Rhetoric of Science and Technology

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Rhetorical inquiry is a multidisciplinary field of study devoted to the critical examination of discourse. Initiated in classical times, it cultivates an "ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion" (Aristotle 1991, p. 36). As an academic field, rhetoric of science and technology is the study of how scientists and non-scientists use arguments to advance claims about science and technology.

The idea that there is a rhetoric of science and technology may strike some as perverse and others as obvious. In popular parlance, the term rhetoric connotes something less than truthful, the ranting of politicians who evade substantive dialogue. When tied to science and technology, rhetoric can sound like a curse, staining the purity of certain knowledge and precise measurement with the mark of ideological bias and political maneuvering. But to those who study the rhetoric of science and technology, the term has no such connotation. Instead it is steeped in its ancient tradition and denotes the careful study of how texts are designed to seek the assent of an audience. When those texts are from the realm of science and technology, the means of persuasion utilized include such factors as appeals to disciplinary assumptions and values, the demonstration of methodological rigor, and the selection of language that suggest the neutral observation of nature.

Historical Development

The negative connotations attached to rhetoric are largely the result of a lengthy conflict with philosophy, in which the latter claimed the more valued side of oppositions between opinion and truth, form and content, passion and reason. Yet recent developments in philosophy and other fields recognize these dichotomies as problematic, resulting in a general resurgence of interest in the tradition of rhetorical inquiry, a tradition maintained by enclaves of scholars working mostly in departments of Speech Communication and English in the United States.

Developments in the philosophy, sociology, and history of science have also contributed to the rise of scholarship on the rhetoric of science and technology. Science studies scholars have shown that what one era recognizes as the truth of a scientific theory is seen by a later era as mere opinion, supplanted when an authorizing scientific community accepts a new truth claim. The fact that this transformation occurs by way of arguments addressed to a particular audience, that it often entails a significant shift in values and beliefs by people with an investment in the outcome of those arguments, and that it is frequently marked by controversy, makes rhetorical inquiry a natural approach to the study of such moments.

The idea that communication between scientists and the public might have a rhetorical dimension, or that new technologies may be promoted through rhetorical means, is rarely disputed. Thus the rhetorical examinations of these aspects of science and technology are likewise promising scholarly pursuits in an age when science and technology play such an important role in the development of public attitudes and policies.

The first hint that rhetorical inquiry might be applied to scientific discourse began appearing in the journals of rhetoricians in the 1970s. There were theoretical essays exploring the developments in philosophy and sociology of science that contributed to the possibility for a rhetoric of science (Weimer 1977; Overington 1977), research that began to examine the persuasive nature of specific scientific texts (Campbell 1975), and a general call for scholarship in this new area (Wander 1976). The birth of the field was announced when two books appeared almost simultaneously with nearly identical titles: Lawrence J. Prelli's A Rhetoric of Science (1989) and Alan G. Gross's The Rhetoric of Science (1990). Both fruitfully applied classical rhetorical concepts to the study of scientific truth claims.

In 1991 Randy Allen Harris wrote a thorough review of the nascent field, defining its relationship to other fields and organizing the scattered research into useful taxonomic categories. In 1993 the American Association for the Rhetoric of Science and Technology held its inaugural meeting at the National Communication Association convention, where it continues to meet annually. The field has continued to develop with the aid of such professional supports as the University of Iowa's Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry, graduate programs specializing in the study of rhetoric in science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Minnesota, and a series of books on the Rhetoric of the Human Sciences published by the University of Wisconsin Press. Research has generally grown along two paths: studies of the arguments made by scientists when they address other scientists, and scholarship that focuses on the relationship between science or technology and the public.

Internal Rhetorics of Science

The most heavily researched area in this growing field is the internal rhetoric of scientists, that is, the discourse scientists use when addressing other scientists, either within their own discipline or across disciplines. Because most people think the internal discourse of scientists is resistant to rhetorical scrutiny, scholars blazing the trail have focused on establishing that even the most specialized communication can be examined usefully through the lens of rhetorical analysis. The prototypical scientific research article has been the subject of much research. For example Watson and Crick's famous 1953 Nature report, "A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid," has been examined in several unrelated studies that explain its persuasive design through rhetorical theories pertaining to voice, ethos, irony, kairos, stasis, and narrative (Bazerman 1988, Halloran 1984, Gross 1990, Miller 1992, Prelli 1989, Fisher 1994). An entire volume of essays has been written on the rhetoric of a single journal article by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin (Selzer 1993).

More evidence that the research report was the primary focus for early rhetoricians of science is the fact that some of the first books in the field were devoted to illuminating writing practices in this genre. For example Charles Bazerman's Shaping Written Knowledge (1988) contrasts the scientific article with other forms of academic discourse and traces historical changes and disciplinary differences in the design of the experimental report. It shows how even scientists "use, transform, and invent tools and tricks of the symbolic trade" to shape claims so that they are judged novel and truthful by other scientists (p. 318). In Writing Biology (1990), Greg Myers looks at the review process to examine the way authors and editors, operating with different interests, negotiate the status of a scientific claim in a journal article. His book further traces the way two controversies are played out in scientific journals, where scientists interpret their own words and those of their opponents as freely and expertly as any debater in the public forum.

In addition to the rhetoric of the experimental article, landmark scientific monographs such as Newton's Opticks (1704) and Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) and have received sustained attention from scholars of rhetoric seeking to understand how scientists persuade their colleagues to accept radical new theories. The most successful scientists are often the ones who are also master rhetors, capable of adapting new ideas to the presuppositions of their audiences rather than making a frontal assault on a standard paradigm with the irresistible force of a revolutionary theory.

Rhetorical studies have done a particularly good job of showing how the style in which a scientific claim is communicated has an influence on how a scientific community thinks about that claim, and vice versa. Jeanne Fahnestock's careful account of rhetorical figures in science demonstrates that language does "much of our thinking for us, even in the sciences, and rather than being an unfortunate contamination, its influence has been productive historically, helping individual thinkers generate concepts and theories that can then be put to the test" (Fahnestock 1999, p. xi).

Because facilitating the growth of knowledge is the central activity of scientists, the way in which scientists use the tools of language and argument to advance knowledge claims has received the most attention from scholars of the rhetoric of science. Another internal rhetoric of science that receives less attention, either because it is considered less central or because its character is less contested and thus less shocking when discovered, is the way in which scientists persuade one another that a particular line of research holds future promise. Myers devotes a chapter of his book to the rhetoric of the grant proposal, a genre of scientific writing that must convince reviewers a research program deserves funding because of its potential interest to the scientific community and the professional ethos of the authors. Leah Ceccarelli (2001) examines motivational texts of science to show that scientists who employ a strategic ambiguity of language are better able to persuade colleagues from different disciplines to overcome barriers separating their fields and engage in new interdisciplinary lines of research. These internal discourses of science that do not seek the assent of colleagues to a particular truth claim, but instead seek future action from fellow scientists, have been less studied by rhetoricians, but may be just as important to the ultimate development of science.

For the most part, research on internal rhetorics of science tends to be descriptive and explanatory in nature, uncovering the rhetorical practices at the heart of scientific activity. But some of it has an implicit prescriptive character, suggesting other resources of language and argument that scientists might use to shape science in more useful or ethical ways. In contrast research on external rhetorics of science and technology tends to be more explicit in its criticism of current communication practices and more direct in its recommendations for change.

External Rhetorics of Science and Technology

The ways in which scientists communicate with the public and the ways in which nonscientists communicate about scientific or technological issues are more obviously rhetorical in nature, and ripe for critical commentary. Popularization is one genre of scientific writing that is a natural subject for rhetorical analysis. By contrasting journal articles written for specialists with popularizations on the same topics, rhetorical inquiry has shown that popular accounts remove hedges and qualifications for scientific claims while emphasizing the uniqueness of observations (Fahnestock 1986). Because of these changes, the public may get a distorted view of the certainty and significance of a scientific knowledge claim, something that can be dangerous when the subject has important social implications. Rhetorical analysis contrasting internal rhetorics of science with popularizations has also demonstrated that while the former emphasize the activities of the scientists and the conceptual structure of the discipline in which they are working, the latter emphasize the activities of the objects being studied (Myers 1990). Again distortion may result, with public audiences developing an image of science as the unmediated observation of external nature, without the interference of scientists who employ theoretical apparatus or make methodological decisions.

Rhetorical inquiry has also brought critical attention to the situation in which an expert takes a new scientific theory away from its disciplinary origins and argues before public audiences, thus eluding accountability to the controls of a specialized scientific community (Lyne and Howe 1990). Popularization may be the genre of science writing that does the most to break down the barrier that exists between the two cultures of scientists and nonscientists, but its tendency to misrepresent science as a non-controversial activity of observation by disinterested individuals has ethical consequences, especially when the public is asked to make decisions about matters for which science and technology do not have indisputable answers.

Situations in which the public must act on technical matters despite a lack of scientific consensus have been the subject of several case studies in the rhetoric of science and technology. Examining cases as diverse as the recombinant DNA controversy of the 1970s (Gross 1990, Waddell 1990) and disputes over the accuracy of missile defense technology in the 1980s and 1990s (Mitchell 2000), rhetorical critics have analyzed debates about the public control of contemporary scientific and technological developments. Most have supported the findings of an early study of the discourse surrounding the Three Mile Island incident (Farrell and Goodnight 1981). When technical reason usurps the place of more appropriate modes of public deliberation about matters of social or political import, a crisis of communication is the result. In each case study, rhetorical patterns that promote democratic participation are endorsed as an alternative to the dysfunctional assumption that people can rely on science and technology to solve their most serious public problems.

Another type of scholarship on external rhetorics of science and technology takes a more historical approach, scrutinizing the documentary evidence surrounding a particular scientific field or technological development to uncover the specific discursive forms that reflect and shape public attitudes. The scope of such rhetorical histories can be broad, as it is in Celeste Condit's 1999 study of public debates about human heredity from 1900–1995, or narrow, as in Charles Bazerman's 1999 study of how Thomas Edison and the people around him represented light to the public from 1878–1882. In both cases though, the purpose of the rhetorical study is not to critique the oversimplification of popularizations, nor to valorize public deliberation over technological decision making, but to demonstrate the complicated ways in which science, technology, and culture interact in the public mind.


Although the rhetorical study of science and technology can be broadly divided into the examination of internal and external communication, there is work within the field that breaks out of this neat mold. For example the rhetoric of technology typically makes no distinction between internal and external genres, but examines both in the patterns of communication unique to "enterprises concerned with the development, production, and marketing of artifacts and practices" (Miller 1994, p. 92). There also are various fields of rhetorical study that intersect with the rhetoric of science and technology, but are not typically considered a part of it, such as the rhetorical study of medicine, mathematics, economics, or communication technologies.

Study of rhetoric in science and technology is an important but young field that sometimes suffers lack of confidence in communicating outside its peer group. A scan of citation practices in the literature demonstrates that most rhetoricians of science and technology are familiar with related research done in philosophy, history, and sociology of science, but the reverse is rarely true. Publishing mostly in journals read by other rhetoricians, or in books that are marketed to Speech Communication and English departments, they do little to communicate their findings to other science studies scholars or to scientists and the public. This is unfortunate, as the rhetorical critic's tools of close reading and argument analysis illuminate aspects of texts and debates that would benefit scholars in other fields. Perhaps with time, the rhetoric of science and technology will mature into a field that acts as a full and equal participant in the community of science studies scholars. At that point perhaps it will also do more to export its findings especially to scientists and citizens who must evaluate scientific discourse to make fully informed ethical decisions about science and technology.


SEE ALSO Communication Ethics;Discourse Ethics; Knowledge;Science, Technology, and Literature.


Aristotle. (1991). On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press. Classical work on rhetoric that is still much used.

Bazerman, Charles. (1988). Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bazerman, Charles. (1999). The Languages of Edison's Light. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Campbell, John Angus. (1975). "The Polemical Mr. Darwin." Quarterly Journal of Speech 61: 375–390. An early essay in the author's corpus on Darwin's Origin.

Ceccarelli, Leah. (2001). Shaping Science with Rhetoric: The Cases of Dobzhansky, Schrödinger, and Wilson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Condit, Celeste Michelle. (1999). The Meanings of the Gene: Public Debates about Human Heredity. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Fahnestock, Jeanne. (1986). "Accommodating Science: The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts." Written Communication 3: 275–296.

Fahnestock, Jeanne. (1999). Rhetorical Figures in Science. New York: Oxford University Press.

Farrell, Thomas, and G. Thomas Goodnight. (1981). "Accidental Rhetoric: The Root Metaphors of Three Mile Island." Communication Monographs 48: 271–300.

Fisher, Walter R. (1994). "Narrative Rationality and the Logic of Scientific Discourse." Argumentation 8: 21–32.

Gross, Alan. (1990). The Rhetoric of Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. The second printing, 1996, has a new preface that reviews some work in the field.

Halloran, S. Michael. (1984). "The Birth of Molecular Biology: An Essay in the Rhetorical Criticism of Scientific Discourse." Rhetoric Review 3: 70–83.

Harris, R. Allen. (1991). "Rhetoric of Science." College English 53: 282–307.

Lyne, John, and Henry F. Howe. (1990). "The Rhetoric of Expertise: E. O. Wilson and Sociobiology." Quarterly Journal of Speech 76: 134–151.

Miller, Carolyn. (1992). "Kairos in the Rhetoric of Science." In A Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy, eds. Stephen P. Witte, Neil Nakadate, and Roger D. Cherry. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Miller, Carolyn. (1994). "Opportunity, Opportunism, and Progress: Kairos in the Rhetoric of Technology." Argumentation 8: 81–96.

Mitchell, Gordon. (2000). Strategic Deception: Rhetoric, Science, and Politics in Missile Defense Advocacy. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Myers, Greg. (1990). Writing Biology: Texts in the Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Overington, Michael A. (1977). "The Scientific Community as Audience: Toward a Rhetorical Analysis of Science." Philosophy and Rhetoric 10: 143–164.

Prelli, Lawrence. (1989). A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. Introduces readers to classical rhetorical theory, then adjusts that theory to apply it to science.

Selzer, Jack, ed. (1993). Understanding Scientific Prose. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Various critics apply different methods to analyze a single scientific essay.

Waddell, Craig. (1990). "The Role of Pathos in the Decision-Making Process: A Study in the Rhetoric of Science Policy." Quarterly Journal of Speech 76: 381–400.

Wander, Philip C. (1976). "The Rhetoric of Science." Western Journal of Communication 40: 226–235.

Weimer, Walter B. (1977). "Science as a Rhetorical Transaction: Toward a Nonjustificational Conception of Rhetoric." Philosophy and Rhetoric 10: 1–29.