Burke, Pasteur, and the rhetoric of science

I've been reading a book called The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, written by Gerald Geison, a Princeton history professor. In spite of my sister's recommendation, I didn't actually intend to read it when I first picked it up. But then I saw one of the section titles: "Laboratory Notebooks, Scientific Fraud, and the Rhetorical Construction of Scientific Knowledge." Geison uses Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas on "inner speech" to shed light on scientific disclosure.

Besides his unquestionable skill in science, Pasteur, Geison argues,

was also uncommonly skilled in rhetoric, in the old-fashioned sense of the art of persuasion. [...] By the time he became a major force on the scientific scene, he had developed a refined sense of what sort of rhetorical devices would work best in particular contexts. He modified his tone and language according to the audience and purpose at hand. [...] Despite the persistent efforts of philosophers of science to explain the triumph of the germ theory solely in terms of experimental facts and philosophical "realism," Pasteur's rhetorical talents were also a major force in the success of this campaign. (268)

The campaign was a critical one, of course, and its success revolutionary. We see yet another example of how rhetoric can change the world.

So what does all this have to do with Burke? Quite a bit, actually. All scientists make significant rhetorical choices when they look through their laboratory notebooks and decide on which experimental details to include in their published work. In Pasteur's case, these choices are more explicit than usual, and they seem influenced by an almost Burkean consubstantiality--not with any specific scientist, but with Pasteur's ideal of a perfect scientist. In short, Pasteur published the papers he thought an ideal scientist would be publishing. The fact that his laboratory notebooks showed an entirely different view of his research was irrelevant. He sought to keep this information away from his peers by insisting that his notebooks not be released. Until the 1970s, no one outside of his family could view them.

To Pasteur, what is this ideal scientist? One who is not an agent. The act takes place in a scene with no human agent involved. By removing the human agent, Pasteur's published works imply a lack of purpose. He is simply describing scientific facts, after all, and how can facts have purposes in mind? But the irony, in Pasteur's case, is that his real purposes are very clear in his mind, and his attempt at antirhetorical discourse is actually highly rhetorical.

One might argue, of course, that all formulaic scientific papers share this antirhetorical illusion, attempting to make the reader forget that the experiments were performed by real people with real flaws and real agendas. Grammatically, the extensive use of the passive voice in these papers would seem to support this argument. By removing the subject of the sentence, they remove the agent. (You'll see "Three subjects were each given 90 mg of phenobarbital," not "Our team gave each of three subjects 90 mg of phenobarbital.")

Again, however, Pasteur was highly conscious of his rhetorical choices, and deliberately created his rhetorical persona. Perhaps the most notable example involved the famous treatment of Joseph Meister for rabies. This act made Pasteur a national hero--exactly the ethos he needed to distribute a rabies vaccine that had, by his own standards, not been sufficiently tested for wide distribution.

Much more important than the way Pasteur used his ethos was the way it helped develop a mythos of science that surrounds scientists even today, and allows them to set forth ideas with a power Burke found disturbing. (David Tietge can probably contribute here more effectively than I can, to judge by this seminar: http://www.cla.purdue.edu/dblakesley/burke/seminars.html#tietge )

More on this subject later, as I learn more ...