Maybe We Could Argue Better

August 1, 2018 11:19 AM
John Phipps

Geezers often arc toward cynicism as they age, in realization efforts of a lifetime were either obsoleted by technology or fruitless stalemates. As one who has followed some apparently deathless debates in agriculture for decades, I suspect many of our pet causes face the same futures.

Our vigorous efforts contribute to the numbing repetition of debating points. We have enabled with funds and personnel an industry of advocates whose living depends more on our approval than results. In fact, resolution of a major question, such as a court decree, can end careers. The satisfaction of seeming to “do something” needs to be analyzed for cost-benefit balance, just like we demand for regulations.

Agriculture is not alone, of course. From abortion to tax cuts to the metric system we seem to be stuck in ritualized confrontations that change little. While these debates could be moving glacially, our lives and attention spans are too short to register the trend. What new approaches could we use to help reach consensus even slightly faster? Some ideas:

1. The Billboard Test: On items pertaining to health risks, this tactic can introduce a moment of open-mouthed silence. For example, when debating GMO safety, ask why are there no GMO-lawyer billboards (or TV ads) for attorneys who will extract compensation (and their fees) for injured parties?

Skeptics of our scientific establishment often retain a respect for the opinion of a jury. After all, it’s supposedly 12 people just like them who make the call. So where are the payouts for vaccine, fluoridation, GMO, wind farm, power line, etc., victims? Certainly it’s not the fault of  unmotivated litigation attorneys or their failure to advertise.

2. The Insurance Application: Do people willing to bet serious money on when you will get sick or die give a hoot? The reason I don’t fly a private plane (other than acrophobia and lack of money) is because they ask about it on life insurance applications. Same for scuba-diving, rock-climbing, smoking, drug use, etc. If the number crunchers don’t care about pesticides on tomatoes, how big of a deal is it, really?

3. More use could be made of passive voice. (See what I did there, writing critics?) Sentences that include personal references (“you”) are received in peoples’ brains differently than the same information delivered without. This is unsurprising, but the tendency to interpret personalized information as hostile has escalated.

We’ve been here before. Back when people used to challenge duels over suspected slurs, English speakers used elaborate sentences that avoided assigning blame. “Mistakes were made” is a classic example, as opposed to “you screwed up”—even if the latter was more accurate. Passive voice helped prevent active bodily harm.

While limiting passive voice has made all kinds of prose livelier, it remains a powerful communication tool in heated debates. Sometimes deflection, not action, is the desired result.

4. Use more and better charts. Like Rosling’s animated bubble charts (see my review on page 8) and 15-minute talks, there are new, easier tools than ever. Research suggests better visual representation of information is more persuasive. The burgeoning field of infographics is not just a great career choice, but also might speed mutual understanding of complex issues. Our brains evolved to record images, granting them greater weight than other stimuli. You would think people who stare at phone screens constantly would grasp this, but we’re still putting up PowerPoint slides with all text in tiny fonts.

Above all, more realistic expectations might help us recognize success when it does occur. Those waiting for capitulation and full agreement from adversaries better bring their lunches. Sullen silence is the sword surrender of our day.

Read a recent research article that explains how graphs and formulas increase persuasiveness and product appeal at​veResearch



John Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., is the on-farm “U.S. Farm Report” commentator and writes a column for Farm Journal.

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