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|Creating a New Discipline
Why would you want to analyze how scientists write...don’t they just report their hypotheses and experimental results? Not at all, argues Alan Gross in The Rhetoric of Science; beneath the veneer of objectivity resides a fierce struggle to gain followers for a particular viewpoint or to claim precedence for a discovery. How scientists go about convincing their contemporaries, and controlling them via peer review, is an integral part of developing consensus.
Yet there are many scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Max Perutz, who argue that a rhetoric of science is “humbug”, an attempt to analyze scientific writings by individuals who don’t understand the underlying science in the first place. Gross counters that science is no different from any other rhetorical venue, citing Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of how scientific paradigms change as new formulations of the problem space and what counts as evidence within that space occur. Perutz’s resistance typifies the reaction Gross attempted to overcome with Rhetoric, which Gross characterizes as a “manifesto” for his proposed intellectual discipline.
The Underlying Premise
One element of Gross’s argument is particularly hard for empiricists to swallow:
To ensure there is no misunderstanding, Gross adds in a new preface to the second printing of the book that “objects are meaningless” and that “meaning does reside entirely in language”. (p. xii)
Gross’s Sophistic relativism is squarely at odds with the Aristotelian realism of most scientists, which holds that objects exist independently of an individual’s perception of them. (The classic confrontation between these views is the famous philosophy final exam question of “Prove this chair either does or does not exist” and the possibly apocryphal answer “What chair?”) Gross goes to significant lengths to illustrate why various formulations of realism are philosophically invalid, but the basic criticism is that anyone who claims to know, unequivocally, that something exists or does not exist relies on unverifiable knowledge. In other words, everyone in a room might agree there is a chair in a particular spot, but no one can say with certainty that “everyone” is right. What’s left is relativism, which relies on statements to produce meaning.
Is Relativism Necessary?
Gross argues that Aristotle’s conception of rhetoric limits the field’s scope to the political and juridicial venues, where “fact” is a direct outcome of persuasion. Science writing, as a reflection of the “brute facts”, was excluded from rhetoric’s scope. While the author’s efforts to bring science writing into the fold by espousing relativism are laudable, they are also unnecessary.
The Rhetoric of Science ventures one level too deep for the task at hand in that the “reality” of what scientists write about is immaterial to analyzing how they persuade their peers that a particular interpretation is correct or incorrect. Gross’s analysis of the DNA discovery, Darwin’s formulation of his theory of evolution, and Newton’s two efforts to have his Opticks accepted by the scientific community illustrate how science writing, beyond the bare presentation of procedures and “factual” results, is both a political and juridicial process. To recast the argument in Kuhnian terms, the political argument is over which paradigm should be followed and the juridicial over what evidence should be accepted and how it should be weighed within the framework. That scientists agree to discuss scientific "facts"” makes the nature of those facts moot.
Rhetorical analysis of science writing is a valid and valuable academic field; as technological change continues to influence society, how those changes are reported, argued about, and decided upon within and without the scientific community will increase in importance. It goes farther than it needs to epistemically, but The Rhetoric of Science is a manifesto to be followed.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.