I see two broad currents in my work, and one area of turbulent overlap.
1. A normative pragmatic approach to argumentation
It seems odd: People who disagree, perhaps deeply, nevertheless go about exchanging reasons with each other. How do they manage to coordinate their interaction enough to get anything accomplished? Those of us adopting a normative pragmatic approach to argumentation want to explain how arguers can use discourse that works (“pragmatic”) to create circumstances in which arguers have to treat each other fairly, offer good reasons, live up to their obligations to reply and so on (“normative”). We are interested in where the legitimate force of reason comes from.
Some of my work has been devoted to laying out the normative pragmatic program, clearing the way through critiques of alternative approaches, and looking back to establish a tradition of prior theorists. Throughout I’ve stressed the importance of disagreement as a defining feature of the activity of arguing.
To advance the program, I have done work on basic concepts in argumentation theory such as issue, premise, the appeal to authority (more on that below) and argument itself. Many of these pieces have been based on case studies, especially of the debate in the US Congress over entry into the first Gulf War. I’ve also looked some to discourse in legal settings for exemplars.
I’ve also published several other stray pieces, e.g., exploring the intersection of argumentation theory and the public sphere, applying the new methods of data crunching developed in corpus linguistics, and advancing our understanding of the learning and teaching of argumentation in college courses.
In between 1-2: appeals to authority
The exercise of authority presents one of the strongest cases where mere words are expected to exercise legitimate force on others. In early work, I proposed a typology of authorities, and put forward an analysis of one type–the authority of dignity–based on the practice of ancient Rome’s great orator, Cicero. This was one of a series of essays on the roles that appeals to dignity–our basic sense of being deserving of respect among our fellow citizens–can play in public life.
More recently, I’ve turned to examine the authority that scientists and others in the know can exercise; which leads to the second stream in my research.
2. Communicating science in civic controversies
After tenure, I decided I wanted to develop research projects in areas relevant to my university’s mission of “science with practice.” It’s an opportune time for an argumentation scholar to look at these issues, since the challenges that arise when scientists start to take significant roles in the raucous public sphere are becoming increasingly apparent, and the problems aren’t resolvable simply by more effective science communication. The problems have a normative dimension as well, inviting scrutiny from humanities folk.
So over the past few years I have been extending some of the insights of the normative pragmatic approach to argumentation to consider problems at the science/policy interface. One series of essays has proposed an analysis of the appeal to epistemic authority: what scientists need to do to give their discourse force, and the circumstances in which they should be restrained about claiming it. More generally, I have tried to confront the problem of the rational grounds on which lay citizens can trust (or not) the statements of experts which they cannot fully analyze without becoming experts themselves. And most recently, I’ve begun to look what happens when scientists engage in public debates as advocates. Can they advocate effectively? Absolutely. But if they do so, can they preserve their authority? Not likely.
In terms of case studies, much of my work focuses on issues around climate change, and some on sustainable agriculture. As PI of the NSF-funded Teaching Responsible Communication of Science (TRCS) project team, I am also working to develop case studies for classroom use exploring some of the normative issues that arise when scientists reach out to publics. These communication ethics case studies are available online, as well as the first publications from the TRCS project.