Accommodating Science: The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts
This article studies the fate of scientific observations as they pass from original research reports intended for scientific peers into popular accounts aimed at a general audience. Pairing articles from two AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) publications reveals the changes that inevitably occur in “information” as it passes from one rhetorical situation to another. Scientific reports belong to the genre of forensic arguments, affirming the validity of past facts, the experimental data. But a change of audience brings a change of genre; science accommodations are primarily epideictic, celebrations of science, and shifts in wording between comparable statements in matched articles reveal changes made to conform to the two appeals of popularized science, the wonder and the application topoi. Science accommodations emphasize the uniqueness, rarity, originality of observations, removing hedges and qualifications and thus conferring greater certainty on the reported facts. Such changes could be formalized by adopting the scale developed by sociologists Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar for categorizing the status of claims. The alteration of information is traced not only in articles on bees and bears, and so on, but also on a subject where distortions in reporting research can have serious consequences—the reputed mathematical inferiority of girls to boys. The changes in genre and the status of information that occur between scientific articles and their popularizations can also be explained by classical stasis theory. Anything addressed to readers as members of the general public will inevitably move through the four stasis questions from fact and cause to value and action.