TAM is less than three weeks away. Yay! I’m going to be on the Skepticism and the Humanities panel, and I’m very excited about that. To prepare for the panel, I’ve been reading, thinking, and writing about the intersection of rhetoric and skeptical activism, the topic that I spoke about at SkeptiCamp Denver in May. I love this topic and find it to be very interesting and exciting, both because it is a valuable tool and technique for skeptical activists, and because it allows me to use my knowledge of and experience in my academic field to contribute to a movement that I’m passionate about.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a series of brief blog posts on this topic. Because this is an introductory post, I won’t go into great detail here. However, in future posts, I will elaborate much more on various aspects of this topic, including context, goals/objectives, audience, clear and precise communication, logos/pathos/ethos, and the principle of charity.

Onward to the post!:


“Teach how to think, not what to think”. This phrase has become somewhat cliched, but that doesn’t detract from its truth or importance. My experience with teaching and thinking about various pedagogical practices and my research on the topic has led me to believe that teaching how to think, not what to think, is not only a highly effective pedagogical technique, but also one that is, at least to a certain extent, an ethical imperative.

However, despite the fact that my thoughts on the intersection of pragmatic rhetoric and skeptical activism are informed by my teaching philosophy and classroom experience, a classroom setting is just one of many contexts in which pragmatic rhetoric both can and should be utilized. Accordingly, when discussing this topic, I use the word “teach” to refer not only to classroom teaching, but also to any situation or context in which we, as idealistic and active skeptics, have the opportunity to use applied skepticism to inform an audience. Ultimately, these techniques can be put to effective use in any context (a conference, a classroom, a group discussion, a blog, etc.) and with any audience.

But, of course, informing is not the same as persuading. So how does rhetoric, a type of persuasion, fit into this particular discussion?

That’s a tricky question. I’d argue that, although informing and teaching is often accomplished without the use of any rhetorical techniques, rhetoric both underlies and shapes the informing that we engage in as active skeptics.

In the context of skepticism, informing and persuading are often intertwined. As active skeptics, we’re not just informing: we’re also encouraging our audience (of whatever sort) to think critically, to evaluate and examine the legitimacy, quality, and accuracy of the evidence and information with which they are presented, and to make decisions that are based upon accurate and trustworthy evidence. Informing is definitely a vital part of active skepticism, but it’s not enough. In addition to informing, we must also explain why the information is useful and accurate, how its accuracy and legitimacy were determined, and why it deserves to be taken into consideration when making decisions. It’s our job to “teach how to think, not what to think”, and rhetoric is one of the most useful tools that we can draw upon as we attempt to not just inform, but to also explain these “how”s and “why”s.

Unfortunately, “rhetoric” is sometimes perceived as a “dirty word”, so to speak. It’s viewed as sophistry and/or as a technique that prioritizes style over substance. In a similar vein, rhetoric is often thought of as something best left to debate clubs or to contentious individuals who enjoy argument for argument’s sake and who will do whatever it takes to “defeat” their “opponent”.

And rhetoric indeed can be all of those things. But that’s not all that it is. There’s another side to rhetoric, one that is pragmatic, practical, useful, one that anyone can use to further their ideals and to effect change in the world, one that is very relevant to skepticism. If you consider yourself to be a skeptical activist, then you almost certainly are, in one way or another, an idealist. You care. You’re passionate. You want to promote critical thinking and evidence-based decision making. You want to change things for the better. However, idealism and passion alone aren’t enough. If we want our activism to make a real difference in the real world, we must also have pragmatic and relevant skills, tools, and techniques at our disposal. And rhetoric, when utilized effectively, is one of the most useful tools available to the skeptical activist.

Accordingly, I want to expand the definition of rhetoric, to “take it back”, to propose the idea that we, as idealistic skeptics, should think of rhetoric as an important part of our “skeptic toolkit”. Rhetoric is a tool that every skeptical activist can and should possess. It’s is a form of “applied skepticism”. It’s a powerful, useful, and relevant tool for those of us who are more interested in communicating effectively and in “teaching how to think, not what to think” than in “defeating” an “opponent”. Rhetoric belongs not only to the debaters and the fighters, but also to those of us who are interested in promoting critical thinking, evidence-based decision making, and skeptical inquiry.


To be continued.

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9 Responses to More on the intersection of rhetoric and skeptical activism (the first in a series)

  1. Bob says:

    Good idea, re: the blogs in preparation for the panel. I might give it a go as well.

  2. notung says:

    Nice post – make sure the panel is filmed and put on YouTube, pretty please!

    There’s certainly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ rhetoric, and we should always make sure we’re only using the ‘good’ kind. Schopenhauer wrote a great book listing the various kinds of ‘bad’ rhetoric that people use: ‘The Art of Being Right’.

  3. This reminds me of lukeprog’s post “Rhetoric for the Good”:


  4. Ted Rogers says:

    Nice post, Miranda. I’ve a special interest because I think scientists often confront a similar dilemma when trying to convey the relevance of their work to a general audience. One hopes to maintain a rigid objectivity consistent with a strong scientific ethic, while at the same time persuading broad audiences that a certain endeavor is exciting and important. Achieving that combination is an art, for sure.

  5. INTP says:

    I look forward to the discussion. I’ve noticed that rhetoric is often a tool used to silence skepticism or end debate. Ideological dogmatism attempts to “frame the debate” in tribalistic us vs. them terms, vilifies dissent, and attempts are made to “shame” doubters emotionally. Special pleading is used to dismiss the skeptic, and not the skepticism. I’m sure you picked up on this kind of rhetoric in certain ‘recent’ controversies. ;-)

  6. John Greg says:

    I too look forward to this discussion. Rhetoric, and the use and principles therein/of always fascinate me. Much of it is above my head, but always interesting.

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  8. […] posts:  1, 2, 3, […]

  9. […] The crucially important role that rhetoric and effective communication play in skepticism/skeptical activism/the skeptic movement (i.e. determining and making use of the most effective method of informing/persuading/communicating in any given situation and adapting one’s message and argument to whomever our audience happens to be, always making use of the principle of charity, the importance of acknowledging the fact that many people hold on to their irrational/potentially dangerous beliefs for emotional reasons and thus almost certainly cannot and will not be persuaded by facts alone, the brilliance and wisdom of Ray Hyman’s “Proper Criticism“, etc.) […]

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