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What Is Rhetoric of Science?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 01 September 2016
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Rhetoric of science is a field of inquiry that seeks to understand the role of persuasion and rhetoric within the scientific quest for knowledge. As a broad term, "science" is usually perceived as a field based in the objective pursuit of knowledge about the world. While many aspects of science are, by necessity, based in rigorous experimentation, other prevalent parts of science involve persuasion and rhetoric. Scientists, for example, must apply for grants in order to obtain funding for research — this process is based largely in persuasion. Rhetoric of science is also relevant to the effects that science has on public policy and on various philosophical debates within different scientific fields.

While most scientists practice rhetoric of science at various points during their careers, they are less likely than sociologists and historians of science to study it as an academic subject in itself. Rhetoric of science is highly relevant to the social and historical development of various branches of science, so it is an important field of inquiry. Sociologists of science, for example, may study the relationship between science and political policy, with a particular focus on the use of scientific rhetoric to convince policy makers of the existence of various problems or opportunities.

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It is important to note that the application of rhetoric of science does not necessarily undermine the rigorous experimental basis of most forms of scientific inquiry. Experimentation is at the root of scientific practice — rhetoric of science is employed to convince others of the correctness and the importance of the results collected. A research team, for instance, may discover something important about a prevalent illness. Scientific, experiment-based methods are used to make such discoveries while rhetorical methods may be necessary to convince policy makers to enact appropriate public health policies. Simply amassing scientific knowledge is not particularly beneficial to society, and as such, rhetoric of science is used to communicate the value of scientific findings to others.

As in other forms of rhetoric, various rhetorical appeals — as to emotion or authority — are commonly used in scientific discourse. A scientist may, for instance, appeal to his role as a scientist when asserting that various claims are true or important. While it is true that others tend not to have access to the direct experience of the laboratory or to the knowledge necessary to understand all scientific results, such authority-based appeals can be dangerous. Accepting a weak argument based on the authority of the speaker can lead to the implementation of costly or even destructive policies, or to the funding of relatively useless scientific research.

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