The rhetoric of breakthroughs in the communication of science, António Fernando Cascais

António Fernando Cascais

Communication Sciences Department, Universidade Nova de Lisboa



There is a controversy in the practice of science communication where it is commonplace to claim that the presentation of scientific results is more important than the explanation of the scientific process. In this article I elaborate the idea of a “rhetoric of breakthroughs” which consists of:

  1. a)representing scientific activity by its products;
  2. b)confining the scientific processes to the attainment of final and cumulative results;
  3. c)exclusively isolating the results which are evaluated a posteriori as being successful applications (breakthroughs).


What is here implied may lead to:


  1. a)Ignoring the fact that scientific activity is a process which is preceded by the compliance with a priori criteria of methodological rigour in the investigation and progresses in a non-linear, erratic and unpredictable way. In other words, the intrinsic revisability of all scientific knowledge and the historicity inherent is downgraded compared to following cognitive interests, which vary in time and in space, to the point that they become incompatible or mutually exclusive.
  2. b)Dismissing the influence of productive error in making decisions and scientific choices, in such a manner that the success in the attainment of results is derived from the rigour in methodological conception.  This implies the necessary elimination of everything else (the rationally unexplainable, the statistically exceptional) that exceeds the domain of rigour delimited by method and regarded as its illegitimate by-product, rather than the mark of its limits.
  3. c)Provoking an effect of censorship over the process of production of scientific knowledge: whether as a producer of risk, in the sense that it promotes the illusion of controlled techno scientific risk; whether as a producer of means, in the sense that it integrates purposes (those intended at first to be attained) with results (those actually attained at the end of the process), defining retrospectively the former by the latter and exclusively identifying as results of the scientific process those which are evaluated as being positive, excluding those results that are fortuitous, unexpected or adverse.


The rhetoric of breakthroughs is not restricted to the media, but they undoubtedly supply its most significant examples: “For most people, the reality of science is what they read in the press. They understand science less through direct experience or past education than through the filter of journalistic language and imagery.” (Nelkin, 1995: 2-3). According to Nelkin, in science communication, and particularly in medical and biological sciences communication, which have a strong emotional repercussion on the public because they are closer to the dramatic facts of daily live, it is frequent that imagery substitutes contents. News focus is seen as more important than scientific and technological competition between individuals, institutions and countries, and investigation is overshadowed by a series of spectacular events described with hyperboles that take aim mostly at the rising of expectations and the public’s interest.  These fickle descriptions, however, quickly cease to be promoted just to be deplored, whenever expectations are frustrated, so that “(t)he images of science and technology in the press (…) are often shifting, reflecting current fashions and prevailing fears. Today’s exaggerated promises – of new fixes, new devices, new cures – become tomorrow’s sensationalized problems” (Nelkin, 1995: 63).

In order to have a thorough and fruitful comprehension of what signifies the rhetoric of breakthroughs, it is indispensable to situate it in a broader hermeneutic context comprising the dynamics of techno science and the rhetoric of science, which precedes science communication itself.


The logotechnical condition of modern knowledge


The rhetoric of breakthroughs is akin to the submission of scientific rigour to technological efficacy that characterizes modern science.  The will to fully describe reality and thus to elaborate an ontology has been abandoned. Instead, this is now being deduced from the efficacy in manipulating technique, which implies that the current scientific descriptions of the state of affairs are descriptions of the effects of the very techno scientific modification over the state of affairs. This is what onto technology consists of, it can only be seen as theory of reality as far as it is a theory of modified reality and it can only be seen as a description of the state of affairs as far as it is a theory of the transforming action over such state of affairs. More explicitly: modern science is science because it performs, in such a manner that wherein the old contemplative scientia found its correlate in the stability of contemplated reality, techno science finds its correlate in the plasticity of the objects to be manipulated.

From this point of view, we are, in fact, moving towards the accomplishment of the Baconian dream of a nature more perfect than itself and, in consequence, we are also about to place our hope on the reliable artefact, which is a product of techno science. What nature doesn’t do, or does wrongly, we shall do better instead. The techno scientific efficacy comes from this manner of embodying a new secularized providence that runs on a “see and believe” regime, in which the techno scientific results take over the role of ancient prodigies, to the extent that progress on a practical level is no longer equated with progress on a theoretical level (Sanitt, 2000: 74). In other words, the ancient naturalistic fallacy, revealed since David Hume to G.E. Moore, has been replaced by a new artificiality fallacy: only what is techno scientifically possible is truly real, only what is possible exists in fact.

It so happens that the increasing dependence on sophisticated high-tech science, which is, at the same time, extremely expensive and subjected to regulation, and also the need of financing has taken scientists to privilege such a strategy of communication that emphasizes the accomplishments and the safety of the processes that attain results: “The media can play an important role in enhancing public understanding, but they frequently failed to do so. (…) but too often science in the press is more a subject for consumption than for public scrutiny, more a source of entertainment than of information (…) Too often the coverage is promotional and uncritical, encouraging apathy, a sense of impotence, and the ubiquitous tendency to defer to expertise. Focusing on individual accomplishments and dramatic or controversial events, journalists convey little about the sociology of science, the structure of scientific institutions, or the daily routines of research. We read about the results of research and the stories of success, but not about the process, the dead ends, the wrong turns. Who discovered what is more newsworthy than what was discovered or how” (Nelkin, 1995:162). What is, in fact, encouraged by science communication that privileges results is what Pierre Bourdieu (1997) called Fast Thinking and Sanitt (2000) the Eureka effect, against which the very professionals of communication find themselves at times handicapped and helpless: “While most journalists try to avoid a sensationalist and titillating style, they do tend to magnify events and to overestimate if not sensationalize their significance. Research applications, after all, make better copy than qualifications. ‘Revolutionary breakthroughs’ are more exciting than ‘recent findings’. And controversies are more newsworthy than routine events” (Nelkin, 1995:112-113).


The Rhetoric of Breakthroughs in the context of Rhetoric of Science


Having contextualized the rhetoric of breakthroughs in the characteristics of modern techno science, one should now put it in connection with the rhetoric of science which precedes it and is intrinsic to the very scientific discourse, as in Alan Gross: “We can argue that scientific knowledge is not special, but social; the result not of revelation, but of persuasion” (Gross, 1996:20). Rhetoric would then be coextensive to all scientific discourse, in such a way that: “A complete rhetoric of science must avoid this accusation: after analysis, something unrhetorical remains, a hard ‘scientific core’” (Gross, 1996:33). Gross states that, from a rhetorical point of view, the scientific discovery should rightly be described as invention: “To call scientific theories inventions, therefore, is to challenge the intellectual privilege and authority of science. Discovery is an honorific, not a descriptive term (…) The term invention, on the other hand, captures the historically contingent and radically uncertain character of all scientific claims, even the most successful. If scientific theories are discoveries, their unfailing obsolescence is difficult to explain; if these theories are rhetorical inventions, no explanation of their radical vulnerability is necessary” (Gross, 1996:7).

In scientific rationality, logosethos and pathos are indissolubly bonded: “…ethospathos and logos are naturally present in scientific texts: as a fully human enterprise, science can constrain, but hardly eliminate, the full range of persuasive choices on the part of its participants” (Gross, 1996:16). As a matter of fact, “(s)cientists are not persuaded by logos alone; science is no exception to the rule that the persuasive effect of authority, of ethos, weighs heavily” (Gross, 1996:12). Therefore: “From a rhetorical point of view, the high esteem bestowed upon science gives its communications a built-in ethos of especial intensity” (Gross, 1996:21). In turn, science is not indifferent to pathos: “…tropes like irony and hyperbole do appear regularly in scientific reports, belying the alleged reportorial nature of these texts…” (Gross, 1996:18), in such a way that “(e)motional appeals are clearly present in the social interactions of which science is the product” (Gross, 1996:14). The rhetoric of breakthroughs repeats, on the scope of science communication, the articulation between logosethos and pathos, already existing in the rhetoric of the very scientific discourse.


The Rhetoric of Breakthroughs in the context of Scientific (Il)literacy


The rhetoric of breakthroughs should not be fundamentally understood as a problem of the public, but as a problem of science writers, above all.  More than being just derived from the public’s scientific illiteracy, the rhetoric of breakthroughs is common not only to professional science writers that do not belong to the community of peer scientists, but also to scientists that, whether as a parallel career, whether as a mundane appearance beyond the academy, become science writers.

Surprisingly enough, the rhetoric of breakthroughs prevails, with amazing frequency, in the official events of public policies for the promotion of scientific culture, organized with scientist’s cooperation and sealed on high profile decision instances. Without being unavoidable, the rhetoric of breakthroughs regards the way the scientific activity is represented by the share of public not initiated in scientific methodology and by scientists themselves, when they become the first public of their own science writing. When undertaking science writing, scientists begin to pour onto science the mundane view in which are expressed the values, motives and expectations (negative or positive) of the social world, which they address.

When assuming the role of science writers, scientists do not escape from the traps which professional writers are accustomed to: “Editorial constraints reflect perceptions of the public’s interests, preferences, and ability to understand complex subjects. Seldom do journalists or their editors receive systematic feedback from readers. Yet, based on their readers’ observations, they maintain a set of assumptions about their readers and viewers that influences the selection and style of science news” (Nelkin, 1995:112). It is in general language discourse that the rhetoric of breakthroughs is expressed and, indeed, not in the formal language that reigns inside the laboratory. By anticipating, imaginably, what might be the forma mentis of the ideal public, in an effort of assimilating it within a vulgarised discourse, by force of translating into general language the formal hermetism of scientific language, scientists fell easy prey for their own representations of science. Representations which they will, in turn, transmit to the public as if it was science “as it is done”, and not, as would be desirable, how science is represented by scientists. This also happens in textbooks elaborated with the cooperation of scientists aiming to initiate in science a public from which, one day, those who shall thicken the rows of science will be recruited: “Though the claim is often made, especially by scientists, that one learns about science, about the scientific approach, about how to be scientific, through studying the content of science, all the evidence says otherwise. Through learning textbook science, one is misled about the nature of scientific activity by learning only about relatively successful science, the things that have remained within science up to the present. In scientific texts, one hardly ever encounters the phenomenon of unsuccessful science, and yet history teaches that the science being done at any given time will largely be discarded, even in the short space of a few years, as unsuccessful” (Bauer, 1992: 11).

Scientists do not gain in objectivity merely by trying to be objective or by talking about the science they make. Scientist’s view on the science they make becomes suitable to the public’s eye that consumes it, both converging to a horizon of common expectations destined to the same social use of science. It is in this sense that, by studying the rhetoric of science, Alan Gross allows himself to talk about the scientific article as a myth (Gross, 1996:95) and Sanitt (2000) reminds us that the making of science is not immune to the prevailing myths and prejudices in the socio-cultural environment, resembling an idea cherished by hermeneutics. Nowadays, it is not hard to trip over examples: “In the 1990s research on embryo cloning, pregnant postmenopausal women and genetically engineered pigs is drawing readers and selling magazines. And journalists play up the biggest collider, the newest techniques of bioengineering, and the riskiest technologies. Indeed, the style of reporting has been remarkably consistent over time” (Nelkin, 1995:1). Jeanneret (1994 :85) reminds us that, in fact, the languages of science and that of science communication are much closer than what is usually believed.

One must say that the very dynamics of cognitive production derived from techno scientific development produces illiteracy, regularly segregates it, as the scientific language moves further away from daily language and unfolds several other hermetisms in each subject. This would compel us to conclude that the openness of science to other subjects produces its own closure in new isolated languages, sometimes to the point of incommensurability. Felt has indicated at least two reasons which contradict the image of an ´open´ science: “Firstly, the process of institutionalization, differentiation and specialization of the scientific system has created even bigger access barriers for those who do not have formal educational pre-requisites (…) As consequence, there is a feeling of a bigger distance between the different domains of investigation within the scientific system, but also of the public in relation to science. Secondly, although we have witnessed, during the 20th century, the multiplication of media that opened new spaces where science meets the public (…), that, paradoxically, did not lead to closeness between science and public, nor to the birth of what might be called “mise en culture de la science”. On the contrary, the more sophisticated and denser the exchange of information became, the people who already had a considerable initial intellectual capital became ever so privileged – a phenomenon designated as growing disparity of knowledge” (Felt, 2000 a: 265-266). On this matter, Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond (1996: 20-23) has spoken of a cultural paradox that consists of the fact that the more techno science is disseminated on daily life, the more opaque and inaccessible their products become to their users, in such a way that the technical objects omnipresent in the world of today strike us with the same sense of mystery as black holes in space. This phenomenon is not just concerned with the relationship between techno science and the public; it is also noticed in the very core of science, in the relationship between scientists. Indeed, the hyper-specialization and fragmentation of subjects caused by scientific development has turned scientists into specialized ignorants who, among colleagues of different subjects, behave towards one another as the lay public towards science in general.





What we understand by rhetoric of breakthroughs must be seen as an effect of censorship due to an illiteracy naturally segregated by techno scientific dynamics.  Those who are not initiated in a specific area of scientific specialization, and those who are not initiated in the scientific process in general, tend to transform the products of techno science within their own representation of the originating process. Incomprehensible, the process can only be approached by the respective results, being thus ignored as a producer of possible risks (Beck, 2000). In science communication texts, the rhetoric of breakthroughs is the reading operator of the scientific process. And the main consequence to be drawn from such phenomena is that, for being written and perceived as a producer of results, which without a doubt it is, science censors its primal and unquestionable nature, that of being a means to an end, even before it can produce any breakthrough whatsoever.


Bibliographic References


Bauer, H. (1992) Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press

Beck, U. (2000) Risk Society. Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage

Bourdieu, P. (1997) Sobre a televisão. Oeiras: Celta Editora

Felt, U. (2000a) “A adaptação do conhecimento científico ao espaço público”, in Gonçalves, M. (ed.), Cultura científica e participação pública. Oeiras: Celta Editora, pp. 265-288

Felt, U. (2000b) “Why Should the Public ‘Understand’ Science? A Historical Perspective on Aspects of the Public Understanding of Science”, in Dierkes, M. & von Grote, C. (eds.), Between Understanding and Trust: The Public, Science and Technology. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 7-38

Gross, A. (1996) The Rhetoric of Science. Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press

Jeanneret, Y. (1994) Écrire la science. Formes et enjeux de la vulgarisation. Paris: PUF

Lévy-Leblond (1996) La pierre de touche. La science à l’épreuve… Paris: Gallimard

Nelkin, D. (1995) Selling Science. How the Press Covers Science and Technology. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company

Sanitt, N. (2000), A ciência enquanto processo interrogante. Lisboa: Instituto Piaget