Introduction: Writing and Science

Tietge, David

I am pleased to announce the debut issue of the Science and Writing area of The Writing Instructor. In this issue are five excellent essays that will, I think, help advance the ever-expanding rhetoric of science field. Some clarifications may be necessary, however, to demonstrate how this area, “Science and Writing,” is actually conceived as a sub-category of study relevant to writing instructors.

The rhetoric of science sub-field has produced some remarkable insights into how language in general, and scientific language in particular, maintains a discursive power that dominates not only the conveniences of expression that we rely on to make meaning of some of our most important ideas, but also the very conceptualization of what form that meaning takes. Scientific discoveries (and the language used to express them) have managed to influence our thinking in the last 150 years to such a thorough degree that its effects are nearly invisible without conscious effort. Exactly because of this, it is important to know how scientific discourse shapes and defines events, phenomena, and policy in order to more fully understand the assumptions we make when we invoke science as a platform for important, socially relevant decisions. For example, in this issue, Keith Gibson argues that the computer/artificial intelligence (AI) metaphor dominates current thinking about the operation of the mind among educators and the public, and that the metaphor limits our understanding of how the mind really works to detrimental effect. In particular, the author posits that ideas about literacy are conceptually determined by this metaphor and that the result is an expectation that students should process literacy in the same way that a computer does. This leads to reductionistic expectations of reading and writing that manifest themselves in pedagogical approaches and an over-reliance on assessment instruments like standardized tests. Gibson feels that an analysis of this metaphor will help reveal its flaws as a way of conceptualizing the operations of the mind, and it is in this spirit of discursive awareness that the Science and Writing area takes it cue.

But equally important to educators is how science can be used as an apparatus for clarifying that ubiquitous and fuzzy goal, “critical thinking.” David Goodney and Carol Long outline a writing assignment designed to familiarize students with critical thinking through the rhetoric of science. It is broken down into three parts: teaching context, dialogue assignment, and critical context. Through these pedagogical segments, the authors provide teachers and students with a vocabulary for creating and evaluating dialogues. The objective here is to provide students with a way to utilize scientific language in a way that provides a productive outlet for important academic questions, with the ultimate aim of training students to both use scientific language appropriately and to recognize when it is not being adequately applied by others.

Also in the area of composition pedagogy, Richard Johnson-Sheehan and Kristi Stewart define “nature writing” as a form of environmental text that offers opportunities for enriching reading and writing in composition classes. Drawing on the long American tradition of nature writing, and using classical rhetoric and contemporary scholarship to decode these texts, Johnson-Sheehan and Stewart complicate our notions of “community” and extend them to help students (and ourselves) question our place in the environment.

Perhaps the most traditional area of study for the rhetoric of science is in determining where science and rhetoric intersect, particularly within the scientific community itself. Kathryn Northcut posits that a modified version of stasis theory provides a rhetorical means to decode scientific debates using the test case of Protoavis texensis, the polemic over which was a controversial event in the paleontological community during the effort to discern whether the fossil findings for this organism could be classified as the first bird species. Northcut suggests that stasis theory provides a critical means for rhetoricians to unscramble scientific debate in general, and that this method can be also be used “to promote the understanding of scientific controversy among public audiences.”

On a broader scale, the Science and Writing Area of TWI is dedicated to all the ways that science symbolically intersects with our lives. As symbolic creatures, we rely heavily on the advantages of ambiguity and nuance that are often in conflict with the precision and rationality of the hard sciences. In those spaces where we use and misuse words, science can play a large role, but just as importantly, science will have to negotiate the inherent contrast between its discourse of precision and the more chaotic elements of the symbolic world. What we sacrifice in precision, one might argue, we make up for in richness. In "Rhetoric of Science: Oxymoron or Tautology?" Cezar M. Ornatowski examines traditional attempts to dissociate rhetoric and science and outlines what has become a subject of sustained inquiry in light of the work of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, among others. Writing, as a rhetorical act, plays a central part in any system that needs to be communicated to others. And in the many ways that science is expressed, just as with any other discursive system, its language can be applied well, it can be applied poorly, or it can be deliberately distorted for a particular end. The Science and Writing area of The Writing Instructor is designed as a forum to more fully understand the complexities of science rhetoric so that we might make ourselves and our students more active, productive, and ethical participants in its use.

This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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