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  • Matt McGarrity

Know your audience! A technical argument win, can be a public loss



The debate over vaccines has against shone light on the tremendous importance of understanding the difference between technical and public spheres of argumentation. When we think about arguments, we deal with a key question, “Is this convincing?” As a rhetorician, we immediately follow up with, “convincing for whom?” Argumentation is tied fundamentally to audience. What arguments are effective for this audience? What are the established argumentation practices? What constitutes valid evidence?


Following Stephen Toulmin’s original notion of argument fields, rhetoric and argumentation have spent a great deal of time examining the rules, boundaries, and interaction between technical and public argument spheres. A technical sphere is one where argument is based on the knowledge and practices of a specific field. In essence, technical spheres are comprised of arguments among experts. This could be medicine, it could accounting, it could be comic books. A technical sphere has a cost of entry: knowledge, expertise, and experience in that sphere. Public spheres don’t have the same cost of entry. Arguments are made to and on behalf of a general public. Often public sphere arguments deal with matters of public concern. Think letters to the editor. These arguments deal with a community issue and the implied audience of the letter is everybody in the public. Such opinion pieces don’t require deep technical knowledge in order to understand (otherwise, the editor wouldn’t have published them).


Experts can move from their technical sphere and make arguments in the public sphere. Think of a scientist publishing a newspaper editorial on climate change. Sometimes these forays go well; sometimes they don’t. Non-experts don’t as often move into technical spheres because there are normally barriers. I’m not going to be able to publish an article in a scholarly Chemical Engineering journal. Within three sentences, the reviewer would say, “Oh, this guy has no idea what he’s talking about.” It’s these failure to adapt to the norms of the sphere that are cautionary tales for all of us as we move back and forth between our areas of expertise and matters of general importance.


Ed Schiappa had a nice (technical sphere) article about one such case dealing with same-sex marriage in California. When same sex marriage advocates fought their case in the California State Supreme Court, they won. The courts are a technical sphere; there are norms and practices for what counts as a good argument here. When same sex opponents said in court that marriage was between a man and a woman based on religious tradition, these arguments where dismissed pretty quickly. Religious tradition and concerns about homosexuality don’t carry a lot of force in the legal technical sphere. That’s not the courts being liberal; that’s just the nature of legal argumentation. When the same issue went before California voters in 2008, same sex marriage lost. In the public sphere, those same tradition arguments had more force. Why? The public, not judges, determined what counts as valid evidence. Does this make the public dumber than the courts? No, it just means that legal argument has been narrowly shaped for specific ends achieving rulings. Different spheres, different standards of argument.


This past week saw a case of a technical sphere victory, but a public sphere loss. You don’t have to like boxing to benefit from the example. A boxer (Oscar Valdez) tested positive for a banned substance (phentermine) ahead of Friday’s fight. Despite the positive test, event sponsors (the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, ESPN+, and the WBC) are running, broadcasting, and sanctioning the match. This has angered lots of fans and commentators. They argue that boxing’s antidoping talk is meaningless if a boxer can “piss hot” and still fight on a network for a title defense. The frustration, I think, is due to different argument standards.


Almost immediately after the positive drug tests showed up, the boxer’s lawyer, Pat English made a technical sphere case to the hosts (Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona) and the sanctioning body (the WBC). He sent a letter, like lawyers often do, and laid out a specific case. This was amplified when the main players (Valdez, WBC, Top Rank, Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona) held a zoom meeting to discuss action. These discussions and arguments were all made among decision-makers who have deep experience interpreting code and contract obligations. Pat English’s arguments make sense within that frame.


English argued that Oscar Valdez isn’t a doping fighter. He suggested that the substance might have come in an herbal tea that Valdez consumed. This is backed up by the fact that there was a “minute amount in his system.” But English doesn’t spend a ton of time defending Valdez as a clean fighter. That’s not really the issue for this audience in terms of whether the fight goes forward. Rather, English dials in on the technical details relating to the substance that was found. Here are two of, I think, the most compelling technical arguments for his specific audience.

  1. Valdez violated VADA standards, but not WADA standards. VADA and WADA are two different testing organizations. The Tribe hosting the event was following the WADA standards. Even though both fighters agreed to VADA testing, English argues that the VADA standard is not relevant to a ruling on this fight.

  2. Valdez’s timing was fine. WADA only prohibits phentermine during “the period commencing at 11:59 p.m. on the day before a competition in which the athlete is scheduled to participate through the end of such competition and sample collection process related to such competition.” Since Valdez popped hot before this window, it shouldn’t be a consideration.


These arguments seemed to win the day. The Yaqui Tribe didn’t cancel the fight and the WBC sanctioned it. Shortly, another boxing organization (the Association of Boxing Commissions) supported the decision. Boxing journalist Dan Rafael tweed:


Boxing blogs and Twitter see things very differently. The key issue in the public sphere is that a boxer was found using a banned substance and allowed to fight. Boxing Twitter seems, to my reading anyway, largely in favor of stopping the fight and penalizing Valdez. The hostility towards the commissions and sanctioning bodies, always the background noise of boxing conversations, became more vocal than usual. Former boxing great Andre Ward tweeted:


The technical argument concedes one of the important public sphere issues: Valdez undoubtedly had phentermine in his system. The technical argument paves the way for the fight to proceed based on implementation of a specific policy (WADA over VADA ruling). This is a limited argument. In this specific case, following these technical arguments, this fighter didn’t violate the rules enough in order to be prevented from fighting in this specific fight. The public sphere is looking more at the general case. If fighters test positive, they shouldn’t be allowed to fight since it breaks the rules and endangers health.


This was successful technical sphere argument that ended causes more public sphere problems for Valdez. If he wins on Friday night, he’ll always have to argue about whether or not it was the phentermine. If he loses, well, he loses AND people will still talk about the phentermine.

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