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Reading medical prose as rhetoric : A study in the rhetoric of science Segal, Judith Zelda


Rhetoric, as the theory and practice of the discursive means of human influence, and science, as the observational study of the physical world, have traditionally been considered to exist in separate realms. In the past thirty years, however, theoretical convergences in the philosophy of rhetoric and the philosophy of science have yielded a discipline in the rhetoric of science—a discipline concerned with the discursive aspects of knowledge production and reproduction in the sciences. Rhetorical theory has argued convincingly in this century that all language in use is language for use and is therefore, to varying degrees, persuasive. The rhetoric of science begins from the assumption that persuasion is a factor in the construction of scientific knowledge, and from the belief that members of scientific communities (rhetorical communities in every sense) advocate versions of reality which are based in theory, formed in language, and dependent on the agreement of other scientists for their validation. This present project contributes to literature in the applied study of rhetoric of science by analyzing, from a rhetorical perspective, thirty-five scientific articles published in the last six years in major medical journals. (All of the articles are on the subject of primary—or functional—headache.) The project uses a methodology based on classical and contemporary theories of rhetoric to discover persuasive strategies in these scientific texts. It poses questions about how authorial intentions are actualized in scientific texts, how scientific texts have effects on readers, and how the texts affect the situations into which they are introduced. While scientific texts, like literary texts, could be analyzed from a variety of theoretical perspectives, rhetorical theory provides a particularly appropriate heuristic model for analyzing "real world" texts. The rhetorical analysis (which includes both an overview of the complete sample and three case studies) begins by questioning the extent to which the conventions of scientific prose (for example, use of the passive, of nominal iz at ions, of complex sentence structure; use of statistical reasoning and arguments from authority) actually produce a prose that is objective and disinterested in keeping with traditional ideals of science. The analysis shows that medical authors in fact use a variety of persuasive strategies in their articles (strategies which may be classified according to the classical canons of rhetoric), and that the writing in medical journals, is not simply objective and disinterested, although on initial reading, because of its impersonal style, it may appear to be so. The rhetorical analysis demonstrates that the use of textual features promoting an appearance of neutrality is itself a rhetorical strategy which argues for the acceptance of particular claims in scientific articles. The rhetorical analysis is significant for the theory and practice of science, for the discipline of rhetoric of science, and for the discipline of rhetoric itself. The analysis describes the complex rhetoric of scientific writing as a genre, probes the assumptions that underlie its conventions, and argues that scientific texts must be read critically, as rhetoric. To read scientific texts as rhetoric is to locate their arguments, scrutinize their forms, judge their authors, and evaluate their effects. The role of the rhetorician is to urge such reading, and everywhere to promote discussion of the ways of influence exerted especially by texts which appear at first not to be rhetorical.

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