Few scientists are known for simple language. As the physicist Mark Bowen writes in Thin Ice, his book about glaciologist Lonnie Thompson:

Scientists have an annoying habit of backing off when they’re asked to make a plain statement, and climatologists tend to be worse than most.”

Most scientists do not like to repeat themselves because it implies that they aren’t sure of what they are saying. Scientists like to focus on the things that they don’t know, since that is the cutting edge of scientific research. So they don’t keep repeating the things that they do know, which is one reason the public and the media often don’t hear from scientists about the strong areas of agreement on global warming.

Needless to say, the deniers are so good at repetition that they continue to repeat myths long after they have been debunked by scientists. Scientists, and the media, grow weary of repeatedly debunking the same lies, the same nonsensical myths. But that, of course, only encourages the deniers to keep repeating those myths. Like my 19-month-old daughter, they know that if they just keep repeating the same thing over and over and over and over again, they will eventually get their way. And they have (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us”). Of course, when your “way” is just to get people to keep doing the same thing they have been doing for decades (i.e. nothing), your messaging task is considerably easier because the default position of most people, the media, and policymakers is “do nothing.”

Finally, scientific training, at least as I experienced it, emphasizes sticking to facts and speaking literally, as opposed to figuratively or metaphorically. Scientific debates are won by those whose theory best explains the facts, not by those who are the most gifted speakers. This view of science is perhaps best summed up in the motto of the Royal Society of London, one of the world’s oldest scientific academies (founded in 1660), Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word. Words alone are not science.

Scientists who are also great public communicators, like Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman, have grown scarcer as science has become increasingly specialized. Moreover, the media likes the glib and the dramatic, which is the style most scientists deliberately avoid. As Jared Diamond (author of Collapse) wrote in a must-read 1997 article on scientific messaging (or the lack thereof), “Scientists who do communicate effectively with the public often find their colleagues responding with scorn, and even punishing them in ways that affect their careers.” After Carl Sagan became famous, he was rejected for membership in the National Academy of Sciences in a special vote. This became widely known, and, Diamond writes, “Every scientist is capable of recognizing the obvious implications for his or her self-interest.


Scientists who have been outspoken about global warming have been repeatedly attacked as having a “political agenda.” As one 2006 article explained, “For a scientist whose reputation is largely invested in peer-reviewed publications and the citations thereof, there is little professional payoff for getting involved in debates that mix science and politics.”

Not surprisingly, many climate scientists shy away from the public debate. At the same time, the Bush administration has muzzled many climate scientists working for the U.S. government. As a result, science journalist, not practicing scientist, are almost always the ones explaining global warming to the public. Unfortunately, the media is cutting back on science reporting in general, and finds reporting climate science particularly problematic.

It is not remarkable, then, that the American public is so uninformed about global warming, so vulnerable to what might be called the conservative crusade against climate, as discussed repeatedly on this blog and in Naomi Oreskes’ excellent lecture titled, “The American Denial of Global Warming.”

This is the first in an occasional series on climate and rhetoric [my unpublished book on rhetoric has to be good for something]. Part 2 will look another flaw in scientific messaging that deniers exploit.

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