Summary of Rhetorical Life of Scientific Fact
Two concerns informed this study 10 years ago: the impact of science reporting on public deliberation and the nature of technical and professional writing courses. These concerns have, if anything, increased (e.g., the campaign on global warming), warranting continued scholarly investigation of the gap between the public's right to know and the public's ability to understand.
Anything addressed to readers as members of the general public will inevitably move through the four stasis questions from fact and cause to value and action
Fahnestock’s observations are first concerned with a change in genre. Her account of genre is situated in the Aristotelian tradition. There are three major genres, each concerned with different situations, audiences, and ends, and they are forensic, deliberative, and epideictic. Aristotle tells us that each has particular temporal affinities, with forensic concerning the past, deliberative the future, and epideictic the present. Fahnestock argues that scientific research reports are written in forensic style, with authors are making a case for their methodological decisions and their results. That is, they write about what they have already done. An expectation of the scientific audience is that they understand the importance of the documented methodological decisions and the significance of the findings. Rarely do scientific research articles herald findings. The audience understands the significance, and no one wants to risk overstating their claims. What happens when this research is moved toward a more general audience? Reports of scientific research packages for popular audiences are made possible by a genre shift to the epideictic, there “to celebrate rather than validate”. This is because to an audience of non–experts — the “general public,” say — the immediate significance of an original scientific research report may not be clear. Part of the trick in accommodating, then, is to highlight and emphasize the significance of the research — to herald findings. Moving from one genre to another also causes some changes to the information contained within each, Fahnestock (1986) tells us. This is not, she reminds us, “simply a matter of translating technical jargon into non–technical equivalents”. Instead, changes to the rhetorical appeals made in an article are part of the accommodations for the new audience. For example, a writer could appeal to the “wonder” of a topic. Why is this research important or interesting, generally? Looking at the degrees of certainty asserted, Fahnestock finds that there is significantly more in the popularizations. Finally, turning to rhetorical stasis, Fahnestock argues that the “rhetorical life” of a scientific observation can be traced as it moves through different stasis. In rhetorical theory, these stasis points act in a hierarchical order, establishing first existence of questions about what to do with such information or findings . She argues that the rhetorical work of acknowledging different audiences, exigencies, and purposes across expert and non–expert discourses in the sciences requires accommodating, not simply “translating,” the scientific knowledge and information. Since the specialized world of scientific discourses limits linguistic and conceptual access to the knowledge practices and knowledge generated therein, questions about what non–experts are indeed able to “access” become relevant.The rhetorical life of scientific facts and texts has changed and continues to change since Fahnestock’s accommodation essay was published almost 27 years ago. In the late 1980s the Web was a fledgling technology, but by the late 90s it had gained significant traction. So when a reprint of Fahnestock’s article appeared some 12 years after its original publication, Fahnestock (1998) made some brief remarks about the concerns of her original paper. She acknowledges “the impact of science reporting on public deliberation,” and more than a decade after its original publication that “[t]hese concerns have, if anything, increased (e.g., the campaign on global warming), warranting continued investigation of the gap between the public’s right to know and the public’s ability to understand” (Manuel Castells, 2001).
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.
Manuel Castells, 2001. The Internet galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, business, and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Susan D’Antoni, 2009. “Open educational resources: Reviewing initiatives and issues,” Open Learning, volume 24, issue 1, pp. 3–10.
Jeanne Fahnestock, 1998. “Accommodating science: The rhetorical life of scientific facts,” Written Communication, volume 15, number 3, pp. 330–350.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0741088398015003006
Jeanne Fahnestock, 1986. “Accommodating science: The rhetorical life of scientific facts,” Written Communication, volume 3, number 3, pp. 275–296.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0741088386003003001
John Hilton III, David A. Wiley, and Neil Lutz, 2012. “Examining the reuse of open textbooks,” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, volume 13, number 2, at http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1137/2130, accessed 21 February 2013.