The Rhetoric of Extraordinary Claim
Although unfamiliar to many skeptics, rhetorical analysis can provide a useful complement to the traditional critical thinking approaches that comprise the “skeptic’s toolbox.”
Certainly, the place to begin is to clarify what I mean by the term rhetoric. The term has several different meanings, of course—some of them pejorative—but here I use the term in its most traditional sense: the persuasive aspect of discourse. Aristotle, for example, provides what is still the most fundamental definition of rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 1954, 24). The most important contemporary definitions barely stray from this central meaning: “the use of language as symbolic means of inducing cooperation” (Burke 1953, 43), “the discursive means of obtaining the adherence of minds” (Perelman 1969, 8), “the literary technology of persuasion” (Quine 1989, 183), and so on.
Given this conception of rhetoric, it is easy to distinguish rhetorical analysis from the types of analysis typically associated with critical thinking. Traditional critical thinking approaches emphasize the strength of arguments, focusing almost exclusively on the soundness of the reasoning and the reliability of the evidence. Rhetorical analysis, on the other hand, emphasizes the appeal of arguments—what makes the argument persuasive to an audience. Now, although these approaches are different in emphasis, they are not mutually exclusive, as the strength of an argument can (and surely should) be an important basis for the appeal of an argument. Still, there are many other features of arguments that contribute to their appeal but are not systematically considered in traditional critical thinking approaches—the use of particular types of language and commonplaces, the temporal progression of the argument, and the tone of voice or expression, among others. Undoubtedly, some of these features of arguments may be sophistic—misleading or beguiling—and, in fact, make an argument weaker rather than stronger, but in either case, understanding the rhetorical appeal of discourse advancing extraordinary claims can improve our ability to evaluate and disarm such discourse.
Now, if the reader of this article is expecting a dedicated and comprehensive theory of the rhetoric of extraordinary claims, I will no doubt disappoint, as no such theory will be presented. Indeed, I would argue that no such theory is necessary, as the existing body of rhetorical theory is more than sufficient to do the job. From the ground-laying works of Plato and Aristotle to the contemporary theories of writers such as Kenneth Burke and Jean Baudrillard, the materials of rhetorical analysis are already established and merely await the attention and application of skeptical writers and critics.
Specifically, I seek to address two central questions:
1. What constitutes a rhetorical analysis of discourse advancing extraordinary claims?
2. What advantages might emerge from using rhetorical analysis to complement the traditional critical thinking approaches that comprise the “skeptic’s toolbox”?
The Rhetorical Analysis of Discourse Advancing Extraordinary Claims
The classical—and still most influential—survey of the scope and varieties of rhetorical appeals appears in Aristotle’s treatise, the Rhetoric. In this work, Aristotle posits four categories of rhetorical appeals:  those deriving from the materials or content of the discourse (these he terms “proofs”),  those deriving from the organization or placement of these materials,  those deriving from the expression of these materials in particular linguistic statements, and  those deriving, in oral discourse, from the delivery or performance of the speaker. (These categories would later be codified by Cicero as the “canons” of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, and delivery, respectively.1)
The first of Aristotle’s categories, invention, consists of the speaker’s ability to generate or discover the persuasive material that is the content of the discourse. It is the most developed of the canons, both in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and in the considerable body of literature associated with the rhetorical tradition. In conceptualizing rhetorical invention, Aristotle identifies three central types of proofs: logos, ethos, and pathos.
Logos is the logical aspect of proof—what we recognize as the inferential structure of an argument. Logos determines the soundness of an argument and is the main concern of traditional critical thinking approaches, especially through the identification of logical fallacies and other instances of unwarranted inference.
Ethos is the ethical aspect of proof. It is manifest in the values embodied by the discourse. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for example, is persuasive not primarily because of the quality of the reasoning but because of the quality of the values affirmed: liberty, equality, and commitment to purpose. While ethos is significantly less prominent in the types of critiques found in the Skeptical Inquirer, when skeptics base their analysis in the criteria of scientific adequacy, this is essentially an assessment of ethos, as these criteria are fundamentally held as values rather than deduced as facts.
Pathos is the emotional aspect of proof. Critical thinking approaches tend to consider appeals to emotion only when they appear in well-established fallacies, such as appeals to fear and appeals to pity. However, Aristotle identifies a more general function for pathos in rhetorical discourse. He maintains that the principal function of emotional appeals is to place an audience in a particular emotional state that will prepare them to be receptive to the logical or ethical proofs that follow. For example, Copernicus begins On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies with a dedication to Pope Paul III that is essentially an appeal to humility. It prepares the audience for later arguments that may otherwise have been taken as arrogant or blasphemous (Copernicus 1972, 3–5). Such an emotional appeal does not contribute to the soundness of the later arguments—nor is it properly considered a fallacy as it is not offered as a reason per se—but nonetheless it contributes significantly to the rhetorical appeal of the work.
Now, in discourse advancing extraordinary claims, appeals to emotion are prevalent, and understanding that pathos is by nature preparatory may be useful to those engaged in skeptical critique. For example, a séance is typically front-loaded with appeals to affiliative emotions and sometimes to grief, not to demonstrate the veracity of communication with the dead but to render the audience susceptible to the improbable demonstration to follow. This type of observation results in a more accurate understanding of how a séance works in relation to its audience and also can disarm its persuasive impact by explicitly revealing the rhetorical tactics employed.
The second of Aristotle’s categories, arrangement, is rarely recognized in traditional critical thinking approaches. Still, the sequence of arguments or appeals may be central to the overall effect of discourse advancing extraordinary claims. One instance in which arrangement is sometimes the focus of skeptical critiques is cold reading, in which the sequence of topics and the attendant questions—moving from general and ambiguous to specific and concrete—is seen as key in understanding how psychics seek to establish credence in their claims. Another example of the importance of arrangement is the way in which infomercials for miracle diets or exercise equipment typically place extensive testimonials before any explanation of the product’s function, seeking to produce a favorable attitude toward the product. Again, sequence is central to explaining how the discourse seeks to persuade its audience.
The third of Aristotle’s categories is style—the particular linguistic expression of the various ideas and proofs that constitute the material of rhetorical discourse. Style has been of great importance in rhetorical studies, as language choice is pivotal in communicating ideas persuasively. After all, no one would remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark address if it had been called “I Have an Idea.” Although stylistic concerns are seldom central to skeptical critiques, one area in which language choice is often considered is pseudoscience, in which couching dubious claims in scientific or scientific-sounding language is widely recognized as a primary strategy in advancing pseudoscientific claims.
The fourth and final of Aristotle’s categories is delivery—the ways in which tone of voice, vocal phrasing, gestures, and other aspects of the physical performance of speech can contribute to persuasion. Delivery is not germane, of course, to the analysis of written texts, but much discourse advancing extraordinary claims takes place through speech, as in a séance or the recruiting protocols of Scientology, or through forms of recorded speech, such as infomercials or the many paranormal and cryptozoological programs popular on television.
Although delivery, like most of Aristotle’s latter categories, is rarely mentioned in traditional critical thinking approaches, it is clear that it can be very important in advancing extraordinary claims. The dramatic and sometimes otherworldly intonations of a medium at a séance, the measured pedantry of those presenting themselves as medical experts in infomercials, or the unmeasured enthusiasm of those providing testimonials for alternative treatments probably contribute as much to the persuasive appeal of the discourse as any of Aristotle’s categories.
To be sure, Aristotle’s rhetorical theory provides the broadest and most clearly organized survey of the means of persuasion. Still, there are many other significant theorists in the rhetorical tradition whose works can profitably inform skeptical critique. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide even a cursory survey of this tradition, but I would like to consider briefly two of the most influential contemporary theorists to illustrate the point.
The most significant rhetorical theorist of the twentieth century is literary critic Kenneth Burke. According to Burke (1953), rhetorical effects occur not strictly through the presentation of proofs to a rational audience but more broadly through the use of signs of consubstantiality that create identification between speaker and audience. A sign of consubstantiality is a symbolic behavior that indicates shared substance. So, for example, in 2008, Barack Obama invoked hope and change not as reasons to vote for him so much as tokens of a shared progressive identity.
Much of what occurs in discourse advancing extraordinary claims reflects just this type of identification. New Age discourse, for example, derives its appeal not from its reasoning but from the use of a nomenclature that identifies the proponent and prospective adherents as spiritually enlightened and historically ascendant. Terms in this nomenclature include aura, Aquarian age, astral body, channeling, harmonic convergence, transfiguration, and the like.
Another example can be found in the discourse promoting 9/11 conspiracy theories. When a conspiracy theorist uses a term like truther, what is identified is not so much a relationship to a set of facts or forensic conditions but rather a social relationship—a shared substance—with others who believe “the truth is out there.” This social relationship is maintained through a wide variety of communication practices—from websites, blogs, and conventions to representations in documentary and fictional discourse—all clear examples of what Burke conceptualizes as signs of consubstantiality.
A final theorist I want to mention is Jean Baudrillard, a postmodern critic and philosopher. Baudrillard (1983) maintains that, in postmodern discourse, rhetorical function is produced not through reference to an objective world but through the simulation of prevailing models of meaning. One clear example of this type of simulation is lifestyle advertising. In lifestyle advertising there is often no reference to the product or its intended use; instead you see symbolic models or archetypes of the “good life”—attractive people having fun and enjoying leisure and affluence. This simulation may lead the audience to consume the product in their own simulation of the “good life,” thereby fulfilling the ad’s intended rhetorical function.
This type of simulation is evident in much contemporary discourse advancing extraordinary claims. You can’t read self-reports of encounters with ghosts or the memoir of an alien abductee without realizing that what is being recounted are not events so much as archetypal narratives that serve as our models of such experiences. That movies and television shows provide so much of the content of these models only underscores the subsequent reprisal of these narratives in purportedly authentic and sincere self-reports as largely, if not entirely, simulations. While some such reports may be hoaxes or deceptions, it is likely that many are simulations—suggestible people reproducing prevailing models of meaning.
More typical examples of this type of simulation come from mediated discourse. An infomercial or website touting a new, but dubious, medical or scientific breakthrough (such as those promoting Thought Field Therapy, Power Balance bracelets, or various miracle diets) typically does not report a scientific breakthrough—indeed, there is no breakthrough to report—but rather simulates such a report. The simulation has all the attendant touchstones: talking-head interviews with scientific researchers or medical practitioners, scientific explanations (often accompanied by simple animations illustrating physical, chemical, or cellular processes), and references to published studies (though rarely citations), all often presented by hosts purporting to be science, medical, or fitness journalists. The rhetorical effect produced by these infomercials and websites does not arise from any representation of an objective reality but from our symbolic models of what a “scientific breakthrough” is and how it is reported. This is the hallmark of simulation.
Advantages of Rhetorical Analysis
I hope that this short survey demonstrates clearly the relevance of rhetorical analysis to both understanding and critiquing discourse advancing extraordinary claims. In this final section, I enumerate three general advantages of using rhetorical analysis to complement the traditional critical thinking approaches that are no doubt more familiar to the skeptical community.
First, theoretical frameworks from the rhetorical tradition (such as those outlined above) can integrate and contextualize many of the observations often made in passing or parenthetically in skeptical critiques. Indeed, many of the examples given in the previous section may be familiar to readers of the Skeptical Inquirer, but virtually none have been correctly or explicitly situated in relation to rhetorical function or appeal. Awareness and application of concepts and materials from the rhetorical tradition can move these observations from the periphery and place them properly within the scope of skeptical critique. This alone would strengthen both the substance and the clarity of much skeptical writing.
Second, these same rhetorical theoretical frameworks can promote a more systematic and comprehensive analysis of discourse advancing extraordinary claims. As I have noted, skeptics occasionally offer observations that are really more aligned with rhetorical analysis than with critical thinking per se. These observations are almost always just that—occasional—offered only as they occur to the skeptic. If skeptical writers were more familiar with rhetorical concepts and principles, such observations could be developed systematically and even programmatically, mitigating the possibility that important rhetorical appeals will go unnoticed, eluding explanation and critique.
Third, and perhaps most important, rhetorical analysis may help generate effective responses to discourse advancing extraordinary claims. Without question, investigating and debunking remain the central components of almost any response to paranormal or pseudoscientific discourse, but identifying rhetorical subterfuge can also be very effective. In my own classes, I have found that explaining how front-loaded emotional appeals may charm an audience, how New Age terms are markers of social identification, or how the Power Balance website is a simulation of scientific reporting will quickly diffuse whatever appeal the respective discourse may have had initially. As Gary Cronkhite astutely observes, “The best antidote for a sophistic rhetor is a sophisticated rhetoree and we had best get at the business of producing such an antidote” (Cronkhite 1974, 262).
Near the beginning of this article I presented a very direct definition of rhetoric as the persuasive aspect of discourse. There is, however, a more artful definition that I generally prefer and that I think gets closer to the point here: there is a difference between the way things are and the way we talk about them; rhetoric is the study of that difference. To this end, it should be clear that rhetorical analysis deserves a place alongside the methods of traditional critical thinking in the “skeptic’s toolbox.”
1. Cicero also adds a fifth canon, memory, to describe those rhetorical appeals that derive from a speaker’s ability to master facts and commonplaces in his or her memory.
Aristotle (trans. W. Rhy Roberts). 1954. Rhetoric. New York: The Modern Library.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. Simulations. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Burke, Kenneth. 1953. A Rhetoric of Motives. New York: Prentice Hall.
Copernicus, Nicholas (trans. Edward Rosppen). 1972. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies. London: Macmillan.
Cronkhite, Gary. 1974. Rhetoric, communication and psycho-epistemology. In Walter Fisher, ed. Rhetoric: A Tradition in Transition. East Lansing, MI: University of Michigan Press. 261–278.
Perelman, Chaïm. 1969. The New Rhetoric. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Quine, W.V. 1989. Quiddities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.