Rhetoric and Dangerous Questions
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
– Adam Gurri
Scientists usually begin their journeys with observations that seem strange to them, or questions they come up with following their curiosity. Rhetoric plays a substantial role in this step. What problems are important? What will other scientists be interested in? Once this question is answered, will the world improve? These questions can only be answered relative to other human beings.
– Alexander Fleming say that bacteria didn’t grow around a fungus.
– Louis Pasteur notices that milkmaids didn’t get smallpox.
– Coase noticed that although firms were a central part of the economy, Economics didn’t have a good explanation for them.
– The Great Depression happened and a whole bunch of economists said to themselves “let’s not do that again”.
What is the scientists’ hypothesis of how the world works? These mental models don’t spring from nothingness, but arise as the result of conversations scientists have with one another and storytelling. You’re ultimately trying to convince other scientists that your explanation is better than the previous one, which is squarely within the realm of rhetoric.
The scientist does a test and writes down what happens. The rhetorical power of science stems from the verification and replicability of this step. Science doesn’t depend on one authority. It depends on a network of independent people running the same test and replicating the results. This is why psychology had such trouble is that they had fallen away from that model and thus lost their rhetorical power.
Yes, scientific testing is rhetoric, but it is important to note how this sort of rhetoric gets its power. It’s not like the persuasiveness of rhetoric is merely determined arbitrarily or by the artfulness of oratory. Replication is powerful rhetoric because it is independent of the perspective and voice of the scientist themself. Anyone can verify a test. Post-modernists might say “well you’re just saying that because you’re a rich white male and you have false consciousness”. The retort of the scientist can be, well have a poor minority woman run the same test, and they will get the same result. It’s not just like your opinion, man.
4. Reporting results/Teaching/disseminating
Once scientists have convinced themselves that something is true and important, they must go about convincing others. This is the majority of effort spent by scientists and it’s pure rhetoric. They go to conferences, teach classes, talk to other professors, etc. Disseminating knowledge is dangerous if that knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands. Scientists have passive defense mechanisms for this by making their writing boring and obscure to limit their audiences to other intelligent and careful scholars.
Rhetoric and Social Sciences
In my last post, I argued that talking to scientists about rhetoric makes their culture worse by undermining the ideal of truth seeking. The post-modernism that has overtaken the humanities might be more true than a more black and white view of the world, but if taken too seriously it undermines cohesion and enthusiasm for truth-seeking. If everything is mere opinion, people aren’t willing to go to the barricades for it. Science is worth fighting for. It’s worth it even if many mistakes are made, because so many profound advances have been made which allow people to live safer, longer, happier lives.
I agree with him that rhetoric is an inescapable part of what scientists do, whether they want to or not. Those who try to escape the burden of rhetoric wind up marginalized and ignored.
Gurri states that “All reasoning to a conclusion falls under rhetoric”, but I think that’s too broad. Rhetoric is usually used to denote communication with the intent to persuade. Referring to observing the world rhetoric is misleading. Calling reasoning about those observations without communication rhetoric is confusing to a modern audience, although perhaps Aristotle would have used it that way. I think that’s why Sam Wilson breaks it into two parts where Gurri only sees one.
There are countless examples of science being driven by practical problems – “we need to find a stronger/lighter material” “we need to do X Y or Z”. Knowledge is performative. How do we know we know things? Because we can do stuff with that knowledge. Social constructs can’t build airplanes – scientific knowledge can. Rhetoric doesn’t hold bridges aloft. Yes, social science is more touchy feely than physics, but at the end of the day, if a society adopts a certain institution and they become much richer, economists will be convinced it works. When monetarism stopped inflation, economists were convinced. When price controls cause shortages, people are convinced. The proof is still in the pudding, even for social science, it’s just harder to see.
Are there questions which are dangerous enough to justify putting ethical boundaries on science?
I don’t think there is a question – truthfully answered – that has a dangerous answer. There are sometimes horrible moral assumptions baked into questions, but it’s not the discovery of truth that makes the question dangerous.
“What should be done about the Jewish problem?”
The premise is how do you exterminate the Jews. The end is taken for granted. If you want to say that asking questions of the form “How do I perform some horrible crime against humanity” are dangerous, ok I concede that. But I don’t think that has anything to do with science or epistemology or limited inquiry in any meaningful way.
The Nazis would not have been stopped by someone saying “maybe we should limit inquiry into such and such”. The Mongols were perfectly capable of butchering millions of Arabs and Chinese hundreds of years earlier with nothing more than axes and bows. There’s nothing more scientific about the Holocaust than any other of the hundreds of genocides that humans have engaged in since the dawn of time.
Science does have the power to dissuade people that genocide is less necessary. We can discover new crops to feed even more people. We can cure new diseases. We can use social science to try to defuse racial and nationalistic tensions. I have faith that the more humans understand the world, the less they will feel the need to kill each other en mass. I believe that as humans become more prosperous, we will value human life more, as the trend has been in the past. As we communicate with each other more closely, we will learn to empathize. Knowledge is the savior of humanity, and limiting its discovery is the surest path to evil. As Voltaire said ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.’ The worst evil of the last century was founded on absurd beliefs and an unwillingness to look for truth to correct them.