Persuasion in science presentations

by janetkayfetz

Lara_proposalLara Deek presenting her research at her PhD proposal talk – UCSB Department of Computer Science

I am especially interested in the idea of persuasion in discourse — especially what it means for scientists when they deliver presentations about their work.

My own view is that on any occasion where an expert is expressing facts and opinions, then she is also living in the rhetorical world and thus working to influence the point of view of the audience.

I asked my colleague Henning Schulzrinne — currently Chief Technology Officer for the United States Federal Communications Commission, and Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University — what he thinks about the role of persuasion in science discourse. Here are Professor Schulzrinne’s comments:

“I think persuasion is a common mode for all scientists/engineers – you generally try to convince your audience that your approach or solution is better than the existing ones or that your interpretation of the world is correct.”

“It’s a bit different if a scientist/engineer is called as a witness or as a general expert, rather than presenting one’s own work. In that case, persuasion probably isn’t the mode of operation, i.e., the presentation may not be as goal-directed as, say, a funding proposal presentation.”

“For example, a common mode of presentation for an engineer is to compare various technology options. Often, there is no “best” one, since they all have trade-offs and the decision maker has to pick the one that optimizes the ones he or she cares about most (or, if you want to be cynical, pleases his campaign contributors). In that mode, the scientist/engineer wouldn’t really try to persuade, but lay out the pertinent options. Biases are probably unavoidable, but shouldn’t be by design.”

“Thus, it’s probably hard to generalize, given that scientists/engineers might be called upon to do very different presentations in front of mixed audiences.”

Many thanks Henning for your contribution to this discussion!

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