Hazardous Rhetoric

Paul Dombrowski, University of Central Florida, Spring 2009

Rhetoric and ethics are related, Aristotle noted long ago. Our rhetorical choices reflect our values and our purposes. Especially in our activities to engage the public in complex technical issues, appropriate and effective rhetorical choices are vitally important.

In my junior-senior honors course on technical communication, we examine the rhetorical techniques employed in the website of an organization concerned about a particular controversial chemical. This examination ranges broadly to include the web site’s color choices, visuals, formats, and above all language choices and associated rhetorical implications. The results of our analysis are then applied to websites about other chemicals and environmental issues in order to understand how they work both rhetorically and ethically, yielding heightened critical sensitivity in the students.

The DMRD Site

Our site of choice (www.dhmo.org) is maintained by the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division (DMRD), a branch of the U.S. Environmental Assessment Center, whose mission is to foster broad civic awareness and concern about the environmental and health threats posed by dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO). Because this chemical is little-known to the public, students come to it afresh, without preconceptions or prejudices. The website exemplifies a great number of key rhetorical techniques that are also used by many other environmental causes for similar purposes. By recognizing and understanding the features and techniques that reflect purposeful rhetorical choices, students can become more consciously critical consumers and purveyors of technical information in the public realm.

On the DMRD homepage, links are provided on the right side to several environmental and technical organizations (e.g. Greenpeace), which bolsters the ethos or credibility of the DMRD as an organization. Building such links into a website is a technique we all can employ, with similar persuasive effect by association with organizations more familiar to our readers. On the top left of the page, the cheery flower-like logo of the United States Environmental Assessment Center conveys a pathos of peaceful care and an ethos of earnest concern. The Special Reports listing and the available Press Kit, in addition, show the vigorous on-going efforts of DMRD to get the word out to the public.

In the middle column of the page, the links for key words appear underscored in red, reflecting the serious concern this topic warrants. As the text explains, the controversy about this chemical “has never been greater,” a statement surely no one can argue with because so many of the public are unaware that there even is a controversy!

“Controversy” is a key word for DMRD because it stirs public emotions, and well it should, for how else can the public take a stand on an issue unless there is a controversy or difference of opinion? The organization demonstrates its honesty and transparency, and thus supports its ethos of credibility and earnestness, by revealing its e-mail exchanges with the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the issue of DHMO hazards (see the link for DHMO Conspiracy). Though the DMRD has asked EPA to comment on these hazards, the EPA has reportedly dodged or side-stepped the question. As a matter of even greater potential concern, the EPA has refused to either confirm or deny that the EPA is involved in a cover-up to prevent the public from being overly concerned about DHMO. Of still greater concern, the EPA has requested that DMRD remove certain information from its website. It would appear, therefore, that the EPA is making a concerted effort to impede the work of DMRD to stir public awareness.

In exploring this web site, technical communicators in the chemical and transportation industries will recognize the familiar and all-important Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that represents in standard format the key safety information about chemicals, including boiling and freezing points, storage requirements, and disposal requirements. By presenting key information quickly and without distracting narrative explanations, the reader is impressed with the seriousness of this issue.

For me, one of the most interesting features of the website is its summary representation of several efforts to solicit petitions to have DHMO banned. Though most of these efforts involve secondary schools, one post-secondary institution stands out as a clear illustration of the powerful persuasive effects of these rhetorical techniques. Such results show the strong combined effect when these techniques are used collectively and synergistically; I suspect that any single technique used individually would yield only watered-down effects.

The Story Behind the Controversy

Eventually, DMRD web site visitors, especially those who recall what they learned in high school chemistry, will probably figure out that DHMO is only water. Seeing various rhetorical techniques being used in apparent but false earnestness allows students to see the techniques in their essences, so to speak, without the complication of the empirical legitimacy of their factual content.

On the DMRD homepage, the overall appearance and three-column format lends credibility through its apparent seriousness and its parallel structure like so many other environmentally concerned entities. The left column directs viewers to standard topics about environmental matters and includes an impressive password-protected press kit. The right column contains links to other environmental entities such as EPA, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace, links that anyone could build into any website. The center column contains the core textual message, including the underscored word “controversy,” in the statement that the controversy “has never been so widely debated” (true, but only because it has never been debated at all and there is nothing to debate), and the earnest ethos message of offering “unbiased data” and a “forum for public discussion,” just as many other environmentalist sites explain about themselves. The second paragraph offers an “insider’s exposé.” Links to key terms such as “cancer” and “research” are underscored in red, presumably to emphasize the urgency of this environmental issue.

Images are used effectively throughout the site to enhance the credibility. The DHMO logo at top left on the homepage is a cheery combination of a flower and the nurturing sun, very much like the EPA’s own logo (www.epa.gov). The Environmental Impact section begins with a revolting image of ugly, dark sewage draining onto the ground as an obvious instance of pollution. It is meant to scare, but the reality is that the DHMO solvent itself is quite harmless. The FAQs section includes an image of a chemical container with a skull and crossbones label as though DHMO is a poison, without actually saying DHMO that is a poison or that water bottles should have skull and crossbones labels. It is hard to imagine baby formula in baby bottles without DHMO, but that is what one of the images intimates.

The DHMO FAQ section is particularly interesting from an argumentative point of view. Just as so much of modern life entails learning to live with chemicals as double-edged swords, so is it with DHMO. DHMO can increase satisfaction in marriages and is definitely an athletic performance-enhancing chemical, as numerous studies have shown. In this case, though, the reasons for concern appear to outweigh the benefits. DHMO is linked to violence in schools and can even result in death if inhaled. It is also potentially hazardous in any phase, whether as a gas, as a liquid, or as a solid. Its close linkage to a wide range of medical disorder from nausea, vomiting, and excessive urination to cancers and electrolyte imbalances also fosters alarm. I was especially enlightened to learn that the German university scientist (presumably the best) is struggling to separate dihydrogenoxide from oxygendihydride, speculating that it might by impeded by the catalyst hydrogenhydroxide, as though possessing a sinister chemical subtlety.

In the DHMO Research section, a clip art image of a thoughtful discussion leader implies that thoughtful people should take action to ban DHMO. The parallel text underscores the heading verbs “inform,” “ask,” “track,” and “send,” urging the reader to take vigorous, determined action on the issue of banning DHMO, exactly the same emotional argumentative strategies used at many environmental sites (as well as non-environmental ones). Of the actual research reports, I was especially impressed by Report 90700 regarding Notre Dame University chemistry students.

Even scrupulously technically correct format is worked for effect. The MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) on DHMO reveals the standard format required by EPA for hazardous materials. Its stark appearance—text only, all in caps, rigid structure—communicate visually and ethically the gravity of its subject matter. Even the Special Precautions section implies that DHMO is very out of the ordinary and that we should be fearful, though the reality is exactly the opposite. The description of DHMO as a clear, colorless, odorless, and tasteless liquid raises concern because it suggests how difficult it is to recognize any accidental exposure to this chemical, again arousing alarm.

Uses of the DMRD Site in Technical Communication Classes

In my technical communication classes, I have students study closely the features of the DMRD website whether textual, argumentative, or visual. They then write a short paper identifying similar features in at least two other websites, sites that are serious and not tongue-in-cheek.

Our subsequent class discussions are grounded in real and immediate concerns facing our own state. We take for granted that no one wants either radioactive waste or carbon dioxide. We also accept statements from the Florida Public Service Commission that new power plants in Florida will be either nuclear-fired or coal-fired. We then explore the realistic degree of danger posed by nuclear waste in comparison to coal waste, particularly carbon dioxide.

On the nuclear matter, students examine the favorable side via the following web sites:

  • Nuclear Energy Institute, www.nei.org
  • U. S. Department of Energy, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which operates the Yucca Mountain depository site, www.ocrwm.doe.gov

On the unfavorable side, they examine the following web sites:

I only touch on here a few of the many rich examples of the rhetorical messages in text, images, facts, posturing, selective representation, and arguments that this website affords. Though all the facts and statements are true and correct, they are also entirely bogus in fostering fear and concern about something as common and healthful as water. Thus the DMRD site offers clear illustrations of how technically correct and true statements can have entirely fallacious and misleading rhetorical meanings for readers. Our students benefit from exploring the site for further examples, and from the critical analytic techniques that they cultivate in the process.

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