When good arguments do not work: post-dialectics, argument assemblages, and the networks of climate skepticism.

Author:Paliewicz, Nicholas S.


Humans are not contributing to global warming because temperatures naturally change with time. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are believed to affect global averages in temperature and the biological world, but these natural changes are actually beneficial, rather than problematic, to global societies and ecological environments. Annual increases in temperature and carbon emissions have positive effects to global ecosystems, human and animal health, and crop cycles. In conclusion, humans do not cause global warming; even if they did, they should not change habits of consumption because global warming is good for you.

These are some of the arguments that the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) asserts in its most recent report concerning the status of global warming. The report, entitled "Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts," was recently published by the Heartland Institute. It was funded by an assemblage of incorporated actors such as Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, and the Science and Environmental Policy Project. Designed to refute the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, the NIPCC is an example of how private corporations build intransigent networks to forcefully compel public advocacy on issues already settled by established scientific communities of argument. As this paper will demonstrate, it is through these assemblages, not well-reasoned arguments, that skepticism serves as an impasse to climate policy.

The NIPCC assertions contradict reality, as it is the presumption within established scientific communities, namely the IPCC, that climate change is an observable, anthropogenic phenomenon that presents perilous risks for societies, economies, and ecosystems (Pachauri and Meyer 2014). Nonetheless, arguments made by skeptical assemblages effectively distort credible, substantive, consensual scientific conclusions by disseminating fallacious, and plainly absurd, arguments. In this way, skeptical arguments violate dialectical standards for good argumentation. While these arguments can certainly be analyzed as argument texts using pragma-dialectical, informal logical, or normative rhetorical tools, we believe that a complimentary conceptual apparatus is needed to explain the force of unsound arguments. This is evidenced by the fact that climate skepticism, at least in the United States, frequently assumes argumentative presumption in this argumentative situation. (1) According to The New York Times, for instance, "indecision and indifference have prevailed" in the debate (Helm 2015, para. 16), and to a 2014 Gallup Poll, one of every four Americans are firmly skeptical of the very existence of global warming (Saad 2014). The rhetorical effectivity of the NIPCC demonstrates the gulf between generating a prima facie case and influencing policy. It also implies that argumentative preposterousness should not license analytical dismissal.

Determining how corporate arguments stall climate policy is important because the risks of not implementing policy are cataclysmic. The IPCC reports, with over 97% confidence (which is 2% more confident than its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report), that anthropogenic climate change poses irrevocable perils to global ecosystems, food supplies, and the very existence of human and non-human species on a scale never before witnessed by humanity. The timeframe for these impacts is now. While the NIPCC surmounts opposition by begging questions, feigning scientific standards, and building alliances against the scientific establishment, the possibility of a sustainable future that avoids the mass extinction of species becomes increasingly uncertain.

This essay suggests that in some policy arenas, argumentation is shifting to privilege the force of networks, coalitions, or assemblages, rather than the contestation of logical arguments based on credible evidence. The rhetorical force of the NIPCC's arguments should push scholars to think beyond argumentation as a dialectical exchange, a face-to-face disputation, or a critical process that cooperatively tests, contests, and negotiates inquiries with the purpose of settling a shared disagreement. The NIPCC's arguments are a far cry from what Perelman, Toulmin, or Habermas would consider quality arguments. Without asserting critical-rational arguments or engaging in dialectical exchange, the NIPCC assemblage casts doubt by strategically moving across complex scientific arguments via networks and alliances. Among many nuances, this argumentative situation reveals that arguments need not adhere to argumentative directives (Ehninger and Brock-riede 2008), normative standards (Goodnight 1982; van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1984), or cooperative principles (Grice 1975) to be effective. The NIPCC's arguments are not isolated examples of this form of argument; they are symptomatic of how a networked society (Benkler 2006; Castells 2011; DeLanda 2006a) has transformed the possibilities of argument. While our essay does not reject the existence of dialectical models to assess argument--or their usefulness for studying certain argument situations--we hold that arguments can also be studied as post-dialectical networks that succeed without adhering to normative standards. As a supplement to dialectical models such as pragma-dialectics, post-dialectics, then, allows critics to study new possibilities of argumentation by attending to the ways arguments function as networks of forces and alliances that operate in contradiction to the ideal realm of dialectics. Because this route to criticism may begin with the realization that argument actors exceed dialectical standards or principles, we see our work as complimentary to dialectical schools of argument, offering a next step in argument analysis. Additionally, we submit that this essay is driven by various observations that argumentation has not yet caught up with literatures on networks and assemblages as explored in continental philosophy (viz., Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, and Bruno Latour). Thus, our efforts in this essay bridge the lacunas between dialectical coalitions and assemblages by recognizing newfound potentials of argument. Concomitant with DeLuca and Peeples' (2002) call, we hold that "the charge for critics is not to decry a lacking present or embrace a naive future. The charge for critics is to chart the topography of this new world" (147).

This essay performs an assemblage criticism, which maps constellations of assemblages in argumentative contexts to determine how actors create assemblages for rhetorical force. (2) This post-ideological approach parallels what some may call a rhetorical form of actor-network theory (see Besel 2011; Goodnight and Green 2010; Pfister 2015; Rice 2008; Stormer 2004) because it focuses on the rhetorical force of actors and avoids imposing preconceived notions of the social onto objects of criticism. Our principal objective is to analyze the argumentative networks--or what will be described as assemblages--without essentializing skeptical assemblages as inherently rogue actors. This theoretical argument is informed by material-semiotic traditions of sociology that have opened doors for studying how both human and non-human actors create social networks (Latour and Woolgar 1979; Latour 2005; Law 1989, 1992, 2007) in addition to a growing body of work in argumentation studies that explore the multidimensional aspects of argument in discourse coalitions (Hajer 1993, 2003, 2005, 2006; Metze and Dodge 2016) and polylogues (Bruxelles and Kerbrat-Orecchioni 2004; Lewinski 2013, 2014; Lewinski and Aakhus 2014).

We begin this essay by outlining some of the challenges the global warming controversy poses to argumentation studies and suggesting that climate disagreements are best analyzed from a critical rhetorical perspective that reads these arguments as assemblages. In doing so, this essay draws from research about polylogues, discourse coalitions, and network analysis to develop an assemblage theory capable of analyzing how the NIPCC operates as an assemblage with networks and alliances rather than normative ideals and directives. We then provide a cartography of the NIPCC's argumentative assemblage by pointing out different offshoots and alliances that stabilize its networked subjectivity. We conclude with a short discussion about the future of assembled arguments in an assembled and incorporated world.

Post-dialectics: a route to assemblage criticism

The global climate change debate is a vexed controversy that poses challenges to dialectical understandings of argument. Drawing from Toulmin (1958), for instance, this argumentative situation is a case where substantive, field-dependent arguments are not working--revealing that arguments advanced by technical experts (the IPCC) are not motivating climate related policy, suggesting that public arguments are usurping technical (Paliewicz 2012). Instead, arguments skeptical to the climate thesis have perpetrated enough doubt about the existence, causes, and effects of climate change impacts to prevent policy implementation of mitigation strategies. The NIPCC, for instance, disseminates climate doubt and skepticism by building alliances with various organizations, corporations, and actors. This is significant because it reveals that argumentative subjectivity is non-reducible to singular, speaking, human actors and that argumentation itself is not always a dialectical process of deliberative exchange. This posits a number of concerns for argument critics; primarily, given that the risks of not passing policy to address climate impacts risks the ecological ruination of our planet, the climate debate exposes the limitation of dialectics to analyze the uses of deliberative argument when it matters most.


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