George Walford: Seeing Things as We Really Are

Over recent decades ideology has grown more respectable but it still gets valued below science, an activity commonly seen as the impartial and disinterested pursuit of objective knowledge. Alan Gross has studied the way in which scientists present their results, and in The Rhetoric of Science [1] he comes up with a picture differing radically from this popular impression. His scientists may still wear white coats, but few would want to buy a used tube of toothpaste from them.

On his first page Gross introduces the possibility “that the claims of science are solely the products of persuasion.” Later he quotes Francois Bastide: “I believe exclusively neither in mathematization nor in linguistification! What matters is to be convincing; whatever is convincing is fine!” Using “rhetoric” to mean both a style of exposition intended to carry conviction and the discipline which studies the persuasive use of language, he raises the question whether any of the constraints affecting scientific texts find their source in natural phenomena, whether they do not originate exclusively in rhetoric. He suggests that we may best understand science “not as the privileged route to certain knowledge but as another intellectual enterprise, an activity that takes its place beside, but not above, philosophy, literary criticism, history and rhetoric itself.” Although scientific publications avoid emotional appeals, this does not indicate or constitute neutrality; it has a persuasive purpose.

Rhetorical study does not repudiate the brute facts, but it points out that they do not amount to science. Science has to select the facts for investigation, to decide how to investigate them and, having investigated, to state the meaning of the results. It conducts these activities as essentially persuasive (i.e. rhetorical) processes.

The term “discovery,” long used for scientific achievements, implies revelation of a pre-existing object. This does not go well with the constant discarding of scientific theories, for discoveries once made – America, the source of the Nile – remain with us. Things fall more readily into place if we regard the scientific activity as a process of invention, for each invention performs its function only until superseded.

Turning to supportive instances Gross takes up Crick and Watson’s achievement with DNA (it revolutionized biology) and firmly stakes his claim: “the sense that a molecule of this structure exists at all, the sense of its reality, is an effect only of words, numbers, and pictures judiciously used with persuasive intent.” They produced two versions of their invention, The Double Helix for the public and A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid for professionals; the two accounts differ greatly, but Gross contends that not even the Structure offers a simply objective account; both strive to persuade.

In The Double Helix Watson commits autobiographical distortions in order to present himself as the simpleton who wins out, as the Ugly Duckling, the youngest son in the fairy tales. This helps to persuade by appealing to the conception which reviewers and readers tend to hold of themselves. When writing for beady-eyed professionals he and Crick had to use different tactics but every scientific paper, to have a hope of success, must do more than present facts; it has to establish itself as both important and correct, and they accordingly claimed for their work “novel features of considerable biological interest,” adding that it “suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” These claims go beyond reporting the results of experiments to an attempt at persuasion, they belong to the sphere of rhetoric.

In his first paper on optics, published in 1672, Sir Isaac Newton reported experiments on light supporting (against the ruling Cartesian theory) the view of colour as basic, white light as derivative. This paper failed to carry conviction to the scientific community, but a re-presentation of the work in his later book, Optics (1704), went beyond success in this endeavour to become the model for experimental science over the next century, establishing the epistemological priority of experiment over hypothesis. The book achieved this “solely by means of its rhetoric – by means of its strict Euclidean form, its striking experimental presence, its provocative speculations… ”

Such examples themselves carry persuasive force but “for instance,” however striking, does not constitute proof or even a balance of evidence; Gross also shows how the language of scientific papers regularly uses a style calculated to persuade: “examples consistently illustrate the reliance of scientific writing on passive constructions dominated by complex noun phrases.” When a journal receives a paper not meeting these conditions the editor requires alterations.

The subject of a sentence tends to dominate it, and natural language usually reserves this position for the speaker; in scientific writing, on the contrary, physical objects usually occupy it, thereby acquiring the importance ordinarily belonging to human beings. Not: “After we removed the Staphylococcus, we treated the extracts… ” but: “The extracts after the removal of the Staphylococcus were then treated… ” The characteristic formulations of scientific language place physical objects at the causal centre and by doing so acquire an aura of objectivity which strengthens their persuasiveness. The closing chapter concludes that the natural sciences have achieved a triumph of rhetorical art so complete as to appear artless. They create “bodies of knowledge so persuasive as to seem unrhetorical,” they generate the illusion that they do no more and no less than show “the way the world is.”

This amounts to saying (here we turn from reportage to commentary) that these sciences have achieved something attempted by every political movement, church, school of philosophy or psychology… in short, by every major ideological group. Each of these puts forward its own version of the world, (or of that part of the world with which it deals), and each of them tries to create for the purpose a body of knowledge so persuasive as to seem unrhetorical, tries to produce the impression that it does no more than draw attention to “the way the world is.” In seeking to win acceptance for its beliefs science follows the same pattern of behaviour as the groups identified with the different major ideologies, and by doing so links itself with them: “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and swims like a duck then, by God, it is a duck!”

Science may seem to distinguish itself from these other activities by its success, but it produces this impression by the rhetorical device of omitting most of its failures from the publicised record. Gross quotes Arthur Fine: “overwhelmingly, the results of the conscientious pursuit of scientific inquiry are failures: failed theories, failed hypotheses, failed conjectures, inaccurate measurements, incorrect estimations of parameters, fallacious causal inferences, and so forth.” The problem, in fact, “is how to explain the occasional success of a strategy that usually fails.”

The general public contributes to the enormously high status enjoyed by science through two widespread misunderstandings. First: science receives credit for many effects, both good and evil, that we owe rather to technology; given e=mc2 but without American knowhow, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have remained in comfortable obscurity. Second, most of us think of the various sciences as standing closer to daily life than in fact they do. Einsteinian relativity provides a notorious example of remoteness, but old-fangled Newtonian gravitation comes across, when examined, as hardly more user-friendly; we may try to give it sex-appeal by saying it affects all physical bodies (rather than all mass points) but even so it concerns only the single feature of their attraction for each other; against our common impression it does not answer the practical question whether the apple will fall to earth but predicts that earth and apple will attract each other. Gravitational interaction between three bodies – earth, air and hydrogen balloon – may well have the effect of increasing the distance between two of them. The physical world that science studies has little to do with everyday life and the objects of ordinary experience; it consists for the most part of readings on dials or computer screens and effects on photographic plates, and scientists routinely protest the impossibility of translating their results into natural language. Beside science as scientists practice it, particularly at the growth-point where reputations flower, the speculations of mysticism begin to look like solid realities.

Scientists distinguish themselves not by trying to get things right – we all do that, more or less strenuously – but by their pursuit of quantitative accuracy. We would not go far wrong in regarding measurement as the characteristic activity of science and number as its language. The order in which scientists value the various specialised studies sets those having their results most completely quantified towards the top. Physics comes far above the social sciences, and this tendency to take existing society as a matter of course not requiring study, to focus attention outward, locates the activity in the eidostatic class. But science does not act in a simply traditional way; it progresses, and in doing so produces destabilising effects. Gross reminds us of: “the authority sedimented in the training of scientists, an authority reinforced by social sanctions,” but he also stresses: “the innovative initiatives without which no scientist will be rewarded.” This places science at the advanced end of the eidostatic part of the range, just before the victory of the innovative tendency marks the transition to the eidodynamic. And just in that position, of course, stands the ideology of Precision. Science, in short, arises as an expression of this ideology, in much the same sense as law expresses that of Principle and anarchism that of Repudiation.

I began by noting the dichotomy that contrasts science with ideology, and this stands up only so long as “ideology” carries a meaning narrow enough to deprive the concept of much of its value. If we take the term in the broader sense in which it appears in s.i. this enables us to bring science into the one system of thought along with philosophy, religion, politics, warfare and education, establishing systematic relationships between these various activities and thereby increasing our understanding both of them and of the society they do so much to constitute.

[1] Gross Alan G. 1990 The Rhetoric of Science Cambridge Mass: Harvard

from Ideological Commentary 53, Autumn 1991.