Science & More Talks
Tuesday, 6 November
Aula di Medievale, Palazzo Nuovo (TBC)
(San Raffaele University, Milan)
Ad Hominem Arguments, Rhetoric, and Science Communication
Science communication needs to be both accurate and effective. On the one hand, accurate scientific information is the product of strict epistemological, methodological and evidential requirements On the other hand, effectiveness in communication can be achieved through rhetorical devices, like powerful images, figures of speech, or amplification, aiming at getting the readers’ attention and persuading them. For their nature, rhetorical tools can distort the contents of the message, and effectiveness can be achieved at the expense of accuracy.
For example, attacking a scientist’s stance on the effectiveness of a drug, by referring to the scientist’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry that produces that drug, does not show anything about the effectiveness or (lack thereof) of the drug. Yet, under appropriate circumstances, it may be enough to discredit the reliability of the scientist’s claims. This type of argument is called ad hominem: it attacks the source of information, not the substance of the matter – i.e., whether the drug is effective or not. Ad hominem attacks, even when fallacious, can be powerful. For instance, people opposing the use of vaccination routinely use ad hominem attacks, by alleging ties between the scientists defending the use of vaccines and the pharmaceutical industry (see Davies, Chapman and Leask 2002).
The recent controversy on the safety of vaccinations and their possible links to number of conditions, including autism, presents a challenge for science communication. Critics of vaccines are well equipped with rhetorical arguments and a wealth of supposed evidence in support of their various claims: e.g., that vaccines can cause autisms and that vaccines contain chemicals harmful to children. Anti-vaccination movements appeal to anecdotal evidence and powerful imagery to persuade public and policy makers of their arguments, including alleging commercial ties between the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry. Cases of bad science and pharmaceutical disasters (see Daemmrich 2002, Russell 2009) only make the anti-vaccination arguments stronger in the eyes of the public.
In this talk, I contend that evidence-focused strategies of science communication may be complemented by possibly more effective rhetorical arguments in current public debates on vaccines. I analyse the case of direct science communication – that is, communication of evidence – and argue that it is difficult to effectively communicate evidential standards of science in the presence of well-equipped anti-science movements.--
The “Science & More” talks are a series of work in progress talks at the Center for Logic, Language and Cognition (LLC) in Turin and run by the ERC project. We use it to present our own work in progress and to learn about the ongoing research of our colleagues. From time to time, also speakers from outside Turin present their work.
Thematically, the talks are centered around philosophy of science, but we are also open to topics from related areas (e.g., logic, epistemology, philosophy of language) and other philosophical subdisciplines where exact methods are applied.
The talks usually take place on Wednesdays from noon (=12:00) to 13:00, followed by a joint lunch in one of the surrounding restaurants. They are meant to be low-key events, open to everybody and aiming at the improvement of ongoing work through critical, but constructive discussion.