Persuasion and Polarisation in Politics, Science and Society (PhD workshop - choice between 2 or 3 ECTS)

The aim of this workshop is to bring together insights from the academic study of language, rhetoric, society, mind and brain to get a clearer understanding of problems relating to argumentation and advocacy, persuasion and polarisation. With neuroscientist Kris De Meyer (King's College London). Organizer: Tina Skouen

Register for 3 or 2 ECTS (with or without written assignment) by sending an email to: by 8 Sept.

Submission deadline (800–1000 words; for those signing up as 3 ECTS participants): 18 Sept

Open to many different disciplines and subject fields!

Kris De Meyer

© 2017 King's College London

There are two segments to the PhD event: a screening and discussion of documentary Right Between Your Ears, which looks at psychological drivers behind polarisation and entrenched views (19 Sept at 18:00 Sophus Bugges Hus); and a collaborative and interactive seminar/workshop, bringing researchers of several different disciplines together with neuroscientist Kris De Meyer to explore how the study of language, rhetoric and argumentation intersect with the sciences of brain and mind.

The workshop will address problems relating to argumentation and advocacy, persuasion and polarisation, in two specific contexts:

(1) In media, politics and public opinion-making in general. In liberal Western societies, divisions and polarisation about important issues in society are increasing. Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK are two high-profile illustrations, but there are more “hot-button issues”: multiculturalism, immigration, human rights, the economy, the welfare state, public health care and climate change can be very controversial in some circles. Kraus (2012) speaks of “deep disagreements” which stem from a lack of common ground. Thompson (2016) warns that public language and the language of politics itself are breaking down.

(2) In the language of academic communicators in research articles, thesis chapters, and in the increasing amounts of reports and publications written for policy makers or the general public. How does one conduct a balanced academic argument while at the same time making strong claims distinguishing one’s research perspectives and findings from others? Where does one draw a line (if any) between academic scientific pursuit and social or political advocacy? When does the need to persuade become a “negative” drive? Such questions are particularly pressing for researchers of contested topics like climate change or politics, but in all likelihood most scientists and scholars will, at one point in their career, contribute to (unwanted?) polarisation within their field, or in a broader societal context. De Meyer (2016) discussed an example of how a long-running controversy in educational research reflected deep disagreements between research communities and divisions in society in general.

Thompson (2016) notes that this isn’t the first time in history that polarisation in a society is increasing - we have seen this before. What is perhaps new is that there are many academic disciplines which hold pieces of knowledge that, together, can help us understand why this is happening. Bringing some of these insights together is the aim of this workshop.

Registration for 2 or 3 ECTS:

By email to 8 Sept

Please indicate in your email which level of participation you would like to sign up for, see (1) or (2) below. For those registering for option (2), there will be a written assignment of 800–1000 words to be submitted by: 18 Sept

(1) 2 ECTS: film screening 19 Sept + active participation in class discussion 20 Sept + preparation by reading the material listed below, to be distributed to all participants

(2) 3 ECTS: same as above + submit text, EITHER (A) OR (B):

(A) In this assignment, we ask you to send an example (PDF scan of 1–3 pages from a book or article) from your own reading (relating to your PhD research) of a type of argumentation that you remember reacting against or doubting when you first read it. You should indicate briefly and in informal language (800–1000 words) which passages you reacted against and why. Was it that the words and/or arguments used seemed too strong and/or unfounded? Did the conclusions appear illogical? Or did you feel that the author misrepresented the state of the art in the relevant discipline for the sake of supporting his or her central claim or finding?

(B) Alternatively, you can submit a short personal perspective (800–1000 words) characterizing the current state of argumentation in your field. Does it appear ... rational and balanced ... or aggravated and unjustly polarised? Does it reflect existing polarisation about certain issues in society? Or is your field of study itself not polarised, but the topics that it studies are polarised issues in society?

Whichever task you choose, (A) or (B), be prepared to speak about it in class (5 mins).


Required readings (to be distributed):

Manfred Kraus, "Cultural Diversity, Cognitive Breaks, and Deep Disagreement: Polemic Argument" (13 pp), Chapter 7 in F.H. van Eemeren and B. Garsen, eds., Topical Themes in Argumentation Theory: Twenty Exploratory Studies (Springer Science, 2012)

Mark Thompson, Chapter 1 (22 pp) in Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? (Bodley Head, 2016)

Kris De Meyer, “The Mind of the Educator’ (13 pp). Chapter 2 in H. Lees and N. Noddings, eds., The Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education (Palgrave, 2016).

Kris De Meyer, “Brexit, Trump and post-truth: the science of how we become entrenched in our views” (2 pp), The Conversation (2017). Available from:

Scott Alexander, “Guided by the beauty of our weapons” (5 pp), (2017). Blog post by a psychiatrist looking at the current state of persuasion, storytelling and rhetoric in US society. Contains ideas for how to turn around the growing polarisation. Available from:

NOTE: All are welcome to the film screening on Tues 19 Sept, regardless of whether or not they have signed up for the workshop.

Published May 24, 2017 9:23 AM - Last modified Aug. 31, 2017 10:56 PM