Ethos, Pathos, Logos and Statistics

by Rhetorix, January 19th, 2001

The three types of persuasion, if you are a classically trained orator, are ethos, pathos, and logos. If your training was obtained in modern times, you have an additional tool-statistics. All four tools are present in a recent press release from Dr. David Satcher, the United State Surgeon General

Granted, the Surgeon General did not recite this press release. He did, however, hold a press conference and an on-line chat session on this subject. (All are available from Given that the average person no longer receives information from long-winded toga-clad orators, Rhetorix must work with the material at-hand.

Ethos, in rhetoric, is the demonstration of the speaker's good character and/or credentials. The persuasion lies in the power and authority of the speaker. The full-color photograph of Dr. Satcher on the Surgeon General's web site shows the uniform, flags, and titles of his position, for which he endured the now familiar background checks, investigations, Congressional hearings, et al. It all establishes Dr. Satcher's rhetorical ethos. You might not want to bend over while he dons a surgical glove, but you know that he is the national expert in public health matters.

Of course, good character and credentials sway only the most fickle of thinkers. Classical orators used ethos not to convince, but to fasten the already established rightness of their cause in the minds of their listeners.

To further cement their cases, orators appealed to their listeners' emotions, a technique known as pathos. This usually was coupled with ethos to form the peroration, the summing-up of a persuasive speech. Dr. Satcher's quote below, although not from the end of the press release, demonstrates good pathos:

"This is no time to let down our guard on youth violence," Satcher said. "Even so, our success in developing knowledge and tools to prevent serious violence gives us reason for optimism."

Whether they have done anything about youth violence or not, the use of "our" by Dr. Satcher includes his listeners. It invites them to celebrate "their" success and optimism. This invitation establishes a connection between the subject and the listeners, a bond that allows the speaker to obtain the desired emotional response from the audience. In this case, Dr. Satcher seeks support for his conclusions on the causes and remedies for youth violence

These conclusions, however, are not supported by pillars of emotion alone. The press release abounds with logos, the "proof" of the speech. Logos is persuasion by words-not hard evidence, but a presentation that convinces the listener that the conclusion given is the right one for the occasion.

Take this quote from the release:

Serious violence is part of a lifestyle that includes drugs, guns, gangs, precocious sex, and other risky behaviors. Risk and protective factors related to youth violence exist in every area of life - individual, family, school, peer group and community - and vary in importance as children move from infancy to early adulthood. For example, substance abuse is an even more powerful risk factor at age 10 than it is at age 18.

Sounds persuasive, even factual-kids are threatened by violence. Careful attention shows that the paragraph runs from a lifestyle of drugs, sex, and violence to the threat of such a lifestyle in "every area of life." You may easily roll with the flow of the words and forget that your life does not feature guns, gangs and "other risky behaviors." If this happens, then the listener has been drawn in by the logos of the speech. It may not make logical sense, but if the persuasion was successful, who cares?

Since the measurement of chance is a recent discovery (historically speaking), the ancients had to rely on lies and damn lies, but not statistics. Nowadays, statistics buttress an argument by supporting the persuasion with a different sort of logos.

This paragraph follows the one quoted above:

Youth homicide, robbery and arrest rates in 1999 were actually lower than they were in 1983. This drop was largely due to a decrease in the use of firearms by youths since the peak years of mid-1990s. At the same time, however, arrest rates for aggravated results remain nearly 70 percent higher than 1983, and self-report studies indicate that the proportion of youth involved in violent behavior and the rates of violent offending have not declined since the mid-1990s

This is good new-bad news with numbers: a few things are better, but most are not. Despite our knowledge and experience, we are right where we were seventeen years ago when today's teenagers were mere foetus in uteris.

Remember-this is a persuasive speech, not a scientific textbook. Do we know if arrest rates for "aggravated results" are higher because more youths are violent or because more are being arrested instead of being sent home for the parents to punish? No-all we have is a vague reference to "self-report studies" and the ethos of the Surgeon General to convince us that the numbers do not lie.

If the ethos, pathos, logos, and statistics are persuasive enough, the speaker gets the desired action-funding, public commitment, a guest spot on the Daily Show. Wise citizens will admire the techniques while they work to uncover the actual facts before deciding to be persuaded.

W.C. Green is from good Republican stock--her grandmother used to render them down for soup. Since she can't grow up to be Cato the Elder, she takes out her disappointment on modern orators.

©2002 The Tocquevillian Magazine