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Thomas Lessl: Science and Rhetoric



Thomas Lessl is Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia. His work involves the rhetoric of science, looking in particular at the meeting of science with the public sphere. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him some general questions about rhetoric as well as focusing on its role in scientific debate.

- Interviewed by Paul Newall (2005)

PN: How would you define rhetoric and why should we study it?

TL: Most simply I would define rhetoric as the art of public communication. Anyone who engages in public communication is practicing the art of rhetoric. Art can also mean a body of principles pertaining to its practices, and this is true of rhetoric as well.

Its most active practitioners are our social architects, most typically those political actors who craft the policies, ideologies, and shared identities that create polities. Scholars who study the rhetorical art, like critics and theorists of other art forms, are typically interested in instances of expression that have some particular significance. That significance may arise from a message's place in history, its creativity, or simply from the fact that it represents the features of a particular milieu.

Rhetoric is a subject of importance because its study enables us to better understand the processes of communication that underpin decision making in free societies. Judgments on matters of public policy take their cues from rhetoric, and so an understanding of any society's rhetoric will tell us a lot about its ideas, beliefs, laws, customs and assumptions - especially how and why such social features came into being. We don't typically think of it this way, but every law that is on our record books began as an act of rhetorical undertaking by some public or private citizen trying to fix a problem. Statutes and policies are the ends; rhetoric is the means. If law is the architecture of public life, rhetoric is the art that brings it into being.

PN: How is rhetoric used in communication? Does its influence depend on the subject of discussion?

TL: I'm not sure I would say that rhetoric is "used in communication" because that phrasing would suggest that it can be separated from communication - that there are some forms or instances of public communication that are rhetoric and others that are not. This is what American politicians and journalists often imply when they describe a particular message as rhetoric. For politicians to call an opponent's messages "rhetoric" is to accuse him or her of some duplicity. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding that pervades our culture. Rhetoric is not a category or strategy of communication. It might be better to think of it as a particular property of speech - its persuasive property. To use a simple analogy, physicists tell us that "heat" is one property of matter - which in quantitative terms is its degree of molecular motion. Some objects have very little heat and others have a lot, but they all have it. Absolute zero does not occur in nature, or in the lab. Speech is like that too. All acts of speech have some rhetorical potential, which is the potential to bring about change - some in small ways and others in large ways. But all speech can affect human judgment. So wherever there is speech there will be rhetoric.

How influential rhetoric will be does depend upon how this persuasive property plays out at any given moment of history. Lincoln's Gettysburg address was influential because the American experiment with democracy was in crisis in 1863, and there was great uncertainly about what to do to fix it. That speech proposed a compelling solution. Persuasion plays a greater role when there is great uncertainty and great potential for change. And so subjects that introduce high levels of doubt in volatile times are going to be treated by messages that are "hot", that are rhetorical in a pronounced way. We're less dependent on rhetoric when there is a higher degree of certainty. People don't talk much about what is certain. What's the point? We talk about issues that are in doubt.

Rhetoric has never been understood in my field or in its history going back to classical antiquity as something optional, something that public actors can turn on or off. It is a term that denotes what human beings do whenever they enter into public communication. Anyone who engages in public communication is engaging in rhetoric in the same sense that anyone who paints portraits is a portrait artist. There are good and bad painters, but all are artists. And similarly, while it is possible to judge rhetoric as honest or dishonest, effective or ineffective, it is not possible to engage in public communication without also practising this art.

Rhetoric is used typically to persuade, because the public contexts for which it is created are ones marked by disagreement and competition. Political speech is persuasive because politicians are trying to win elections or to get legislation passed. But disagreement and competition characterize other public situations that are not ordinarily associated with rhetoric. The television news is persuasive because its producers want us to watch it at six o-clock rather than reruns of the Twilight Zone, or even worse the news on a competitor's channel. And, of course, I would strongly insist that scientific communication has this persuasive aspect as well.

Discourse in the public arena has certain characteristic properties, and many of them are undesirable. This is because the public arena is a place of competition and conflict, and so those who enter into it are often tempted to speak in unsavoury ways. This fact has always given rhetoric a bad name. But rhetoric encompasses the whole of public communication; it includes the high oratory of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the demagoguery of Huey Long.

PN: How would you characterise the role of rhetoric in science?

TL: There is a popular and widespread misconception in the world that scientific communication is distinctly different from other forms of public communication, but this is not really so. Its persistence is explained by an old adage in my field, which I think comes from Roderick Hart at the University of Texas, which says that rhetoric is most effective which disguises itself as something else. And I would have to say that science is the master of disguises. This is a pattern that began to manifest very early on in scientific history, I would say in the rhetoric of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. Bacon idealized scientific thinkers as ones with "minds washed clean from opinions", as if to suggest that scientific method is an alternative to debate. Here's a longer example of how Bacon contrasted science against rhetoric.

Quote

For the end which this science of mine proposes is the invention not of arguments but of arts not of things in accordance with principles, but of principles themselves; not of probable reasons, but of designations and directions for works. And as the intention is different, so accordingly is the effect; the effect of the one being to overcome an opponent in argument, of the other to command nature in action.

Bacon, of course, was a rhetorical genius. He was trying to establish a place for science in English society and across Europe more broadly. What better way to do this than by creating the impression that science, by dealing in certainties rather than probabilities and demonstrations rather than arguments, might provide an alternative to humanity's endless squabbling?

In saying this I am not trying to suggest that science is not a profoundly powerful form of inquiry, that its truth claims are without substance or that many scientific questions cannot be answered with a definitive yes or no. But scientific communication has all the same kind of properties that we typically find in other arenas of communication. A chief reason for this is the fact that scientists are forever at the frontiers of knowledge. They're not concerned with what has been established but with what is still in doubt and still contested. Contrary to Bacon's spin, this means that science is all about arguments and opinions - the very stuff of rhetoric.

Many people confuse the rhetorical perspective on science with the radical subjectivism of post-modernists, but generally speaking that is not what we're saying. The position of rhetorical scholars who specialize in the study of scientific communication is just that science is mostly similar to other forms of public communication. Science, in other words, is argument and debate.

PN: How have studies of rhetoric in recent times impacted understanding of science?

TL: Rhetorical study of science is part of a much broader and growing academic interest in this area. The fields of sociology and philosophy have really been the pioneers here. In those two fields inquiry was initially driven by questions about the astonishing success that science has enjoyed since the sixteenth century. In earlier times the project of the philosophy of science and to some extent the sociology of science had been to figure out what had made science so singularly successful. The holy grail of the philosophy of science was to pin down the precise epistemological conditions that made science different from other kinds of inquiry - its boundary conditions so to speak. No such defining philosophy of knowledge has ever been identified - something that prompted Paul Feyerabend to create the impression that science is "anarchy" in his book Against Method. This of course was a rather reactionary stance, one, I suspect, that Feyerabend came to regret taking. But it illustrated a real problem. Every effort to define what science is has managed to exclude from consideration certain arenas of inquiry that most of us would regard as scientific. The most familiar example of this was Karl Popper's exclusion of Darwinian evolution as a "metaphysical program", because it did not satisfy his defining criterion of falsifiability. But in the late nineteenth century we have the case of positivism excluding atomic theory because of its inferential character.

There seems to be no singular path to truth about nature. The history of science has shown that different approaches work for different problems. Although people often think of science as something governed by certain methodological rigors, one can always find success stories in its history that don't fit that mould. The collapse of the whole demarcationist project late in the last century has given a tremendous boost to the sociology of science and of course to the rhetoric of science as well. The sociological approach goes back much farther than this, to the 1930s when Robert K. Merton began to suggest that part of the puzzle of science's success was to be found in social factors, in an institutionally enforced ethic or ethos that made science distinct from other forms of inquiry. It has now been succeeded by the more radical "strong program" out of the UK which is more sympathetic to the anarchy interpretation of Feyerabend.

A pivotal turn in the understanding of science seems to have come with the translation of the philosopher Marcello Pera's Scienza e Rhetorica into English in 1994. The University of Chicago Press unfortunately dropped the word "rhetoric" from Pera's Italian title in translation, probably in deference to readers who are put off by the term, but this is precisely the volume's approach. Pera presents the scientific efforts of Galileo on behalf of the Copernican theory as argument rather than demonstration. This is to say that Galileo tried to establish the Copernican position by appealing to whatever he thought would persuade interested readers. Galileo appealed to experimental evidence and to other specialized rigors of mathematical representation, but that is only a part of his case, and to Pera's mind not necessarily its most crucial part.

Like many of his successors, Galileo tried to make it seem that his case was base based on "proof", that it was merely an assemblage of facts. This was destined to become a characteristic rhetorical move for his successors. Of course Copernicanism was consistent with a multiplicity of facts, but that didn't prove it. This position was won by argument, much in the same way that other disagreements are resolves. Successful arguments create consensus, not proofs.

PN: How has your research agreed or disagreed with others looking at the rhetorical dimensions of science?

TL: The main thrust of work in this area deals with rhetoric as a model for looking at the professional and technical discourses of scientists. It brings a rhetorical perspective to scientific work. So, for instance, rather than presuming that scientific discourse belongs to a category of communication all by itself, rhetoricians of science have treated it as a discourse that follows the same conventions as other forms of public communication. Scholars like Gross, Fahnestock and Bazerman have done this with classic presentations of scientific work. Others, such as Taylor in his work on demarcation and Ceccarelli in hers on the creation of new scientific disciplines, look at how rhetoric comes into play in more specialized cases - but ones still having to do with the execution of scientific work.

My own focus has had a more public character. I'm interested in how science has established and maintained the bases of its patronage by speaking to its various publics. This kind of rhetoric has direct bearing on scientific work, since science is utterly dependent upon patronage.

PN: You have written that the public discourse of scientists often employs a "priestly voice", unwilling to accept interference from the public and "scientising" them rather than popularise science. Is this a resistance to "dumbing down" or something else?

TL: What I call science's "priestly voice" is the outcome of several hundred years of experimentation with different ways of relating itself to its patrons. Patronage is a perennial problem for science, one of huge proportions. Science is at once an exceedingly costly undertaking and also one that does not necessarily offer any immediate return on investments. We all know that science has produced applications of immeasurable benefit, but in history when scientific patronage has been dependent upon the promise of such payoffs, science work has suffered. This is because most of what we call basic science is exploratory and can't promise applications. It produces knowledge that winds up in science journals but not in pharmaceutical patents or medical applications. The characteristic expectation of Americans that science is valuable because it pays off has traditionally deterred scientific growth. This was why the U.S. remained a backwater province of theoretical science until after WWII - when the public began to realize that theory might pay off in things like atom bombs. But more generally, scientific culture has responded to the pressures of patronage by trying to construct a priestly ethos - by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.

There's this old adage, Chinese I think, that says that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you feed him for a life time. The priestly character of scientific rhetoric reflects a similar logic. The approach that would sell the public on the worth of science on the basis of its practical payoffs is like making it a scientific patron on particular issues - which only feeds science for a day. But if the scientific culture can convince us that deep down we are all scientists, or at least that we should all aspire to this elite realm of knowing, then science might enjoy patronage for life. Priestly rhetoric, in other words, tries to recreate society in science's image.

Priestly rhetoric is not so much about a disdain for "dumbing science down". Scientists have reservations about "popularization" for good reasons. The priestly character of scientific rhetoric has to do with the need to identify science with the most essential human values by making it a world view - by creating a public culture based in scientism. The best known example of this approach to scientific communication in recent memory would be that taken by Carl Sagan. Perhaps more successfully than any other popular writer of the last century, except perhaps H. G. Wells, Sagan was able create the sense that history has a scientific destiny.

PN: In your essay Heresy, orthodoxy and the politics of science, you argued that the public rhetoric of many scientists is aimed at maintaining advantages like epistemic privilege or material benefits such as funding and grants. How did you arrive at this conclusion?

TL: That essay was based mainly on the internal dialogue that was going on among scientists during the creationist controversies of the early 1980s, and at the time the scientists who were most vocal about the threat of creationism were also likely to express these concerns. In some sense it would be reasonable for them to have these fears. This goes back to my previous comments about the precarious nature of scientific patronage. Evolution has always been a fairly unpopular subject with the American public, and so if creationism were able to gain some official sanction as science, as it threatened to do in the Arkansas and Louisiana cases from that decade, evolutionary biologists might very well have found themselves competing with creationists research societies for funding.

This is not a way of saying that evolutionary scientists act in bad faith in opposing creationism. I assume that they speak their personal scientific convictions in doing so. But this doesn't change the fact that science is driven by other motives as well - those of the pocketbook and the ego as well as those of the intellect. This is why a rhetorical perspective on science is helpful, since it is a perspective that traditionally tries to be persuasively holistic, to take into consideration every aspect of an argument.

PN: How would you describe the importance of rhetoric when considering the demarcation problem in science?

TL: The rhetorician Charles Alan Taylor has used the term "ecology" to describe what I just called the holistic character of the rhetorical perspective. Like any complex web of living organisms sharing a common environment, activities of scientific inquiry occur within a larger rhetorical ecosphere. This greatly complicates the problem of scientific demarcation. It may be meaningful, for instance, to demarcate science from religion, but not in any absolute sense. If science is embedded in a social environment that has certain religious characteristics, science is likely to reflect them - though this is not the same thing as saying that it is determined by them. The scientific work of classical cultures tended to be rationalistic because its religious culture was rationalistic. The same kind of religious culture that gave us a philosopher like Plato was also likely to give us scientific thinkers like Euclid and Pythagoras.

This means, among other things, that the issue of scientific demarcation is both an intellectual and a social problem. It doesn't denigrate science to acknowledge that its public communication may reflect social or institutional concerns. By definition science would have to be concerned with these matters because inquiry cannot be undertaken except where there is an institutional framework capable of sustaining it.

This rhetorical perspective explains the origins and endurance of the popular but clearly false belief that science and religion exist in a perpetual state of war. One would expect there to be disagreements between science and religion. There always have been, but nobody every called this a "war" until late in the nineteenth century. Even the famous and singular case of Galileo and the Catholic Church was as much an internal scientific feud as it was a science-religion feud. Although the Church believed that Copernicanism was a threat to the faith at that time, it also thought it was coming down on the side of good science in deciding to oppose Galileo. Urban VIII acted precisely as scientists wish for current Popes to act on the issue of evolution. They want the church to side with the scientific majority that stands on Darwinian evolution against a small minority of scientists who favor a design model of origins. Siding with the scientific majority was precisely what the Church did in the seventeenth century. So why do people believe that this incident demonstrates that science and religion are natural enemies?

The pervasiveness of the warfare metaphor, I think, reflects the pressures for demarcation. The metaphor first became prevalent, as the historian John Moore has shown, in the late nineteenth century. This was a time when science was in the midst of an institutional crisis. In the Victorian era science was making a move on the academy in Europe and the U.S. It was trying to greatly enlarge science's place in an academic culture that had been created by Christianity. The scientific culture needed to gain a stronger foothold in the universities in order to continue its growth, and what better to do this than by creating the idea that religion was science's evil stepmother?

History can't account for this belief but demarcation can, provided that we recognize that this is as much an institutional problem as it is an intellectual one.

PN: With regard to the creationism debate, it has been claimed that the scientific community had "retreated into orthodoxy" in response to the creationists, invoking "threadbare epistemic chestnuts" to define creationism as pseudoscientific. Why was this approach taken, rather than an alternative, and what were its consequences? What course do you think should have been followed instead?

TL: The retreat into orthodoxy is a logical response of institutions whose authority is tied up with any particular belief system. My early work on the scientific response to creationism drew its inspiration from research on the sociology of deviance (especially that of Kai Erickson and Lester Kurtz), which seemed to suggest that institutions have a certain attraction to deviant insiders or heretics. This is because heretics provide institutions with counterpoints against which they can articulate their official positions. While it is often difficult for institutions to say what they believe in any definitive sense (they may not really know, or there may be disagreement among elites), they can create consensus around what they reject - heresy. This is one of the reasons groups gain solidarity in having a common enemy. But having heretical enemies is particularly advantageous. This comes from the fact that heretics (as opposed to pure infidels) are more similar to their orthodox counterparts and thus capable of providing this useful contrastive benchmark for their right-thinking foes.

Deviance studies suggest that heresy hunts are likely to occur at moments of institutional insecurity. You might not get this impression from listening to anti-creationist rhetoric, except to the extent that it focuses so largely not on the scientific case for evolution as on secondary issues of method, metaphysics and motive. It is more often concerned with showing why creationism is not science than on showing why Darwinism is. This draws attentions away from difficulties that may plague evolutionary theory.

The difficulties that make creationism an attractive enemy for science are not necessarily intellectual ones - though they could be. To use Taylor's metaphor again, I'm of the opinion that public discourses are best regarded as belonging to some larger "ecology" of meaning. Science, when it goes public, may be concerned about advancing scientific truth, but it is also going to be concerned with a larger set of issues relating to patronage, authority, its place in the academy, etc. Were science merely a technical arena of inquiry, creationism wouldn't be a threat. The fact that a majority of Americans remain sceptical about evolution and the fact that some of these folks claim that science supports the religious doctrine of creation doesn't directly interfere with scientists' ability to pursue the naturalistic program they prefer. But creationism does threaten to disrupt the more fragile linkages between science and public culture that make patronage possible. Creationism is an important threat, but it is an indirect one. Scientists understand that public attitudes about science matter, because they understand that the flow of patronage that keeps research going is likely to be affected by public dispositions toward their work. Obviously if all Americans embraced the evolutionary paradigm with the same enthusiasm that Darwinists have for it, it would enjoy the kind of finding that supports research on cancer and birth defects.

PN: How does the response to the advocacy of Intelligent Design differ, if at all?

TL: One consistent pattern in the scientific mainstream's response to ID has been to try to identify it with scientific creationism, to paint it with the same brush so to speak. Such allegations are still frequently made - that ID is merely "creationism dressed up in a cheap tuxedo". This is what movement scholars call a strategy of "evasion", an institutional effort to slow the momentum of a movement by pretending that it doesn't exist - or in this case by pretending that it is made up of merely radical fundamentalists of no account. This strategy is still being plied in the mass media, for public audiences that remain largely ignorant about the differences between these two movements. But in many of the more academic settings where ID is being debated this stopped working long ago. On the inside there has been a more direct and sustained response to intelligent design. Scientific creationism was largely ignored by scientists - except when it tried to legislate for equal time in various states. But ID is not being ignored. As movements evolve the strategies of evasion initially plied by the institutions they challenge typically give way to strategies of confrontation and coercion. We see a confrontation approach in the whole cottage industry that has grown up within the scientific culture among writers like Kenneth Miller and Robert Pennock for whom the refutation of ID has become a full time job. Incidents of coercion are more localized but pervasive nonetheless.

PN: How can the study of the rhetorical aspects of these debates improve our conduct within them, and in similar discussions of pseudoscience?

TL: In a lecture way back in 1967 Stanley Jaki noted that science lacked an academic sub-discipline devoted to the criticism of science. Other disciplines, such as literature, history, and even biblical scholarship have a critical voice, but not science. A few reflective voices have emerged in the scientific community, such as that of Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, but vulgar positivism still persists.

The rhetoric of science has a distinct role to play in the emergence of such a critical perspective. Some scholars view rhetoric as a kind of philosophy of public life. In his 1991 translation of Aristotle's Rhetoric the renowned classicist George Kennedy used the subtitle A Theory of Civic Discourse. This, I presume, was both an interpretation of how Aristotle saw rhetoric and a summary of how most rhetoricians see it now. To understand practices of public communication is to also understand how it can best serve the public good. It is likewise in the public's interest to understand scientific rhetoric, since science is now a major player in public life. The field of rhetoric brings the accumulated wisdom of 2500 years of study to this subject.

PN: What are the wider implications of the increasing number of papers and books considering the role of rhetoric?

TL: Broadly it means that our culture is beginning to recover from an unfortunate side effect of the Enlightenment. Modernism in large was a reaction against traditional sources of power in both the religious and political realms, and because rhetoric was tied up with these by various accidents of history it fell into disfavour. Although the Enlightenment championed the notion of a civilization based in political and personal liberty, by abandoning the traditions of rhetoric it also tended to undermine the only philosophy of communication that could sustain such changes. Rhetoric never died out entirely in democratic countries, which never wholly embraced the Enlightenment project, but it was virtually driven into extinction in the Soviet Union. When Americans started to go into the former communist empire shortly after its collapse they were astonished to discover how helpless its citizens were in their efforts to establish democracy. Democracy takes more than a constitutional plan. It also requires a critical mass of citizens capable of doing the work of democracy - which is the work of public deliberation and debate. It takes much education to cultivate such skills, and the Soviets had abandoned that part of the West’s intellectual tradition.

Rhetorical scholarship is also growing in our universities because lots of bright students are discovering how intellectually rich this curriculum is and also how eminently practical it is when they bring it to the world outside.

PN: What have been the main influences on your thinking?

TL: I tend to have one foot planted in the work of intellectual and cultural historians such as John Greene, Frank Turner, Adrian Desmond and Frank Manuel who are especially concerned with the larger societal implications of science. The work of intellectual and cultural historians is especially helpful to rhetoricians because it is history that has been forced to take a rhetorical perspective. To understand the history of ideas is to understand public debates and the artistry that make one side or another victorious.

The other foot is planted amidst an eclectic assortment of writers whose work has most shaped my own rhetorical perspective - Northrop Frye, Kenneth Burke, Hayden White and Clifford Geertz. The common thread that draws these scholars together is their exploration of the idea that narrative, a category of speech usually associated with fiction, is just as much a category of public communication. Like many others, I an inclined to regard this as one of the most significant developments in the humanities during the last century.

PN: What are you currently working on?

TL: I've recently completed a book manuscript under the working title Rhetorical Darwinism. This title reflects my efforts to situate the emergence of the evolutionary world view within its broader discursive context - in particular that part of this communication environment that has to do with science's institutional development. The volume's thesis is that for rhetorical reasons evolution of necessity develops both a scientific perspective and a scientistic ideology when it enters into the realm of public debate. This isn't to say that evolutionary biology is not a legitimate scientific pursuit. That's a judgment I'm not capable of making. As a rhetorician I've been educated to diagnose the features of public communication, and in its public presentations evolution has always been a blend of science and scientism. It may be grounded in evolutionary science but other added features of language always transform it into a kind of exercise in the architecture of ideology. My book tries to explain the historical and rhetorical reasons for this.

The most of familiar example of an evolutionary ideology is what was once called "social Darwinism", but that is not my precise subject. Rhetorical Darwinism is a phrase I use to characterize those public discourses used to instantiate the scientific identity - in the broadest sense. I argue that the highly professionalized identity that science developed in the nineteenth century found its most ideal expression in evolutionary symbols. These didn't originally come from Darwin. They came from the Enlightenment, but they have subsequently become tied up with evolutionary science because these scientific ideas do the most to give them a priestly status. Evolution is the naturalization of history, and it is from history that western societies have always drawn their notions of social authority. If you can define history you can define everything.

PN: What is your involvement with the incommensurability.com project and what do you hope to achieve?

TL: My involvement with this project is minimal, limited to one book chapter that is forthcoming in Randy Harris' Rhetoric and Incommensurability volume. My contribution examines the role played by Thomas Huxley in the emergence of the Darwinian paradigm in the nineteenth century. I enlarge upon a point made about Huxley and Darwin by the historian John Greene, namely that the scientific culture of that period was committed to evolutionism long before any scientific theory of development appeared. I contend that the emerging positivism of the Victorian period, which precluded design, was both a philosophy of science and an institutional ideology. Evolution and design became incommensurate for ideological reasons not intellectual ones.

PN: How do you see the involvement of rhetorical studies in discussions of science developing in future?

TL: I couldn't begin to predict what will happen in academic circles. What I hope to see more broadly is a growing rhetorical literacy in our culture that will make people more intelligent consumers of scientific information and argument.

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