Shaping Science with Rhetoric

This is a very interesting book. What are your thoughts?

My study of books like these builds on a recognition that they belong to a special genre of scientific writing and should be understood and evaluated according to standards that are appropriate to that genre. We can call these texts interdisciplinary inspirational works of science, because
books of this kind attempt to stimulate the growth of community between different scientific disciplines.

A text in the interdisciplinary inspirational genre is like a catalyst— it addresses separate disciplines that are relatively inert and facilitates a reaction between them. Its main function is to encourage change, to motivate action in others. Like a catalyst, this type of text might seem at first glance to be a relatively minor part of science, but it can have a surprisingly large effect. When such a book succeeds, it produces a new area of research that otherwise would not have been formed or would have taken much longer to develop. The books by Dobzhansky and Schro¨dinger were designed to be incredibly effective catalysts, whereas the book by Wilson was written in a manner that undercuts its catalytic function.

This seems to describe well the genre of the GAE.

I hope I am a Dobzhansky, not a Wilson!


I identify several common characteristics of this newly identified genre, including a tendency toward synthesis rather than the introduction of original truth claims, the development of an authorial persona that is different from that used in the prototypical scientific text, and forms of address that recognize dual or even multiple audiences. This last characteristic is what leads to the most exciting finding from my analysis of this genre: two specific rhetorical strategies designed to appeal to divided audiences appear in the most effective texts but are absent in less effective texts.

That is exactly what I do in the GAE, address multiple audiences. Interesting…

@Philosurfer, what is your thoughts on this? @jongarvey?

That book does seem interesting in its emphasis on the rhetoric of science in promoting interdisciplinary imagination. Not having read more than the intro to the book, I didn’t get a sense of whether it covered the rhetorical relationship between professional and lay audiences.

George Gaylord Simpson is a great example of someone who had strict professional standards in context. But, he was also able to excite educated laity to the potentials of evolutionary theory in terms of meaning (c.f., The Meaning of Evolution), a task that most would recognize as less than scientific. Simpson recognized that there were two imaginations to be won over – the professionals and the public – requiring different strategies.

Your book is definitely at the crossroads of science/values and professional/public. You do invite multiple audiences to dialogue with your thought. It will be interesting to see how different groups react.

Crosswise is up next week with @NLENTS spending a day with us on Monday! If I’m not running around like a headless chicken, I’ll try and post some pics!

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I’m working under the disadvantage that the link to Amazon leads to very little info, and the other link doesn’t work, perhaps being regionally restricted. It would be easier to assess if I could see where the author thinks the successes and failures of her sources lie.

But the gist of her thesis seems plain - and if I’m right it applies to others like Heisenberg and Eddington (and maybe Steven J Gould), who sought to place their science within a broader setting… inevitably going beyond science into philosophy, metaphysics and even politics, as well as rhetoric.

My own conclusion would be that such work is valuable, for one thing, in demonstrating that the scientist is never “purely scientific,” but is rightly a complete and particular human being. Therefore, their less technical and popular works not only demonstrate a different style, but better reveal the human biases that will to some extent be present in their scientific work, though obscurely.

To take a crude example, scientific work on intelligence differences between the races must be judged on its scientific merit. But if the reason the question was asked in the first place was a commitment to eugenic ideology, that might well be of significance in interpreting the science - and that will be far more obvious from the researcher’s trade book selling the idea to the public.

I agree with the idea that such “popular” works act as catalysts, both in pushing science in new, important, direction, and in affecting society for good or ill (so, for example, The Selfish Gene was hugely influential in the way that our culture as a whole considered not only evolution, but evolutionary views on economics, education, religion and so on, whatever influence it may have had in biology).

GAE belongs to that genre - in my view in a good way, because of the spirit of the person who wrote it. Ultimately it’s people who change society (including those doing science) rather than science itself.

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Looking forward to it!


@David_MacMillan I highly Reccomend this book. The author puts forward an idea of a conceptual Chiasma, which would be very helpful to your project.