The Rhetoric of Science


 “To understand why science develops as it does one must understand […] the manner in which a particular set of shared values interacts with the particular experiences shared by a community of specialists to ensure that most members of the group will ultimately find one set of arguments rather than another decisive. That process is persuasion […]” Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, 1969

In this act of situating the development of science within the domain of socially communicated and shared values, Thomas Kuhn sparked a new round in an old debate about the relationship between rhetoric and science. At one extreme, there are some who view the notion of “rhetoric of science” as an oxymoron: science is objective, disinterested, truth seeking; rhetoric is subjective, partisan, manipulative. At another extreme, there are some who believe that because science must ultimately resort to language to represent its truths, it has no real basis to claim any privileged, objective access to truth. Between and around these extremes there lie a number of interesting debates about the relationship between language and reality, about how knowledge is produced and communicated, about the social dimensions of empirical analysis. In this class we will read and discuss the work of major participants in some of these ongoing debates, including Thomas S. Kuhn, Carolyn Miller, Charles Bazerman, Bruno Latour, Alan Gross, Leah Ceccarelli and Jeanne Fahnestock, among others. Together, we’ll think deeply about the relationship of rhetoric to truth and science to fact, and in the process will gain insight into some of the critical problems that bedevil the public communication of science.

The course is organized in two ways: First, each week treats a different theme or “topic” for considering the relationship between rhetoric and science based on major categories of rhetorical theory (e.g., audience, credibility, genre). Second, the weeks themselves are divided so that on Tuesdays we’ll consider rhetorical issues in the discourse of professional science and on Thursdays we’ll extend that discussion to consider how those issues translate in various realms of public science (journalism, documentary film, museums, education, courtrooms, “reality” TV, etc.).