Public perception and the rhetoric of science

What follows is some casual writing intended to get my thoughts going, in the hopes that something here will lead to a paper.


Scientists make certain rhetorical choices as they write about science. How do these choices influence the way the general public views science and scientists?

By saying they make rhetorical choices, I am implying that their writing is at least partly persuasive, not purely informative. Scientific journals contain writing that is self-consciously "antirhetorical"--that is, it avoids rhetorical devices that could lead to an appearance of bias.

This avoidance, however, is itself a rhetorical device. It presents scientists as unbiased--indeed, even as nonexistent. Journal articles rarely mention scientists themselves, except in reviews of the literature.

By failing to mention themselves, scientists make it harder for their audience to identify with them. Normally, identification is a prerequisite for persuasion. "It is not hard to praise Athenians among Athenians." Ironically, however, the lack of identification in this case leads to more effective persuasion. Readers, being human, have faults and biases. If they could identify with the scientists writing in technical journals, they would be reminded that these people, too, have faults and biases.

This leads us to an essential implication of almost all technical journal writing: science is objective and unbiased. It is not, of course. Thomas Kuhn makes that clear in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Virtually all scientists, in their daily work, support the current paradigm of their field. In other words, their work is biased in favor of that paradigm.

Burke takes the matter even further, arguing that "scientists, whatever may be their claims to professional austerity, will contrive somehow to identify their specialty with modes of justification, or socialization, not discernible in the sheer motions of the material operations themselves" (Rhetoric 32). Their writing describes "sheer motions," but what the scientists perform is action.

I don't mean to imply that the description above applies to all writing about science. Popular science writers, such as Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, and Alan Lightman, present science as an essentially humanistic activity. People perform experiments. The action is clear. Richard Feynman goes a step further, although his goal is sometimes more to describe scientists than the work they perform.

By presenting their work as "sheer motion," scientists damage their discipline in at least two ways. First, they present a false view of what they do. The illusion of objectivity creates a mythos that's hard to refute. And although the general public is not qualified to refute the details of scientific experiments, it is qualified--and indeed, in a democracy, it is required--to refute the inappropriate use of this research.

Second, the lack of identification discourages most people from becoming involved in science. This lack of involvement leads to ignorance. When they are willing to challenge the mythos, they are unable to do so competently, because they don't have the scientific literacy necessary to debate effectively. A notable recent example involves the debates in Kansas over whether scientific creationism should be taught along with the theory of evolution by natural selection. The ignorance displayed in these "debates" was appalling.

I don't mean to imply that the general public can be expected to understand the technical details of any field of science. It's a full-time job to do that for any given field, much less for science as a whole. But just as a basic knowledge of first aid is useful for people who aren't physicians, a basic knowledge of science is useful for people who aren't scientists. Remarkably few people have even this basic knowledge.

What can be done to change this situation? Carrol Cox has pointed out that "changing the rigid style conventions of technical journals would be almost impossible -- the old metaphor of herding cats comes to mind." I wish I could disagree with her. But if we can't change the style conventions, perhaps it's a start just to become aware of these conventions and their implications. Aristotle explains that one reason for studying rhetoric is to defend yourself against the unethical use of it. If we can better understand the problems that arise in current scientific rhetoric, perhaps we can more effectively respond to the message.