In this essay (written for my the historical rhetorics component of PhD Comprehensive Exams) I connect the concepts of contemporary risk, rhetoric, and deliberation to argue that re-purposing historical rhetorical theories is useful for informing rhetorical deliberation about issues of scientific and technological contingency.
Risk, Rhetoric, and Deliberation:
Re-purposing Classical Rhetoric for Public Policy
Theories of deliberation from the disciplines of rhetoric, political science, and public policy can collectively provide a reinvigorated and useful heuristic informing the management of contemporary scientific and technological risks (Danisch, 2010; Garsten, 2006; Grabill & Simmons, 1998; Hauser & Benoit-Barne, 2002; Keranen, 2008; Sauer, 2003; Scott, 2006). Within this essay I offer an interdisciplinary argument reflecting J. Blake Scott’s (2006) position that, “as the rhetoric of science confronts the issue of [contemporary] risk, the classical categories of rhetorical theory become both tools for critical analyses of risk and objects of revision in light of social theories of risk” (p. 116 ). In response to Scott and others (Danisch, 2010; Garsten, 2006; Grabill & Simmons, 1998) the priority of this argument is to show how an interdisciplinary perspective (rhetoric, political science, public policy) is useful for justifying the application of a re-purposed classical rhetorical theory for the (re-)development of citizens’ capacities for deliberation about issues of scientific and technological contingency. The crux of this argument hinges on a critical analysis of classical rhetorical theories, in particular Aristotelian rhetorical theory, including:
- a re-purposed contingency theory
- situated judgment
- deliberative partiality
Additionally, this argument analyzes the Ciceronian rhetorical concepts of:
- prudential reasoning/practice
- firm moral conviction
The purpose of tracing the components of these ancient theorists’ positions on deliberative rhetoric is to show how their theories can continue to be useful when re-purposed for informing the development of practical strategies for managing risks in a contemporary context.
The second part of my argument uses Grabill & Simmons’ (1998) argument in “Toward a critical rhetoric” to suggest that because contemporary risk is socially constructed, technical communicators are most capable of responding to and participating in ways of managing deliberation about issues of scientific and technological contingency. The authors explain that because researchers/scholars in technical communication “possess the research and writing skills necessary for the complex process of constructing and communicating risk,” (1998, p. 420) they are best situated for the development of strategies and tools for the project of deliberative democracy: (re-)developing citizens’ capacities for judgment about issues of scientific contingency. Furthermore, they succinctly assert that “risk communication explicitly takes technical communication into the realm of civic discourse” (1998, p. 435). I conclude this essay by briefly defining a uniquely rhetorical tool – public value mapping – that articulates how Grabill & Simmon’s theoretical claims about the usefulness of a re-purposed classical rhetoric
can be positioned to encourage the development of particular publics’ participation in deliberative democracy (Grabill & Simmons, 2006, p. 429 for distinction between “the public” and “publics”), specifically as this deliberation pertains to the management of The scientific contingency of this era: climate change. I suggest that this rhetorical tool has the potential to inform more critical deliberation about and decision-making supporting climate change adaptation policies in US.
Classical Rhetoric and Rhetorical Politics
In Saving Persuasion (2006) Garsten presents a thorough argument for how and why classical rhetoric is useful for informing policy designed to manage and respond to contemporary risks. He argues that classical rhetorical theories provide alternative ways of seeing contemporary scientific and technological controversies because they enable us to “free ourselves” from the post-Reformation perspective that continues to permeate political theory (p. 18). Essentially, Garsten argues that post-Reformation patterns of thought continue to unduly influence our thinking about political theory, preventing us from “exploring the question of how citizens’ capacities for judgment can best be engaged in a politics of persuasion” (p. 17).
If we accept Beck’s (1992) theory of risk and the implications of living in a risk society, an alternative way of understanding political theory is necessary for affecting successful decision-making, given the context of risk. The pivotal difference of Beck’s risks,
“contemporary” risks, is that they cannot be managed as “older dangers” (Beck, 1992, p. 21) once were. Contemporary risks are inherently uncertain, contingent, and global, and they can only be managed with a rhetorical politics that provides strategies for responding to issues of contingency. In chapters four and five, “Drawing upon Judgment: Aristotle” and “Conviction and Controversy: Cicero,” Garsten (2006) shows how Aristotelian and Ciceronian rhetorical theories (when re-purposed for application in contemporary political contexts) are appropriate for guiding deliberation and decision-making about the policy for managing contemporary risks. Aristotle and Cicero, he suggests, are particularly useful to this project because: the writings of these authors sought to contain demagogy without eliminating the politics of persuasion altogether … rather than attempting to rule rhetoric out of political debate, they tried to show under what conditions it might become a means of facilitating a more deliberative sort of controversy. (2006, p.18)
Because the conditions under which political debate occur in a contemporary context are a priori contingent and uncertain, as they are in a risk society (Beck, 1992), re-purposing classical rhetorical theories about such conditions seems to make sense for facilitating a theory of deliberative democracy.
Contemporary Risks versus Older Dangers
Contemporary risks, as distinguished from older dangers, are “consequences which relate to the threatening force of modernization and its globalization of doubt; [t]hey are politically reflexive” (Beck, 1992, p. 21). Because of the tremendous success of scientific research and technological development (Danisch, 2010, p. 173) risks have become globalized, inherently uncertain, and infinitely contingent. As Beck explains, “along with the growing capacity of technical options [Zweckrationalitat] grows the incalculability of their consequences” (1992, p. 22). Beck’s conceptualization of the “risk society” provides a framework for thinking-through the implications of contemporary risks, which exist on an “unprecedented scale because they cannot be delimited spatially, temporally, or socially” (p. 178); their consequences cannot be made certain and cannot be controlled exclusively by experts.
Beck’s “risk” is “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself” (p. 22). Contemporary risks are politically “reflexive” because they are characterized by:
- systematic (and often irreversible) harm
- causal interpretation (and thus initially only exist in terms of the scientific or anti-scientific knowledge about them)
- changeability (can be magnified, dramatized, or minimized within knowledge and to that extent, are particularly open to social definition and construction) (Beck, 1992, p. 22-23)
One of the most significant political implications of this perception of contemporary risks – in particular, the reflexivity of these risks – is that these contingent issues require deliberation and rhetoric, albeit not in the intended manner – or context – in which classical rhetorical theorists, like Aristotle and Cicero, developed them.
The Contingency Thesis, Phronesis, Situated Judgment, and Deliberative Partiality
Aristotle’s approach to rhetorical deliberation can be traced to his contingency thesis, which consists of two categories: “the contingent” and “the necessary.” By definition, the contingent category defines – limits– the role of rhetoric to serving the discursive means of deliberation (Danisch, 2010), intending for it to provide a method for inquiring into and communicating about the realm of the contingent, where this realm yields opinions of variable validity, but no certain knowledge. These judgments, Danisch (2006) explains, are understood to be bound by context and therefore not universally valid (certain). Because of this handicap, the contingent was understood to be inferior to Scientific knowledge (the “necessary”) which was/is demonstrated to be certain – superior – as it was produced through experiments by experts.
In the contingency theory, Scientific knowledge, as well as the domain of philosophy, was categorized as “necessary.” The necessary pertained to certain knowledge, knowledge that was statistically predictable, the result of technological experts’ control over nature. In “Reflections on Rhetoric,” (2002), Hauser & Benoit-Barne connect the Aristotelian idea of “the necessary” to contemporary political science, suggesting that political decision-making is driven by the marketplace model of rational choice, which holds that “individuals make political choices as much as they do economic ones” (p. 262). This one-to-one prediction of human behavior esteems rationality while delimiting discursive practices as peripheral to decision-making about public values. The problem with this model, they argue, is refuted by classical rhetoric, which contends that: “since the Athenian polis … democratic politics must be a public activity open to all and distinct from the private preferences expressed in commercial transactions” (p. 263).
In light of this position about democracy and citizens’ participation in the process, Danisch (2010) uniquely re-purposes Aristotle’s contingency thesis in light of Beck’s position, so that it can be used in contemporary thinking about rhetoric, risk, and deliberation. Most importantly, he highlights the political implications of managing contemporary risks, all of which are contingent in a risk society. He writes:
the reason that risk assessment and risk analysis can only produce contingent propositions is that scientific and technical work stopped describing the natural world and started intervening in it. This led to the production of contingent events. Risk assessment and risk analysis describe these contingent events. But all scientific and technological development carries with it the production of contingent events – events that could possibly happen. Thus once we see scientific and technical work not as a descriptive enterprise but as a productive enterprise, we begin to understand science as an enterprise that manufactures both contingent events (unintended consequences) and contingent propositions. (p. 187)
Understanding the contingency thesis from within the framework of Beck’s risk society is “essential for understanding politics and public culture in contemporary society and a way of extending work in the rhetoric of science” (Danisch, 2010, p. 180). More immediately important to this essay’s argument, though, is the implication of re-purposing the contingency thesis as the appropriate method informing the management of scientific and technological risks. As Aristotle observed, “political issues and decisions are in the realm of the contingent, and contingencies are not entirely explicable in rationalistic terms” (Hauser & Benoit-Barne, 2002, p. 265). The implication of a re-purposed contingency thesis for the development of public policy about science presents a problematic notion; however, if scientific work is negotiated, contingent, and uncertain, it is a form of persuasion.
Accepting the sciences as rhetorical and persuasive reinforces Beck’s risk society thesis: namely, that society has moved from industrial modernity to late modernity, implying that we ought to conceive of the social significance of scientific and technological controversies as rhetoric, and secondly, that we ought to more critically consider the local contexts in which these controversies constitute public cultures and public spheres (Danisch, 2010, p. 183). As Garsten argues in Saving Persuasion, political theory is still operating under the influence of post-Reformation Science and Policy (Beck’s “industrial modernity”) despite a context of inherently intractable scientific and technological contingencies (Beck’s “late modernity”). When/if we accept Beck’s premises and their implications for political theory and policy-making, we not only acknowledge that Science isn’t infallible, we also acknowledge that expertise isn’t entirely certain or statistically predictable, and we validate the judgment of “common” citizens’ common sense and practical wisdom. Aristotelian classical rhetoric provides another valuable insight that informs how we ought to cultivate the (re-)development of citizens’ practical wisdom: phronesis.
Danisch (2010) defines Aristotle’s phronesis as “prudence,” simply, a citizen’s ability to deliberate well about what is good and bad. Historically, Aristotle distinguished the type of wisdom inherent in phronesis from theoretical wisdom and craft knowledge; this capability was specifically/only used to deliberate about particular, contingent matters by relying on practical experience and virtue (Danisch, 2010). Again, if the dynamics of contemporary scientific and technological risks, as a whole, are understood within the framework of the risk society, this implies that all such “matters” are contingent, meaning that phronesis – re-purposed – provides a theoretical tenet informing contemporary deliberation and public engagement. If, as Aristotle claims in his theory of deliberative rhetoric (Nicomachean Ethics) we do not deliberate about things we cannot control or about matters that are wholly in the hands of others, then motivating a deliberative democracy requires two revisions. First, it requires that the “control” exerted by experts be re-positioned as flexible (even adaptive) modes of “management,” as in the management of uncertainties (versus the control over nature, as in a post-Reformation, rational choice model of policy-making). Secondly, a deliberative democracy requires that the concept of expertise – again, an influence of post-Reformation ideology on policy-making – be opened up so as to validate practical wisdom, phronesis, as this reinforces a basic understanding of democratic politics: that it must be a public activity which must remain open to experts and non-experts, from which contradictory positions can be deliberated about to determine the public values that ought to be prioritized in policy.
Garsten (2006) reinforces Aristotle’s deliberative rhetoric and the concept of phronesis succinctly: we deliberate about what we can do ourselves:
Practical judgment understood in this way is closely linked to the activity of deliberation. We only deliberate about how to respond in situations where there is no clear or definite answer, where we can control our response to some event, and where certain responses seem to be better than others. (Garsten, 2006, p. 8)
When all scientific and technological situations are inherently contingent, as they are in the risk society, we are forced to deliberate about them; because deliberation requires practical judgment, phronesis (the wisdom developed from one’s experiences) a re-purposed Aristotelian deliberative rhetoric provides a theoretical foundation for the type of disposition that is necessary if we are to accomplish a deliberative democracy.
Situated Judgment and Deliberative Partiality
Garsten identifies the Aristotelian concepts of situated judgment and deliberative partiality as suggesting the “surprising idea that rhetorical appeals to peoples’ partial and passionate points of view can often be a good means of drawing out their capacity for judgment and so drawing them into deliberation” (13). For Aristotle, when judgment was situated in deliberation, citizens tended to judge more critically. When they were able to consider matters as they were connected to their own values, as opposed to considering an argument unrelated to their values (Nicomachean Ethics, 1094b, 1140b11) they tended to judge “better.” Judging better meant that they weren’t as easily persuaded – in the sense of being convinced, indoctrinated, or brainwashed – but rather, that they maintained their own perspectives while remaining open to and engaged with others’ arguments. As a result of this “true” or “critical” persuasion, citizens were then induced to change their own beliefs and desires in light of what was argued (Garsten, 2006, p. 7). As it pertains to the contemporary risk of climate change and the persuasive arguments crafted to legitimize or deny it (discussed in more detail, below) Johnson argues that climate change communication ought to leverage these available means of persuasion (Aristotle), suggesting that such a strategy:
emotionally tap[s] core identities and concerns of the audience, [which] may be more effective than expertise-based messages about the benefits and harms of carbon capture and sequestration … this way of contextualizing the debate could widen potential audiences, including some climate neutrals and deniers not otherwise open to persuasion. (2012, p. 979)
“Deliberative Partiality” pertained to the component of Aristotle’s deliberative rhetoric which accepted and even protected and encouraged citizens’ “rights” to their own perspectives about particular experiences. This component is closely related with Aristotle’s notion of situated judgment, because if citizens “judged better in deliberative settings, where they were situated in their own perspectives and experiences and where their opinions and feelings about what would be good for them were relevant to the question before them” (Garsten, 2006, p. 119) then they would likewise be inclined to engage in deliberation where they simultaneously defended their personal views and maintained a vested interest and openness to the relevant concerns of others.
Further informing a deliberative rhetoric, Aristotle suggested that citizens’ partialities could provide starting points for political deliberation (Garsten, 2006) and, in terms of the persuader, enable a relevant and compelling starting point from which the persuader could frame an effective argument.
Prudential Reasoning and Firm Moral Conviction
For Cicero, “orators will not be persuasive without philosophic knowledge;” (Garsten, 2006, p. 157) therefore, in deference to Aristotle’s “contingent” (i.e. rhetoric) and “necessary” (i.e. philosophy) he linked rhetoric with philosophy. The primary implication of this strategy was that expertise in public opinion was somehow related to philosophic knowledge:
the point is simply that he did not subscribe to the stark separation between opinion and knowledge that had divided the sophists from Socrates and that later thinkers … would invoke in their condemnations of rhetoric … Cicero’s view of rhetoric required orators to concede their dependence on philosophical knowledge. (Garsten, 2006, p. 162)
Cicero positioned prudential reasoning as a form of practical wisdom grounded in experience participating in Roman cultural institutions, combined with an interest in and commitment to the study of theoretical learning/philosophy (De Oratore). For the purpose of re-using this historical/rhetorical position in a contemporary context, I suggest that this linking of rhetoric and prudence can enable us to recover a theory informing a deliberative model of civic participation from the influence of the post-Reformationist ideological positions about Science, expertise, certainty, and public values that still permeate our thinking about and responses to contemporary risks. As with the re-purposing of Aristotle’s categories, Cicero’s prudential reasoning is a historically contingent category, meaning that in order for it to serve contemporary policy appropriately, we have to make it flexible enough to continue to respond to a variety of increasing and networked scientific and technological risks.
Perhaps the biggest “reach” of a contemporary Ciceronian prudential reasoning about scientific and technological contingencies is that citizens would need to begin to see scientific reasoning as a special case of practical reasoning and have some training in that form of reasoning. As Danisch (2010) argues:
rethinking the category of prudence from within the world risk society thesis is a difficult challenge. If this is something that can be taught, rhetorical theorists must face the challenge of articulating all the aspects of a scientific prudence and then engage in the task of promoting the teaching of that skill for the improvement of the public sphere and the return of judgment to common citizens. (p.189)
(The possibilities for developing scientific prudence are discussed in the“Technical Communication and Civic Discourse” section, below.)
Firm Moral Conviction
Because today’s culture of rules and codes eliminates the risk of imprudence and the responsibility that breeds prudence, (Garsten, 2006) citizens’ capacities for deliberating about, articulating, and defending their moral convictions have atrophied. Cicero’s position about citizens’ firm moral convictions led him to a political approach that respected the partial truths of partisan opinions, (Garsten, 2006) thus validating non-expert opinions/knowledge. If we reconsider Cicero’s position in a contemporary context, it has the potential to inform more effective communication about matters of scientific/technological contingency, such as climate change.
Concerning climate change communications, Johnson explains a type of re-purposed Ciceronian advocacy for publics’ firm moral convictions within the following suggestion:
Climate change communicators ought not impose their values on their audience but rather accept citizens’ moral convictions and reframe existing high-priority non-environmental values for climate and energy action that don’t require explicit, intense promotion of environmentalist values. (2012, p. 977)
Technical Communication and Civic Discourse
Danisch’s (2010) challenges rhetoricians, not sociologists, to lead the development of a deliberative democracy for engaging citizens in the management of contemporary uncertainties, arguing that rhetorical theory must develop a form of prudence capable of guiding publics’ deliberation about scientific and technological contingencies. Grabill & Simmons (1998) provide specific reasons that further inform and contextualize Danisch’s resolute position about the responsibility of rhetoricians in more critically developing a deliberation-based political framework. Extending Danisch’s “call” that rhetoricians take up the challenge of motivating citizens’ engagement in deliberation about scientific/technological risks, Grabill & Simmons first contextualize how previous approaches to risk assessment have been arhetorical (1998, p. 416) suggesting that they have been unsuccessful primarily because of their lack of consideration about two significant factors:
- social factors
“Too many of these approaches to risk communication have … typically decontextualize[ed] risks and fail[ed] to consider social factors that influence public perceptions of risk” (Grabill & Simmons, 1998). Next, they show how these technocratic/arhetorical approaches have failed to engage “The Public” in decision-making about contemporary risks. They argue that these approaches (mis-)understand “The Public” as one, cohesive entity, whereas a rhetorical approach that seeks to contextualize and localize risk sites and processes (1998, p. 428) is, in their opinion, far more successful in persuading more widespread participation, and therefore policy that more accurately represents the publics’ values. This position reflects a historical/rhetorical position on phronesis (Aristotle) and prudential reasoning (Cicero) because it operates under the premise that citizens are the best judges of their own interests. When citizens aren’t interested/invested in public policy deliberations (as a result of the exclusivity under which public policy operates as a result of its emphasis on expertise and the validity and reliability of Scientific/Technological factors at the exclusion of social values) they defer to experts to make decisions on their behalf, what Hauser & Benoit-Barne (2002) describe as the “procedural model,” which:
is prone to reducing deliberation to exchanges among an epistemic elite credentialed to engage in critical rational deliberation … [which] rules out the impact of attachments [social factors] which motivate citizens to become involved in political issues and partake in deliberative processes. Political issues and decisions are, as Aristotle observed, in the realm of the contingent, and contingencies are not entirely explicable in rationalistic terms. (p. 265)
In recognition of this problem, Danisch (2010) asks how we ought to cultivate common sense in citizens – how to interest citizens – about rendering judgments about scientific/technological contingencies, in the absence of expert knowledge. Most significantly, he warns that “no simple transition moves the locus of judgment and authority [from experts] back to the community of common citizens” (p. 188); therefore, in extending this challenge, he asks how “we” ought to begin negotiating non-experts’ opinions and values into the management of scientific/technological contingencies, enabling a “truer” deliberative model of democracy.
Grabill & Simmons (1998) respond to this challenge by asserting that technical communicators are skilled at:
insert[ing] the audience/public/citizens directly into risk assessment processes through usability testing … contextual interviewing and observation practices … working with audiences in the construction of knowledge. (p. 431)
More adamantly, they claim that “risk communication explicitly takes technical communication into the realm of civic discourse” (p. 435) thus identifying the “we” above as rhetoricians, and subsequently positioning rhetoricians/technical communicators as primarily responsible for (re-)producing citizens who are interested in and capable of deliberating about matters of significance to them, as various publics, representing various and localized priorities.
Public Value Mapping
Very briefly, I want to explain the rhetorical method of Public Value Mapping (PVM) and to suggest that such a method provides a strategy for extending theoretical claims about the necessity of a deliberative democracy for the management of contemporary scientific/technological contingencies/risks. In particular, I want to highlight Meyers’ research on the public values failures of climate science in the US, identifying 5 public values related specifically to climate science communication, and suggesting that thinking “small” (i.e. local) may lead to desired progress in connecting science and public values.
In “Public Value Mapping of Science Outcomes,” Bozeman provides an overview of the PVM model:
PVM includes concerns not generally addressed in research evaluation … research outputs, impacts, and organizations are considered in terms of their role with the environment for research … including other researchers and research institutions and their work, but also such contributors as funding agencies … other stakeholders … the PVM approach, thus, considers the capacity to do research, including especially the pool of ‘Scientific and technical Human Capital’ (S&HC) available and deployed by the research unit and the impacts of the research unit and activity on the development of further S&HC … it examines as part of a knowledge value collective not only those who themselves produce scientific knowledge but the long chain of institutions and actors who enable the transformation of knowledge into uses and social impacts. (2003, p. 16)
Meyers identifies five public values that he claims have contributed to the public values failures of climate science:
- useful information
- high quality Science
- coordination and collaboration
- transparency and communication
- stakeholder participation and support
He ultimately suggests that for the management of scientific contingencies, we ought to ask ourselves what kinds of knowledge would lead to desired progress toward public values, and what kinds of institutions are needed to facilitate that process; essentially, we need to ask how we can develop goals that connect science with publics’ values. Could thinking “small”/ local enable incremental progress for climate change policy and, in particular, policy pertaining to adaptive measures? (2011, n.p.) If, as is the premise of this essay, we agree with Meyer that the identification of local values and the subsequent engagement of a particular public in supporting those values is an effective model for deliberative democracy, then the usefulness of re-purposed classical rhetoric for the development of a more mature and comprehensive theory of deliberative democracy can be further legitimized (Hauser & Benoit-Barne, 2002). Most significantly, though, it further validates and extends Beck’s risk society thesis, necessitating a paradigm shift in our dispositions about productively managing our contemporary scientific and technological risks. In particular, this new paradigm revalidates the underlying motivation of a critical and deliberative rhetoric: the capacity for “true” persuasion. Garsten concludes:
part of what we might gain from renewed attention to [classical rhetoricians’ philosophies of deliberative democracy] is the ability to articulate precisely what is lost in a politics without persuasion: a feel for how to render moral and political principles psychologically attractive, a prudent sensitivity to the particular passions and interests of different audiences [public values with the sciences]; and a decent respect for the knowledge of probabilities enshrined in common sense and ordinary experience. (2006, p. 22)
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