Gross’ Rhetoric of Science

Alan Gross
The Rhetoric of Science
Area: History of Rhetoric and Memory Studies
From Randy Harris’ Review

•    Compounding the presumption of that article, the book is surprisingly neglectful of other work in the field. There is barely a glance in the text at Bazerman or Myers. Simons, Lyne, Miller, Zappen, and several other influential rhetoricians of science are nowhere to be seen.
•    The book begins with much talk about “a neo- Aristotelian rhetoric of science” (6), outlining rhetorical genres and sketching stasis theory, but all that fades rather quickly away.
o    When Gross gets down to looking at scientific texts and processes, Habermas and Turner are more direct influences than Aristotle or Cicero. Nor, despite the emphasis on knowledge-making, do Scott or Leff or any others from the rhetoric-as-epistemic tradition make an appearance. The Sophists are invoked early but never employed.
•    Durant in the Times Literary Supplement dismissed his arguments to that end as (savour the irony) “mere sophistry,” and Ravetz complained in Nature that his work reduced science to “‘just words.”
o    Mere and just are familiar sticks for beating uppity rhetoricians, of course, and we shouldn’t lose any sleep over scientists worried that exposing their traffic in suasion might lower their status or jeopardize their grants
•    “The creation of knowledge is a task beginning with self-persuasion,” he tells us on the first page, “and ending with the persuasion of others” (3).
•    Suasion seems overlaid on science in these analyses, not constitutive of them, and Gross talks frequently as if rhetoric and scientific argumentation are two distinct entities (“rhetorical and scientific reasoning differ not in kind but only in degree”-12), rather than the latter being a subset of the former.
•    Plato, who says that first you find the truth, then you sell it. Plato’s model, not coincidentally, is the one that most scientists would offer.
o    Truth is ‘out there.’ Scientists find it. They phrase it in the most compelling terms, and others recognize it.
•    And a rhetoric that sells, instead of builds, is far too static for science.
•    This picture, of course, is a stick drawing of scientific disputes (ignoring, for instance, problems and solutions that arise only in the crucible of debate-E churning up data only for its ability to perforate U;
o    U inventing goals only because they are antithetical to E’s; each latching onto methods only for their corrosive effect on the other). But even this skimpy outline is fuller than Gross’s picture.
•    In short, there is not enough in The Rhetoric of Science about how knowledge gets built-via negotiation-in science.
•    But, through public disagreements (and public alliances), they display their arguments before their consumers-the workaday scientists who have to decide how they are going to spend the next few years of their time and energy, allocate their grant money, deploy their students.
o    More generally, scientific programs are like any consumer product-if fins work for this year for Ford, Chevy will have them next year-and theories are constantly infecting one another with attractive properties, constantly swapping suasions.
•    And, in the most unfortunate case of opportunity lost (perhaps because
Habermas leads him astray), Gross has a close look at the peer review process-as ripe a grove for epistemic rhetoric as any in science-and finds it a certification exercise. Knowledge is approved, not made, in Gross’ picture of peer review.
From Trevor Melia’s Review
•    In proposing to treat science “sub specie rhetoricae,” Alan Gross exemplifies both the problems and the potencies of the sophistic tradition in rhetoric.
o    Gross understands that the hegemony of rhetoric is threatened by plausible claims to knowledge of a reality beyond language.
o    He also recognizes that “science” poses the greatest threat in this respect
•    The result is that the rhetoric of science is in danger of being assimilated to a historically sensitive sociology of science.
o    Gross seeks to avoid that problem by explicitly mobilizing canonical works in classical rhetoric, especially those of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintillian, and supplementing them with contributions from such moderns as Chaim Perelman, Kenneth Burke, Vladimir Propp, Jiirgen Habermas, and Roland Barthes.
o    Chapters devoted to analogy in science, taxonomic language, style in biological prose, and the arrangement of the scientific paper are redolent of the categories, if not the concerns, of classical rhetoric.
•    More philosophically provocative is the attempt, by invoking the doctrine of stasis (an sit, quid sit, quale sit), to replace “scientific discovery” with “rhetorical invention.”
•    This latter feat is accomplished by a perhaps too facile bifurcation between the “brute facts of nature” and “science itself.”
•    On Gross’s rendition the rhetoric of science does not deny the brute facts of nature but does aver that they are neither science nor knowledge.
o    Thus for Gross, since science is by definition invented, anything discovered is by implication brute fact.
•    Both Gross and Prelli profit from that combination of semiotic insight and modern Continental philosophy that, treating language as not merely instrumental but constitutive of reality, renders everything as “text.”


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