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Rhetorical strategy of a creation science talk: A case study  @psychohistorian.org

Rhetorical strategy of a creation science talk: A case study

posted: 4233 days ago, on Thursday, 2008 Sep 04 at 20:58
tags: psychology, psychology of religion, creationism, Shofar, Maties, Stellenbosch.

1. Introduction

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.

2. Analysis of the transcript

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.

3. Non-emotive language

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

CriteriaNumber of words
(percentage of total)
Recounting standard scientific knowledge or making objective statements2,878 (36.2%)
Drawing own conclusions or stating an own argument2,568 (32.3%)
Both standard knowledge and own conclusions/arguments2,108 (26.5%)
Total7,554 (95.0%)

A very high percentage of the corpus dealt with factual matters.

4. Emotive language

Table 2 shows the word count of passages that contain emotive language.

Table 2. Emotional valence

ValenceNumber of words (percentage of total)
positive1,036 (13%)
negative650 (8%)
neutral6,268 (79%)

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 speaker11
positive regard for audience, self-congratulatory5
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 dislike9
warning about dire matters6

5. Targets of negatively valenced comments

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

TargetRhetorical message
evolutionistsEvolutionists have ridiculous arguments; they are in denial. They are bad. [4]
the non-religiousBeing non-religious is "denial of reality" [6]
scientistsConspiracy; scientists ignore information that is troublesome. [71]
geomorphologistsDisapproving of geomorphologists (=scientists) [30]

Table 5.2. Sarcasm and dislike

TargetRhetorical message
(other) scientistsThis (credible) scientist thinks as I do; see, the (other) scientists were wrong all along. [18]
scientistsSmug; see, the scientists were wrong all along! [38]
scientistsQuote with innuendo; see, the scientists don't understand it! [81]
scientists They were trumped! See, the scientists were wrong all along. [95]
scientists Look how silly the scientists are. [32]
engineersLook at those silly engineers (=scientists) [87]

Table 5.3. Warning about dire matters

TargetRhetorical message
scientistsOminous tone; scientists were scared to study this topic, without good reason to be. [26]
educatorsConspiracy; school teaches you wrong things and you better not contradict them [61]
scientistsConspiracy; scientists have not checked up on this when they should have. [82]
scientistsConspiracy; scientists ignore convincing data [83]
other-thinking ChristiansCoerce (threat); True Christianity is a logical and reasonable thing. Other Christians are not. [88]
other-thinking ChristiansCoerce (threat); regional flood is not theologically sound. [90]

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

other-thinking Christians19.4

Scientists are singled out as the most prominent out-group, based on the emotional valency of the language Silvestru uses.

6. Conclusion

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.

Appendix: Silvestru's talk in rhetorical format

  1. Bond with audience and show compassion.
  2. Relate personal anecdote and contextualize/currentize the talk.
  3. Show that evolution verses creationism are opposite paradigms.
  4. Comment that evolutionists have ridiculous arguments and are in denial.
  5. Relate anecdote and establish bond.
  6. Note that being non-religious is denying reality.
  7. Appeal to audience member's open-mindedness and fairness and warn them that they are being misled.
  8. Reiterate opposing world views.
  9. Engender trust in me; show audience how they have been fooled but tell them they are not powerless they can make up their own mind.
  10. Show I am honest, and that evolutionists are actually honest, too, but are just unwilling to consider religion.
  11. Reiterate my fairness and honesty, and that you have the ability to check up on me.
  12. Reiterate the two types of world view.
  13. Point out that the audience is knowledgeable.
  14. Reiterate my honesty.
  15. Point out that this (credible) scientist thinks as I do, and that contrary-thinking scientists were wrong all along.
  16. Point out that scientists are dishonest or unwilling to accept things, but that I am not like that.
  17. Explain that scientists are dating rocks incorrectly.
  18. Reiterate that the audience is capable and will therefore see things the way I do.
  19. Encourage fairness and tolerance by pointing out that science can be more than naturalism.
  20. Show that scientists were inappropriately reluctant to study this, establishing an ominous "conspiracy" tone.
  21. Continue demonizing the out-group of scientists who ostracize others. Then point out how one (old) man triumphed over all the other fallible scientists.
  22. Show further disapproval and dislike of scientists.
  23. But, this important scientist was a creationist! (Rather omit the fact that he was also a racist.)
  24. Show how the scientists were wrong all along.
  25. But this information is science, therefore you can trust it. Also, the author was mentioned in New Scientist.
  26. Show I am a nice, thoughtful man by apologizing to the experts in the audience.
  27. Go on at length about Baumgardner's work. (But don't present counter-arguments, because this is not a battle of evidence.)
  28. Show that a 10 million year layer is false.
  29. Explain that school teaches you wrong things and you better not contradict them, yet you and I can see for ourselves it is false.
  30. Trust these scientific experiments.
  31. Erosion doesn't cut it.
  32. Make audience aware that school doesn't teach things that would prove a flood. (conspiracy)
  33. I will reveal a secret to you: coal formation theory is wrong.
  34. Scientists ignore information that is troublesome.
  35. Point out that audience is informed enough to agree with me.
  36. Provide counterfactual evidence that the geologic timetable is wrong. (But no counter-counterfactual evidence, this is not a battle of evidence.)
  37. Trust this fact because it appeared in the scientific journal Nature.
  38. Point out (with added innuendo) that scientists don't understand this, and that they haven't checked up on this when they reasonably should have, reaffirming that scientists ignore convincing data.
  39. Show with anecdote that I am a reasonable man.
  40. Point out that naval engineers are silly and quote from National Geographic.
  41. Christianity is a logical and reasonable thing. True Christians are not illogical. So you better believe in a global flood.
  42. I am going to shock you but because I am a nice guy I will warn you before I reveal a hidden truth: deep time is false.
  43. Silly evolutionists are trumped; see, they were wrong all along.
  44. Stress that we do science, and that science is good.
  45. Intimate that there are hostile others in the audience and that our position is threatened but please respect us.
  46. Relate personal anecdote to show that I am socially responsible and concerned about others' education, and that I am reasonable, respectful and open-minded but "they" are not.
  47. Somewhere in the audience there are hostile people! Appeal to them to be fair because we are fair.


  1. Complete transcript of Dr Silvestru's talk "Waters of Contention: Noah's flood fact or fantasy?"
  2. Creation Ministeries International (Canada)
  3. University of Stellenbosch
  4. Shophar Christian Church

nothing more to see. please move along.

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