Global warming and the interaction between the public and technical spheres of argument: when standards for expertise really matter.

Author:Paliewicz, Nicholas S.

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 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. Public knowledge is influenced by morals, beliefs, and ideologies. In contrast to public roles, the technical sphere focuses on argumentation in specialized, largely scientific and technical, domains, although some sub-fields in the social sciences and humanities may also serve a similar function. It is typified by arguments that are validated by precise methods and rigorous standards of evaluation that are agreed upon in the specific technical domain. Thus, the practices in the technical sphere are driven by an epistemic purpose of discovering knowledge and advancing human understanding of a complex world.

The contrast between the public and technical spheres should be clear. While the technical sphere embodies arguments that abide by particular rules and formalities determined by scientific communities, the public sphere evaluates arguments based on public standards. Rowland (1986) noted three main distinctions between the public and technical spheres. First, arguments in the public sphere typically focus on questions of value or policy, but technical arguments focus on questions of fact. Second, the primary audience for the public sphere is composed of members of a local or national public, but the audience for the technical sphere includes specific scientific communities. Third, the technical sphere focuses on issues in the sciences and technical arena, but the public sphere focuses on issues of broad public concern.

Given the obvious fact that the public sphere often deals with issues that have a strongly scientific or technical component, ideally the public should be able to assess arguments made between competing technical experts in order to determine appropriate policy initiatives. Such topics include nuclear power, military weaponry, aerospace engineering, medical research, x-ray technology, and stem cell research. The purpose of public argumentation, when confronted with socially relevant scientific research, is to evaluate scientific knowledge and determine its use in the public sphere. Policy judgments remain in the province of the public sphere, but such judgments are most useful when informed by the best technical data.

When the public sphere faces issues that are inherently technical, a well-functioning public sphere must apply standards for assessing technical claims. A failure to meet such standards could result in either excessive deference to scientific reasoning or unreasoned public debate. Standards are needed to rule out attempts by the technical sphere to usurp the role of the public in making decisions about means and ends in society, a concern expressed by Biickstrand (2003) and Jasanoff (1992). At the same time, standards should be designed to make certain that public debate is informed by the best available information found either in the public or technical sphere. Failure to uphold these standards may lead to policy decisions not informed by the best scientific and technical reasoning. Examples of this failure include medical diagnosis and treatment, food and water inspections, and environmental regulations (e.g., Mitchell, 2000a, 2000b; Shackley & Wynne, 1996). The key need, therefore, is to identify standards that can be used to determine when it is appropriate for representatives of the public to defer on factual claims concerning issues of public concern to the technical sphere.


Three standards can be used to guide how representatives of the public should use information generated by argument in the technical sphere. Representatives of the public sphere should test technical claims with the following criteria:

  1. The scientific community should have consensus on the technical issue under consideration. This consensus should have relevance to public policy.

  2. The scientific community should produce research that is uncontaminated with insincere motives. Scientific research should be consistent with the epistemic purpose of producing knowledge.

  3. The scientific community should not be charged with significant evidence that indicates scientific misconduct within the technical sphere.

    These three standards should be used to determine when it is appropriate for representatives of the public to defer to scientific and technical experts on factual issues related to policy or value concerns. If all three standards are met, then technical arguments should have presumption in the public sphere.

    The first standard requires scientific consensus. Without consensus, there is little reason for the public to defer to technical elites. On the other hand, if there is consensus about factual questions, it would be foolish for representatives of the public sphere to ignore it. In the technical sphere there are many factual questions which are simply beyond reasonable dispute. That is very different from the policy/value issues found in the public sphere, but the factual issues may be quite relevant to the issues facing the public sphere.

    The second standard requires the scientific community to produce knowledge that follows an epistemic track. The scientific community should not be guided by other motives, such as personal enrichment. This is important because there is little reason to trust the judgments of a person proclaiming to be an expert in a given case if his/her judgment may have been influenced by simple self-interest. This problem is even more serious if the motive is political or ideological, as was the case in research produced by the Tobacco Industry Research Committee for the explicit purpose of denying and/or disproving scientific claims that related tobacco use to health concerns, such as lung cancer (Oreskes & Conway...

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