Rhetorical strategy of a creation science talk: A case study
On 2008 August 27, Dr Emil Silvestru of Creation Ministries International (Canada) presented a lunch-hour public lecture, "Waters of Contention: Noah's flood – fact or fantasy?" at the student centre of the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. The talk was held under the auspices of Shofar Christian Church, a fundamentalist religious organization based in Stellenbosch.
Given the controversial nature of the presentation, the talk was recorded so that a fair transcript could be prepared and studied. This transcript is available online.
The corpus consists of 7,954 words. The text was carefully read several times and then evaluated according to content type and emotional valence of the language.
The unedited transcript was partialled into 'natural meaning units' (NMUs). A new NMU (usually passages, occasionally phrases) is indicated whenever a change in rhetorical function was detected. A total of 102 such units were identified and the number of words in each unit was tabulated (mean=78 words, std dev = 11.1).
Each unit was evaluated according to three criteria: (1) the speaker (hereafter, Silvestru) recounts standard scientific knowledge or makes objective statements, (2) Silvestru draws own conclusions or states an own argument, and (3) the passage contains emotive language. Several NMUs had multiple criteria.
A word count was tabulated for each NMU; these are given in Table 1 and Table 2. Only one unit, number 73 (length 36 words) could not be unambiguously scored on either of the three dimensions.
Table 1 summarizes the word counts for passages that are statements (of "factual" content), containing either standard scientific knowledge or statements of Silvestru's own arguments and conclusions, and that do not contain emotive language.
Table 1. Word count by non-emotive content
|Criteria||Number of words|
(percentage of total)
|Recounting standard scientific knowledge or making objective statements||2,878 (36.2%)|
|Drawing own conclusions or stating an own argument||2,568 (32.3%)|
|Both standard knowledge and own conclusions/arguments||2,108 (26.5%)|
A very high percentage of the corpus dealt with factual matters.
Table 2 shows the word count of passages that contain emotive language.
Table 2. Emotional valence
|Valence||Number of words (percentage of total)|
About one-fifth of Silvestru's talk either elicits an emotional response, or directly expresses an emotion. Phrases with positive valence occur almost twice as frequently as those with negative valence.
Figure 1 shows the distribution of emotive language where it occurs in the text. The x-axis enumerates cumulative word count, and the y-axis shows valency, measured in number of words, with positive values (green) indicating positive valency, and negative values (orange) showing negative valency.
Figure 1. Distribution of emotive language in Silvestru's talk
Positively emotive language is fairly distributed throughout the corpus; peaks are seen in the beginning, middle, and end portions. The negative emotional language occurs predominantly in the first and last parts of the text. Specifically, Silvestru starts off on a positive note but then very quickly turns extremely negative. The last 10% of the talk contains the highest rate of negative comments. The remainder of the language is neutral with mostly positive comments interspersed. Near the end (last 12%) Silvestru oscillates between making negative and positive comments occur, building up and concluding on a positive tone. If this distribution of the speaker's emotive language is not accidental, then it is instructive of the rhetorical strategy Silvestru employs to influence the audience.
The specific positive and negative emotions present in the corpus were labelled. No attempt was made to rate them according to a standard typology of emotions. Table 3 lists the positive emotions expressed or elicited, and their frequency (the number of NMUs in which each occurred). Table 4 shows the results for negatively valent sentiments.
Table 3. Positive valency
(number of NMUs)
|trustworthiness, endearment, respect, positive regard – for the speaker||11|
|positive regard for audience, self-congratulatory||5|
|impressive (of creationists)||2|
|pride (in creationists)||1|
Roughly a third of the positive statements are intended to create positive regard for the speaker himself. The audience, too, is treated with positive regard.
Table 4. Negative valency
(number of NMUs)
|disapproval and dislike||9|
|warning about dire matters||6|
The positive and negative statements necessarily interact in complex ways – for example, warning the audience that they are being lied to and are the victims of ominous machinations engenders positive regard for Silvestru while setting a negative tone.
The context within which negative emotions are used, and their rhetorical function, bears some comment. For example, empathy is used to create an in-group, while sarcasm and the expression of disapproval and dislike is used to deal with the out-group.
The following three tables identifies, from the context of the talk, who the negative comments are aimed at and paraphrases the rhetorical, 'take-home' message of the relevant passages. The number in square brackets is the corresponding NMU.
Table 5.1. Disapproval and dislike
|evolutionists||Evolutionists have ridiculous arguments; they are in denial. They are bad. |
|the non-religious||Being non-religious is "denial of reality" |
|scientists||Conspiracy; scientists ignore information that is troublesome. |
|geomorphologists||Disapproving of geomorphologists (=scientists) |
Table 5.2. Sarcasm and dislike
|(other) scientists||This (credible) scientist thinks as I do; see, the (other) scientists were wrong all along. |
|scientists||Smug; see, the scientists were wrong all along! |
|scientists||Quote with innuendo; see, the scientists don't understand it! |
|scientists||They were trumped! See, the scientists were wrong all along. |
|scientists||Look how silly the scientists are. |
|engineers||Look at those silly engineers (=scientists) |
Table 5.3. Warning about dire matters
|scientists||Ominous tone; scientists were scared to study this topic, without good reason to be. |
|educators||Conspiracy; school teaches you wrong things and you better not contradict them |
|scientists||Conspiracy; scientists have not checked up on this when they should have. |
|scientists||Conspiracy; scientists ignore convincing data |
|other-thinking Christians||Coerce (threat); True Christianity is a logical and reasonable thing. Other Christians are not. |
|other-thinking Christians||Coerce (threat); regional flood is not theologically sound. |
Four groups are thus the recipients of the speaker's negative comments. Table 6 shows the percentage of negatively-valent language leveraged against each of these groups.
Table 6. Target groups and incidence of negative valency
Scientists are singled out as the most prominent out-group, based on the emotional valency of the language Silvestru uses.
The lion's share (95%) of Silvestru's talk consists of statements of factual matters. Considering the nature and time constraint of a lunch-hour presentation, that the audience consists of scientifically lay people, and that dialogue is prohibited, this flood of data leaves the audience with the impression that Silvestru is very knowledgeable even though they are unable to evaluate the accuracy of his statements or the soundness of his arguments.
The audience is, however, capable of evaluating and interpreting the emotional tone of his talk. The overwhelming majority of Silvestru's negative emotional language is afflicted on the scientist out-group, leaving no uncertainty in the minds of the listeners about his attitude towards them.
The appendix recasts Silvestru's talk, stripped of the details of factual content, revealing its rhetorical structure.
nothing more to see. please move along.