Carnegie Mellon University

Inventing Scientific Discourse: Dimensions of Rhetorical Knowledge in Physics

Author: Ann Blakeslee
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1992

Rhetorical studies of science have emphasized the textual products of scientific activity. In this dissertation, I depart from such traditional analyses of scientific texts and present, instead, a socio- rhetorical analysis of the activities of three physicists presenting their work on the computer simulation of biological molecules to physicists, biologists, and chemists. My analysis focuses, not on a single rhetorical artifact (e.g., the scientific journal article), but on the whole rhetorical process by which the physicists sought to position their work for long- term acceptance. My inquiry was prompted by two questions: "How do scientific artifacts attain public space?" and "How does publicity get achieved and worked out in science?"

The findings of my research correct as well as elaborate theoretical assumptions about the rhetorical process as it occurs in science. I argue that scientific persuasion does not occur solely through a text, but that the acceptance of scientific ideas depends on an ongoing social process through which scientists publicize and position their work for long-term acceptance. A central component of this process is audience. Contrary to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's suggestion that scientific audiences are nonrhetorical entities determined by the larger institution (1969), the physicists' concerns suggest that scientists consciously select their audiences as well as the most suitable forums for reaching those audiences. Further, the physicists' frequent interactions with members of their audiences suggest that audience, more generally, is an internal construct acquired through external means. Scientists acquire knowledge through ongoing social involvement occurring throughout their professional lifetimes.

The findings of my research also suggest that scientists use audience knowledge to aid the development and presentation of ideas. Such links between audience and rhetorical invention suggest that rhetoric functions epistemically to aid the generation of content--Bereiter and Scardamalia's two-way interaction between continuously developing knowledge and continuously developing text (1987). Content and rhetorical knowledge are indistinct, and both are required to function as a professional physicist. Further, such knowledge is acquired through a situated, context-dependent, and enculturating process--a cognitive apprenticeship with an experienced master.