The Rhetoric of Science

28 February 2008 at 10:22 am 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

Tom Lessl, who’s work on the history of science we’ve mentioned before, offers some interesting reflections on scientific rhetoric in this 2005 interview.

There is a popular and widespread misconception in the world that scientific communication is distinctly different from other forms of public communication, but this is not really so. Its persistence is explained by an old adage in my field, which I think comes from Roderick Hart at the University of Texas, which says that rhetoric is most effective which disguises itself as something else. And I would have to say that science is the master of disguises. . . .

In saying this I am not trying to suggest that science is not a profoundly powerful form of inquiry, that its truth claims are without substance or that many scientific questions cannot be answered with a definitive yes or no. But scientific communication has all the same kind of properties that we typically find in other arenas of communication.

This misconception, Tom argues, is actively promoted by scientists themselves, primarily as a means of securing resources:

What I call science’s “priestly voice” is the outcome of several hundred years of experimentation with different ways of relating itself to its patrons. Patronage is a perennial problem for science, one of huge proportions. Science is at once an exceedingly costly undertaking and also one that does not necessarily offer any immediate return on investments. We all know that science has produced applications of immeasurable benefit, but in history when scientific patronage has been dependent upon the promise of such payoffs, science work has suffered. This is because most of what we call basic science is exploratory and can’t promise applications. It produces knowledge that winds up in science journals but not in pharmaceutical patents or medical applications. The characteristic expectation of Americans that science is valuable because it pays off has traditionally deterred scientific growth. This was why the U.S. remained a backwater province of theoretical science until after WWII — when the public began to realize that theory might pay off in things like atom bombs. But more generally, scientific culture has responded to the pressures of patronage by trying to construct a priestly ethos — by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.

There’s this old adage, Chinese I think, that says that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you feed him for a life time. The priestly character of scientific rhetoric reflects a similar logic. The approach that would sell the public on the worth of science on the basis of its practical payoffs is like making it a scientific patron on particular issues — which only feeds science for a day. But if the scientific culture can convince us that deep down we are all scientists, or at least that we should all aspire to this elite realm of knowing, then science might enjoy patronage for life. Priestly rhetoric, in other words, tries to recreate society in science’s image.

The interview is worth reading in its entirety, particularly for social scientists, who both aspire to, and are intimidated by, the priestly voice of their natural-science brethren.

NB: Lest you think this entry belongs in our pomo periscope series, Lessl adds:

Many people confuse the rhetorical perspective on science with the radical subjectivism of post-modernists, but generally speaking that is not what we’re saying. The position of rhetorical scholars who specialize in the study of scientific communication is just that science is mostly similar to other forms of public communication. Science, in other words, is argument and debate.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. rafec  |  28 February 2008 at 3:58 pm

    There is a lot of confused and confusing talk about the rhetoric of science but I had better read the whole thing before teeing off on Tom. He ends on a useful note, that science is argument and debate, but it has a special purpose, at its best, which is to eliminate error and seek the truth, or in less grand terms, to find explanations of things that solve problems, stand up to tests and lead in the direction of deeper problems and deeper explanations. It also helps to disentangle the different aspects of science because it “is” no single thing, sometimes it means well tested knowledge, sometimes all the stuff in journals, sometimes the conventions that regulate the hunting and gathering practice of scientists, sometimes the community of scientists and academics, sometimes the massive and complex mix of social and political institutions that regulate, fund and generally provide the larger ecosystem that scientists inhabit.

  • 2. JC Spender  |  29 February 2008 at 10:52 am

    I missed the previous discussion of Lessl and Hart so I shall now dig through the archives and recapture these threads.

    But before doing so let me draw this blog-ommunity’s attention to the PDW on Rhetoric in Management at the upcoming Academy meeting.

    If anyone would like to take an active part, please get in touch ASAP.

  • 3. Steve Phelan  |  2 March 2008 at 1:02 pm

    JC – I would be interested in being involved in the PDW on Rhetoric in Management.

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