Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Global Warming and the Interaction between the Public and Technical Spheres of Argument: When Standards for Expertise Really Matter

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Global Warming and the Interaction between the Public and Technical Spheres of Argument: When Standards for Expertise Really Matter

Article excerpt

Spheres of argument "are socially created guidelines that determine how arguers construct their arguments and how recipients evaluate them" in the broad contexts of public life, technical arenas, and personal relations (Inch, Warnick & Endres, 2006, p. 16). Goodnight (1982) defines argument spheres as "branches of activity," meaning "the grounds upon which arguments are built and the authorities to which arguers appeal" (p. 216). The personal sphere encompasses arguments that are in a relational context, such as arguments between friends or family members. The technical sphere embodies arguments that abide by meticulous rules and formalities that are created by specialized fields of argument. And the public sphere is the place where arguments about issues of concern to the entire public are processed.

Goodnight's original essay on argument spheres has been vastly influential in inspiring a rich research tradition in argumentation. However, the tendency in research following Goodnight's thesis is to view the public sphere as threatened by usurpation from opposing spheres, especially the technical. According to Goodnight (1982), the argumentative groundings in the technical and personal spheres have been expanding to such a degree that they threaten to consume deliberative rhetoric in the public sphere. Numerous other scholars similarly have maintained that the public sphere is either diminishing or its abilities to formulate proper judgments about public affairs have declined (Aronowitz, 1993; Goodnight, 1987; Habermas, 1962/1989; Habermas, Lennox & Lennox 1964/1974; Rodger, 1985; Zarefsky, 1992). For instance, politicians and experts have used arguments grounded in the personal sphere in order to display an "aura of false intimacy" (Goodnight, 1982 p. 224-225). Technical advocates have trumped the social reasoning of public argumentation, a judgment supported by Farrell and Goodnight's (1981) analysis of how the accident rhetoric at Three Mile Island developed. In their view, a communication breakdown occurred because the technical sphere improperly usurped the proper role of the public sphere, producing not only a crisis of nuclear radiation, but also a crisis of rhetoric. This essay participates in a research tradition that notes the way that the technical sphere can threaten deliberative rhetoric in the public sphere (e.g., Day & Tucker, 1995; Zarefsky, 1994).

However, Goodnight's (1982) original essay implicitly suggested that in addition to technical usurpation of the role of the public sphere, there is a parallel danger that the public sphere can apply standards of public deliberation to issues that are inherently technical, producing irrational debate. In this essay, I argue that this problem of public usurpation of the technical sphere is more common than argumentation scholars currently recognize. The difficulty is that public usurpation of cases that are inherently technical threatens sensible decision making in the public sphere. This is especially troubling when the stakes of debate are exceptionally high, as in the case of global warming. In the remainder of this essay, I use the global warming debate as a case study to demonstrate how public advocates can misuse technical claims. I begin with a discussion on the proper roles of the public and technical spheres of argument. Following, I outline three standards for assessing whether the technical sphere is being misapplied in a public controversy before turning to the case study of global warming itself.

THE ROLES OF PUBLIC AND TECHNICAL SPHERES OF ARGUMENT

The public and technical spheres of argument vary by practices, methods, and epistemologles. In liberal democracies, the public sphere is designed to make decisions that relate to the society as a whole. This means that the public sphere should be a site for deliberative practices that cast judgment on issues of policy. The public's epistemology is socially constructed and driven by values that shape ways in which the people produce discursive thought. …

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