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Posted by on Oct 3, 2016 in Seminars and Discussions | 0 comments

A Brief Journey in the Realm of Argumentation: A talk by Michel Goldberg

Michel Goldberg is a biochemist, who works as teacher and researcher at the University of La Rochelle, France. His current research focuses on social and scientific debates and argumentation.

In our present world, scientific disciplines become more and more complicated and widespread. People spend years studying in order to understand the basics of one single discipline and even decades before being considered as experts. Most new technologies and concepts involve not only one but several disciplines, including social, technical and natural sciences, each of them with different theories, models and objectives. This makes interdisciplinary issues very complicated. Different ethics and politics add to the complexity and often result in debates between stakeholders, which tend to gain public attention quickly. For non-experts, it becomes difficult to fully understand the science behind social debates and political decisions, which puts them in a position where they can easily be manipulated.

It is therefore very important to be able to identify flaws in arguments and to distinguish honest argumentation from misinformation when following a public debate. This is especially true in our time, where the amount of information available to everybody is bigger than ever. A true argument can usually be identified by its structure, since it is composed of several premises, followed by a logical conclusion. However, it is very easy to nurture public doubts about environmental problems, for example, by simply denying their existence. By closely analyzing public debates, apparent arguments can often turn out to be invalid due to different reasons.

Professor Goldberg explained the various technical challenges faced while arguing about the causes of an environmental problem and he introduced a case study to explain these argumentation strategies and fallacies. The debate on the environmental risk of Gaucho, an insecticide used on sunflower and maize, can help understand how information can be communicated in an argumentative public forum. In 1994, beekeepers observed the rapid decline and abnormal behavior in honeybees due to the exposure of an active substance, imidacloprid, present in Gaucho. This stirred up the debate and led to the implementation of the first precautionary principle, which resulted in the ban of the substance in sunflower and maize-seed dressing in France. The parties involved in the debate were Bayer (the company that produces Gaucho) in support of the pesticide and the French Ministry of Agriculture on the opponent side. Both sides used scientific findings as supporting arguments to influence policy during the controversy. The ban was immediately challenged by Bayer in the administrative court in Paris.

A Bayer Cropscience representative criticized the policy makers’ “rapid” application of the precautionary principle in face of the situation’s complexity and uncertainty as an “act under pressure”. However, the ban happened five years after the first clinical signs for bees and two years after the boom of the public controversy. Quoting the policy makers as legitimate and reliable sources while criticizing them later in the same text, weakened Bayer’s argument.

Bayer also argued that many other factors, such as diseases or lack of food can cause honeybee losses, inferring that decision makers wrongly took Gaucho as THE major cause. This was a simple misinterpretation of their text since other causes had previously been mentioned by policy makers. By criticizing a weak position that the policy representative did not really hold and infer from the criticism that his real position is flawed, Bayer committed a so-called “straw man fallacy”. Bayer’s statement can therefore not be used to point out invalid argumentation. However, it was still countered by stating that the presence of many reasons should not prevent decision makers from undertaking measures against one of these factors He strengthened his argument by using an analogy of human death. Just because there are several mortality causes, it would not be unnecessary to fight cancer.

In another argument, Bayer tried to disguise massive bee poisoning events from dust emissions during sowing of maize coated with neonicotinoids as mere accidents. This argument is based on a false definition of the word accident, since these events did not occur as isolated incidents but continued to happen.

An example for an incorrect analogy made by Bayer is the following: They argued that the present use of Gaucho in Argentina and Australia does not show any significant harmful effects. But the two countries are not comparable to France, since the concentration of imidacloporid presently used is very low.
Bayer also used an extrapolation from aphids to honeybees for deducing that bees would not be affected by systemic residues in sunflowers. A survey of the existing research only showed two relevant papers connecting aphids and honeybees, which were published after the argument and rather support evidence against it. Therefore, Bayer’s statement was based on a simple assumption without any scientific evidence or proof.

These are just some of the statements used in the debate. The case study has shown the need of critical analysis of what seem to be legitimate arguments. A less-informed public might be influenced by such techniques, which can lead to manipulation of the public and biased decisions. Scientific results can be easily abused in order to strengthen a person’s position. On the other hand, legitimate scientific evidence can be a way to improve one’s argumentative quality in a particular matter, which can also help policy makers to set priorities. They should be made aware of argumentation techniques in order to take critical, well-informed decisions.

For further reading:

by Amrita M. Menon & Paula Nagl

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