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Originally published Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Defenders of science shouldn't let the sophists carry the day

Public questions in America about science have become the playthings of the manufactured controversy, or "manufactroversy," in which political activists invent a scientific disagreement that isn't real.

Special to The Times

Public questions in America about science have become the playthings of the manufactured controversy, or "manufactroversy," in which political activists invent a scientific disagreement that isn't real.

An example is global-warming skepticism. PR man Frank Luntz admitted as much in an infamous memo in which he confessed that disagreement about global warming was fading away, but he nonetheless urged Republicans "to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue." This tactic was taken from the tobacco industry, which likes to say there are two sides to every question.

South African President Thabo Mbeki's support for AIDS dissent eight years ago is a similar case. Mbeki ingeniously turned the scientific community's values against it by drawing on the importance of open debate, a skeptical attitude and the need for research. Mbeki alleged that scientists who questioned the causal link between HIV and AIDS had been branded as "dangerous and discredited." Claiming the moral authority of a leader who suffered political intimidation in apartheid South Africa, Mbeki condemned the scientific community for its "campaign of intellectual intimidation."

The intelligent-design movement now has a "teach the controversy" campaign against evolutionary biology. Ben Stein's recent movie, "Expelled," portrays scientists casting out anyone who questions biological orthodoxy. This movie is the most extreme application yet of the intelligent-design movement's "wedge" strategy to break the scientific community's influence over how science is taught. Of course, any claim by biologists that there is no scientific controversy to teach merely feeds the notion of an orthodoxy.

In light of this, some have suggested that the best response to manufactured controversy is no response at all. I understand the impulse to remain silent in the face of nonsense, but I think it's shortsighted to cede the public stage in the naive hope that no one will pay attention.

There have long been those who misuse the power of persuasion. In ancient Greece, the Sophists taught the art of persuasion to those who could pay their fee. These included Gorgias, who apparently boasted that he could persuade the multitude to ignore an expert and listen to him instead, and Protagoras, who claimed there are always two sides to a question and that it was the Sophist's job to make the weaker case appear the stronger. It was to oppose such deception that Aristotle wrote "Rhetoric." Aristotle wanted to teach experts how to confute those who mislead.

My own research seeks to reveal what makes today's manufactroversies work. First, I've discovered that modern-day sophists skillfully invoke values that are shared by the scientific community and the public, such as free speech, skeptical inquiry and the revolutionary force of new ideas against a repressive orthodoxy. It is difficult to argue against someone who draws on these values without seeming unscientific or un-American.

Second, the modern sophists exploit the gap between the technical and public spheres. Scientific experts who can't spare the time for public communication are then surprised when the public distrusts them.

Third, today's sophists exploit a public misconception about what science is, portraying it as a structure of complete consensus built from the steady accumulation of unassailable data. Any dissent is cited as evidence that there's no consensus, and thus that truth must not have been discovered yet.

A more accurate portrayal of science recognizes it to be a process of debate among a community of experts in which the side with superior evidence and argument wins. Unanimity of belief never exists, but the process of science moves forward with the weight of a supermajority.

It is perverse to continue debating an issue that has already been settled for the vast majority of scientists merely so that policymakers will delay action, or so that the losing side can be taught on an equal footing in the classroom.

Aristotle believed that things that are true "have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites" but that it takes a skilled user of rhetoric to defeat sophisticated sophistry. I concur. The manufactured controversy must be exposed for what it is — the assertion of an important scientific debate where none exists.

Science will continue to be the victim of anti-science sophistry until the defenders of science learn to use my field — rhetoric — to achieve what Aristotle envisioned for it: to make strong arguments carry the day before an audience of non-experts.

Leah Ceccarelli is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington and is the author of the book, "Shaping Science with Rhetoric."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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