We have come to a point in time where there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as a “fact” anymore. The public can’t seem to agree on what is factual and arguments rage on everything from what counts as news to what counts as science.
I’m not going to get into the topic of fake news today. Though that’s certainly a worthwhile subject. But I do want to talk about science. It would be very easy for me to say, “Just listen to the science!” And I want you to do that. I am very pro-science. But I want to acknowledge the nuances of a pro-science position. And then I want to argue that one can acknowledge the challenges of a scientific narrative and still believe in science. Today we’re going to get into some complicated stuff. So I hope you came ready to think through some things.
First, let’s consider the notion of a fact. What is a fact? A fact is something that can be proven or disproven. Is that different from something that is true? Perhaps. For example, it may be a fact that somewhere between 64-87% of Americans believe in God. That is very different from the truth of whether God exists or not. You might say it is true a majority of Americans believe in God, but that’s not a very helpful statement. It is a fact that humans are a result of evolution. And yet the truth of that is debated constantly. Truth is a much more complicated thing than a fact. Because a fact can be proven or disproven. The truth – not necessarily so.
Ideally, truth and facts align. It seems they should. But for some people they don’t. That’s because truth, even for those who claim to believe in a capital T truth, isn’t objective. If the truth were objective, it, too, would be proveable and universal. But it’s not. It comes in a variety of forms and visages and we argue about it all the time.
This brings us to science. Science deals in facts. And for many people that is enough to create truth. But for others that’s not enough. Facts aren’t enough to make something true. There are more powerful narratives out there working against facts. And THOSE narratives craft a much more compelling truth than facts.
So here’s the complex part of the story we have to deal with before we can say “just listen to the science!” The problem is that science isn’t convincing to some people. As a narrative, it just doesn’t stand up to those other competing narratives. But to say that, we have to acknowledge that science itself is a narrative.
In 1962 Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Kuhn did not see scientific theory as proceeding linearly from an objective, unbiased accumulation of all available data, but rather as paradigm-driven. According to Kuhn,
“The operations and measurements that a scientist undertakes in the laboratory are not ‘the given’ of experience but rather ‘the collected with difficulty.’ They are not what the scientist sees—at least not before his research is well advanced and his attention focused. Rather, they are concrete indices to the content of more elementary perceptions, and as such they are selected for the close scrutiny of normal research only because they promise opportunity for the fruitful elaboration of an accepted paradigm. Far more clearly than the immediate experience from which they in part derive, operations and measurements are paradigm-determined. Science does not deal in all possible laboratory manipulations. Instead, it selects those relevant to the juxtaposition of a paradigm with the immediate experience that that paradigm has partially determined. As a result, scientists with different paradigms engage in different concrete laboratory manipulations.”
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn paints a picture of the development of science quite unlike any that had gone before. Indeed, before Kuhn, there was little by way of a carefully considered, theoretically explained account of scientific change. Instead, there was a conception of how science ought to develop that was a by-product of the prevailing philosophy of science, as well as a popular, heroic view of scientific progress. According to such opinions, science develops by the addition of new truths to the stock of old truths, or the increasing approximation of theories to the truth, and in the odd case, the correction of past errors. Such progress might accelerate in the hands of a particularly great scientist, but progress itself is guaranteed by the scientific method.
According to Kuhn the development of a science is not uniform but has alternating ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’ (or ‘extraordinary’) phases. The revolutionary phases are not merely periods of accelerated progress, but differ qualitatively from normal science. Normal science does resemble the standard cumulative picture of scientific progress, on the surface at least. Kuhn describes normal science as ‘puzzle-solving’ (1962/1970a, 35–42). While this term suggests that normal science is not dramatic, its main purpose is to convey the idea that like someone doing a crossword puzzle or a chess problem or a jigsaw, the puzzle-solver expects to have a reasonable chance of solving the puzzle, that his doing so will depend mainly on his own ability, and that the puzzle itself and its methods of solution will have a high degree of familiarity. A puzzle-solver is not entering completely uncharted territory. Because its puzzles and their solutions are familiar and relatively straightforward, normal science can expect to accumulate a growing stock of puzzle-solutions. Revolutionary science, however, is not cumulative in that, according to Kuhn, scientific revolutions involve a revision to existing scientific belief or practice (1962/1970a, 92). Not all the achievements of the preceding period of normal science are preserved in a revolution, and indeed a later period of science may find itself without an explanation for a phenomenon that in an earlier period was held to be successfully explained. This feature of scientific revolutions has become known as ‘Kuhn-loss’ (1962/1970a, 99–100).
As John Noughton explains,
The trouble is that over longer periods unresolved anomalies accumulate and eventually get to the point where some scientists begin to question the paradigm itself. At this point, the discipline enters a period of crisis characterised by, in Kuhn’s words, “a proliferation of compelling articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals”. In the end, the crisis is resolved by a revolutionary change in world-view in which the now-deficient paradigm is replaced by a newer one. This is the paradigm shift of modern parlance and after it has happened the scientific field returns to normal science, based on the new framework. And so it goes on.
This is literally where we get the idea of a “paradigm shift.”. Every now and then science makes a gigantic leap or a movement in a new direction that completely changes how we see the world. It’s a revolution in science, and that affects philosophy and everything else. Think things like the Copernican revolution, Newtonian physics, and the effect Einstein had on science. Our understanding of things completely changes. We haven’t experienced anything like this in a while – though the development of mRNA vaccines could possibly herald a paradigm shift in medicine and biology.
The first extensive review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was authored by Dudley Shapere, a philosopher who interpreted Kuhn’s work as a continuation of the anti-positivist sentiment of other philosophers of science. Shapere noted the book’s influence on the philosophical landscape of the time, calling it “a sustained attack on the prevailing image of scientific change as a linear process of ever-increasing knowledge.” According to philosopher Michael Ruse, Kuhn discredited the ahistorical and prescriptive approach to the philosophy of science. Kuhn’s book sparked a historicist “revolt against positivism” (the so-called “historical turn in philosophy of science” which looked to the history of science as a source of data for developing a philosophy of science), although this may not have been Kuhn’s intention. Kuhn’s view of scientific knowledge, as expounded in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, has been compared to the views of the philosopher Michel Foucault.
The reason I bring up Kuhn, and why he’s actually kind of important to some people who study communication, is because Kuhn inadvertently did some interesting rhetorical work. These paradigm shifts aren’t just shifts in science and philosophy – they are shifts in discourse and narrative. They are shifts in how we talk about and describe the world. The story we tell about the world changes, and radically, when these paradigm shifts happen. And like any revolution, some people find those narratives convincing and some people don’t. You have to convince people that the new narrative is the right one. People won’t automatically buy into a new paradigm. Paradigm shifts are hard. It takes a compelling argument to shift into an entirely new world view. That takes some hard rhetorical work. And that’s where the intersection of rhetoric and science comes in. The kind of story people require to shift their paradigm varies from straight up facts (and if the paradigm is shifting even that can be dicey because the facts seem new and strange) to a narrative argument that appeals to their sense of identity, right and wrong, or memory.
All of this leads to questions about the rhetoric of science, which some people find very uncomfortable. The study of science from the viewpoint of rhetoric variously examines modes of inquiry, logic, argumentation, the ethos of scientific practitioners, the structures of scientific publications, and the character of scientific discourse and debates.
For instance, scientists must convince their community of scientists that their research is based on sound scientific method. From a rhetorical point of view, scientific method involves problem-solution material of discourse that demonstrate observational and experimental competence, and as a means of persuasion, offer explanatory and predictive power. Rhetoric of science is a practice of persuasion that is an outgrowth of some of the canons of rhetoric.
In other words, science is an argument. And people don’t like to hear that. Science is supposed to be objective fact. But science, just like any paradigm or discourse, is an argument that you have to get people to believe. Science is rhetorical.
This leads us to real problems in the public sphere. Especially if scientists aren’t skilled at making arguments. It’s why public discourse is so riddled with manufactured controversies.
A manufactured controversy is a contrived disagreement, typically motivated by profit or ideology, designed to create public confusion concerning an issue about which there is no substantial academic dispute.
Manufacturing controversy has been a tactic used by ideological and corporate groups in order to “neutralize the influence of academic scientists” in public policy debates. Cherry picking data and sympathetic experts, aggrandizement of uncertainties within theoretical models, and false balance in media reporting contribute to the generation of manufactured controversies.
There is also the “both-sidesing” of a settled issue. Those who seek to manufacture controversy will demand that “both sides” of a “controversy” be discussed or taught when, in fact, there is only one side that has any credibility. But this public demand that preaches that fairness dictates both sides deserve equal time and treatment by the public and by the media serves to legitimize a narrative that has been flatly debunked by experts.
Another tactic used to manufacture controversy is to cast the scientific community as intolerant of dissent and conspiratorially aligned with industries or sociopolitical movements that quash challenges to conventional wisdom.
Those manufacturing uncertainty may label academic research as “junk science” and use a variety of tactics designed to stall and increase the expense of the distribution of sound scientific information. Delay tactics are also used to slow the implementation of regulations and public warnings in response to previously undiscovered health risks. Chief among these stalling tactics is generating scientific uncertainty, “no matter how powerful or conclusive the evidence”, in order to prevent regulation.
If people can create controversy where there is none, what good is science?
If science is rhetorical, how are we supposed to know anything?
A more daunting question: If science is rhetorical, why should we listen to it at all?
I would posit these questions indicate a kind of fallacious reasoning.
We listen to rhetoric all the time. We listen to it in religion, politics, law, entertainment, and any number of other arenas without thinking. But we suggest that science is rhetorical and suddenly we decide that means science is untrustworthy. We hold science to an impossible standard that Kuhn showed us it will never meet. We expect it to be immutable and objective when Kuhn’s work showed us it changes, and changes radically.
And within those paradigm shifts it is an ever-evolving creature. Consider the last two years. Our understanding of the coronavirus has shifted and evolved as our science has gotten better and better. Or, in some cases, as business influences have become more or less profound. I don’t know why we pretend science is some inflexible, objective, immutable force when our very lives depend on its ability to be flexible and respond to the world in which we live.
Science must change with the world. It must be responsive to its environment. And as a result, it is a constantly fluctuating narrative. That doesn’t make it less believable. That makes it MORE trustworthy. If it never changed, if wasn’t in any way discursive, then it would be a wildly dishonest narrative.
Science makes an argument to the public. That argument is based on its constant changes and fluctuations.
One of the biggest questions is what kind of argument the public is willing to accept? For some, the facts are enough. And science is good at giving us the facts. But the problem is, and we see this with manufactured controversies, that for many the facts are not enough.
In some ways it is the difference between understanding the difference between Aristotle and Burke.
An Aristotelian argument assumes a rational audience and demands a logical argument, based on the speaker’s character and credibility, and tempered with some emotional appeal. The audience is universal and there is a great emphasis on things like organization and rhetorical appeals. The rhetor seeks to confirm a position or hypothesis or to refute an existing argument. She uses logic, appeals to the rational in the audience, and provides empirical and commonsense evidence to persuade the audience members to change their beliefs, attitudes, and actions.
A Burkean argument, as we have discussed a few times on this podcast before, traffics in something very different. Burke states that “identification” is more important than persuasion, traditionally associated with rhetoric.
Burke suggests that whenever people try to persuade, identification occurs: one party must “identify” with another. In order to identify, there must be some level of a connection of one identity to another.
In identifying with the interests of another, or connecting to their constructed identity, one is “substantially one” with that other, or consubstantial.
For Burke, rhetoric and persuasion is a matter of identifying with another person. Of connecting with them deeply and personally. It’s not a matter of rational argumentation, but a matter of reaching people at the level of their person.
So when we talk about science being rhetorical, and the big problem that some people just aren’t convinced by scientific arguments, maybe we need to think about the kinds of argument that are being made.
For some people, an old-fashioned Aristotelian argument does the trick. Logical appeals from credible sources in well-formed presentations. No problem.
But other people don’t find that convincing. Other people need something more personal – something deeper. Some people require a level of identification that is hard to come by to be moved. And science doesn’t often provide that.
So the big question for the day, is why should we listen to science if it is rhetorical? And I think that question answers itself. If we recognize science is rhetorical then we can analyze it as a narrative and realize it is worth listening to. If we are looking for facts – something rational and proveable, then science is generally something we can turn to. And if we understand that there is such a thing as a manufactured controversy, and we can analyze those for what they are, then we can be even more confident in our faith in science.
We have to be honest about what we are asking for in order to be convinced. Are we looking for facts? Or are we looking for somebody or something to identify with us? And if we are looking for somebody to identify with us, how could the scientific community do that?
The fact that science is rhetorical doesn’t make it untrustworthy. It means it is human. And that is important, because if it weren’t THEN it would be untrustworthy.
So listen to the science. Analyze the narratives. Be aware of what counts as a controversy. That’s how we make progress.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.