Burke, Pasteur, and the Rhetoric of Science


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A few thoughts on Pasteur's rhetoric

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  • The popular view of a great scientist may have some of its roots in the writing of René Descartes. Descartes believed that science and rhetoric should be kept separate; great science has no need of rhetoric. I hold the opposite view. Scientific ideas are of little use if no one is persuaded of their significance. The greatest scientists are also great rhetors. Louis Pasteur is an excellent example of a scientist whose greatness stems as much from his rhetorical skill as from his experimental methods. Although his science was brilliant, some of the advances most often attributed to him, such as the germ theory of disease, did not actually originate with him at all. He deserves credit for his ability to promote these ideas with powerful rhetorical techniques, but not always for original or groundbreaking work.
  • Burke, Pasteur, and the Rhetoric of Science

    1. 1. Burke, Pasteur, and the Rhetoric of Science
    2. 2. Identification and division <ul><li>From A Rhetoric of Motives : </li></ul><ul><li>“ You persuade a man only insofar as you talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ideas with his.” </li></ul><ul><li>“ [T]o begin with ‘identification’ is, by the same token, though roundabout, to confront the implications of division .” </li></ul>
    3. 3. Persuasion by division <ul><li>Persuasion of one audience by division from another </li></ul><ul><li>Very close connection between identification and division </li></ul><ul><li>The “great persuasive power of mystery” </li></ul>
    4. 4. My argument <ul><li>Pasteur established his place in the hierarchies of science and society by manipulating the relationship between identification and division </li></ul><ul><li>His place in the hierarchy contributed to a powerful ethos </li></ul><ul><li>Early emphasis on identification </li></ul><ul><li>Later emphasis on division </li></ul>
    5. 5. Law of hemihedral correlation <ul><li>Explained correlation between internal chemical structure and external crystalline form </li></ul><ul><li>Guided Pasteur’s research for eight years </li></ul><ul><li>Never confirmed </li></ul>
    6. 6. Rhetorical significance <ul><li>Pasteur could explain each “exception” to a law that had never been confirmed in the first place </li></ul><ul><li>Research allowed him to rise in the academic hierarchy </li></ul><ul><li>Based rhetorical strategy on identification </li></ul>
    7. 7. Auguste Laurent <ul><li>Highly respected chemist </li></ul><ul><li>Worked with Pasteur in 1846-47 </li></ul><ul><li>Very influential on Pasteur’s early work </li></ul>
    8. 8. Division from Laurent <ul><li>As Laurent’s career declined, so did Pasteur’s identification with him </li></ul><ul><li>Not mentioned even once in Pasteur’s 1860 lectures on crystallography </li></ul><ul><li>Early identification had become complete division </li></ul><ul><li>This division led to persuasion of other scientists </li></ul>
    9. 9. The debates on spontaneous generation <ul><li>“I may even add: as a scientist, I don’t much care. It is a question of fact. I have approached it without preconceived idea, equally ready to declare—if experiment had imposed the idea upon me—that spontaneous generations exist as I am now persuaded that those who affirm them have a blindfold over their eyes.” </li></ul>
    10. 10. Presentation at the Sorbonne <ul><li>Compared to a “theatrical performance” </li></ul><ul><li>Audience of novelists, artists, intellectuals, educated laypeople </li></ul><ul><li>Pasteur’s first real success at persuading an audience by division from them </li></ul>
    11. 11. The real story <ul><li>Technical details part of Pasteur’s strategy of identification and division </li></ul><ul><li>Pasteur admitted (although not in the Sorbonne presentation) that his experiments on spontaneous generation “succeeded only rarely, perhaps less than 10 percent of the time.” </li></ul>
    12. 12. Publication bias <ul><li>A serious detriment to the scientific process (Richard Feynman) </li></ul><ul><li>Leads to putting “identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins” (Burke) </li></ul>
    13. 13. Malice or lie? <ul><li>Burke “found that this wavering line between identification and division was forever bringing rhetoric against the possibility of malice and the lie.” </li></ul>
    14. 14. Julie-Antoinette Poughon <ul><li>A young girl with rabies </li></ul><ul><li>Pasteur tried to treat her </li></ul><ul><li>She died </li></ul><ul><li>Case unpublished until 1995 </li></ul>
    15. 15. Joseph Meister <ul><li>Highly publicized </li></ul><ul><li>Invariably presented as Pasteur’s first attempt to treat rabies in a human </li></ul><ul><li>Boy survived </li></ul>
    16. 16. Ethics of Meister’s case <ul><li>Pasteur’s estimate of people who would die without his treatment: 15-20% </li></ul><ul><li>Meister had 80-85% chance of survival even if Pasteur did nothing </li></ul><ul><li>No evidence that Pasteur had tested vaccine successfully even on dogs </li></ul><ul><li>We have no way of knowing that Pasteur’s treatment saved him, even though every account of the case says that it did </li></ul>
    17. 17. Why that decision? <ul><li>Scientific and public audiences would have trouble identifying with someone who risked a boy’s life to try out a new vaccine </li></ul><ul><li>Pasteur presented a version of the story with which they could identify </li></ul>
    18. 18. The germ theory <ul><li>Often associated with Pasteur (even by Burke) </li></ul><ul><li>Pasteur did not propose it </li></ul><ul><li>Pasteur divided himself from all others who did </li></ul>
    19. 19. Who developed the germ theory? <ul><li>“ On Contagion (1546) by Girolamo Fracastoro is generally regarded as the earliest exposition of germ theory . . . .” </li></ul><ul><li>--Lois Magner, A History of Medicine </li></ul>
    20. 20. “ Does Rhetoric of Science Matter?” <ul><li>Yes! </li></ul><ul><li>Facts do not speak for themselves </li></ul>