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Lab Times



of scientific presentation. Visual scientific

evidence complements the written narra-

tive. It is used to depict relationships vis-

ible in nature, such as those between in-

sects and plants; relationships in nature

not visible to the naked eye, such as crys-

talline structures and underground geo-

logical sections; relationships posited by a

theory, such as diagrams of cell signalling

pathways; or tables and graphs organising

masses of data in support of proposed rela-

tionships. Because of their obvious commu-

nicative utility, scientific visuals have come

to occupy a central role in articles, such that

the language of a scientific article has now

become almost as much about interpreting

information in figures and tables as read-

ing straight text.

Rhetoric in science language

Academics from the social sciences have

also been particularly interested in how

scientists use language to go beyond “the

facts”, in order to persuade and influence

their audience. This is the field of ‘rhetoric

of science’ (reviewed in Rhetoric of Science

The Writing Instructor, 2007).

As a component of language, rhet-

oric traditionally means an art of dis-

course that aims to improve the capability

of writers or speakers to inform, persuade,

or motivate particular audiences in specific

situations. Classical Roman rhetoric defined

five canons that serve as a guide to creating

its persuasive arguments. These are inven-

tion (the process of developing arguments);

style (determining how to present the argu-

ments); arrangement (organising the ar-

guments for extreme effect); delivery (ges-

tures, pronunciation, tone and pace); and

memory (learning the speech and persua-

sive messages).

Sociologists now claim that these rhe-

torical elements must also apply to sci-

ence because scientists use language (see

text box “The Language of Laboratory Life”

above). Although scientists sometimes in-

sist that results “speak for themselves”, in

reality the results do not really “speak”. Peo-

ple speak for them and when they speak,

they inevitably face such problems as what

to say, to whom, with what purpose, how,

and in what manner or medium. These are

the major dimensions of any act of human

communication and the fundamental con-

cerns of rhetoric. Some scientists remain

opposed, however, to the very idea of a rhet-

oric of science, since they consider it to be

an attack on the status of science and its


Prior to looking at the language of sci-

entific articles, Alan Gross attempted to

construct a coherent rhetorical theory of

science (The Rhetoric of Science. Harvard

University Press 1990). His premise was

that scientific knowledge consists of the an-

swers to three questions 1. What range of

“brute facts” is worth investigating? 2. How

is this range to be investigated? 3. What do

the results of these investigations mean?

He argued that the relative importance of

“brute facts”, and how their meaning is es-

tablished, involves rhetoric because ‘persua-

sion’ is involved when choosing problems to

research and the way in which results are


Another study looked at how the rhet-

oric of science affects research proposals

and research articles (Writing Biology, Greg

Myers, 1990). It shows that they can be so-

cially constructed by the review and revi-

sion processes. This is because, in order

to gain funding and publication, the origi-

nal authors become responsive to the judg-

ments and perceptual frames of the review-

ers. These processes can have consequences

for the scope of the claims being made, the

theories being invoked and the kinds of in-

vestigations that are subsequently pursued.

Rhetoric and reason

The way in which we use the language

of science can also affect how we conceive

of the ‘facts’. Gross argues that many criti-

cal scientific terms and concepts are actu-

ally metaphors. A metaphor is defined as

an expression of a relationship – “a word

or phrase for one thing that is used to refer

Valter Campanato, Agência Brasil


aboratory Life is an influential book on the rhetoric of science. It describes a two-year

anthropological field study of scientists in a research laboratory at the Salk Institute,

California. The scientists were observed as if they belonged to an exotic tribe in the

Amazonian rainforest. The book begins with the account of an ignorant observer who knows

nothing of laboratories or scientists. Using an anthropological approach, the observer’s

understanding of laboratory practices is gradually refined. This leads to a strong focus on

the significance of paper documents. Soon, the observer recognises that all the scientists

and technicians in the lab actively write. In fact, few activities in the lab are not connected

to some sort of transcription or inscription. The laboratory is described as a “strange tribe”

of compulsive and manic writers, who spend the greatest part of their day coding, marking,

altering, correcting, reading and writing.

Large and expensive laboratory machines are

identified as inscription devices that have the sole

purpose of transforming a material substance into

a figure or diagram. At each stage of this “literary

inscription” process, all previous activities are quickly

forgotten. All that matters is the latest symbolic repre-

sentation. This is ultimately sent to the office section

of the laboratory for incorporation into their primary

product - the scientific article. The observer concludes

that the production of articles for publication in a sci-

entific journal is the primary focus of a laboratory.

Source: Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The

Construction of Scientific Facts. 1979 Sage Publications

The Language of Laboratory Life