Persuasion and Polarisation - PhD workshop (2/3 ECTS)

Cross-disciplinary workshop on how to identify and overcome polarised views in different research areas and society at large. With Dr. Kris De Meyer (UK). NOTE: Due to high demand, participants will be divided into two groups, one meeting 7 Oct and the other 8 Oct.

This collaborative seminar/workshop is open to PhD candidates, postdocs, and early career researchers in arts, humanities, medical sciences, and social and political sciences. We will focus on how polarised views are generated and explore with neuroscientist Kris De Meyer how the study of language, rhetoric, argumentation, politics and society intersects with the sciences of brain and mind. The workshop will give you a chance to reflect on possible impacts of your research.

We will address problems relating to argumentation and advocacy, persuasion and polarisation, in two specific contexts: (1) in media, politics and public opinion, (2) in your field of research and/or academic communication in general. Please see the abstract and reading list below.

You can participate with or without a written assignment (3 or 2 ECTS, see below). 

Please sign up here by the end of 15 September

For those registering for 3 ECTS, there will be a written assignment of 800–1000 words to be submitted by 1 Oct to:



Abstract from Kris De Meyer:

In Western societies, divisions and polarisation about important issues are increasing, as for example in debates about climate change, migration, or current responses to COVID-19. Some years ago, Kraus (2012) spoke of “deep disagreements” which stem from a lack of common ground. Thompson (2016) warned that public language and the language of politics itself are breaking down. More recently, it seems as if polarisation is giving way to widespread fragmentation of public opinion: social media is forming and sustaining different ecosystems of ‘true believers’ in all sorts of constellations of opinions. 

Societal polarisation has not left the academic community untouched, as many of the topics being studied feed into societal debates through research articles and an increasing amount of reports and publications written for policy makers and the general public. This means that one’s work can generate a backlash from groups who strongly disagree with the findings of certain research. Conversely, one risks being ‘used’ by those seeking support of their views.  The rising divisions in society can  also translate into entire academic disciplines taking strong positions on particular topics, and thereby become a part of the public debates themselves.

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.

Taken together, our different academic disciplines hold pieces of knowledge that can help us understand why this is happening. Bringing some of these insights together is the aim of this workshop.


Registration options (2 or 3 ECTS)

When signing up for this workshop, you will have two options:

  1. Option of 2 ECTS: prepare by reading the specified material (to be distributed in advance). It is important that you think very carefully about the extent to which any of the problems indicated in the readings and/or De Meyer's abstract (above) might be said to apply to your project and/or subject area. You will be expected to contribute substantially to both the plenary and group discussions. 
  2. Option of 3 ECTS: same as above, but in addition you will submit a written assignment (choice between two tasks, (A) or (B) below). Please send it to the organizer at ILOS, Prof Tina Skouen at: DEADLINE: 1 Oct.
  • Option of 3 ECTS: EITHER TASK (A) OR TASK (B). Whichever you choose, please be prepared to speak about it at the workshop (5 mins): 
  • (A) In this choice of 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 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?
  • OR: 
  • (B) Alternatively, you can submit a short personal perspective (800–1000 words) on the current state of argumentation in your field. Does it appear ... rational and balanced ... or aggravated and unjustly polarised? Does it reflect any existing polarisation about certain issues in society? Or in any case: Who are the possible stakeholders affected by your research? Who might argue for or against your research perspectives and why? How would you define your own research position: as part of societal debate, or standing outside or above a particular debate, providing a deeper background perspective? 


Required readings*

Leah Ceccarelli, "Manufactured scientific controversy: Science, rhetoric, and public debate." Rhetoric and Public Affairs 14, no. 2 (2011): 195-228. (see also response by Steve Fuller, below)

---, "Controversy Over Manufactured Scientific Controversy: A Rejoinder to Fuller." Rhetoric and Public Affairs 16, no. 4 (2013): 761-66.

Kris De Meyer, "The genie of polarisation: How to get it back in the bottle?" TEDx London (2019). Available to view at 

----, "The mind of the educator." Chapter 2 in H. Lees and N. Noddings, eds., The Palgrave international handbook of alternative education (Palgrave, 2016) (to be distributed)

----, "Brexit, Trump and post-truth: The science of how we become entrenched in our views." The Conversation (2017). Available from:

Julia Ebner, excerpt from Going dark: The secret social lives of extremists (Bloomsbury, 2020) (to be distributed)

Steve Fuller, "Manufactured scientific consensus: A reply to Ceccarelli." Rhetoric and Public Affairs 16, no. 4 (2013): 753-60.

Owen Gingerich, "Truth in science: Proof, persuasion, and the Galileo affair." Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 55:80.

Ali Goldsworthy and Rob Blackie, "Single issue campaigning and the polarisation problem." Quillette (9 October 2018)

Manfred Kraus, "Cultural diversity, cognitive breaks, and deep disagreement: Polemic argument." Chapter 7 in F.H. van Eemeren and B. Garsen, eds., Topical themes in argumentation theory: Twenty exploratory studies (Springer Science, 2012) (to be distributed)

Mark Thompson, chapter 1 in Enough said: What's gone wrong with the language of politics? (Bodley Head, 2016) (to be distributed)


* Please notify the organiser ( in case you do not have access to the online resources.


Dr. Kris De Meyer is a Research Fellow in neuroscience at the Department of Neuroimaging and a Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Geography. He specialises in how people become entrenched in their beliefs, how this leads to polarisation in society, and how to overcome this. Kris works with environmental scientists, policymakers and conservation NGOs to support them in communicating more constructively about controversial environmental topics, such as climate change.

He regularly speaks on BBC radio and TV about polarisation in society, and why fake news can be so believable. He is also the producer of the award-winning documentary, Right Between Your Ears (exploring the neuroscience and psychology of entrenched views), co-creator of children's radio series Climate Explorers, and the participatory theatre piece, The Justice Syndicate.


Tina Skouen, Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
Published Sep. 16, 2020 10:35 PM - Last modified Sep. 16, 2020 10:35 PM