Date of Award

May 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

S. Scott Graham

Committee Members

Anne F Wysocki, William Keith, Rachel Bloom-Pojar, Ryan Holifield


earthquake, matter of concern, rhetoric of science, risk communication, science-policy


Debates over GMOs, vaccines, and climate change are but a few examples that highlight a growing body of high-stakes scientific controversies and the manifest difficulties inherent in communicating about them. Addressing these and similar issues requires navigating a wide array of competing scientific, technological, social, democratic, environmental, and economic exigencies. The development of scholarly approaches that can account for the complexity and dynamism of these cases is an essential part of ensuring effective, ethical interaction between scientists and publics. In this dissertation, I explore one such case, the L’Aquila earthquake controversy, in which seven technical experts were charged with manslaughter for failing to warn the public. With the addition of the trial, this earthquake overflowed the boundaries of seismology, entangling the public, political, and technical and foregrounding the specific challenges of public-expert communication about risk and uncertainty. To better account for and negotiate public-expert interaction, my dissertation develops rhetorically-oriented approaches for improving communication about risk and uncertainty. In so doing, I explore new synergies among three concepts – agency, expertise, and uncertainty – which have previously been treated separately by rhetoricians but are inextricably entangled in situations like L’Aquila.