(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric

“One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity”*…

But, as the tale of the disastrous diet demonstrates, that instruction needs to start early and go deep…

While on vacation, Marcial Conte, the Brazilian publisher of my first book, met a woman who asked about his work. Upon learning he was responsible for A Mentira do Glutén: E Outros Mitos Sobre O Que Voce Comê (The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat), she lit up.

Her husband, she said, had followed my revolutionary diet protocol and changed his life. Pounds melted away. Myriad health problems resolved themselves.“ She told me to thank you for saving her husband’s life with the ‘UNpacked Diet,’” Conte grinned at me. “Incredible, no? The only change they made was keeping aluminum foil.”

Incredible, indeed. The diet was satire, invented by me, and it came at the end of a book dedicated to exposing pseudoscientific nutrition claims. For the centerpiece of the faux diet, I used just such a claim: that the cause of all modern ailments was food packaging. By “unpacking” your food — that is, by refusing to eat food that had come in contact with plastic, styrofoam, or aluminum foil — I pretended to promise readers a magical panacea for everything from autism to Alzheimer’s, as well as effortless weight loss.

The satire should have been clear. Every chapter was packed with warnings about precisely the kinds of claims made in the diet, such as:

• Beware of panaceas… like a diet that promises miraculous weight loss and a solution to every chronic illness.

• Distrust the promise of secret knowledge hidden by conspiracies… like the diet that “they” don’t want you to know about.

• Don’t trust individual anecdotes… like the glowing testimonials I included at the end of the invented diet. (I took them from other pseudoscientific diet books.)

• Stay alert for myths and fallacies such as the “appeal to antiquity”… the idea that our ancestors lived in a dietary paradise and that modern technology is uniquely evil and dangerous.

• Watch out for grains of scientific truth turned into alarmist falsehoods… like the cherry-picked scientific studies that filled the UNpacked Diet’s footnotes.

Each deceptive tactic in the UNpacked Diet had been scrupulously debunked in the chapters that preceded it. Not only that, but after the diet there was another section called the “UNpacked Diet, UNpacked,” in which I went through each of the deceptive tactics and explained why I chose it. How could this couple have taken it seriously, much less followed it? Even if they had missed the final section, their reaction to the UNpacked Diet should have been skepticism and disbelief, not enthusiasm.

I would have been more shocked at Conte’s story if I hadn’t already heard from others who had likewise tried the diet. Readers have emailed asking where they can buy the “UNpacked Diet-approved unbleached coffee filters” that I dreamed up as part of the satire, or with follow-up questions about what’s permissible within the framework of the “diet.” In just a few pages, those powerful rhetorical techniques overcame chapter after chapter of carefully crafted guidance on how to resist them.

My current approach is to present my students with what you’ve just read: transparency about my own thought process. Misinformation exploits the (reasonable!) suspicion that authority figures are hiding something, coming up with secret ways to “nudge” us in certain directions or manipulating us with… well, with science communication techniques. Transparency about how we approach the communication of science — or the communication of a lot of things — creates trust, which is essential to effective persuasion. I’ve found that students report increased trust and a sense that I’m an honest broker of information when I take the transparency approach.

At the same time, knowing that some people believe in the healing power of my satirical diet immediately after reading almost 200 pages on why they shouldn’t has left me deeply shaken. Changing how we communicate science can help, but it’s a Band-Aid solution. A real solution means changing education so books like mine are obsolete.

By the time children finish high school, they should be intimately familiar with manipulative rhetorical techniques, common fallacies, and their own susceptibility to persuasive anecdotes. Alongside hours of studying the Krebs cycle and mitochondria, there should be hours allotted to how to distinguish scientific reasoning from pseudoscientific nonsense. From vaccines to climate change, misinformation poses an existential threat when it inhibits our collective decision-making ability. The time has come to start treating it that way.

How exposure to misinformation inoculation sometimes makes things worse– and how to do better: “They Swore by the Diet I Created — but I Completely Made It Up,” from Alan Levinovitz (@AlanLevinovitz), via the always-illuminating @DenseDiscovery.

* “One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity. Credulity is a greater evil in the present day than it ever was before, because, owing to the growth of education, it is much easier than it used to be to spread misinformation, and, owing to democracy, the spread of misinformation is more important than in former times to the holders of power.” – Bertrand Russell

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As we think critically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that partisans of the Third Estate, impatient for social and legal reforms (and economic relief) in France, attacked and took control of the Bastille.  A fortress in Paris, the Bastille was a medieval armory and political prison; while it held only 8 inmates at the time, it resonated with the crowd as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power.  Its fall ignited the French Revolution.  This date is now observed annually as France’s National Day.

See the estimable Robert Darnton’s “What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?

Happy Bastille Day!

300px-Prise_de_la_Bastille
Storming of The Bastile, Jean-Pierre Houël

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“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”*…

 

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For the powerful, the repetition of stock phrases can be a valuable tactic. These phrases serve to fortify rhetorical armour, deflecting all attack. The armour often brings clichés and abstract words together in a metallic professional embrace. Consider this, from an article on the website of the British government: “The Prime Minister emphasised her desire to listen to the views of businesses, to channel their experience and to share with them the government’s vision for a successful Brexit and a country in which growth and opportunity is shared by everyone across the whole of the UK.” Or this, from a speech by the ceo of Exxon Mobil: “Our job is to compete and succeed in any market, regardless of conditions or price. To do this, we must produce and deliver the highest-value products at the lowest possible cost through the most attractive channels in all operating environments.”

To quote neither the Bible nor William Shakespeare: yada yada yada… Listeners can be lulled into smiling submission.

Or they can be roused to a condition of prefabricated outrage…

How prefabricated language helps everybody from politicians to CEOs disguise what they really want to say: “Clichés As a Political Tool.”

* “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.  When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns…to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”

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As we search for meaning, we might recall that today is the anniversary of the day, in 1241, that “most changed history” (per Yale’s Timothy Snyder):

The Mongol warrior Batu Khan [grandson of Genghis Khan] was poised to take Vienna and destroy the Holy Roman Empire. No European force could have kept his armies from reaching the Atlantic. But the death of Ögedei Khan, the second Great Khan of the Mongol empire, forced Batu Khan to return to Mongolia to discuss the succession. Had Ögedei Khan died a few years later, European history as we know it would not have happened…

Batu Khan

Batu Khan on the throne of the Golden Horde  (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All of our reasoning ends in surrender to feeling”*…

 click here (and again) for the full infographic

From the indispensable David McCandless, at Information is Beautiful.

* Blaise Pascal

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As we shore up our syllogisms, we might recall that it was on this date in 1881, two days before his death, that British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli demurred from a visit by Queen Victoria, muttering “no, she will only ask me to take a message to Albert.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 19, 2012 at 1:01 am

You stand on the verge of…

It’s May, and readers are no doubt beginning to make notes for the commencement wisdom they’re soon due to dispense.  Here, inspiration:  from the helpful folks at Online Universities, five graduation addresses (including JFK’s famous 1963 American University speech, pictured above) and 45 other exemplars of the rhetorical arts: “50 Incredible, Historical Speeches You Should Watch Online.”

As we clear our throats, we might recall that it was on this date in 1994 that Queen Elizabeth II of the UK and French President François Mitterrand spoke at the opening of one of “the Seven Wonders of the Modern World,” the Channel Tunnel.

Where’s Wellington when one needs him?

Amaze your friends and colleagues!…

Need to hammer home an arithmetical point?  Dramatize a quantitative comparison?  NumberQuotes has the juice.  One simply types in the number–any number– to be analogized, hits “return”– and up pops a series of striking similes.  For example, if one needs to be clear just how over-the-top excessive $250,000 dollars is (in whatever context), one can choose among:

– $250,000 would buy a Caffe Latte Grande for everyone living in Richardson, Texas

– 250,000 Burger King Whoppers would weigh as much as 9.29 African male elephants

– 250,00 is the number of bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists employed in the US

… and so many more options.  Compelling comparisons aren’t just for Ronald Reagan any longer– now anyone can pick a number, any number, and click here.

As we spice up our speech, we might recall that it was on this date in 1930 (the number of theatrical and performance make-up artists working in the U.S…), on the passing of Empress Zewditu, that Haile Selassie (nee, Tafari Makonnen) was proclaimed Emperor of Ethiopia.  While he was, by virtue of his office, the titular head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Salasse is worshipped as God Incarnate by the Rastafarians (who named their faith by conflating “Ras”– “Head,” equivalent to “Duke”– and Salasse’s pre-Imperial first name, “Tafari”).

The Lion of God

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