RE: Popular(izing) Science (resend)

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Fri Feb 09 2001 - 23:19:34 MST

Oops - misfire.

At 12:02 AM 10/02/01 -0600, Barbara Lamar wrote:

>Greg Burch recently commented that most scientists are not good at
>communicating. I wonder if this is because of the sort of training they've
>had, or if it's because the ability of a brain to function "scientifically"
>generally precludes the ability to communicate well in the usual manner.

Training has a lot to do with it, especially recently (over the last
century). The scientific literature in the 19th century was a lot less
spuriously objective and passive-voiced than today's journals insist upon.
Here's another bit of ARCHITECTURE OF BABEL, probably the segment I should
have posted originally:


Classically, the ambition of scientists has been to eschew rhetorical
persuasions in favour of logical or empirical ways to convince peer
practitioners. Bishop Sprat's History of the Royal Society of London, more
than three hundred years ago, condemned the sonorities of Restoration
prose, calling instead for a limpid style purged of `this vicious abundance
of Phrase, this trick of Metaphor, this volubility of Tongue' (Sprat, cited
in Levine, 1987:11), and in general of the jargons which, bearing out his
fears, would constitute in later centuries so great a part of the barriers
between disciplines. Joseph Gusfield, in a pioneering effort at
investigating `the literary rhetoric of science', finds Sprat's desideratum
figured in a `windowpane' theory of scientific discourse:

        The aim of presenting ideas and data is to enable the audience to see the
external world as it is. In keeping with the normative prescriptions of
scientific method, language and style must be chosen which will
approximate, as closely as possible, a pane of clear glass. . . . The
writer must persuade the audience that the results of the research are not
literature, are not the product of the style of presentation. (Gusfield,
1978: 17)

        Gusfield swiftly points out, on familiar constructivist grounds, that such
neutralised language, while approximated in scientific reportage, is
strictly impossible. (Nobel laureate Peter Medawar once made the same point
even more strongly, asking `Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud?' [Medawar,
1963].) What is more, the rhetoric of science is detectable not by
asserting an identity between science and literature but by treating
science as if it were literature, a step which is itself a metaphorical
conceit. `The style of non-style is itself the style of science. There is a
literary art involved in scientific presentation' (Gusfield, 1978:idem).
        While Gusfield's method is odd - he borrows from Kenneth Burke a number of
`dramatistic keys in use, examining the use of scene, act, agent, agency
and purpose' (ibid.:18), and of voice, in a paper by Waller on
`Identification of Problem-Drinking among Drunken Drivers', deploying them
in a pseudo-dramatic frame of his own - his major goal is laudable: to
develop `the literary genre of the scientific report', his topic `not its
content but its form' (Idem). Certain formal features are readily located,
some of them also deplored by Medawar:

        The active voice is absent. . . . What this pattern of rejection of
personal terms or active voice does is to place the source of action in the
agency or method. . . . The style reinforces this externality and provides
the basic epistemological assumption; by use of the same method different
observers must reach the same conclusions. . . . The description is
minimally metaphorical. The intent is made to seem cognitive and logical
rather than affective or emotional. (ibid.:20)

        While the mechanisms here uncovered prove to have disturbing implications
for the politics of authority versus `criminals' and `victims' in the
drink-driving cases Gusfield studied (and for other social sciences), are
they less pernicious in sciences with inanimate objects? The familiar
positivist distinction between contexts of discovery and contexts of
justification may serve to sanitise the mandatory use of passive voice in,
for example, physics and chemistry papers. What is being obliterated is the
(usually messy) history of the item of research being reported. That
epistemological sleight-of-hand is, however, arguably consonant with a view
of science as a collective practice dependent chiefly on accurate,
dispassionate reporting of algorithms and procedures, and their reliable
replication. For all that, Gusfield's conclusion is surely valid: this is
only feigned transparency.

        It is not that Science is `reduced' to Rhetoric, and thus rendered corrupt
and useless. It is rather that the rhetorical component seems to be
unavoidable. . . . This analysis of Science as literature is by no means
inconsistent with `normal' science as a truth-begetting instrument. It
points, however, to the multiple realities in which and through which it
may be construed. (ibid.:31)

        An entirely different approach is suggested by the psychologist Frank
Barron, in his contribution to a Festschrift for Arthur Koestler entitled,
appropriately for this discussion, Astride the Two Cultures (Barron,
1975:37). Employing standard psychometric instruments, Barron has compared
`many groups of artists, established masters as well as students, with
scientists and other non-artists of similar general intelligence,
educational and cultural level, and social class' (ibid.:43). His findings,
perhaps intractably implicit in his test procedures, bear out conventional
prejudices rather than revealing the commonalty which Gusfield discerns:

        It is tempting at first to emphasise the hidden community that lies back
of the very different countenances of art and of science, rather than to
try to sharpen our sense of their divergence. [. . .Their common] act of
imagination is in response to the problem set by external reality: namely,
to construe it, and to make the construction public. This is the common
bond of science and art.
                Yet indeed they are different, in their means and in their effects.

        The singular difference identified by Barron, inexactly, as he confesses,
is this: `science acts mostly upon the object, and is objective in its
methods, while art acts mostly upon the subject, and is subjective in its
methods' (ibid.:39-40). Regrettably, his elaboration of this position is
simply too crude, in view of the onslaughts of discourse analysis and
deconstruction, to be acceptable even provisionally:

        Science supposes a nature that can best be understood through mathematics
and rigorously applied common sense linked to imagination, while art
supposes a nature that can best be understood (or better, its meaning
evoked) through metaphor and intuition (in the sense of direct experience
rather than ratiocination and proof). (ibid.:40)

        But as mentioned, even applying mathematical models to the real is an act
of either metaphor or metonymy, rhetorical figures of similarity. Popper
and others have asserted that `intuition' is the source of those hypotheses
which precede rigorous `ratiocination and proof'. Structural and semiotic
studies of the arts make clear the formulaic and algorithmic character of
much artistic discursive coding and decoding. The two cultures are not so
readily legislated into difference.
        Indeed, even in psychological terms Barron finds his dichotomy borne out
only in part. Scientists test out as superior in intelligence scores,
independent and resistant to `group-endorsed unsound opinions', combining a
need for order and closure with an interest in sources of apparent
contradiction and disorder, a ready grasp of the `intuitive and
non-rational' in their own style, and a strong set toward meaning
(ibid.:42). Yet the fourth of these five features was also specified as a
mark of the artistic. And a vacillating animus toward chaos and enigma,
versus closure, is of course notable in all but the most hackneyed of
artists (and critics).
        Artists, in Barron's study, are characterised by such routine appellatives
as spontaneous, temperamental, dreamy, intuitive, pleasure-seeking, daring,
and complex; high on keen observation and low on common sense (ibid.:44-5).
`Art is singular vision, communicated,' he declares. `It requires
intensity, freedom from the blinkers of convention, daring, courage to burn
the conceptual boats and strike into new territory,' and so forth
(ibid.:46). Once more, the differentiation seems feeble. Perhaps the
principal characteristic which remains when these parameters are winnowed
is the sense of scientists as typically more communal, `social' and sober
in their intuitive zest, artists as more hedonic, irrational and
individualistic. That these characteristics reflect collective practices
and ideologies at least as much as they do the internal dynamics of working
at science and art is beyond the discriminatory powers of
group-psychological testing apparatus.
        The upshot of this methodology seems to be concurrence with such recent
discourse theorists as Beer and Levine: `we might employ a less linear
cause-and-effect metaphor and say simply that both science and art are part
of a field of energy in which each continually acts upon the other'
(ibid.:38) - a field which, as feminist researchers have been at pains to
show, inevitably extends into the ideology of the culture as a whole.
Ludmilla Jordanova has noted the tardiness of science historians in
perceiving, for example,

        how important sexuality has been as a model of natural relations, as in
areas such as alchemy or mineralogy; how closely science meshed with other
areas of human concern in exploring descent, inheritance, genealogy and
family trees;. . . how much scientific writings are permeated by sexual
language. (Jordanova, 1986:20)

On Origins and Species

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Gillian Beer's investigation into the
language of Darwin's texts is the extent to which she finds them
always-already on the verge of self-deconstruction. This is so for reasons
both intrinsic to their writer's problems in ordering and notating his
discoveries, and in the fundamentally provisional status of those
authoritative but secular propositions:

        The difficulties which Darwin experienced in his writing gave lodgement to
interpretation, counter-interpretation, expansion, fracture, and renewals
of meaning. His is not a sealed or neutralised text. . . . The Darwinian
world is always capable of further description, and such description
generates fresh narratives and fresh metaphors which may supplant the
initiating account. (Beer, 1983:55)

        Beer discerns here a general trait of educated Victorian thought: the
romantic desire `to substantiate metaphor, to convert analogy into real
affinity' (ibid.:42). If Darwin's theory is precisely a theory of
dissemination, of slippage under chance variation selected not
teleologically but by brute staying power, this transition from analogy to
homology represents an opening for a reverse voyage back from hermeneutics
of text to hermeneutics of the real. Even as Darwin helps construct a new
world-view, his prose insists that his reader see this fabrication as an
uncovering of what is already there:

        It is true that [The Origin] is one long argument, but it proceeds by a
strange intermingling of acquisition, concretion, analogy and prophecy. For
a book thematically preoccupied with the past, the present tense is
extraordinarily predominant. This reinforces the effect of discovery, of
being on the brink of finding out, rather than sharing an already
formulated and arrested discovery. . . . (ibid.:48)

        Here is exactly the class of rhetorical interpenetration of science and
literature, though in quite different forms, which Gusfield unpacked in
contemporary sociological and medical-policy documents. The question which
remains is the extent to which these rhetorical ambiguities echo processes
of discovery, permit or even urge the construction of alternative
hypotheses (which, if corroborated, would then perhaps tend to obliterate
their predecessors), or indeed instantiate higher-dimensional complexities
in the real world, complexities inevitably lost or blurred in the
low-dimensional `shadow' which is all discourse can contrive in its
attempts to model the real. In any event, Beer insists that Darwin's
language is anything but a monolithic, unequivocal instrument for the
notation of empirically-derived observations:

        One of the major questions raised by The Origin is how far metaphor may
overturn the boundaries of meaning assigned to them, sometimes even
reversing the overt implications of the argument. Seemingly stable terms
may come gradually to operate as generative metaphors, revealing inherent
heterogeneity of meaning and of ideology. (ibid.:55)

        George Levine, seeking Darwin's influence on his literary peers, worries
this same mechanism into a series of antinomies or aporia: Darwin's use of
apparent anomalies in support of his argument (Levine, 1988:248), the
conservatism of his gradualist dogma balanced and subverted by the sources
of novelty within his lawful world (ibid.:249), so that `Darwin's theory
can be used to expose by analogy fundamental contradictions in the
Victorian realist project' (ibid.:250). Above all, Levine concurs with
Beer's estimate of Darwin's rhetorical skill:

        The Origin persuades, but in an almost perverse way: it consistently
affirms its failure to make its case conclusively or to produce the
clinching piece of evidence, abundantly recognizes the most powerful
possible objections to the theory, avoids precise definitions of its major
terms, sets its most important points in the conditional mode. . . . [T]he
Origin seems not only to participate in the celebrated `decentering' of
humanity; it develops a quiet, erratic, but forceful attack on what we have
learned to call `logocentrism'. (ibid.:86)

        Is it simply the tug of intellectual fashion that produces such a reading?
Levine is candid. In the longer passage from which this citation is drawn,
he qualifies what is to come: `Read carefully, or perhaps with the eye of a
late twentieth-century critic. . .'. This honest (partial) disclaimer is
expressed even more broadly at the outset:

        Given these complications - the innumerable possible interpretations of
his arguments, biological and social, and the elusiveness of the science in
fictions - it might well be possible to find Darwin anywhere. One of my
problems, indeed, is that the argument is not. . . falsifiable. . . . I am
free to play the game any way I like, to draw on fluctuating notions of
`Darwinism' whenever I want to argue for his presence - metaphorically, at
least - in a text. (ibid.:13)

        While Levine's ambit is very large, taking in much more than Darwin's
influence on the Victorians (an important chapter, ibid.:153-76, deals with
thermodynamics, precisely that notion of entropy which Lord Snow found
absent in humanities-specialists) he is obliged at last to acknowledge a
kind of discursive dilution of this powerful influence:

        The Darwinian imagination persists in narrative, but its close connection
with gradualism, direction, meaning has been permanently severed. His way
of seeing has imprinted itself permanently on the imagination of the West,
but his presence is so diffused and various, so much part of the Freudian
mythology, of the deconstructive turn,. . . that efforts to trace it
further become futile. (ibid.:272)

        But it is this bleeding into a general set of narrative strategies which
is the ambition of such a discursive theory of science and literature as
Levine's and Beer's. Darwin, says Levine, `had the power to imagine what
wasn't there and what could never be seen, and he used analogies and
metaphors with subtlety and profusion as his imagination actually defied
the experience that Baconian thought privileged' (ibid.:1). Arguably, of
course, Darwinism is no more scientific, in the sense of being falsifiable,
than Freudianism: it is perhaps a grand methodological perspective rather
than an ensemble of testable hypotheses. Nevertheless, it is paradigmatic
of the impact of the scientific imagination over `common sense', and its
method (at least in Darwin's pre-mathematical recension) is the one we have
seen described: a plot through a text woven of metaphors.


Damien Broderick

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