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Ethics and the Appeal to Scientific Consensus in the Climate Change Debates

November 14, 2017 @ 8:00 am - 5:00 pm


Dr. Jean Goodwin (North Carolina State University) // November 14th, 2017 // 2:00pm-3:30pm // Belo Center for New Media (BMC) 5.208

What are the ethical choices being made when arguers claim that there is a scientific consensus backing their stance on climate change? Is this a simple claim to make, or a complex ethical choice that limits other possibilities in discussing the changing climate? Contemporary argumentation theory has shown that arguers themselves are responsible for creating the local ethical terrain in which they are obligated to make and consider good arguments. Since the first IPCC report in 1990, scientists and their allies have imposed on themselves an obligation to build climate policy on the firm foundation of a scientific consensus. More than a quarter-century later, it is now apparent that this obligation cannot be met. The interminable debates over consensus have distorted public deliberations about vital issues of climate policy and created enemy climate tribes. It is time to stop. Rhetoricians–who should have known better from the beginning–can point to some more productive approaches.

Dr. Jean Goodwin, a professor in the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University, studies how scientists can communicate appropriately and effectively to non-expert audiences. Her research examines how citizens who deeply disagree can nevertheless manage to reason with each other. The communication techniques she uncovered among ancient Roman orators and contemporary policy advocates have proved surprisingly relevant to the challenges scientists face when they try to earn trust in controversial contexts. Goodwin uses discourse analysis to tease out the ways outstanding scientist-communicators address difficult audiences on topics such as GMOs and climate change. She also uses conceptual analysis to connect these practices to broader theories of the responsibilities and roles scientists can undertake in civic life. Her National Science Foundation-funded project, Teaching Responsible Communication of Science, crafted case studies that invite science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduate students to address communication challenges based on actual events.

Free and open to the UT community and general public


November 14, 2017
8:00 am - 5:00 pm