by Carlos Elías Pérez and Jesús Zamora Bonilla
1. Science, Persuasion, and Rhetoric: The Argumentation Model
In this article, we argue that the communication of science in mass media operates as a kind of ‘soft’ or ‘lite’ version of scientific papers. Such common occurrences result in a significant misunderstanding of science. In order to explain why this occurs, it is helpful to analyze the nature of scientific papers as acts of communication and contrast its main differences with mass media.
According to a traditional, positivistic conception of science, the main difference between scientific discourse and other forms of public communication (literature, religion, political discourse, journalism) was that the former aims at being absolutely objective, logical, impersonal, rational, whereas in the other cases there is ample and substantial space for subjectivity, passion, and even strategy. Science pursues truth, whereas ‘literary’ communication aims at persuasion, or so it was thought. This vision of science, however, has been discredited thanks to lots of studies about the way real, flesh and bone scientists construct their writings, organize the research processes leading to their papers or books, employ the writings of their colleagues, and interact with agents outside the field of ‘pure’ science. Science, in a word, has also its own rhetoric: in the last decades, a systematic attempt to study the process of scientific communication as an exercise in the strategic use of arguments has been carried out by a number of authors, leading to the conclusion that rhetoric (in this sophisticated sense) is not only present within science, but essentially belongs to its very core). A deep disagreement still exists, nevertheless, about the consequences we must draw from this fact: for some philosophers, the idea that scientific assertions are highly malleable may be dangerously close to the thesis that scientists systematically deceive, and so, a big part of contemporary research in epistemology might be interpreted as an inquiry into the (internal or external) limits to scientific rhetoric, i.e., into the cognitive or institutional mechanisms that may drive arguments in an epistemically ‘sound’ direction. On the other hand, some sociologists, deliberately equating the notion of ‘fact’ with that of ‘what scientists take to be a fact’, have concluded that, since scientific assertions are the result of a ‘rhetorical negotiation’, so are the facts those assertions aim to represent.
One of the authors of this article has developed in a series of papers a model of the process, scientific research and communication that attempts to mediate between both approaches: the aim of a scientific paper would be to persuade the author’s colleagues of using and citing the results presented in the paper, but in order to be capable of doing that, the author must justify those results according to some inferential (logical, methodological, rhetorical…) rules that have been agreed (ideally) by all the members of her research community, and that have been designed or selected in big part (but not exclusively) because of their efficacy in leading to results that have nice epistemic properties. One of the most important social implications of this view is the manner in which the rhetorical (i.e., ‘leading to persuasion’) aspects of the paradigmatic piece of scientific communication (i.e., the scientific paper) relate to the rhetorical elements of the main channel through which science reaches the general public, i.e., journalism.
According to our ‘persuasion model’ of scientific communication, a paper is basically a piece of argumentation (rather than a piece of information). This means that the goal of the publication is to persuade the readers to do something; in particular, what the author wants the referees to do is accepting the paper for publication, but most importantly, what she wants the ‘regular’ readers to do is quoting it in their own future papers (mainly quoting it as containing information relevant for some premise these other papers consider to be useful to introduce as a means of persuading their readers of the validity of their own conclusions). All this traffic of conclusions-premises depends on the fact the scientific community to which the authors of the papers belong basically agrees on some (more or less tacit or explicit) rules saying when it is legitimate to conclude some claim on the basis of other claims. Of course, there can be more or less strong debates about the content and use of these rules, but these debates must depend in their turn on some other shared rules or intuitions about the soundness of the inferences. But, for the most part, ‘normal’ science (to use the famous Kuhnian term) flows over a more or less stable bedrock of agreed inferential rules within each specific research community.