Taking it to the streets: the rhetorical mobility of expert arguments in public settings.

Author:Paliewicz, Nicholas S.

In Salt Lake City, Utah, a group of medical physicians are stepping outside of their socially constructed boundaries of expertise to address environmental problems in public settings. This group of physicians, known as Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, is working with public organizations to resist the expansion of one of Utah's largest contributors of pollution: Kennecott Utah Copper (KUC). Owned by international mining giant, Rio Tinto, Kennecott is responsible for operating one of the largest open pit copper mines in the United States: The Bingham Canyon Mine. This mine provides copper, molybdenum, and zinc to the global economy. Although the company heralds itself as a responsible member of the community and a driver of progress, it is charged with irresponsible environmental practices that compromise public health (Fahys, 2009, 2011, 2012a, 2012b; Gaddis & Hombeck, 2011; Klaus & Mayhew, 2012; Naftz et. al., 2009; Shearer, 2010; Stettler, 2011). Rio Tinto Kennecott (RTK) regularly pollutes the air with wasted toxins that exceed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) federal limits and infiltrate the lungs of local subjects (Fayhs, 2011; Foy, 2011; McNamara, 2012). Problems with Salt Lake City's air quality are especially problematic because of the area's inversion effect, where sinking cold air traps pollution in the valley due to the bowl-shaped geography of the metropolitan region. Additionally, Kennecott's toxic waste dump of mineral tailings, located on the ridge of the Great Salt Lake, contaminates the air with harmful particulates that infect brains and lungs of citizens (Wu & Dietrich, 2012).

Local environmental organizations claim that Kennecott is responsible for exploiting state loopholes and using bad science to justify environmentally destructive practices that jeopardize human health (Fahys, 2011). Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) is at the helm of this controversy. The organization is unique because it is comprised of expert physicians that have become politically active* 1. Recognizing the severity of health ramifications to local citizens, these medical experts have gone public. The move to bring expert knowledge to public audiences is important for rhetorical and argumentation critics because it demonstrates the epistemic limits and rhetorical potentials of discourse constructed as expert. The discursive mobility of this organization, as persons from expert to political advocate, highlights the applicability and fluency of arguments constructed as expert in public contexts.

Although the practices of producing technical arguments in public places range in purpose, methods, and overall scope, this case study demonstrates that expert and non-expert arguments can assist one another in achieving goals. In this case study, expertise is a public resource as opposed to a demarcated realm of knowledge that is more often used in support of industrial or governmental objectives. Using its expertise to challenge the industrial logic responsible for unhealthy levels of air pollution, UPHE has rhetorically adapted its technical arguments to public audiences. UPHE demonstrate that technical arguments about fact can be used as rhetorical messages that rally publics for social change.

The purpose of this research is twofold. First, this essay seeks to understand the mobility of expertise in deliberative settings. This is important because a narrow understanding of expertise can contribute to limited understandings of problems such as global warming and air pollution impacts. Experts are often relied on to provide information necessary for policy. We must, therefore, understand expertise as a rhetorical force capable of initiating change and informing publics about technical implications to social problems. A second purpose is theoretical. Here, my purpose is to determine how technical arguments can (re)design spaces for deliberative engagement. By developing a rhetorical approach to design theory, I hope to determine how competitions of expert designs struggle for authority in social contexts. In the case of UPHE, we can see that expertise is used to challenge Rio Tinto's environmental authority and create publicity about issues that industrial discourse has excluded, such as health. The competitiveness of UPHE's expert design is thus forceful in that it fights for technical authority by productively resisting architectonic forces of industrial logic with its own expertise of health.

The primary questions driving this analysis are as follows: (1) How do technical communities gain architectural authority of discourse that affects publics? (2) How does UPHE gain publicity about the issue of health when confronting the infrastructural design of industrial logic? (3) In light of fears about technocratic usurpation of public arguments (Goodnight, 1982), in what ways can experts contest spatial boundaries that exclude issues such as health from public deliberation?

Before analyzing the arguments of Utah Physicians, the following sections ground this reading in literatures of rhetoric of science and argumentation theory. First, I specify the risks and potentials of expertise in public contexts. It is important to note that although expertise can assist public debates in important ways, models of technocratic communication can still stymie public voices. Next, I work through a rhetorical approach to design theory and offer a few heuristics for analyzing the uses of technical arguments in public settings. Finally, I evaluate UPHE's strategies that fight for clean air and measure these tactics with Rio Tinto's responses to these charges about bad business politics.


The fact that Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment provide publics with resourceful expertise does not necessarily exemplify current relations between publics and experts. Technocratic models of communication, for instance, remain not only prevalent but also problematic for public participants in decision-making processes. These models privilege expert evidence at the cost of vernacular discourse, creating problems for democratic sustainability within public spheres (Deitz & Stem, 2008; Depoe & Delicath, & Elsenbeer, 2004; Endres, 2009; Farrell & Goodnight, 1981; Fischer, 2000; Goodnight, 1982; SendaCook, 2012; Toker, 2002; Waddell, 1996). Kinsella (2004), for example, warns that monopolization of public debate by experts can alienate public audiences and delegitimize communities of expertise (p. 84). Hindering important dialogue between public participants and institutional decision makers, technocratic models of communication challenge meaningful public debate about controversial issues.

As Douglas Walton (1997) notes in Appeal to Expert Opinion, evaluations of arguments by authority depend on how the arguments are used and whether or not they advance objectives of the dialogical exchanges in which they are applied, such as persuasion, deliberation, or information-seeking (p. 123). Accordingly, arguments from authority can be appraised as reasonable, weak, or fallacious (ad verecundiam) based on the standards for evaluation constructed by affected epistemic communities. To Walton, an argument from authority is fallacious if the appeal problematically shuts out productive dialogical exchanges between participating communities.

To Goodnight (1982), technical usurpation of public arguments is a threat to deliberative rhetoric. Similar to Habermas (1989), Goodnight is clearly hesitant about the future of the public sphere in a world dominated by instrumental reason detached from the "realm of public knowledge" (Goodnight, 1982, p. 225). Even Adorno and Horkheimer (2007), in Dialectic of the Enlightenment, critique the separation of expertise from public life, arguing that mythologies of Western history have developed at an alarming pace in its struggle against natural forces.

Although technocratic models of communication may threaten the value of public knowledge, experts are still political agents that can assist with important public debates. But at what point do experts become public participants? This question is important because field-specific experts can rhetorically exert political force in areas that are not germane to their area of specialization. Sprain, Merrolla, & Carcasson (2012), for instance, witnessed this problem in small group public deliberations concerning water issues in Colorado wherein an expert was able to push a political agenda not unique to his/her scientific knowledge. This example demonstrates that bordered roles between publics and experts or politics and science are not always clear. Because experts are also citizens, their participation can complicate lines separating public and technical arguments. In what seemed to be an ideal model of participation turned into an exemplar of technocratic risks in public decision making processes, indicating that the technocratic model of communication can occur when audiences least expect it. In turn, critics should remain cautious of technical experts engaging the public sphere through argumentation when the purpose of expert designs is unclear or insensitive to public voices (Farrell & Goodnight, 1981; Fischer, 2000; Goodnight, 1982).

The problem of technocratic public participation models may potentially be overcome by recognizing the value of public expertise. Fischer (2000), Endres (2009), and Kinsella (2004), for instance, argue that public citizens can contribute to expert policy debates in meaningful ways. Fischer (2000) believes that more public participation by "specialized citizen[s]" is the solution to hierarchical divides between public participants and policy experts (p. 46). So rather than suggesting an outright abomination of expertise, Fischer, recognizing the key interdependency between experts and citizens concerning issues of policy, believes that science...

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