Is a rhetoric of science policy possible via a knowledge map?

In “Why Political Partisans Don’t Like Facts,” Sunstein cites research that argues that cultural cognition shapes our reactions to science (Kahan) and that “our values affect our assessment of purely factual claims, even in highly technical areas” (1). Additionally, in explaining the partisanship that exists over how to respond to climate change, he writes that “the most powerful economic interests (such as the coal industry) have far greater influence within the Republican Party” (2). As a rhetorician studying the implications of the science-policy interface as it plays out for the issue of climate change, I see two key rhetorical terms within these arguments: values and interests.

Values, in terms of the study of rhetoric (and in particular, the rhetoric of scientific communication and policy) are determined through a rigorous analysis of the discourse, texts, and communication that an audience considers significant for informing a particular topic. For instance, in order to determine the values held by South Florida residents on the issue of climate change adaptation, I would analyze texts like the Southeast Florida Climate Compact’s Community Planning Act, a document that details how Broward County/ Ft. Lauderdale will identify areas that are most vulnerable to sea level rise, severe flooding, etc. and then prioritize funding for infrastructure that will make these areas more resilient. Analyzing this policy/text would require that I identify unique and frequently used terms that characterize this debate, so that if I were to organize an argument directed to this particular community about the issue of sea level rise and flooding, I would be sure to leverage those same terms because they resonate with the values of my audience. The importance of values, in terms of rhetoric, is that they are what I call “pivot” terms; terms that any relevant and logical argument ought to revolve around. Additionally, values are community-specific – they are articulated differently given different communities’ perception of the challenges and opportunities that exist within their existence.

Interests are related to values; they are more specific iterations of how an audience’s values play out in reality. As used by rhetoricians, an audience’s interests – for example, Sunstein’s explanation of the Republican Party’s economic interest in the coal industry – are powerful for creating an argument that “appeals to peoples’ partial and passionate points of view” because doing so can “draw out their capacity for judgment and draw them into deliberation” (Garsten, 2006).

While discourse and textual analyses are traditional rhetorical methods for analyzing and drawing implications about audience’s values and interests, a (fairly) new tool – the knowledge  map – can be extremely useful for developing responses to political partisanship (and therefore stalemate) about climate change. If we want to extend Kahan’s extensive research on cultural cognition and the claim that values significantly affect our assessment of scientific findings, can we use a knowledge map as a rhetorical tool for tracing and then negotiating productive responses to climate change?

Wilson and Herndl’s (2007) study experiments with knowledge maps as rhetorical tools for facilitating interdisciplinary cooperation at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and finds that mapping relations and exposing connections between seemingly contrasting interests allowed their participants to see and understand that other participants’ knowledge and institutional language emerge from and are adequate to the different contexts that make up the map. Essentially, by exposing connections between seemingly contrasting interests, the knowledge map provides a terrain for negotiating a response that is logical and productive …  is a more effective and productive rhetoric of science policy possible via the interface of a knowledge map?


About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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