As I scroll through social media, I see posts where folks are doing good work to promote thoughtful reflection, reasonable decision-making and responsible news consumption in relationship to this novel coronavirus. And then there are posts by folks who just think that’s what they’re doing. These two groups sometimes swap roles. Nobody believes they’re trafficking in shlock or half-truths. Most folks think of themselves as good people — and good people don’t do that sort of thing.
I’m not really writing about COVID-19. I’m writing about how we argue with each other. Arguing is not the same as fighting or automatic gainsaying. (Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic,” anyone?) That’s not to say that good and productive arguments can’t involve a measure of heat or even hostility. Argument is how we stake our own positions, listen to and engage with others’ positions and decide what to do in light of this exchange.
One big impediment to good argument is a concept scholars of communication and rhetoric borrowed in the 1960s from medicine: inoculation, a process for inducing immunity against infection. When patients receive a vaccine, they are exposed to a weakened or inert form of something that resembles a virus. This exposure results in immunity by training the body to recognize the virus and destroy it.
As a communication strategy, inoculation involves presenting audiences with weak forms of an argument and refuting them with cartoonish versions of a group identity and promptly dismissing them. All this is intended to prevent the audience’s persuasion at a later date when they encounter more complete presentations of the argument or to impede empathy when they encounter more robust presentations of those groups. The group could be anybody: liberals, conservatives, cyclists, truck drivers. When such encounters happen, their argumentative defense systems will be ready to go. Consequently, the problem for argument is not one of talking to someone who isn’t interested in what you have to say but one of talking to someone who thinks he or she has done due diligence and already knows what you’re going to say.
Here’s a ridiculous hypothetical to illustrate: Two Greyhounds teach their pup, Trevor, that some people say Pomeranians are dogs, but they aren’t because their hair is far too fluffy. When Trevor goes off to the local college, Doggy U, he meets some Pomeranians. They seem nice enough, and smart, but he’s not convinced they really belong. Then, in anatomy and physiology class, the professor goes over many dog breeds, including Pomeranians! Trevor can’t believe that a smart guy like Dr. Mastiff could possibly think Pomeranians are the same as them. Perhaps his research was funded by the Pomeranian lobby, “Big Pom” as Trevor’s parents called it.
Now, if our fictional pup pupil begins to realize he’s wrong and that the source of his resistance to change began with those he loved and held in high esteem selling him a bill of goods, that could prove very painful and disappointing.
What gets left out
When I teach courses in technical writing, there’s a report I ask students to compose near the beginning of the term. First, they find a recent news story about a researched study — a segment on NPR about smoking being linked to more diseases than previously thought, an online piece in Smithsonian Magazine about a report on the relationship between trees and temple structural integrity in Cambodia. Next, they find the original study. Then they look at what happens in the process of accommodating scientific research for a popular audience and they write up their findings.
In addition to some hilarious word substitutions — such as “cannabinoid-induced feeding” becoming “the munchies” — here is what they tend to find in the popular stories: methods (how the researchers conducted the study) generally get truncated or left out; the already existing body of knowledge that the researchers built on mostly doesn’t appear; and the level of certainty gets ratcheted up. (For example, a chemical doesn’t simply “promote” a reaction, it “hijacks” a whole system.) None of this provides an occasion for us to “blame the media.” Rather, students and I observe that science communication, like genuine argument, is hard. Locating pertinent information, consulting multiple sources, evaluating a range of ideas and positions fairly — these practices are central to having a critical, informed understanding of science as it touches our shared life. And these are central to avoiding the problem of persuasive inoculation.
Lest I leave anyone uncertain: Medical vaccines, yes! Rhetorical inoculation, no!
’Twas ever thus
There was never a golden age for argument or science communication in the United States — maybe anywhere. My colleague at a hundred years remove, Dr. J.L. Kesler, was a biologist on faculty at Baylor University in the early 20th century and he saw the problem as one of knowledge. He wrote the following in 1906: “[T]he problem of quarantine and legislation, the problem of eradicating the carriers of disease and legislation press upon us today as never before.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? There’s more: “Moreover, it is everywhere being demonstrated that mortality from contagion is in inverse ratio to the stringency of the preventive measures intelligently enforced: witness smallpox and yellow fever. It is certain that the care of the public health is becoming more and more an important function of the government. More and more the means of travel spread disease; more and more must we be alert to thwart its entrance into the human body, and suitably provide for its isolation and healing. . . . When shall we have such provision? Not until the people are awake to their needs.”
And what did the people need, according to Dr. Kesler? “No means of prevention of disease which call for an outlay of public money, no enforced precautions are possible till we know. Knowledge is primary — general knowledge which reaches and commands the people, all the people.”
I find much to admire in Dr. Kesler’s vision. To it I would add that, while good knowledge can and does persuade folks, persuasion and change depend on a host of factors. So, if you’re stuck in a seeming endless loop of the arguments over and over again, it’s not that you have stumbled into a Monty Python sketch. You’re participating in democracy.