Posted by: soniahs | October 3, 2010

Exam readings: Rhetoric and conservation management

Two papers today, involving rhetoric and environmental technical communication. I’m getting down to the end of my public understanding of science reading list, but also getting close to exam #1. So I’ll just have to concentrate on getting ready for that for the next week and a half…

First: Margaret B. Graham and Neil Lindeman. “The Rhetoric and Politics of Science in the Case of the Missouri River System.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 19.4 (2005): 422-448.

Summary: The authors analyze rhetorical differences in two science reports by the US Fish & Wildlife Svc. in 2000 and 2003; the 03 report was created by a different writing team after changes in the political administration. While the major difference between the reports is different flow recommendations, there were significant differences in narrative structure and omission/inclusion of facts that create very different rhetorical spaces. One example is use of narrative: the 00 report begins with a historical narrative that describes the river as a dynamic system later harmed by humans (incidentally creating a romantic space that leaves little room for people in a restored river); the 03 report replaces this narrative with statistics and doesn’t evoke the river as an ecosystem (making it easier to justify human alterations.) In another example, the 00 report downplays scientific uncertainty (justifying the recommendation of large remedial changes for restoration) while the 03 report emphasizes it (setting up the recommendation for minimal remedial changes.) Rhetorically, control of information presented shapes the response of readers. Graham & Lindeman attribute these differences in the reports to the composition of the (anonymous) writing teams, motivated by their political and social interests. For them, the keys in understanding science communication are: knowledge of the context of the scientific argument(s) presented, understanding the structure and informational content of documents produced, and consideration of the audiences for whom communications are intended (both apparent (e.g., public) and hidden (e.g., supervisors).)

Comments: While this type of analysis is particularly applicable to government/institutional science communication, there are some broader issues as well. The increased public involvement in river decisions recommended in the 03 report is something many scholars have called for, but the authors point out that this sort of involvement often gives bad environmental results. Expertise in a scientific issue can counter manipulative interests in such participatory settings (rather than just being used to maintain a status quo.) There are also ethical concerns raised in this paper that would be applicable to communication research (e.g., framing.)

Links to: Groffman et al. (environmental communication); Yearley (scientific uncertainty often makes sci. a bad ally to environmentalism, public participation in decision-making for environmental issues can lead to bad results)

Second: Marie Paretti. “Managing Nature/Empowering Decision-Makers: A Case Study of Forest Management Plans.” Technical Communication Quarterly 12.4 (2003): 439-459.

Summary: Paretti analyzes forest management plans (FMPs), whose function is to inform landowners and provide practical knowledge (unlike general environmental communication, these plans give advice to active resource managers.) Most research in science communication to landowners has been in how to reach them and how to communicate controversies, not how to communicate technical information effectively. Paretti outlines four models of communication: technocratic (no interchange), Jeffersonian (experts give advice to public), Interactive Jeffersonian (experts give technical advice, public gives values), and Social Constructionist (information and values go both ways). The IJ model describes current practice; Paretti advocates the SC model. FMPs begin by the landowner stating their goals, then the expert provides a detailed description of natural resources and recommendations for achieving goals. The rhetoric of FMPs maintains the landowner-expert divide and leaves owner a novice on own land in some ways: language style is technical, recommendations are framed as directives, and the decision process is not articulated. Paretti suggests changing the consultation process: start by listing resources, then consult together on goals, then have expert give recommendations (while making specific suggestions, using different language, IDing places where local knowledge would be useful).

Comments: Paretti advocates a collaborative, discussion-based consultation process that values non-technical knowledge and emphasizes how the decision-making process works so that the landowner can be educated about it. These recommendations follow a similar pattern to other authors calling for more public participation in socio-technological issues; in this case, the landowners presumable have some local knowledge of their land, so would have something to bring to the table themselves.

Links to: Graham & Lindeman (participatory process not always best for envt.)

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