Persuasion 101 for Science Communicators

Look out, it’s another hot take!

Many of you probably saw the recent article from Scientific American.  It’s another in a long line of opinion pieces talking about how scientific communicators are probably doing it wrong in one way or another. We will get to my own hot take in a bit, but this article bothered me in particular because it’s thesis statement was, “…are we leading audiences to rely less on data than emotion?” I agree with the author that unscrupulous emotional appeals aren’t the best way to gain the public trust, but the Op-Ed left me with the impression that data driven argumentation is the one good way to do science communication.  That’s a premise I do not support.

I think the real problem is many folks giving advice to scientific communicators have a real misunderstanding about what persuasive communication actually is. If we are seeking to persuade audiences, and as scientific communicators our basic goal should at least be to persuade folks that our work is interesting and worthwhile, we need to understand how persuasion works from a communications perspective.

What I’m not saying in this essay is that using data to drive your scientific communication is wrong.  I think data driven communication efforts can be effective and compelling! I am saying persuasive communication is a flexible tool and we, as a scientific community, are doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t understand all the different ways we can use it.

Like in so many instances, we ignore the wisdom of the Social Sciences at our own peril.

Buckle up buttercup.  Get ready for Persuasion 101 in 500 words**.     


Persuasive Communication 101

I would never claim to be a communications scholar, but I do think an examination of communication as a scholarly discipline is underutilized by the scientific communication community.  I’m lucky enough to have an insider advantage; I’m married to a communications instructor.  Upon his recommendation, I’ve used Simonds, Hunt, and Simonds text Communication as Critical Inquiry as a reference for this discussion.

At the heart of any attempt to persuade is solid argumentation.  One of the most widely used models of argumentation is the Toulmin model, named after British philosopher Stephen Toulmin.  The Toulmin model consists of 6 key components: claims, evidence, evidence credibility statements, warrants, qualifiers, and rebuttals.  

Claims are the assertions or points that a speaker seeks to advocate.  Claims come in three main forms, claims of fact, claims of value, and claims of policy.  The type of claim you put forward can tell you what your burden of proof is as the communicator.  In other words, depending on what sort of claim you use, you have to provide different types of reasoning for why the status quo needs to change.  

Claims of fact require the speaker to show that the facts support their position.  These are the sorts of claims that we, as scientists make to one another in most cases.  Nearly all scientific papers rest on a factual claim.

Value claims must provide a specific paradigm, or criterion, base upon which the audience can make a judgment.  These are often thought of as moral claims. This is obviously subjective, but that does not make it an invalid mode of persuasion.  Within ecology, examining the non-monetizable portions of an ecosystem (bequest value, religious/spiritual value) requires a claim of value.  Value based claims also meet the basic premise of science communication I mentioned in the opening. “My work is cool and interesting” is essentially a value claim.

Policy claims are unique in that they are the only claims that attempt to inspire action-occasionally including a shift in attitude-and the agent of this action should be clearly defined.  Claims of policy must establish that some harms exist without action, they must demonstrate that there is some inherent barrier to lessening the harm in the status quo, and they must provide some mechanism through which to solve for the harm by overcoming this barrier.  Within conservation science, recommending a management action is a policy claim.

The next element in Toulmin’s argumentation model is evidence. Evidence, or supporting material, helps to substantiate the communicator’s claim. Note, this evidence can be data based, but it does not have to be!  Next, the evidence credibility statement succinctly demonstrates the quality of the evidence the communicator is using to support their claim.  The warrant demonstrates the rational connection between the evidence and the claim.  Qualifiers admit exceptions, which should allow the scientists’ mind to rest easier.  The process of persuasion isn’t about omission or absolutism. Last, offering answers to rebuttals is key to getting the audience to accept your claim.

Toulmin’s basic premise is that this is what an argument should look like, and, used in this way, this is how we can gain the most persuasive outcome from logical inference. To understand how people are persuaded in different situations, communications scholars have defined numerous different theories of persuasion.  Such theories include Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, Elaboration Likelihood Model, Aristotelian (using ethos, pathos, logos), and the Narrative Paradigm, to name a few. If you can choose the correct persuasive theory for the correct occasion, and then utilize Toulmin within that theory, you’ve hit the jackpot.

Is argumentation inherently persuasive?  Here, the communication world tends to part ways.  My Communication Scholar friends can give their two cents in the comments and tell me why I should really have called this post “Argumentation 101”.  I would assert that, within a Toulmin framework where your aim is to gain acceptance of your claim, yes, argumentation is persuasive at its core.                

An Argument for being Convincing       

Persuasion, like any powerful tool, should be used by people who have a working knowledge of how it operates.   I don’t think the Scientific American article was about data at all. You can use data as evidence for all types of claims. I think the real issue was discomfort when science communicators put forward value or policy claims. As a group, scientists have so bought into the conception of ourselves as vessels for the communication of facts, period, we have limited ourselves to fact based claims.  From a communications studies perspective, the only differences between these various types of claims are the different burdens of proof. You must still use evidence to support your claims.  That evidence must still be credible. A warrant must still be in place to logically link your claim to your appropriate evidence. If we don’t do these things successfully, a conscientious audience will not be persuaded. 

The question comes down to this.  What is our goal as science communicators?  I don’t think we have to have just one. We aren’t just here to help folks understand data and uncertainty (though that is important!).  We are here to help them wonder about the world in a different way. We are here to help them understand why they should care. I simply think we need to stop scolding scientific communicators who are attempting to utilize the full range of persuasive communication.  

Straying from fact based claims won’t make us less scientific in the public eye.  It might make us more human.


**It’s 631 words, don’t @ me.  The editor requested examples. 🙂


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