German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche surmised that even the most fundamental facts are merely deeply held convictions, earth is not the center of the universe, drinking red wine is medically beneficial, and it’s possible to fatally overdose on water. These examples highlight the inconstant, evolutionary nature of science. In fact, research dating back to the 1930s reveals that scientific conclusions lose longevity and credibility as time passes. The ‘decline effect’ describes this mysterious and unsettling concept and presents a conundrum for laypeople who must make critical decisions about what to believe.
In his New Yorker article, “The Truth Wears Off,” columnist Jonah Lehrer draws from a series of scientific examples to comment on the puzzling nature of the ‘decline effect’, eventually concluding that it is in the reader’s best interest to think analytically when interpreting empirical results. Journalist Brooke Gladstone hosts the On The Media broadcast, “The ‘Decline Effect’ and Scientific Truth,” and deals with the same content matter, but, while coming to similar conclusions, structures her piece differently. Though neither text seeks to actively argue a specific point or call to action, both Lehrer and Gladstone address the reasoning behind why the ‘decline effect’ reveals truth in science to be relative.
The overarching premise of both texts is to question the validity of the scientific community’s appeal to logos, that is to say, the way that scientists “prove” their results to be true. But while Lehrer goes about stating the sheer accumulation of evidence he has regarding the negative indications of the ‘decline effect,’ Gladstone makes her piece more of a discussion, including the listeners more fully, keeping them engaged, and simultaneously appealing to her own and her guests’ ethos. Gladstone’s piece is structured as a highly informal conversation, a savvy stylistic choice that emphasizes her ethos and compensates for her rather exaggerated closing suggestion to “Trust no one.” This hyperbolic, exaggerated language also accounts for why Gladstone’s piece may appeal to a younger audience. Conversely, Lehrer’s New Yorker article generally targets middle-aged intellectuals more likely to be academics or open to philosophical interpretations. Lehrer is able to credibly make his suggestions about the subjective nature of human cognizance through an appeal to logos, whereby he paraphrases multiple studies to show the reader the ubiquitous nature of the ‘decline effect’ and establish its exigence.
Both texts establish a strong sense of exigence right away, though the author’s technique in doing so varies. Lehrer immediately establishes exigence through his opening anecdote about the declining effect of second-generation antipsychotics. He heightens this exigence by weaving into the text a plea for the reader to evaluate the situation; how do the effects of the ‘decline effect’ impact what we, as members of the non-scientific community, believe? Likewise, Gladstone and her colleagues identify how pressing the issue is with the melodramatic introduction, “Science is never pure, never complete,” which is effective as a pathetic appeal intended to startle the listener and pique their interest. Gladstone alludes to the fact that the decline effect deserves the listener’s attention because the audience risks getting duped by the so-called ‘true’ findings presented by the scientific community. Later, as Gladstone and her guests give more widespread examples of the ‘decline effect,’ they establish exigence because the listener can see how the phenomenon affects both the scientific community and the global community on a larger scale.
Despite similar introductions, the overall effectiveness of the texts differs due to the affordances of their mediums. The two texts are similar content-wise, but their mediums are strikingly different: Lehrer’s article is entirely written text whereas Gladstone’s broadcast is a mix of auditory stimulation and spoken text. The solely text-based medium allows Lehrer to outline his study in a lengthy and systematic way, after which he has the opportunity to strategically comment on its significance relevant to the grand scheme of scientific analysis. Lehrer’s overall structural choice appeals to logos and ethos in tandem. He cleverly crafts his argument in keeping with human nature by juxtaposing scientist’s hard data with their emotional reactions to the ‘decline effect’, just like humans juxtapose their emotional side with their rational side on a daily basis. This structural choice ultimately exemplifies his point that scientists often skew results unconsciously: they may have a difficult time accepting failure because they are human themselves.
Consider the way in which Lehrer describes Danish zoologist Anders Moller’s 1991 findings regarding barn swallows’ fluctuating asymmetry. Lehrer dedicates two lengthy paragraphs to citing data that accounts for how Moller’s average effect size shrank by 80% each time the study was replicated (between the years 1992 and 1997). He mentions in detail the dwindling number of studies reporting Moller’s original correlation in quick succession so as to highlight the ‘decline effect’ in action. (5). Arguably, the statistics that Lehrer uses make more of an impact than the ones that Gladstone and her colleagues mention because they are in writing—hard data seems all the more legitimate in text than it does by word of mouth, thereby showing how much more effective Lehrer’s appeal to logos is.
Gladstone, however, credibly cites statistics as well. Both texts cite the same statistic that the ‘decline effect’ causes a study’s effect size to shrink by 30% each time the study is replicated, but Lehrer incorporates it in a scholarly way, while Gladstone does so playfully. When Lehrer brings up this particular statistical effect, he uses psychologist Jonathan Schooler’s experience to demonstrate the 30% rule—a straightforward evidence-based example that results in a straightforward appeal to logos. By contrast, Gladstone’s guest and Radiolab co-host Jab Abumrad explains the 30% rule and accompanies his forthright explanation with an exclamation of “Ooh!” after which he makes a pitchy whistling noise to further demonstrate the “slow and downward trajectory" typical of the ‘decline effect’. In this respect, the radio speakers play up the shock-value of the statistic in order to show its importance and in so doing appeal to pathos, making the listener feel surprised.
One might argue that Gladstone and her co-speakers have the advantage of using auditory rhetorical devices to sway the reader to their point of view. However, an entirely auditory experience that allows for music and sound effects also requires the speakers to be compelling enough to hold a listener’s attention. As such, the auditory medium allows for, if not demands, more melodrama than written text and is a more effective analytical medium overall as a result (in this specific instance). Drama creates interest and interest holds attention. The way Gladstone and Abumrad emphasize different words, phrases and pauses are unique to spoken text. The broadcast employs the use of musical transitions, interludes and attention-getting sound effects (like Abumrad’s downward trajectory noise) that expand upon statements that have just been made or serve as an indicative precursor to important statements about to be made. By contrast, Lehrer’s article lacks this melodrama and the piece seems stiff, lackluster and impersonal in places.
Aside from their medium-related differences, the texts are relatively similar in their use of rhetorical appeals. Both texts make it a point to use inclusive language—Lehrer says that “We have to choose what to believe” (11) and Gladstone mentions that “We are blinded by science” which are both pathetic appeals because the language creates a sense of shared identity. The audience can connect with the argument more if they feel that the producers have an equal stake in finding a solution. Gladstone creates this connection more effectively than Lehrer because her voice is literally present in her piece whereas Lehrer’s presence in his article is more figurative—his ‘voice’ is an inherent, background part of the literary piece and is thus more removed.
Gladstone’s success in that respect is partially due to the fact that the informal tone of the broadcast promotes the idea that people can ask questions as they arise. The conversational tone makes readers feel included and also appeals to Gladstone’s ethos. She seems more approachable because she does not patronize the listener or hold status over the listener; as a result, she is more trustworthy. The drawback of Lehrer’s sober tone coupled with the seriousness of the text medium is that his piece could be construed as imposing and one-dimensional. Gladstone is exempt from this criticism because the experience of hearing different voices weigh in on a topic (as well as the presence of ‘overtalk’) alters a listener’s sense of the discussion and makes it seem more balanced which, again, strengthens Gladstone’s appeal to a more approachable and friendly ethos. Lehrer’s piece, by comparison, lacks these compensatory ethical appeals since the formal, structured nature of the article presents an authoritative front in and of itself.
The final rhetorical move that both texts have in common is their use of melodramatic phrases for impact. Lehrer uses dramatic language scattered throughout the article such as, “Then the theory started to fall apart” (5), “This is a very sensitive issue for scientists” (6) and “Our beliefs are a form of blindness”(7). In so doing, he maintains the readers’ interest and uses pathetic appeals to make the readers feel uneasy and question their current mindsets. Similarly, Gladstone uses scare-tactic-type language in the piece’s introduction when she cautions, “Often we are blinded by science, so deep skepticism is warranted” which startles the listener into feeling insecure enough about their beliefs to listen to the broadcast.
This rhetorical similarity within both texts also highlights their similar strategies, in using seemingly counterintuitive methods to simultaneously keep their audiences engaged and make their overarching suggestions. Gladstone’s humor in the piece is unexpected for a broadcast delving into quantitative data and Lehrer’s simplified, accessible narrative would normally seem out of place in a scientific analysis. Gladstone’s counterintuitive use of humor amongst the speakers strengthens her credibility. Journalist Rob Walker expounds upon this notion in his New York Times article, “On ‘Radiolab,’ the Sound of Science” with his comment, “Jokes and glitches puncture the illusion of the all-knowing authority, who no longer commands much respect these days anyway” (3). The On the Media hosts are able to establish credibility because their humor makes them likeable and unassuming as laypeople. Also the fact that the text is spoken in the broadcast is a rhetorical device in itself because it is altered and influenced by each speaker’s particular inflection, emphasis and pauses. For example, Gladstone’s feminine voice poses a stark contrast to the voices of her male guests. That characteristic allows her to highlight defining moments and refocus the listener’s attention like when she exclaims, “That’s amazing!” after Abumrad summarizes Schooler’s verbal overshadowing study. In Lehrer’s article, he uses an interesting rhetorical tactic when he digresses from his main point by launching into a detailed description of Jonathan Schooler’s personal life—talking about his family, his physical characteristics and his affinity for radical outdoor festivals (3). Within this non-scientific description of Schooler, Lehrer incorporates a pathetic appeal that services the end goal of an ethical appeal. He describes Schooler in great detail in order to make the reader relate to Schooler more, maybe even pity him and his situation. His description potentially motivates the reader to counteract the decline effect, as per Lehrer’s suggestion to think more critically.
Overall, a good chunk of Lehrer’s article is made up of quotations, interviews and paraphrased studies which serve as successful appeals to Lehrer’s ethos and logos but fall short in terms of being particularly engaging. Since the radio medium doesn’t necessarily allow for that kind of evidence stacking, Gladstone and her co-hosts’ tactic of channeling a friendly and forthright atmosphere establishes ethos without resulting in a subdued ideological reverberation, bland presentation or condescending tone. Based on the broadcast’s auditory influence, it comes across as a more effective medium in which to convey a message, especially a message that is not directly arguing a point but instead providing the audience with data, evidence and anecdotes and urging them to be more independent and skeptical in their thinking.