Science and Rhetoric, Neil Ryder

On language, metaphor and the communication of science.

Ours is a culture overrun by persuasive messages, with science a weapon in the persuaders’ armouries. Glance at an ad for hair care products; overhear a politician defending their actions on BSE. These persuasive acts are examples of the art of rhetoric – examples in which science and rhetoric are intimately connected. ‘Rhetoric’ is a term that sits very uncomfortably with science, especially in empiricist Britain. Yet as well as these examples of explicit persuasion, attempts to use the ideas of science in newspaper articles or radio and television programmes are also rhetorical acts. What sense can we make of such a conjunction between science and rhetoric? There are a number of possible responses to the suggestion that science need be considered alongside rhetoric. For instance, some may feel that the intellectual standards of the one, rhetoric, are incapable of meeting those of the other, science; worse, they may be actually incompatible or even antithetical. But another response is that the very practice of science is governed by rhetoric. Some forms of communication are clearly typical of science and as such form a rhetoric of science. Peter Medawar pointed to a discrepancy between the way science is formally reported amongst scientists and what scientists actually do. He advocated that the discussion part of the scientific paper, usually relegated to the end of the paper, should be presented right at the top, so that the openness and the tentativeness of the whole debate are foregrounded. Since then linguists have taken a close look at scientist’s writing practices and although it appears that there is some variety in the way structures appear across the different scientific disciplines and journals, the rhetorical dimensions remain. When we turn to the presentation of science to the public some of the forms of presentation that scientists’ use amongst themselves have to be abandoned. There is considerable work necessary to transform ideas from the scientific sphere to even the semi-popular pages of Scientific American or New Scientist. These transformations must be wrought in every aspect of a text, from its overall structures, to its grammars and vocabulary. On the whole many of the changes can be represented as simple instructions; putting, for instance, the familiar before the esoteric, introducing living actors instead of inanimate substances, preferring active grammar for passive. We can think of this as a fairly routine translation strategy for science journalism. But at this point a major choice emerges and the alternative you choose will depend on your view of science. The choice is: are you comfortable with a situation where scientists draw conclusions, make discoveries, and then have them translated somehow into everyday language and leave that as the extent of the intercommunication between the two parts of the culture? Or do you believe that the quality of argument in science itself is no different from that which applies to, say, literary criticism, or political debate? If you believe the former, then scientific ideas and conclusions stand clear of the accidents of the language and of political struggles in lay society – the society into which we hope they will be received – and you will not have much trouble with the translation strategy. But if you believe that the quality of argument in science itself is no different from that which applies to, say, literary criticism or political debate, then clearly the skills and the status of the scientist have to be different. Scientists have to come down off their pedestals and hustle for a hearing along with the rest of us. The ideas and conclusions a scientist entertains and accepts are the product of processes no purer than any other intellectual activity. Scientific knowledge has no God-given authority over poetry, politics or even fine art, and the system of evaluation or selection and approval are analogous, if not identical, in the different fields. Science journalism here is no longer translation. It is the writing of new stories with quite different characters and relationships.


If we now turn to scientific institutions and their policy decisions about language then we find that a distaste for metaphors lies at the heart of modern science. A well-known campaign against the use of metaphor was planted in the origins of the Royal Society. Spratt, in his manifesto for the young Royal Society, called for scientists to eschew all tropes including metaphor. ‘Give me as many things in so many words, give me as many ideas in so many words.’ Spratt’s argument – his intuition – was to cast aside literary elaboration. Metaphor does elaborate. Metaphor names things ‘incorrectly’, so in one sense it describes an incorrect referent. Spratt’s desire to ‘cleanse’ the language of science arose from the perceived power of metaphors to inflame passion in one of the most internally poisonous periods of English domestic history. Yet Spratt’s ideas about good language have a surprisingly modern resonance. The idea that language should stay close to the speech of the artisan – that the language of Anglo-Saxon origin is close to experience, whereas the Latinate is remote from it – finds sympathetic echoes in F. R. Leavis, I. A. Richards and many other commentators. But the language of science no longer confirms that experience. An examination of the way in which scientific ideas gain credence within a scientific community, shows that the role of metaphor is absolutely crucial. At a certain point the scientist will encounter a conceptual problem and in order to try to solve that problem, a leap of the imagination is necessary. All the scientist can do at that stage is try to find something that fits, something necessarily from your existing experience, from some parallel world. Hence Niels Bohr used the idea of the solar system as an analogy for his model of the atom. And Crick and Watson used the idea of code to imagine what is going on when DNA splits up, reformulates and gets transcribed – how patterns, information, are being passed down the line. In all this metaphors are absolutely crucial to the initial description of scientific models. If metaphor forms the basis of scientific imagination, scientists cannot afford to throw out the whole of rhetoric. They need to accept that some of it must be useful. It is the consequences of science for people and their physical world that matters. Galileo, that arch-rhetorician, defended himself against the Church’s threats of torture with carefully constructed arguments. If his story teaches us anything, it is that Science for People is a struggle against powerful institutions and that, ultimately, institutionally endorsed torture is ineffective against the art of rhetoric.

Neil Ryder is a lecturer in Science and Media at Royal Holloway, University of London. This article first appeared in wavelength magazine.