The rhetoric of science is the application of the resources of the rhetorical tradition to the texts, tables, and visuals of the sciences. It is a relatively new form of rhetorical criticism that began over half a century ago with studies in science policy, shifted in the past quarter century to studies of science itself, and, in the past decade has evolved methodologically from case studies to forms more amenable to wide generalization.
Rhetoric of science begins with studies of science policy, an area that involves deliberative issues that fall readily within the traditional concerns of those trained in rhetorical analysis. Nevertheless, so strong was the traditional focus of the emerging discipline of speech on political oratory that the first rhetorical analysis of science policy was not made until 1953. In this study, Richard Weaver is concerned with an early climax in a continuing conflict in American public education, the place of evolution in the public-school biology curriculum. The focus of Weaver’s study is the Scopes trial. In that trial, he concludes, the prosecution and the defense argued at cross-purposes. The issue at hand was not the law against teaching evolution, but the legality of Scopes’s conduct under the law. Given this issue, the scientific testimony in favor of evolution was irrelevant. Indeed, even in the legislature the question was not the truth of evolution but the right of the state to exclude from the curriculum what was, for the people of Tennessee, academic knowledge perhaps, but religious heresy certainly. This area of rhetoric of science has not remained dormant; it has been pursued, for example, by Jeanne Fahnestock, Alan Gross, John Lyne, Carolyn Miller, and Arthur Walzer.
A First Generation Of Studies: Emerging Rhetorical Consciousness
The focus of rhetoricians on science itself rather than science policy, a focus initiated a quarter-century ago, represents a definite break with traditional rhetorical criticism. Among those who have devoted their attention to science itself are Charles Bazerman, Carol Berkenkotter, John Angus Campbell, Jeanne Fahnestock, Alan Gross, Randy Allen Harris, Greg Myers, Jean Dietz Moss, and Larry Prelli. From this group, I select Campbell as representative. In the study of science itself, he is the pioneer. Originally focused on the Origin of species, his work has since moved forward and backward in time, forward to Darwin on orchids, backward to Darwin’s Notebooks. In all of his work, Campbell’s message is the same: Darwin is the master rhetorician, willing even to distort and disguise his religious and scientific views if he believes that distortion and disguise will attain conviction on some issue central to evolutionary theory. Indeed, Darwin is a master rhetorician even in his Notebooks, whose audience is only Darwin himself. Campbell (1990) shows that these notebooks are a proving-ground for Darwin’s theories, tested against the imaginary audience of such important potential objectors as his geological mentor and friend, Charles Lyell. Of the relationship between the Origin and the Notebooks, there is, Campbell says: “an unbroken continuity . . . From his jotting in his first notebook through the sixth and final edition of the Origin, scientific discovery and rhetorical invention, technical and social reason, so effectively unite in Darwin’s thought that one can only say that each is an aspect of a single logic of inquiry and presentation” (1990, 86). While this conclusion shies away from implicating rhetoric in the content of science, it clearly asserts its integral relationship to scientific discovery.
In the 1990s, a new climate of opinion emerged, signaled by the linguistic turn in philosophy, exemplified by Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Austin, and popularized in 1979 by Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Accordingly, it is no accident that the 1980s, which saw the creation of rhetoric of science, also saw a rhetorical consciousness emerge in disciplines unconnected with the rhetorical tradition. Participating in this activity were the literary scholar Wilda Anderson; the economist Deirde (formerly Donald) McCloskey; the anthropologist Emily Martin; the philosophers Marcello Pera, Philip Kitcher, and Ernan McMullin; the linguists John Swales, M. A. K. Halliday, and Ken Hyland; the historians Bruce Hunt and Evelyn Fox Keller; the sociologists Ricca Edmundson and Richard Harvey Brown; and the library scientists Bryce Allen, Jian Qin, and F. W. Lancaster. For illustration, I selected Allen, Qin, and Lancaster as representative of less radical and McCloskey as representative of more radical claims.
In Allen et al. (1994), the authors trace both the pattern and content of the citations in the Philosophical Transactions. The authors also infer from citation analysis that the primary medium of scientific communication shifted from books in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to journal articles in the nineteenth, and to journal articles, conference proceedings, and technical reports in the twentieth. The authors then trace the shift in scientific productivity from Europe to America, and track the rise of Soviet science. In addition, they follow the eighteenth-century shift in the language of science from Latin to the various vernaculars. In the latter part of the twentieth century, they note a further shift to English as the international language of science. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, by treating citations as rhetorical features, they are able to measure the rate of change of persuasive communities; slow in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and rapid in the nineteenth and twentieth. In connection with this trend, they venture a cautious prediction concerning the increased tendency toward obsolescence in scientific publications: “if the present trend continues, the median age of the persuasive community may overtake the time required for review and publication of traditional printed communications media. This would lead to increased pressure to adopt speedier means of formal communication in science” (1994, 304).
In a ground-breaking essay entitled “The rhetoric of scientism,” McCloskey (1985) provides an example of her mastery of rhetorical technique. After a plain English summary of Muth’s important article, McCloskey gives us parallel columns: in the left, she reproduces key sentences from his article, all written in the “scientistic” patois of economists; in the right, she turns this patois into plain English. It is a dazzling performance, demonstrating that nothing of substance is lost in the translation. Next, McCloskey infers that, if nothing of substance is lost, “the appeals to the methods of science are mainly matters of style, arising out of a modernist conversation” (97). Nonetheless, McCloskey avers, Muth needs these scientistic trappings: how else is he going to meet the expectations of economists, who would not be persuaded unless an argument is fitted out with appropriate jargon and decked out with appropriate mathematical formulae? In a finale to this fireworks display of rhetorical proficiency, McCloskey compares argument in economics with argument in three apparently disparate fields. Under their respective disciplinary skins, she finds, arguments in paleontology, mathematics, and literary history parallel those in economics. No interesting epistemological differences exist.
A Second Generation: New Approaches
In an attack on the positions represented by Campbell and McCloskey, Gaonkar (1993) contends that rhetoric is constitutionally unsuited to the analysis of science: it makes no sense to turn a system designed to teach oratory in ancient Greece and Rome into a system for the analysis of the texts produced by a social structure as complex as modern science.
Gaonkar’s essay represents a reflective moment in which to meditate on the methodological limitations of the first generation of rhetoric of science, limitations that a second generation of scholarship will address: Jeanne Fahnestock, Leah Cecarelli, Celeste Condit, and Alan Gross, Joseph Harmon, and Michael Reidy.
Fahnestock (1999) undermines our comfortable sense that, aside from metaphor, the figures can be safely ignored by rhetorical critics, that the study of such schemes as antithesis, incrementum, gradatio, antimetabole, ploche, and polyptoton is the preserve only of pedants. She tells us why, while particular figures have been identified in great numbers over the centuries, a definition of figuration has eluded us. Her wide range of examples – from the Bible, from public address, and, most prominently, from science – suggest that the figures exercise their powers regardless of subject matter; the wide range of languages that are the origin of these sources – classical Greek, Latin, French, German, and English – suggest that they exercise their powers regardless of language. Most importantly, the attention she pays to the visual as well as the verbal strongly suggests that the figures are not linguistic, but conceptual, in nature, and that, as such, they can serve as a resource for invention and an index of conceptual change. This book also gives the lie to the pessimistic implication that many have drawn from Gaonkar’s assertion that the rhetorical tradition lacks the hermeneutic wherewithal adequate to a robust criticism.
Ceccarelli (2001) is also innovative methodologically; she transforms three biological case studies – of Dobzhansky, Schrödinger, and Wilson – into an argument concerning the effectiveness of interdisciplinary persuasion in the sciences. In Ceccarelli’s view, Dobzhansky convinced geneticists and naturalists that they shared the same object of study; Schrödinger convinced physicists and biologists that their individual perspectives had a contribution to make to the study of the gene; Wilson, on the other hand, failed to persuade either scientists or humanists to embrace his reductionist vision. Ceccarelli thinks she can explain why. In her view, the two successful scientist-authors convince through intelligent rhetorical design that avoids confrontation. Wilson fails to persuade because he refuses the conciliatory gestures that come naturally to Dobzhansky and Schrödinger. Instead of promoting the language of compromise, Wilson gives us metaphors drawn from conquest. Instead of encouraging readings appropriate to each interest group, he clearly signals his intention to reduce the humanities and the sciences to a single material base subject to exceptionless laws.
While Fahnestock and Ceccarelli implicate rhetoric in the constitution of knowledge, two other books – Condit (1999) and Gross et al. (2002) – do not engage epistemic issues. Each is innovative in its combination of rhetorical analysis with methods derived from the social sciences. Condit’s intellectual quarry is the public perception of eugenics and genetics. But a successful hunt requires a grounding in sampling and statistical techniques: “the backbone of this study . . . consisted of 653 magazine articles drawn from the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature from 1919 to 1995” (1999, 260). The content of these – and of supplemental sources – was coded and analyzed. In following these procedures, Condit is concerned with matters of statistical significance and interrater reliability. But statistical analysis is not the end-point of her task. She also asks what her data mean, a task requiring both critical intelligence and rhetorical analysis. She makes her methodological claim explicit: “all critics can be assisted by quantitative methodologies when those methodologies are understood as counting tools, embedded in the critical project, rather than as overarching frameworks that constrain critical thought within a hypothesis-testing method. It is possible to use numbers in a postpositivistic fashion” (Condit 1999, 257).
Gross et al. also combine rhetorical analysis with social science methods. Their goal is sweeping: to provide the reader with a rhetorical history of the scientific article from its seventeenth-century beginnings to their present. Accordingly, their generalizations are the result of “an analysis of 1,804 short passages for style and 430 whole articles for presentation and argument” selected randomly from three languages, English, French, and German (2002, viii). As with Condit, these texts are subjected both to statistical and rhetorical analysis. Gross et al. (2002) have two additional features of methodological interest: they expand the scope of text to include graphics, the tables, line graphs, photographs, and drawings that are so central to scientific communication and, in their final chapter, they sketch out an evolutionary theory of the rhetorical development of scientific prose and visuals.
- Allen, B., Qin, J., & Lancaster, F. W. (1994). Persuasive communities: A longitudinal analysis of references in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1666–1990. Social Studies of Science, 24, 279–310.
- Campbell, J. A. (1990). Scientific discovery and rhetorical invention: The path to Darwin’s Origin. In H. Simons (ed.), The rhetorical turn: Invention and persuasion in the conduct of inquiry. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 58–90.
- Ceccarelli, L. (2001). Shaping science with rhetoric: The cases of Dobzhansky, Schrödinger, and Wilson. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Condit, C. (1999). The meanings of the gene: Public debates about human heredity. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Fahnestock, J. (1999). Rhetorical figures in science. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Gaonkar, D. P. (1993). The idea of rhetoric in the rhetoric of science. Southern Communication Journal, 58, 258–295.
- Gross, A. G. (2006). Starring the text: The place of rhetoric in science studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Gross, A. G., Harmon, J. E., & Reidy, M. (2002). Communicating science: The scientific article from the 17th century to the present. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- McCloskey, D. N. (1985). The rhetoric of scientism: How John Muth persuades. In The rhetoric of economics. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 87–112.
- Weaver, R. M. (1953). Dialectic and rhetoric at Dayton, Tennessee. In The ethics of rhetoric. Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery, pp. 27–54.