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New Life, Old Story: The Rhetoric of Science and Paradigms

December 6, 2010

Illustration by Kate Holterhoff

This past Friday, NASA Astrobiology research fellow Felisa Wolfe-Simon told NPR how she discovered a species of bacteria that, counter to prevailing wisdom, seems able to use poisonous arsenic in place of life-building-block phosphorus. 

Yes, that’s right.  I’m writing about Science.  Rhetoric, we’ve said before, is about contingency and uncertainty.  We might assume Science is about fact. So what are rhetoricians doing, poking around scientific work?

Finding quite a lot, actually. The Rhetoric of Science is a thriving subfield in this ancient discipline.  Wolfe-Simon’s NPR interview reminded me of  a major line of inquiry preoccupying rhetoricians of science: how do scientists convince others that findings are significant?  Lawrence Prelli argues that when findings don’t conform to expected scientific theories, one way scientists can claim their work is accurate and meaningful is to argue the work revolutionizes a paradigm.

Prelli is drawing on Thomas Kuhn, who made popular the theory of science as a series of paradigms in his 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While defining paradigms and their revolutions, Kuhn says many things, and his theory remains controversial, but here are some highlights:

1.  Kuhn claims that scientific fields are defined by paradigmatic research, and scientists can’t think beyond their paradigm.  Here’s what Wolfe-Simon told NPR about previous biochemistry theories:

What about the main building blocks of life? Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous and sulfur — can we substitute any of those? And the dogma is no.

2.  Kuhn argues that paradigms are revolutionized when someone figures out how to question the fundamentals.  Wolfe-Simon described her thought process as:  “So I wondered, could it be possible here on Earth that we might actually be able to find something [outside the building-block “dogma”]?”

3.  Kuhn says that the questioning scientist is usually a young person (ok, Kuhn says “young man”) in the field.  Wolfe-Simon explained:  “As a young scientist, I thought, well, why not do this? The chances of it working are low. But if it works, it’s very profound.”

So Wolfe-Simon’s story, as told to and edited by NPR, conforms in many ways to Kuhn’s description of paradigm revolution. Prelli argues the paradigm-shift claim

is often created when those who view themselves as revolutionary outsiders want to challenge and to overturn claims of orthodoxy, but more evidence is needed to substantiate this conjecture.

And Wolfe-Simon’s findings have not been wholehearted embraced.  NPR attaches a vague caveat at the end of the story: “But other scientists are less impressed.”  One way of persuading them, we might theorize, is to explain the findings though the paradigm-shift story.

Because this is a story.  It’s a narrative where some details are ignored and some emphasized.  To see this clearly, contrast the NPR story to the parallel NASA web feature.  NASA’s narrative focuses on the scientific team  rather than team leader Wolfe-Simon.  It brackets a description of the research within favorable quotes from senior NASA members, and it ends with comments about funding.  In other words, NASA gives a more standard scientific tale of discovery:  communal work, applauded by the field’s leaders, funded by a respected agency.

No one is debating the accuracy of the shared details—Wolfe-Simon asked the question; there was a team that conducted the research. NASA’s Astrobiology Program funded it.  The findings are being published.  Rhetoric isn’t usually about creating facts out of whole cloth.  Rhetoric is how we shape facts we have into persuasive arguments.  And that’s a role that appears even in the realm of science, since a scientist must persuade others how, out of all the incalculable number of observations piling up, the one she made is significant enough to merit attention, review, and acceptance.

If you want to know more:

  • Prelli’s article quoted above is “The Rhetorical Construction of the Scientific Ethos” as republished in Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science:  Case Studies.  Useful background reading for Prelli’s argument would be sociologist of science Robert Merton’s 1942 canonical article “The Normative Structure of Science”  and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, though Prelli reviews both these arguments in the course of launching his own.
  • Prelli focuses on scientists arguing with other scientists; for a rhetorical study of how scientists and science journalists argue significance to non-scientists, you could start with Jeanne Fahnestock “Accommodating Science:  The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts”.  She provides another set of methods for analyzing Wolfe-Simon’s and NASA’s presentation of findings.
  • I am paraphrasing Kuhn with what might seem draconian concision, but if you’re familiar with his writing, I think you’ll understand.  Scholarship on Kuhn abounds, including Kuhn’s own reflections in The Road Since Structure.  There’s also the nagging issue of scholar Ludwik Fleck’s earlier published work Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact.  But if the idea of science + rhetoric intrigues you, then jump on in.  I’ve found the water quite fine. 
  • The NPR audio and article “Scientists Find Bacterium that Survives on Arsenic”  can be found here.  The NASA feature “NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built with Toxic Chemical” is here.   See what I mean about different narratives?
  • If the question “what about life built on other chemical blocks?” strikes you as familiar, you could be remembering CBS show The Big Bang Theory (S1, E4 “The Luminous Fish Effect”) or 2001 movie Evolution, both part of the science fiction tradition referenced in the NASA’s feature.
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