Skip to content

The importance of rhetoric (2)

Download the newsletter ›

In a course on rhetoric Adam Smith talked of deliberative eloquence and judicial eloquence (Smith, 1963). The former refers to politics and policy debate, while the latter refers to law. Both describe processes of persuasion. We should not overlook the role that rhetoric has played and continues to play in economics, if only at the level of successfully persuading many economists to consider that rhetoric is not relevant through the  emphasis on rationality and logical reasoning.

The Rhetoric & Public Discourse eJournal contains papers on politics and law. One paper, “Why Does Balanced News Produce Unbalanced Views?”  is by Edward Glaeser and Cass Sunstein. It looks at response to news, but could apply equally to disciplinary perspectives underpinning “world views” (Dow, 2012). It is described as follows:

Many studies find that presentation of balanced information, offering competing positions, can promote polarization and thus increase preexisting social divisions. We offer two explanations for this apparently puzzling phenomenon. The first involves what we call asymmetric Bayesianism: the same information can have diametrically opposite effects if those who receive it have opposing antecedent convictions. Recipients whose beliefs are buttressed by the message, or a relevant part, rationally believe that it is true, while recipients whose beliefs are at odds with that message, or a relevant part, rationally believe that the message is false (and may reflect desperation). The second explanation is that the same information can activate radically different memories and associated convictions, thus producing polarized responses to that information, or what we call a memory boomerang. An understanding of these explanations reveals when balanced news will produce unbalanced views. The explanations also account for the potential influence of “surprising validators.” Because such validators are credible to the relevant audience, they can reduce the likelihood of asymmetric Bayesianism, thus promoting agreement.

Another paper highlights the role of rhetoric in the law. This is an important point for economists on several grounds. First, if rhetoric is important, people’s behaviour cannot be based solely on logic. Second, if decisions in law are influenced by rhetoric, this will affect the way resources are allocated and the outcomes achieved by policies specified in terms of legal interventions. Third, if people’s beliefs can be shaped in this way, and accepted perspectives shape what is seen and how it is seen, this tell us something about the impact of an economics education on our students. Note:

In all disciplines theory plays a double role: it is both a lens and a blinder. As a lens, it focuses the mind upon specified problems, enabling conditional statements be made about causal relations for a well-defined but limited set of phenomena. But as a blinder, theory narrows the field of vision. (Minsky, 2008, p. 109).

The paper, “Perception and Persuasion in Legal Argumentation: Using Informal Fallacies and Cognitive Biases to Win the War of Words” , is by Cory Clements.

The abstract begins:

When zealously advocating a client’s position, the lawyer’s ultimate goal is winning. To win, however, the lawyer must convince a judge or jury to accept the lawyer’s (and reject opposing counsel’s) position. The best type of advocate accomplishes this goal using various rhetorical techniques, attempting to manage other people’s perceptions of such things as the facts, the lawyer’s own theory of the case, the credibility of eyewitness testimony, the weaknesses of opposing counsel’s claims, and the praiseworthiness of the lawyer’s own client. By design, we have an adversary system.

But how does the lawyer successfully convince the fact finder that the lawyer’s (and not opposing counsel’s) position is aligned with justice? Success inevitably boils down to persuasive legal argumentation. If the lawyer’s ultimate goal is winning, the lawyer must master the art of persuasion. For the art of persuasion is intimately connected with the psychological process of perception. And perception is what convinces people whether to accept or reject the lawyer’s argument.

In this Comment, I propose an account of legal argumentation that explains the relationship between mental processes that psychologists label cognitive biases and legal arguments that philosophers label informal fallacies. Cognitive biases are errors in our thinking and reasoning, which alter our perceptions. Informal fallacies are verbal or written arguments containing material flaws, which enhance their persuasiveness. I also describe the process of persuasion at play when the lawyer uses legal arguments that contain informal (material) fallacies. By using legal arguments that contain informal fallacies, the lawyer can play upon the listener’s inherent cognitive biases to persuade the listener to see things the same way the lawyer does. When lawyers use these rhetorical techniques — whether before or during trial proceedings — they induce in most listeners erroneous perceptions that can, and often do, powerfully alter their listeners’ beliefs.

There are many areas where economists’ standard approaches lead us to develop highly stylised representations of issues and relationships consistent with our conventions. We are conditioned to take the findings seriously, even when packed with qualifications and express mention of required assumptions. One consequence is the erection of barriers, preventing integration of relevant analyses from elsewhere.

Dow, S. C. (2012). Foundations for new economic thinking: a collection of essays. Houndmills, Basinstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Minsky, H. P. (2008). Stabilizing an unstable economy (New ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Smith, A. (1963). Lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres: delivered in the University of Glasgow by Adam Smith, reported by a student in 1762-63. London: Nelson.

From: P.6 of World Economics Association Newsletter 3(4), August 2013 http://www.worldeconomicsassociation.org/files/newsletters/Issue3-4.pdf

Download WEA newsletter Volume 3, Issue No. 4, August 2013 ›

Respond to this article

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Please note that your email address will not be published.