On rhetoric in scientific writing

Scientific papers are infamous for being dry and technical. There are good reasons for that. A scientific paper is supposed to convince the reader of its conclusions on the objective basis of the evidence it presents. What matters, or what is supposed to matter, is what you say, not how you say it.

So is rhetoric—writing or speaking so as to persuade—ever legitimate? An influential line of thought, tracing all the way back to Plato, says no. But there are alternative views, tracing all the way back to the Sophists and Aristotle. Which I’m not going to get into beyond linking to Wikipedia, because this is only a blog post.* I just want to toss out some ideas on when it’s ok for a scientific paper to be written so as to persuade.

First, I think that rhetoric should only ever be a supplement rather than a substitute for substance. If you go too far in trying to use rhetoric as a substitute for good data and good arguments, you end up with something like “The Spandrels of San Marco”. All hat and no cattle. (Of course, I’m sure that Gould and Lewontin thought they had good arguments, which their rhetoric was merely supplementing.)

Second, assuming you have good data and good arguments, I think you should only supplement them with rhetoric if you have some reason for thinking that your data and arguments won’t be sufficient. Ideally, what matters in science really should be what you say, not how you say it. Plus, scientists as a group often are suspicious of rhetoric, suspecting that the author is trying to use style to cover up lack of substance. So for a scientific audience, the best rhetorical technique is ordinarily to avoid rhetoric. But if there’s some reason for thinking that what you say isn’t going to be sufficient on its own—even though, objectively, it ought to be—then I think its legitimate to try to write so as to persuade. If you have good reason to think that your audience won’t be objective, then I’m fine with using non-objective means to try to persuade them to be objective.

For instance, this is what I’ve done in my zombie ideas posts. In attacking zombie ideas, I’m attacking very well-established views that have already withstood numerous, objectively-correct attacks. Further, I don’t actually have any new data or arguments to bring to bear—I just want my audience to reconsider previous arguments which, objectively, should already have carried the day. So if I’m to get my audience to even seriously consider what I have to say, I need to shock them a little bit. And once I’ve got their attention, if I’m going to get them to give up what are apparently very strongly-held views, I need to use strong language. Hence the zombie metaphor and various other persuasive techniques I use in my zombie ideas posts. I suspect that Elias (1958) was thinking along the same lines when he resorted to mockery in order to stop the bandwagon of bad applications of information theory. And the same line of thought was probably one reason why Gould and Lewontin chose to write as they did.

I bet many scientists would buy this line of thinking in other contexts. For instance, if forced to debate a committed creationist, I suspect many scientists would have no problem supplementing logical argument and empirical data with The Flying Spaghetti Monster. What I’m suggesting is that the analogous situation—writing for an audience that you have good reason to think will be at least somewhat resistant to what you have to say—can crop up within science as well, albeit in a milder form.

*You get what you pay for on this blog.

10 thoughts on “On rhetoric in scientific writing

  1. There is no reason why an objective argument cannot also be engaging and beautifully written. Or make you laugh — I love the frankness of some of Hal Caswell’s footnotes. How many good ideas have failed to rise to the surface because the paper was hard to read or put people to sleep? I think you’re referring to rhetoric that borders on emotional manipulation. That’s a little dicier, though it has its place (e.g. in a blog). Nonetheless, there is no reason technical writing needs to grate on the ear. I remember giving some of my writing students a few passages from Nisbet and Gurney’s book Modelling Fluctuating Populations (1982). One student suddenly lit up and said, “Oh! Science writing can be beautiful!” Sadly, it had never occurred to her that the aesthetic standards that apply in literature can still be applied to technical writing.

    • Good point Robin, with which I totally agree. There certainly is scope for style in scientific writing–you’re modest in not naming yourself as an exemplar here. 😉 I like Steve Ellner’s style too.

      I think it’s a little strong to refer to the sort of rhetoric I’m thinking of as borderline “emotional manipulation”. But I admit I was deliberately vague about what I meant by “rhetoric”, illustrating the very broad dictionary definition with only a couple of examples. Much more could be said here, obviously. Lot of people have written a lot of stuff about rhetoric in science–there’s even an entire book devoted to analyzing the rhetoric in Spandrels of San Marco!

      I agree that venue has some relevance to the question of whether rhetoric is legit (e.g., blogs vs. formal papers). But only some. For instance, my post on the IDH as zombie idea is now in review at Oikos as a Forum paper–with all the rhetoric intact (well, except for the links to the funny pictures, which could be considered part of the rhetoric of the original post).

  2. Communication is two parts: ideas and conveyance. If either fails, the communcation fails. Neglecting either is not wise.

    Both ideas and conveyance should properly be subject to something like Sir William of Ockham’s razor, at least for scientific communication. We need epicycles neither in theory nor in prose.

    Cognitive scientists realized decades long ago “…solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent…”

    We communicate best when we consider our the humanity of our audience. Science is not only about reaching for clarity and certainty, it’s about wonder, as well. Allowing for truth, beauty, and humor is not only natural; it’s required.

  3. Sadly, the portion of decision makers that legislate and allocate are driven by rhetoric so all the solid data in the world is lost on them when not in the hands of a skilled or “sophisticated” presenter. The world of politics welds such strong influence simply because they tell a better story and sell a smoother argument, and it has cost the world, its citizens and science funding dearly. My advise to any science major…take a class in rhetoric! It can’t do any harm, and at the very least it will raise your awareness of the culture of sophists that are overwhelming objective evidence in all quarters!

  4. There was an article, in Oecologia or Oikos I think, maybe 15-20 years ago, on the general topic of freedom of expression in science writing. Wasn’t really arguing for being more persuasive, just that duller-than-doorknob writing in science pubs severely cramps some peoples’ styles, which I agree with. I mean it’s not like you can’t do a knock out analysis just because you write a little creatively.

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