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The Priestly Voice of Science

Thomas Lessl

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From the Acton Powerblog:

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Thomas Lessl, Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia, talks about the "priestly voice" of science. He argues that "scientific culture has responded to the pressures of patronage by trying to construct a priestly ethos -- by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase."

Lessl makes an important point about the effect of this on popular perceptions of science: "The priestly character of scientific rhetoric has to do with the need to identify science with the most essential human values by making it a world view -- by creating a public culture based in scientism. The best known example of this approach to scientific communication in recent memory would be that taken by Carl Sagan. Perhaps more successfully than any other popular writer of the last century, except perhaps H. G. Wells, Sagan was able create the sense that history has a scientific destiny."

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From the article by Dr. Thomas Lessl:

PN: How would you characterise the role of rhetoric in science?

TL: There is a popular and widespread misconception in the world that scientific communication is distinctly different from other forms of public communication, but this is not really so. Its persistence is explained by an old adage in my field, which I think comes from Roderick Hart at the University of Texas, which says that rhetoric is most effective which disguises itself as something else. And I would have to say that science is the master of disguises. This is a pattern that began to manifest very early on in scientific history, I would say in the rhetoric of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. Bacon idealized scientific thinkers as ones with "minds washed clean from opinions", as if to suggest that scientific method is an alternative to debate. Here's a longer example of how Bacon contrasted science against rhetoric.

For the end which this science of mine proposes is the invention not of arguments but of arts not of things in accordance with principles, but of principles themselves; not of probable reasons, but of designations and directions for works. And as the intention is different, so accordingly is the effect; the effect of the one being to overcome an opponent in argument, of the other to command nature in action.

Bacon, of course, was a rhetorical genius. He was trying to establish a place for science in English society and across Europe more broadly. What better way to do this than by creating the impression that science, by dealing in certainties rather than probabilities and demonstrations rather than arguments, might provide an alternative to humanity's endless squabbling? In saying this I am not trying to suggest that science is not a profoundly powerful form of inquiry, that its truth claims are without substance or that many scientific questions cannot be answered with a definitive yes or no. But scientific communication has all the same kind of properties that we typically find in other arenas of communication. A chief reason for this is the fact that scientists are forever at the frontiers of knowledge. They're not concerned with what has been established but with what is still in doubt and still contested. Contrary to Bacon's spin, this means that science is all about arguments and opinions - the very stuff of rhetoric.

Read the entire article on the The Galilean Library website (new window will open).

Posted: 24-Nov-05



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