The rhetorical landscape of science

The rhetorical landscape of science

“Scientists argue. No one disputes that” (Harris xi). Thus Harris begins his editor’s introduction to “Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science,” a collection of essays providing a smorgasbord of possibilities in the field. Campbell gives us a rhetorical analysis of Darwin’s ethos in his classic On the Origin of Species, which Campbell characterizes as a phenomenally successful work of persuasion (“Charles Darwin: Rhetorician of Science”).

In “The Birth of Molecular Biology,” Halloran compares the persuasive power of Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper “Molecular structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” with an earlier paper by Oswald Avery, whose work actually laid the groundwork for Watson and Crick, albeit without receiving the credit he probably deserved (nor, for that matter, did Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray diffraction data was crucial in establishing the double helical nature of DNA).

The rhetoric used to establish a prior scientific claim is the focus of Reeves’s essay “Owning a Virus,” describing the controversy between American researcher Robert Gallo and researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris over which lab was the first to identify the HIV virus that causes AIDs.

Myers takes us through the arduous process two scientists take to get their research articles published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals in “Texts as Knowledge Claims,” focusing on how the status of a scientist’s research is validated by its publication in a particular journal and how scientific ethos is used to negotiation revisions and rewrites.

These articles and more provide us with a birds-eye view of the range of possibilities within the discipline known as rhetoric of science. From resolving controversy to asserting knowledge claims to establishing priority of discovery to influencing public policy to changing the very assumptions upon which a discipline is based, science is fundamentally rhetorical. “Like politics, science is so thoroughly saturated with rhetoric there is very little room for anything else”.

From the writing of a grant proposal which has to compete with hundreds of other proposals for scarce funding to the experimental report which will (hopefully) establish a scientist’s credibility in the scientific community to the reporting of significant research during the nightly news to the behind-the-scenes arguments over how to interpret ambiguous data, scientists use a wide range of rhetorical techniques to make their case to both the scientific community of which they are a part and to the public on whom they depend for funding.

Harris defines the rhetoric of science thus:

What scientists do is interpret the empirical domain. What rhetors do is influence one another. In two easygoing definitions: science is the study of natural phenomena; rhetoric is the study of suasion. Rhetoric of science is the study of suasion in the interpretation of nature.

Using the essays republished in this book or the originals as a foundation, we will look at how the various elements of rhetoric relate specifically to science. We will explore:

the uses of ethos and pathos as integral parts of scientific discourse
how analogies and metaphors are used to visualize complex phenomena and how they can be used to change the way data is perceived
how scientific discourse responds to a rhetorical situation
the values and uses of enthymemes in scientific controversies, and
the types of rhetorical genres one finds in scientific writing

You can also read an introduction to the topic of rhetoric in science or get an overview of the comparison Kuhn makes between “normal” science and “revolutionary” science.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Dialectic – Still Relevant Today

Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.) composed a body of work on defining rhetoric and its use which comes down to us only in part. “His combined works constitute a virtual encyclopedia of Greek knowledge. Some of his work is non-existent but has been commented on by various ancient authors. Aristotle was a student of Plato. Plato in several of his works defined what he thought was true or false rhetoric and was often critical of rhetoric. (Plato, approx 360 B.C. (?)) With this background of skepticism and criticism, Aristotle began his studies and work. In the writings he begins “Rhetoric is the counterpart to the dialectic.” (Roberts, 1924)

Aristotle’s Rhetoric Defined

For a first study of rhetoric one must become familiar with terminology. Modern understanding of this terminology differs somewhat from what Aristotle outlined over two millennia ago. The Greeks were a politically active people who were accustomed to discussing important issues in public forums. So the term “rhetoric” arose to describe the tools and methods to actively persuade the listeners of the merits presented to them in political discussions. Modern society tends to treat any discussion in any field as a rhetorical argument. Aristotle believed that rhetoric could be systematically studied as a science which is the basis of his writings. Two or more people have opposing views on some issue which can be debated to persuade an audience that their view is correct. When he uses the term counterpart what he means is that rhetoric and the dialectic are really closely related. There are common features which link them. Both deal with elements of induction and deduction. Both deal with the adversarial nature of the parties. Dialectics does not deal with subject matter relevant to a specific subject or science. Aristotle identifies three forms of appealing to an audience: logos, the use of reasoning to construct an argument; pathos, the use of an emotional argument; ethos, making an argument presented by a credible orator. (Roberts, 1924)

Aristotle divides oratory into three branches: political, forensic, and ceremonial. A political argument is one in which the orator is trying to convince an action either for or against something. The forensic case is to defend of attack someone or something. The ceremonial form involves praising or censuring some one. (Roberts, 1924)

He identifies the five subject areas that political discussions fall into. “The main matters on which all men deliberate and on which political speakers make speeches are some five in number: ways and means, war and peace, national defense, imports and exports, and legislation.” (Roberts, 1924)

Forms of Government

A key point is presented where he discusses forms of government. In order to persuade an audience, one must understand the customs, norms, basic beliefs, of the form of government: democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, or aristocracy. (Roberts, 1924) The governmental form also has an influence on the practices these governments will pursue. Public policy actions lead to the realization of the ends sought out by the form of government implemented. For example, in a democracy freedom is a stated goal while in a monarchy preservation of the rights of the king is central in concept.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric in the Modern World

The stage is now set for a comparison of the Greek orator and our present-day legislatures. The Greeks met in their towns and villages. The Greek orator was praised by his fluency, stature, and ability to be heard. Today, persons who engage in public discourse and debate have a greater range of tools to incorporate to make their message known. Public relations firms are hired, professional speech writers are employed, and advertising is used to generate a positive public perception of their agenda. They evoke the credibility of the speaker argument, the ethos, to say that it is “the right thing to do because I can be trusted”. And pathos, appeal to emotion. Today, special interest groups exercise more power whereas the Greek were a very homogeneous people as many nations are much more culturally diverse. With complex issues, people will tend to identify with the side which identifies with them. Modern oratory is not really much different Ceremonial oratory is used in both praise and censure. Political argument is an every day occurrence. Forensic debate takes place is most legal systems.

The democratic form of government is one that tries to advance human rights applied universally. Attitudes change over the years, for example, as the United States emerged from isolationism to super power status American attitudes changed to be more active in advancing a system of values to other countries.

Subjects to political debate really have not changed much either. Governments still must deal with issues of revenues, budgets, war and peace taxes, etc. All of the elements of Aristotle’s rhetoric come into play. As the reader can see Aristotle’s writings on rhetoric and the dialectic have a great deal of relevance today.


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