Rhetoric of science

Rhetoric of science is a body of scholarly literature exploring the notion that the practice of science is a rhetorical activity. It emerged following a number of similarly-oriented disciplines during the late 20th century, including the disciplines of sociology of scientific knowledge, history of science, and philosophy of science, but it is practiced most fully by rhetoricians in departments of English, speech, and communication.


Rhetoric is best known as a discipline that studies the means and ends of persuasion. Science, meanwhile, is typically seen as the discovery and recording of knowledge about the natural world. A key contention of rhetoric of science is that the practice of science is, to varying degrees, persuasive. The study of science from this viewpoint variously examines modes of inquiry, logic, argumentation, the ethos of scientific practitioners, the structures of scientific publications, and the character of scientific discourse and debates.

For instance, scientists must convince their community of scientists that their research is based on sound scientific method. From a rhetorical point of view, scientific method involves problem-solution topoi (the materials of discourse) that demonstrate observational and experimental competence (arrangement or order of discourse or method), and as a means of persuasion, offer explanatory and predictive power (Prelli 185-193). Experimental competence is itself a persuasive topos (Prelli 186). Rhetoric of science is a practice of suasion that is an outgrowth of some of the canons of rhetoric.


Since 1970, rhetoric of science, as a field involving rhetoricians, flourished. This flourishing of scholarly activity contributed to a shift in the image of science that was taking place (Harris "Intro," Landmark xv). A conservative approach to rhetoric of science involves treating texts as communications designed to persuade members of scientific communities. This approach concerns scientific claims that are already considered true as a result of the scientific process rather than the rhetorical process. A more radical approach, on the other hand, would treat these same texts as if the science held within them is also an object of rhetorical scrutiny (Gross "Rhetoric of Science," Encyclopedia 622-623). Among those in the conservative camp, who view science texts as vehicles of communication, are Charles Bazerman, John Angus Campbell, Greg Myers, Jean Dietz Moss, Lawrence Prelli, Carolyn Miller and Jeanne Fahnestock. Bazerman's close readings of works by Newton and Compton as well as his analysis of the reading habits of physicists and others led to a greater understanding of the successes and failures of communication (Gross "Rhetoric of Science," Encyclopedia 623-624). For a depiction of the views of the more radical camp, see the section titled "Critique of Rhetoric of Science."

The history of the rhetoric of science effectively begins with Thomas Kuhn's seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). He examines first normal science, that is, a practice which he saw as routine, patterned and accessible with a specific method of problem-solving. Building on past knowledge, normal science advances by accretions in a knowledge base (Harris "Intro," Landmark xiii). Kuhn then contrasts normal science with revolutionary science (ground-breaking science marked by a paradigm-shift in thought). When Kuhn began to teach Harvard undergraduates historical texts such as Aristotle's writings on motion, he looked to case studies, and sought first to understand Aristotle in his own time, and then to locate his problems and solutions within a wider context of contemporary thought and actions (Nickles 144). That is to say, Kuhn sought first to understand the traditions and established practices of science (Nickles 162). In this instance, Michael Polanyi's influence on Kuhn becomes apparent; that is, his acknowledgement of the importance of inherited practices and rejection of absolute objectivity. Observing the changes in scientific thought and practices, Kuhn concluded that revolutionary changes happen through the defining notion of rhetoric: persuasion (Harris "Intro," Landmark xiv). The critical work of Herbert W. Simons - "Are Scientists Rhetors in Disguise?" in Rhetoric in Transition (1980) - and subsequent works show that Kuhn's Structure is fully rhetorical.

The work of Thomas Kuhn was extended by Richard Rorty (1979, 1989), and this work was to prove fruitful in defining the means and ends of rhetoric in scientific discourse (Jasinski "Intro" xvi). Rorty, who coined the phrase "rhetorical turn," was also interested in assessing periods of scientific stability and instability.

Another component of the shift in science that took place in the past centres on the claim that there is no single scientific method, but rather a plurality of methods, approaches or styles (Harris "Intro," Landmark xvi). Paul Feyerabend in Against Method (1975) contends that science has found no "method that turns ideologically contaminated ideas into true and useful theories," in other words; no special method exists that can guarantee the success of science (302).

As evidenced in the early theory papers after Kuhn's seminal work, the idea that rhetoric is crucial to science came to the fore. Quarterly journals in speech and rhetoric saw a flourishing of discussion on topics such as inquiry, logic, argument fields, ethos of scientific practitioners, argumentation, scientific text, and the character of scientific discourse and debates. Philip Wander (1976) observed, for instance, the phenomenal penetration of science (public science) in modern life. He labelled the obligation of rhetoricians to investigate science's discourse ' "The Rhetoric of Science" (Harris "Knowing" 164).

As rhetoric of science began to flourish, discussion arose in a number of areas, including:

Other major themes in rhetoric of science include the investigation of the accomplishments and sausive abilities of individuals (ethos) who have left a mark in their respective sciences as well as an age old concern of rhetoric of science - public science policy. Science policy involves deliberative issues, and the first rhetorical study of science policy was made in 1953 by Richard M. Weaver. Among others, Helen Longino's work on public policy implications of low-level radiation continues this tradition (Gross "Rhetoric of Science," Encyclopedia 622).

The reconstitution of rhetorical theory around the lines of invention (inventio), argumentation and stylistic adaptation is going on today (Simons 6). The key question today is whether training in rhetoric can in fact help scholars and investigators make intelligent choices between rival theories, methods or data collection, and incommensurate values (Simons 14).

Developments and trends

Epistemic rhetoric

Seeing science from the point of texts exhibiting epistemology based on prediction and control offers new comprehensive ways to see the function of rhetoric of science (Gross "The Origin" 91-92). Epistemic rhetoric of science, in a broader context, confronts issues pertaining to truth, relativism, and knowledge.

Rhetoric of science, as a branch of inquiry, does not look at scientific (natural science) texts as a transparent means of conveying knowledge, but rather it looks at these texts as exhibiting persuasive structures. Although the natural sciences and humanities differ in a fundamental way, the enterprise of science can be viewed hermeneutically as a stream of texts which exhibit an epistemology based on understanding (Gross "On the Shoulders 21). Its task then is the rhetorical reconstruction of the means by which scientists convince themselves and others that their knowledge claims and assertions are an integral part of privileged activity of the community of thinkers with which they are allied (Gross "The Origin" 91).

In an article titled "On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic" (1967), Robert L. Scott offers "that truth can arise only from cooperative critical inquiry" (Harris "Knowing" 164). Scott's probe of the issues of belief, knowledge and argumentation substantiates that rhetoric is epistemic. This train of thought goes back to Gorgias who noted that truth is a product of discourse, not a substance added to it (Harris "Knowing" 164).

Scientific discourse is built on accountability of empirical fact which is presented to a scientific community. Each form of communication is a type of genre that fosters human interaction and relations. An example is the emerging form of the experimental report (Bazerman "Reporting" 171-176). The suite of genres to which the rhetoric of science comes to bear on health care and scientific communities is legion.

Aristotle could never accept the unavailability of certain knowledge, although most now believe the contrary (Gross "On Shoulders" 20). That is to say, Aristotle would have rejected the central concern of rhetoric of science: knowledge (Gross "Rhetoric of Science," Encyclopedia 622). Knowing itself generates the explanation of knowing, and this is the domain of the theory of knowledge. The knowledge of knowledge compels an attitude of vigilance against the temptation of certainty (Maturana 239-245).

The claim of the epistemic problematic of rhetoric of science concerns:

(Harris "Knowing" 180-181).

Argument fields

By the 1980s, Stephen Toulmin's work on argument fields published in his book titled The Uses of Argument (1958) came to prominence through rhetorical societies such as the Speech Communication Association which adopted a sociological view of science. Toulmin's main contribution is his notion of argument fields that saw a reinvention of the rhetorical concept topoi (topics) (Harris "Intro" Landmark xxi).

Toulmin discusses at length the pattern of an argument – data and warrants to support a claim – and how they tend to vary across argument fields (Toulmin 1417-1422). He delineated two concepts of argumentation, one which relied on universal (field-invariant) appeals and strategies, and one which was field dependent, particular to disciplines, movements, and the like. For Toulmin, audience is important because one speaks to a particular audience at a particular point in time, and thus an argument must be relevant to that audience. In this instance, Toulmin echoes Feyerabend, who in his preoccupation with suasive processes, makes clear the adaptive nature of persuasion (Harris "Intro" Landmark xxv).

Toulmin's ideas pertaining to argument were a radical import to argumentation theory because, in part, he contributes a model, and because he contributes greatly to rhetoric and its subfield, rhetoric of science, by providing a model of analysis (data, warrants) to show that what is argued on a subject is in effect a structured arrangement of values that are purposive and lead to a certain line of thought.

Toulmin showed in Human Understanding that the arguments that would support claims as different as the Copernican revolution and the Ptolemaic revolution would not require mediation. On the strength of argument, men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries converted to Copernican astronomy (Gross "The Rhetoric" 214).


The rhetorical challenge today is to find discourse that crosses disciplines without sacrificing the specifics of each discipline. The aim is to render description of these disciplines intact – that is to say, the goal of finding language that would make various scientific fields "commensurable" (Baake 29). In contrast, incommensurability is a situation where two scientific programs are fundamentally at odds. Two important voices who applied incommensurability to historical and philosophical notions of science in the 1960s are Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. Various strands grew out of this idea that bear on issues of communication and invention. These strands are explicated in Randy Allen Harris's four-part taxonomy that in turn foregrounds his viewpoint that "incommensurability is best understood not as a relation between systems, but as a matter of rhetorical invention and hermeneutics" (Harris "Incommensurability" 1).

Incommensurability of theory at times of radical theory change is at the heart of Thomas Samuel Kuhn's theory of paradigms (Bazerman 1). Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions offers a vision of scientific change that involves persuasion, and thus he brought rhetoric to the heart of scientific studies (Harris "Intro," Landmark xiii).

Kuhn's Structure provides important accounts related to the concept representation, and the key conceptual changes that occur during a scientific revolution. Kuhn sought to determine ways of representing concepts and taxonomies by frames (Barker 224-230). Kuhn's work attempts to show that incommensurable paradigms can be rationally compared by revealing the compatibility of attribute lists of say a species outlined in a pre-Darwinian and a post-Darwinian milieu accounted for in two incommensurable taxonomies, and that this compatibility is the platform for rational comparison between rival taxonomies (Barker 230-231). With a view to comparing normal science to revolutionary science, Kuhn illustrates his theory of paradigms and theory of concepts within the history of electricity, chemistry and other disciplines. He gives attention to the revolutionary changes that came about as a result of the work of Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Roentgen, and Lavoisier.

Some scholars, like Thomas C. Walker, feel that Kuhn's theory on paradigms leads to knowledge that is "gained in small, incremental, and almost unremarkable installments." Walker states that while "normal science is narrow, rigid, esoteric, uncritical, and conservative, Kuhn considers it to be the most efficient way to ensure a cumulation of knowledge." According to Walker, while "ignorance and intolerance toward other theoretical frameworks are regrettable features of Kuhn's normal science...meaningful conversations can only occur within a single paradigm." (Walker 2010).[1]

Kuhn's work was influential for rhetoricians, sociologists, and historians (and, in a more muted way, philosophers) for the development of a rhetorical perspective. His view on perception, concept acquisition and language suggest, according to Paul Hoyningen-Huene's analysis of Kuhn's philosophy, a cognitive perspective (Nickles 183).


Scientists are not just persuaded by logos or argument. Innovative initiatives in science test scientific authority by invoking the authority of past results (initial section of a scientific paper) and the authority of procedure, which establish the scientist's credibility as an investigator (Gross Starring 26-27).

Examinations of the ethos of scientists (individually and collectively) spawned significant contributions in the field of rhetoric of science. Michael Halloran notes in "The Birth of Molecular Biology" (Rhetoric Review 3, 1984) – an essay that is a rhetorical analysis of James D. Watson and Francis H. Crick's "A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid" – that a large part of what constitutes a scientific paradigm is the ethos of its practitioners. This ethos is about an attitude and a way of attacking problems and propagating claims (Harris "Intro," Landmark xxxi).

In "The Rhetorical Construction of Scientific Ethos," Lawrence Prelli provides a systematic analysis of ethos as a tool of scientific legitimation. Prelli's work examines the exchange of information in the court of public opinion. His work provides insight into the ways in which scientific argumentation is legitimized, and thus insight into public science policy. One of the domains of rhetoric is civic life. Rhetorical criticism of science offers much in the investigation of scientific matters that impinge directly upon public opinion and policy-making decisions (Harris "Intro," Landmark xxxiii).

Rhetoric and language-games

Rhetoric can also be defined as the strategic use of language: each scientist tries to make those statements that - given the statements made by their colleagues, and the ones the former expects they will do in the future (e.g., accepting or rejecting the claims made by the former) - maximise the chances of the former's attaining the goals he or she has. So, game theory can be applied to study the choice of the claims one scientist makes. Zamora Bonilla (2006) argues that, when rhetoric is understood this way, it can be discussed whether the way scientists interact - e.g., through certain scientific institutions like peer review - leads them to make their claims in an efficient or an inefficient way, i.e., whether the 'rhetorical games' are more analogous to 'invisible hand' processes, or to 'prisoner's dilemma' games. If the former is the case, then we can assert that scientific 'conversation' is organised in such a way that the strategic use of language by scientists leads them to reach cognitive progress, and if the opposite is the case, then this would be an argument to reform scientific institutions.

Rhetorical figures in science

Corresponding to distinct lines of reasoning, figures of speech are evident in scientific arguments. The same cognitive and verbal skills that are of service to one line of inquiry – political, economic or popular – are of service to science (Fahnestock 43). This implies that there is less of a division between science and the humanities than initially anticipated. Argumentatively useful figures of speech are found everywhere in scientific writing.

Theodosius Dobzhansky in Genetics and the Origin of Species offers a means of reconciliation between Mendelian mutation and Darwinian natural selection. By remaining sensitive to the interests of naturalists and geneticists, Dobzhansky – through a subtle strategy of polysemy – allowed a peaceful solution to a battle between two scientific territories. His expressed aim was to review the genetic information bearing on the problem of organic diversity (Ceccarelli 41, 53). The building blocks of Dobzhansky's interdisciplinary influence that saw much development in two scientific camps were the result of the compositional choices he made. He uses, for instance, prolepsis to make arguments that introduced his research findings, and he provided a metaphoric map as a means to guide his audience (Ceccarelli 57-58). One illustration of metaphor is his use of the term "adaptive landscapes." Seen metaphorically, this term is a way of representing how theorists in two different fields can unite (Ceccarelli 57).

Another figure that is important as an aid to understanding and knowledge is antimetabole (refutation by reversal). Antithesis also works toward a similar end.

An example of antimetabole:

New Materialist Rhetoric of Science

A more recent trend in rhetorical studies involves participation in the broader new materialist movement in philosophy and science and technology studies.[2] This emerging area of inquiry investigates the role of rhetoric and discourse as an integral part of the Materialism of scientific practice. This approach considers how the methods of natural sciences came into being, and the particular role interaction among scientists and scientific institutions has to play. New materialist rhetoric of science of a feminist variety include those proponents see the progress of the natural sciences as having been purchased at a high cost, a cost that limits the scope and vision of science. Work in this area often draws on scholarship by Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar, Annemarie Mol, and other new materialist scholars from science and technology studies.[3] Work in new materialist rhetoric of science tends to be very critical of a perceived over-reliance on language in more conservative variants of rhetoric of science and has significantly criticized long-standing areas of inquiry such as incommensurability studies.[4]

Critique of rhetoric of science

Globalization of rhetoric

Renewed interest today in rhetoric of science is its positioning as a hermeneutic meta-discourse rather than a substantive discourse practice (Gaonkar 25). Exegesis and hermeneutics are the tools around which the idea of scientific production has been forged.

Criticism of rhetoric of science is mainly limited to discussions around the concept of hermeneutics, which can be seen as follows:

A recent critique about the rhetoric of science literature asks not if science is understood properly, but rather if rhetoric is understood properly. This dissension centres around the reading of scientific texts rhetorically; it is a quarrel about how rhetorical theory is seen as a global hermeneutic (Gross "Intro" Rhetorical 1-13).

Dilip Gaonkar in "The Idea of Rhetoric in the Rhetoric of Science" looks at how critics argue about rhetoric, and he unfolds the global ambitions of rhetorical theory as a general hermeneutic (a master key to all texts), with the rhetoric of science as a perfect site of analysis - a hard and fast case.

In his analysis of this 'case', Gaonkar looks at rhetoric's essential character first in traditional sense (Aristotilean and Ciceronian). Then he looked at the practice of rhetoric and the model of persuasive speech from the point of agency (productive orientation) or who controls the speech (means of communication). The rhetorical tradition is one of practice, while the theory evinces practice and teaching (Gross "Intro" Rhetorical 6-11). Gaonkar asserts that rhetoric seen as a tradition (Aristotilean and Ciceronia), and from the point of view of interpretation (not production or agency), rhetorical theory is "thin." He argues that rhetoric appears as a thinly veiled language of criticism in such a way that it is applicable to almost any discourse (Gaonkar 33, 69).

Gaonkar believes that this type of globalization of rhetoric undermines rhetoric's self-representation as a situated practical art, and in so doing, it runs counter to a humanist tradition. It runs counter to the interpretative function of a critical metadiscourse. If there is no more substance, no anchor, no reference to which rhetoric is attached, rhetoric itself is the substance, or the supplement, and thus becomes substantial, giving rise to the question how well rhetoric functions as interpretative discourse (Gaonkar 77).

Dilip Gaonkar's provocations have successfully opened the way to a broad reaching discussion that led to the defense of rhetoric analyses of scientific discourse. Responses to Gaonkar's provocations are many, of which two examples follow.

New Materialist Rhetoric of Science

The new materialist approach to rhetoric of science has endorsed Goankar's criticisms of rhetoric of science more generally and seeks to overcome them through interdisciplinary engagement with science and technology studies.[5] However, the new materialist approach, itself, has been subjected to significant criticism within the field, and identified as a radical variant. The question as to the adequacy of rhetoric in its encounter with scientific texts (natural sciences) is problematic on two fronts. The first concerns traditional rhetoric and its capacity as a tool to analyze scientific texts. Secondly, the answer to the question relies on an attack of the epistomological presuppositions of a classical rhetoric of science. For this reason, the radical critique is a call for the renewal of rhetorical theory (Gross "Rhetoric of Science," Encyclopedia 626-627).

See also


  1. [Walker, Thomas C. "The perils of paradigm mentalities: Revisiting Kuhn, Lakatos, and Popper." Perspectives on Politics 8.02 (2010): 433-451]
  2. Herndl, Carl (2000). Rhetoric of Science as Non-Modern Practice. Professing Rhetoric: Selected Papers from the 2000 Rhetoric Society of America Conference. pp. 215–222.
  3. Lynch and Rivers, Eds. (2015). Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition. Southern Illinois University Press.
  4. Graham & Herndl. "Multiple Ontologies in Pain Management: Towards a Postplural Rhetoric of Science". Technical Communication Quarterly. 22: 103–125.
  5. Graham, S. Scott (2015). The Politics of Pain Medicine: A Rhetorical-Ontological Inquiry. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

Works cited

Other readings

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