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Summary of Rhetorical Life of Scientific Fact

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“Accommodating Science” applies ideas from classical rhetoric and techniques of close reading typical of discourse analysis to the question of what happens when scientific reports travel from expert to lay publications. This change in forum causes a shift in genre from forensic to celebratory and a shift in stasis from fact and cause to evaluation and action. These changes in genre, audience, and purpose inevitably affect the material and manner of re-presentation in predictable ways

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.

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This article studies the fate of scientific observations as they pass from original research reports intended for scientific peers into popular accounts aimed at a general audience. Pairing articles from two AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) publications reveals the changes that inevitably occur in "information" as it passes from one rhetorical situation to another. Scientific reports belong to the genre of forensic arguments, affirming the validity of past facts, the experimental data. But a change of audience brings a change of genre; science accommodations are primarily epideictic, celebrations of science, and shifts in wording between comparable statements in matched articles reveal changes made to conform to the two appeals of popularized science, the wonder and the application topoi. Science accommodations emphasize the uniqueness, rarity, originality of observations, removing hedges and qualifications and thus conferring greater certainty on the reported facts. Such changes could be formalized by adopting the scale developed by sociologists Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar for categorizing the status of claims. The alteration of information is traced not only in articles on bees and bears, and so on, but also on a subject where distortions in reporting research can have serious consequences-the reputed mathematical inferiority of girls to boys. The changes in genre and the status of information that occur between scientific articles and their popularizations can also be explained by classical stasis theory

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

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In her now canonical article “Accommodating science,” Fahnestock (1986) explains the function of scientific accommodations, or when original scientific research articles are adapted for non–expert or “popular” publications like newspapers or magazines. These accommodations are like “adaptations,” she says, of scientific information designed specifically for “noninitiated audiences”. In these adaptations of scientific research some adjustments must be made before the arguments can be usefully presented to a non–expert audience

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 [12]. 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).

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As shown above, 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.

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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.

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