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Quo Vadis Rhetoric of Science?

Quo Vadis Rhetoric of Science?



Whenever I teach a science-related topic to undergraduates, I always receive several nervous emails before the first day of class. Here is a typical one: 

I’m signed up for your course, but I want to make sure we are actually going to talk about science. Every science studies course I sign up for assigns lots of theoretical reading that is really about theory rather than science. Please let me know…

Sometimes these students express impatience with earlier foundational debates on science and the nature of scientific inquiry. Another student tells me:

After all, I signed up  for this other course last quarter, thinking it was about science and all we did was study Descartes and Leibniz and the theory of knowledge.

Other times, students articulate their frustration with the lack of content in science-related rhetoric courses. They learn about stases and topoi but not about the actual science involved.

The first two questions are easily answered. One may point to the long history of conversations about the conditions of possibility for scientific knowledge, and assure a student such discussions provide a point of departure. After all, students know about Galileo and his infamous trial. They can also learn how he attempted to argue for his understanding of the cosmos.

As for learning about rhetoric, that’s the point of a writing course. Still, students ask me: If we have to learn different types of arguments and language, why can’t we also learn something about the content of science? Isn’t this a rhetoric of science course?

The treatment of actual content in rhetoric of science courses remains a source of contention. Traditionally, rhetoric of science has approached the topic through discursive analysis, an anthropological inquiry or an ideological critique. Some observers attempt mixtures of these, but the task remains to equip students with the ability to understand the preconditions of scientific discourse—rather than scientific content itself—in order to enable them to intervene in debates in different publics discussing science.

Most rhetoric of science criticism and courses restrict their efforts to scientific discourse analysis. In part, such a focus results from disciplinary and curricular limitations. If a course on the  rhetoric of science is part of a  college composition and rhetoric program, the question of  communication about science remains paramount.

One example that illustrates this division of labor is Michael J. Zerbe’s 2007 Composition and the Rhetoric of Science. Since its publication five years ago, many of Zerbe’s proposals for science study in college writing have been realized. Most college writing instructors now agree on the need to engage scientific discourse, help students analyze its power and understand science as a literary argumentative discourse. Likewise, it is widely accepted that college writers should know how the traditional IMRAD format of science research papers, Introduction, Methods, Research, Analysis and Discussion, enables scientists to enter conversations and gain professional authority.

As an argument about the material and ideological power of science, and the need to transform science, Zerbe’s book builds productively on a strong foundation of previous efforts to interrogate scientific discourse that began with Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method 1975. Indeed, the virtue of this book lies in its ability to reflect on the larger conversation about the rhetoric of science as a field. Therein lies the problem, however.  Zerbe’s discussion of Bruno Latour’s, or any other thinker’s account of the rhetoric of science, has very little to do with the science college students study and practice, despite Zerbe’s assertion that Latour’s work is “most intriguing for rhetoric and composition” (74).

But Zerbe’s project is to convince his audience of writing instructors of the value of interrogating science, and he endeavors to do so by showing how much of “postmodern theory” began with discussions of science. The social historian Michel Foucault serves as a prime example, as Foucault originally made the case against domination through the examination of scientific discourse.  Zerbe draws on a plethora of theorists from the 1970s through the 1990s from Foucault and Louis Althusser to Jean-François Lyotard and Slavoj Žižek in order to show how scientific discourse is not merely a positive description of empirical reality, but rather how it contains its own self-sustaining logic of exclusion and domination–and it is therefore susceptible to post-modern critical analysis. From Althusser, Zerbe adopts the idea of an Ideological State Apparatus (ISA), though he notes Althusser’s exclusion of science from the ideological discourses he interrogates, because as a Marxist, Althusser hopes to show how is own method is “scientific.” To be sure, the influence of discourse and Marxist theory remains strong in many commentators who make the case that where once scientific discourse opened the world to new understandings, it now has become a highly financed institution of epistemological and ontological domination. For them, science used to be about enlightenment and knowledge of the world but it has become primarily a pursuit of power.

No one would disagree that scientific discourse contributes to shaping public understanding and has significant financial and political interests in maintaining its role as a gatekeeper to resources. Science as the will-to-power? Scientific institutions as authorities on life and death matters often inaccessible to the public?  No doubt. There is much empirical evidence to back such theories. One only need consider the power of research conducted by pharmaceutical companies to gain insight into such questions.

Yet, Zerbe’s characterization of science as largely a matter of social domination remains flawed.  That is, his insistence on the total subjugation of the non-scientific, non-elite public denies the public its own capacity for agency as well as its responsibilities. After all, how can a thoroughly duped and manipulated public resist such domination? No one still defends this notion of a totally administered society in which the public has no initiative of its own.

While the account of the public is not tenable, Zerbe’s book is much more interesting in 2012 for its suggestions about the transformations of science. Following sociologist David Hess, Zerbe asserts scientific theory is already “postmodern” in its proliferations “nonlinear dynamics” and “destabilization of conventions” in many diverse scientific fields. However observers might choose to categorize contemporary science, it is indeed undergoing a radical structural transformation that has allowed increased public access. And public access to science means the potential for democratization.

The Internet and social media have accelerated the proliferation of critical methods of data collection, analysis and discussion.  There is more citizen science and scientific debate than ever before. The methods are no longer the tightly guarded property of the university elite either. The IMRAD formula is already so prevalent in so many discourses (as Zerbe himself points out in his concern about its misuse by creationists)that its widespread usage requires students to study its deployment all the more cautiously and to intervene to help further public understanding. (Both scientific and humanist punsters might have even long ago caught on that IMRAD stands for I’M RAD?) 

Surely rhetoric students will continue to examine the power dynamics of scientific discourse. Fair enough.  But it is also important to note that there are many opportunities to enter scientific discourse, master scientific content and open conversations to new ends. Such new approaches require no wholesale rejection of the IMRAD formula, but instead supplementation, expansion and also revision to include styles of scientific argument that invite more discussion.

Wikis and social media play an important role in the democratization of scientific discourse. It is the remarkable luck of this generation of college writers that they too can join and further elaborate complex scientific discussions for the public. Such efforts require learning science, not just its rhetoric; it is not enough to point out its “hegemonic” formulas and “dominant discourse” or anthropological practices, while avoiding the content of contemporary scientific innovation. Instead, to become effective scientific communicators requires that college writers engage actual scientific problems, learn how genotypes work, solve problem sets alongside groups of other students and at the same time develop communication skills to disseminate scientific ideas further. Science is carrying out important work, and student scientists can learn how to talk and write about it productively and critically together.

Students are already eager to learn the science skills that they hope will land them better, more secure jobs. They are also ready to acquire the language skills that will serve them well as tomorrow’s scientists.





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