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Becoming an Intelligent Consumer of Scientific Information

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Thomas Lessl: Science and Rhetoric
Interviewed by Paul Newall

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.

“… the scientific culture of [the nineteenth century] was committed to
evolutionism long before any scientific theory of development appeared”

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. Statues 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

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.

Continue reading the interview here

7 Replies to “Becoming an Intelligent Consumer of Scientific Information

  1. 1
    dchammer says:

    A most cogent and enlightening observation:

    “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.”

    “…vulgar positivism…” Well said.

  2. 2
    PaV says:

    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.

    Game. Set. Match.

    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.

  3. 3
    Roger says:

    Readers shouldn’t pass up the link to the demarcationist project in the original article:

    Lakatos was writing in 1973. Even today, however, Popper’s name is spoken with reverance and his falsificationism appealed to as either the definitive statement on what characterises science (“a theory should be falsifiable if it is to be considered scientific”) or an important part thereof. The same moral indignation at refusing to dispense with unfalsifiable ideas can be found wherever science is discussed in vaguely philosophical terms. The strange thing is that – however harsh Lakatos’ words may seem – the high regard for falsificationism in one form or another persists in spite of philosophers of science have thoroughly destroyed it as a credible demarcation criterion. The commitment to it is perhaps explained by the political and rhetorical importance of demarcation in the public sphere.

  4. 4
    dchammer says:

    So falsification has been … err … uh … falsified?

  5. 5
    jmcd says:

    Falsification is generallly not viewed as adequate for demarcation among philosophers of science. Lakatos is a bit of a radical, but he ceratainly has raised problems with falsification. The current line of demarcation (if such a line can exist)is laid out in a 1993 Supreme Court case and looks like this.

    The theoretical underpinnings of the methods must yield testable predictions by means of which the theory could be falsified.
    The methods should preferably be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
    There should be a known rate of error that can be used in evaluating the results.
    The methods should be generally accepted within the relevant scientific community.

    That last parts is a bit stiffling and possibly would not be applicable during a major paradigm shift.

  6. 6
    dchammer says:

    Newall, in his article on the demarcation problem, summed up that, “What we learn from Lakatos’ lectures is that the demarcation problem is alive and well…”

    Given that, these days, the label “science” is stuck on everything from computer models of global warming catastrophes to regularly recurring bird flu scares, I’d call that an understatement.

    And I’d call his concluding sentence a case of whistling in the graveyard: “That it is so difficult to define what science is shows us not a failing but the very strength of this mode of inquiry in the first place.”


    (Heh. Leave it to a rhetorician to perform such a deft rhetorical back flip. Give him an ‘A’ for effort!)

    Looking from the outside in, I’m beginning to wonder what good reasons exist for continuing to lend “science” (whatever it may or may not be, we can’t tell) anywhere at all near the kind of credence (not to mention resources) that it has come to enjoy.

    When it comes to “philosophies of science,” I’d point out that philosophy can, and does, survive and thrive on self-contradictory notions that there are no such things as objective truths. But can science?

    When what the Supreme Court says starts to become definitive on a question as basic as demarcation, well… It’s no mystery to me why the whole enterprise appears more and more to be a mere concubine, captive to political power.

  7. 7
    dchammer says:

    Okay, okay. Lessl is the rhetorician, not Newall (but he ought to be).

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