Scientific Characters: Rhetoric, Politics, and Trust in Breast Cancer Research (Albma Rhetoric Cult & Soc Crit)

Scientific Characters: Rhetoric, Politics, and Trust in Breast Cancer Research (Albma Rhetoric Cult & Soc Crit)

by Lisa Keränen Ph.D.

ISBN: 9780817317041

Publisher University Alabama Press

Published in Calendars/Astrological

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Scientists under Scrutiny: The Centrality of Character in Science-Based Controversy

When the Datagate controversy was but two weeks old, breast cancer patients and the broader medical establishment were still reeling from the news of Roger Poisson's tarnished data when auditors uncovered evidence of additional flaws at a second NSABP research site. As if the discovery of falsified data at one site were not damaging enough, the whiff of wider irregularities triggered a crisis of confidence. "Erosion of Public Trust?" asked the Cancer Letter as it reported a discrepant date found on a patient chart at St. Mary's Hospital in Montreal. Cindy Pearson, then director of the National Women's Health Network (NWHN), told the Cancer Letter that "to find out that the NSABP can't even guarantee the quality of record-keeping and adherence to this trial, this adds insult to injury." Meanwhile, Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC), explained, "I think the public trust has been eroded to such an extent that what is needed now is an independent investigation." While National Cancer Institute and NSABP officers tried to assure broader publics that there was "no cause for concern," the Cancer Letter, Pearson, and Visco attested to a fraying of trust in the institutions charged with overseeing research that affected patients' lives. Their words indexed the broader issue raised in this book's introduction: science relies on the testimony of strangers; doubts about the trustworthiness of such testimony undermine confidence in the underlying system and expose the underlying norms of science to broader scrutiny by members of various publics in ways that invoke, challenge, or revise widespread stereotypes about science.

The terms science and scientist conjure commanding images of purity, precision, and, above all, disinterestedness in the outcomes of research. As philosopher Richard Rorty once observed, " 'science,' 'rationality,' 'objectivity' and 'truth' are bound up with one another." "Science," he explained "is thought of as offering 'hard,' 'objective' truth." Rorty's comments reflect widespread stereotypes suggesting that the character of individual scientists should not affect the outcomes of scientific practice. The particular people who populate science, in this view, do not matter so much as their abandonment of human foibles in service of the loftier pursuit of dispassionate, disinterested, and objective knowledge. Science studies scholar Brian Martin captured the thrust of this view when he explained, "Scientific truths are not supposed to be tainted by interests, which is why scientific knowledge is portrayed as rising above the limitations of the system that created it." Although competing images of science certainly abound, Progressive-era ideas about science nevertheless consolidated an image of scientists as "models of seriousness, caution, and neutrality, whose detachment guaranteed the reliability of their investigators"-a vision that bears resonance today. Indeed, "to argue for the importance, even the centrality, of the personal dimension in late modern technoscience," writes science studies scholar Steven Shapin, "is directly to confront a sensibility that defines almost all academic, and probably much lay, thought about late modern culture."

Given this tendency to view scientists as neutral, objective, and unbiased, it is therefore not surprising that when widespread agreement over knowledge claims exists, the character of science passes without comment. But when the epistemic status of knowledge claims is uncertain, threatened, or tarnished, speculation about the character of science and the character of particular scientists looms large. As experts and nonexperts weigh in on the validity of the disputed knowledge claims, they try to persuade one another about the trustworthiness of scientific arguments, methods, and persons. The rhetoric produced in these exchanges is akin to what sociologist of science Thomas F. Gieryn calls a credibility contest: a "chronic feature of the social scene," in which "bearers of discrepant truths push their wares wrapped in assertions of objectivity, efficacy, precision, reliability, authenticity, predictability, sincerity, desirability, and tradition." In rhetorical terms, credibility contests involve attempts to convince others of the integrity of individual actions, of the moral uprightness of particular scientists, and whether or not the character of the arguer makes a difference to the status of his or her knowledge claims, thus revealing the snug relationship between trust and truth, character and knowledge, and the language choices that facilitate their construction.

During Datagate, scientists, administrators, institutional representatives, activists and advocates, patients, caretakers, and health-care workers wrangled over the integrity of NSABP research and, by extension, over the validity of federally funded science. Many of these people also fought to retain, regain, and rehabilitate others' estimations of their character and credibility while simultaneously trying to maintain the epistemic authority of science, the "legitimate power to define, describe, and explain bounded domains of reality." As scientists, administrators, politicians, and patients struggled to make sense of events, they enacted particular rhetorical strategies designed to protect their interests and to enable them to process competing arguments about or related to science. However, in attempting to bolster their own reputations, the key players often damaged the credibility of themselves and others, for their less-than-elegant public rhetoric, shared in a dynamic and unstable process that reshaped the contours of scientific practice, often left them seeming less, not more, credible. Yet trust, as Harriet Zuckerman noted, "is central for the system of science," and trust, we shall discover later in this chapter, depends deeply on perceptions of character.

By outlining a rhetorical perspective on character and by situating Datagate within its historical milieu, this chapter details the theoretical and contextual foundation for my study. In what follows, I advance a three-part framework for analyzing contested characterizations, one that is perhaps versatile enough to illuminate character struggles in many social dramas but that I apply specifically to the vagaries of a science-based controversy wherein widespread stereotypes about science influenced expectations about scientific character. My framework for analyzing character draws from and extends two key concepts from the classical tradition, one long associated with rhetoric and the other a venerated part of the literary tradition in Western education. These concepts are ethos and persona; to them I add a third concept called voice. Admittedly, ethos, persona, and voice encompass contested definitions and wide usage discrepancies, but the triad shares a concern for rhetorically constituted identity and hints at the difference between the actual self and the self constructed through public discourse.

I begin the chapter by situating my three-part method for analyzing character within the rhetoric of science, and then I explain how it can produce nuanced, qualitative interpretations of how character contests play out in the cauldron of controversy. Because science-based controversies stem from particular sociohistorical contingencies, I then review the forces that gave rise to Datagate, thus setting the stage for the chapters to come. Ultimately, I hope to offer a rhetorical perspective on an old observation that has since been muted by the rise of big science with its imprimatur of impersonality: In 1938 Dr. David Lindsay Watson made the seemingly simple point, as the title of his book proclaimed, that "Scientists Are Human." Watson maintained that aspects of the scientist's "mental life" influence "the trustworthiness of his product, and in particular make the findings of science subject to weakness and passion like other human constructions." Somewhere along the way, Watson's message became supplanted by a vision of an impersonal, institutionalized and corporatized, neutral and objective science. In the pages that follow, we shall revisit the human dimension of science and the role of rhetoric in forging character.


Because character is mediated through language, a chasm separates a living person from representations of that person's character. What we mainly encounter in public life are selves projected and (re)negotiated discursively, a fact that suggests the importance of the rhetorical tradition for understanding character construction in science-based controversy. In seeking to untangle Datagate's disparate constructions of character, this study springs from both a long tradition of rhetorical criticism and a multidisciplinary initiative known as the rhetoric of science, which seeks to explain the role of persuasion in science and science-related communication. Generally speaking, rhetoric has concerned itself with the practice and analysis of strategic language; a major task of rhetorical scholarship has been to explicate the "available means of persuasion" in particular cases. Historically, these cases were drawn from the province of public and political affairs, but rhetoricians of science, starting in the 1970s, turned their analytic energies to the persuasive dimensions of scientific texts, contexts, processes, and practices to demonstrate how rhetoric is involved in some of the most elemental processes of science. Randy Allen Harris has defined the rhetoric of science as "the study of how scientists persuade and dissuade each other and the rest of us about nature, the study of how scientists argue in the making of knowledge." Yet because scientific life affects and is affected by more than just scientists, I expand his definition to consider persuasion both in the conduct of science and in its circulation in public life-that is, to examine both the rhetoric of scientists and the rhetoric about scientists and science, which may or may not emanate from voices steeped in scientific subject positions. I therefore follow Charles Alan Taylor in examining "the functional use of discourse to define, redefine, even to deconstruct, the implicit boundaries of those social practices we consider scientific." In the broadest sense, I am concerned with how rhetoric is implicated in the collective cultural processes by which we come to understand science.

The rhetoric of science forms part of a broader multidisciplinary movement organized under the umbrella of "science studies," which situate scientific practices in historical, cultural, philosophical, social, and political contexts. Although they are methodologically diverse and philosophically heterogeneous, science studies represent an effort to replace the mythos of scientific objectivism and boundless progress with sustained consideration of how social processes shape and are shaped by science. Whereas other branches of science studies consider the historical, philosophical, and sociocultural dimensions of science, the rhetoric of science focuses on how language affects scientific processes and understandings. Scholarship in the rhetoric of science assumes that "science and, by implication, scientific knowledge are social constructions which are given presence in rhetorical discourse." Such a perspective does not imply that science swims in a squishy sea of relativity; rather, it asserts that science, like all forms of knowledge, is "a complex, multidimensional phenomenon based on the aggregation of many nondefinitive pieces of evidence and experience."

Accordingly, scholarship in the rhetoric of science generally maintains that rhetoric is deeply implicated in the process of coming-to-know. A slogan that captures this sentiment is Robert L. Scott's maxim that "rhetoric is epistemic." Applied to science, the idea that rhetoric is bound up in coming-to-know means the only way we can understand natural phenomena is through language, which indelibly shapes our understanding of phenomena and primes our responses to them. As Lawrence Prelli notes, "Rhetorical acts present allegations about what is; they symbolically address contentions about how we should name, pattern, or define experiences and thereby make those experiences meaningful." A rhetorical perspective therefore licenses studies of how rhetoric is involved in knowledge production, how it fosters identity formation, and how it coordinates the realm of human affairs. It assumes that science, as a complex, linguistically mediated, heterogeneous set of institutional practices, is a contentious and argument-driven affair, brimming with the possibilities and perils of human involvement. Yet it also acknowledges that science, shrouded in a deep cloak of presumed objectivism, is both enabled and constrained by widespread stereotypes about its ideals and capacities. Thus, when rhetoricians study discourses of and about science, their dominant approach comprises a method known as rhetorical criticism, a humanistic and interpretive act whereby the critic "takes up a text and re-circulates it, that is [the critic] 'says' or 'does' that text differently, and asks the listener or reader to re-understand and re-evaluate the text, to see and judge it in new ways suggested by the critic." My study of Datagate takes up the texts of this controversy and refracts them through the lens of rhetorically constituted character, for the plethora of press releases, public appearances, and journal correspondence generated by key players in NSABP Datagate teem with competing characterizations that were amplified through reports in the mass media. These characterizations and the story lines into which they are embedded have consequences; they can perpetuate or alleviate personal stigmatization and rehabilitate or tarnish reputation, open up or obscure lines of policy and action, and reveal the interconnectedness of those who together confronted the harsh realities of breast cancer.


Richard Harvey Brown has noted that "the narrative character of science lies not in a story completed but in a story being told, a story constantly being struggled over and adjusted." When news media, medical journals, health-care professionals, and advocates and citizens spoke in public about Datagate, they enacted strategic selection and framing of key developments, which implanted characterizations of its players into stories. Shapin has observed that in science, "stories about people and their personal characteristics, their virtues and vices, travel around the community with remarkable speed and efficiency." In the news media, this process comprised what James S. Ettema and Theodore L. Glasser have called "news-as-narrative," which underscores the broader orientational power of narrative. The narrative form of the news story is, for Ettema and Glasser, "an 'instrument' of comprehension and cognition." Yet more than presenting facts and events in a recognizable and understandable package, narrative, following Hayden White, is also "an instrument for the assertion of moral authority," meaning that stories organize reality into ways that invite participation in moral order. Those who encounter narratives can make judgments about the version of morality implied in a story. Moreover, these audiences can make assessments about the morality of a story's protagonists and antagonists; particular constructions of the key players in the controversy thus encourage certain assessments of integrity-and in the case of science-based controversy, believability-over others. As participants in controversy weigh in, they narrativize events in ways that characterize key players, which encode normative understandings about who the scientist is and should be. Three dimensions of character in particular-ethos, persona, and voice-illuminate this process, and compel detailed analyses of the complicated workings of character construction.


When the credibility of scientists is on the line, participants look to communal understandings of science-the scientific ethos-as a means of assessing if their faith is misplaced. While science studies scholars have a relatively recent but elaborated literature on the scientific ethos, scholars in rhetoric and composition studies have been mulling over the nuances of ethos for centuries. Marshall Alcorn observed that "although our understanding of ethos has changed over the years, one feature remains constant: thinkers as diverse as Aristotle and Kenneth Burke agree that often it is not a person's ideas but a person's character that changes people." Aristotle placed character at the center of persuasion when he discussed "finding out how to make our hearers take the required view of our own characters." Although I use Aristotle as a point of departure for reinvigorating an older sense of ethos, and thus do not regard my book as Aristotelian, his influence on contemporary notions of the concept merits review. Conceived in Aristotle's imagining as "persuasion through the character of the speaker," ethos can often propel scientific knowledge. A scientist who is well known and widely respected can advance her knowledge claims with more ease than one who is unknown or mistrusted-regardless of the actual content of the claims each makes. For example, celebrity scientists such as Stephen Hawking or James Watson command more media access than unknown laboratory workers; thus, they enjoy a larger audience for and circulation of their ideas.


Excerpted from "Scientific Characters: Rhetoric, Politics, and Trust in Breast Cancer Research (Albma Rhetoric Cult & Soc Crit)" by Lisa Keränen Ph.D.. Copyright © 0 by Lisa Keränen Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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