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What the Romans did for us

Winching a bust of Hadrian into place
Museum staff prepare for the Hadrian exhibition

A POINT OF VIEW

Roads, obviously. Sanitation. But no great buildings from their time in Britain. But the greatest legacy is how we use language to persuade, says Lisa Jardine.

In a rapidly changing world, I am intrigued to find that the ability to use Latin with confidence continues to provoke widespread wonder and admiration.

Last week, at the opening of the exhibition on the Roman Emperor Hadrian at the British Museum, the Mayor of London addressed the assembled company in Latin, to general acclaim.

MONTY PYTHON'S VIEW
And what have the Romans ever given us in return?
The aqueduct?
Oh. Yeah, they did give us that. That's true, yeah.
And the sanitation.
Yeah, the sanitation. Remember what the city used to be like?
I'll grant you the aqueduct and sanitation, the two things the Romans have done.
And the roads.
Obviously the roads. The roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads...
Irrigation. Medicine. Education.
Yeah, yeah, all right, fair enough.
From The Life of Brian

Why, he asked the long-dead Emperor rhetorically, had he failed to build in Britain a monument to match the Pantheon in Rome (whose remarkable dome Hadrian is supposed to have designed)? Instead, the Mayor continued, Hadrian's architectural legacy to us is something as humdrum as a wall.

Perhaps those who admire the Latin language are right. Heroic buildings are, as Boris Johnson observed, one of the Roman Empire's great legacies. But more lasting and far-reaching even than these is the influence of the Roman rhetorical tradition - an array of instructions and strategies for using language to persuade.

Our legal system, public debating conventions, and even the way contentious issues are argued over daily in newspapers and on television, have all been shaped and defined by a method credited to the great Roman orator Cicero, and reduced to a set of practical rules in the Oratorical Institutes of the later pedagogic writer Quintilian.

At the heart of this system are techniques for arguing in utramque partem - being able to take either side on any contentious issue. The importance of "argument on both sides" derives from the assumption that there are few debatable matters that can be settled simply by mustering the facts for and against. More usually, opinions on one side or the other of any argument are formed, and audiences swayed, on the basis of astute manipulation of limited evidence, backed up by an array of persuasive tactics, designed to construct a convincing case.

Boris salutes campaigners dressed in togas
Boris Johnson is a passionate advocate of a classical education

Quintilian calls such arguments controversiae - from which we get the word controversial. In the Roman law courts this leads to a method of arguing forensically which is still known today as adversarial.

As these words suggest, arguing in utramque partem arouses strong feelings on both sides. Anticipating and controlling strong emotions is part of the training both Cicero and Quintilian advocate at an advanced stage in the preparation of anyone whose career requires a mastery of rhetoric in all its complexity.

As Cicero puts it, in his lastingly influential work On the perfect orator (De Oratore): "The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down - such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator."

So the great persuaders are those who can not only marshal the evidence on behalf of any question, but can also organise that material rhetorically, to present their case in the best possible light. And if called upon to do so, they can also present the opposite side of the argument just as convincingly. Except in cases of absolute certainty - where truth and falsehood are clear and incontrovertible --, there is likely to be at least one accomplished advocate on either side of the question.

For and against

Roman discussions of exemplary forms of public debate are particularly relevant today. Our press and broadcast media currently thrive on the lurid presentation of controversy, particularly in the areas of science and medicine. Some of us are beginning to think that the tradition of adversarial argument is being tested to the limit.

Lisa Jardine

Ofcom points out that it is not within its remit to pronounce on the accuracy of a television documentary - only news programmes are required by law to be factually accurate

Last month the media regulator Ofcom published its response to complaints brought against a Channel 4 programme shown in March 2007, entitled The Great Global Warming Swindle. The programme is written, directed and narrated by Martin Durkin - a film-maker with a reputation for being combative (he once made a programme which claimed that the medical dangers of silicone breast implants had been exaggerated for political reasons).

The thrust of the programme is that the formidable array of international scientists lined up in support of the view that global warming is caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that these rising levels are man-made, amounts to a conspiracy.

As Durkin states it: "In this film it will be shown that the earth's climate is always changing, that there is nothing unusual about the current temperature and that the scientific evidence does not support the notion that climate is driven by carbon dioxide, man-made or otherwise. Everywhere you are told that man-made climate change is proved beyond doubt. But you are being told lies."

It sits in an interesting way alongside another film aired a year earlier - former US vice-president, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Al Gore's 2006 full-length documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. This presents with equally robust partisanship the case that a man-made global warming crisis is scientifically irrefutable, is indeed already upon us, and that action on the part of each of us is urgently needed.

Although Gore's film is scrupulously argued and illustrated, it too has been challenged by those who disagree with its assumptions and conclusions. Last year a High Court Judge pronounced it one-sided, and found that it contained nine factual errors or exaggerations.

Taking sides

Ofcom received 265 complaints about The Great Global Warming Swindle from individual members of the public, and a group complaint which included a number of eminent scientists. All were concerned that it was not presented with due impartiality and that it misrepresented the facts.

Sun sets over the Severn estury
Natural cycles or man-made warming?

In its judgment, Ofcom points out that it is not within its remit to pronounce on the accuracy of a television documentary. Only news programmes are apparently required by law to be factually accurate. In the time-honoured tradition of Cicero and Quintilian, documentary-makers are allowed to present their argument using any tactics and material they choose, as long as these do not wilfully mislead.

In a polemical programme like The Great Global Warming Swindle, strong partiality is allowed in the interests of informed debate. Ofcom's view is that most people watching would be aware that there is a scientific consensus that human production of carbon dioxide is a major cause of global warming, and would understand that the views expressed in the programme are only espoused by a small minority.

So, their ruling is that there was no harm in Martin Durkin rhetorically tilting the scales of his argument in favour of that minority view.

On the other hand, the regulator said Channel 4 did break rules on impartiality. It also found that several interviewees, including the government's former chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, and Professor Carl Wunsch, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had been treated unfairly.

In particular, they said, the programme had made some significant allegations without offering an opportunity for appropriate and timely response.

Temperatures rising

An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle together provide an almost text-book case for Cicero and Quintilian's in utramque partem debating.

Al Gore
Al Gore presents his case

One might even propose that, on the evidence of their films, Al Gore and Martin Durkin are a good match for the Roman ideal of a "perfect orator". Each organises his arguments and illustrative material with spectacular virtuosity.

And judging by the widespread, heated debate both films have produced, the two spokesmen have gripped the imaginations of sympathisers and opponents alike. The resulting furore has succeeded in keeping the issue of global warming almost constantly in the public eye.

And yet the Ofcom ruling makes me profoundly uneasy. If, as the regulator maintains, there is a general consensus that we are ourselves responsible for increasing carbon emissions, and global warming, then is it reasonable to use the format of the factual documentary to claim the contrary?

If the case made in The Great Global Warming Swindle is currently argued only by a small, vocal minority, then it is a distraction, taking up emotional time and energy. Meanwhile, the climate change clock is ticking. We need to stop talking about it and act now.

While believers and non-believers debate in utramque partem, we may already be headed towards global disaster. Personally, I don't want to take that risk. After all, look what happened to the Roman Empire.


Below is a selection of your comments.

To start with a conclusion, and then select the "evidence" to fit around your argument is unscientific, and has no place in any scientific debate. In science you start with all the evidence / data, and then try to explain the pattern with the simplest explanation, then you test that explanation by using it to make predictions about future data. Personal opinion is irrelevant if it contradicts the evidence.
Franchesca Mullin, Belfast, Northern Ireland

It is reasonable to use the format of a factual documentary to claim the contrary of a widely accepted principle, provided that the documentary presents evidence to support the contrary viewpoint. No matter how many people passionately believe in something, that doesn't make it true and it is always useful to question such beliefs. Examples are autism caused by MMR jabs or religious beliefs - both of which are or were widely held but have no evidence to support them.
Brian, Dundee

Your view seems to be that the human-caused rise in atmospheric CO2 level and the link to actual and projected temperatures is a racing certainty. As a consequence of your judgement you think that Durkin's programme is a misleading waste of time and should not have been broadcast. Good science works by producing more and more robust theories which drive out false ideas by continuing to produce accurate predictions of current and future observations. Bad politics works by suppressing competing ideas rather than outperforming them. I am not taking sides in the global warming argument: my concern is about the suggestion that unpopular views should not be aired.
David Fargus, Watford, Herts, England

Having described the basis of rational and balanced argument, it is a shame that the last three paragraphs of this article represent the complete opposite. They depend upon the implied assumption that a general consensus is necessarily correct. History has demonstrated that the opposite is true on countless occasions. Minorities (small, vocal or otherwise is irrelevant) are often proved right and should never be excluded from debate. If you restrict freedom of speech you will not help to avoid disaster, you will hasten it.
Richard Dalglish, Moreac, France

By all means train people in debate, & onwards from school too. There is too much woolly thinking, even lack of any thought at all these days. Would it be possible to train journalists in this form of debate? I'm getting extremely fed up with the presented diet of sound bites & would like something longer, & more reasoned. This would help promote thought, & clarity of thinking as well - or is people thinking clearly not what Those in Charge want at all?
Sharon, Portsmouth

I was always under the impression the rhetorical method/school was Greek in origin, not Roman...
Leigh, Oxford

Cannot agree with statement of "no great buildings from their time in Britain" were left by the Romans. How about Hadrian's wall which must have had more masonry than the Coliseum in its heyday, and was certainly larger.
Malcolm Copp, Stanford-le-Hope, Essex


LISA JARDINE ARCHIVE
 



SEE ALSO
Climate documentary 'broke rules'
21 Jul 08 |  Science/Nature
Gore climate film's nine 'errors'
11 Oct 07 |  Education

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