Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How is Science Knowledge Created?

The last few weeks, I have been musing on a question: How is science knowledge created? I suppose that one may believe that knowledge constitutes facts or (perhaps more cynically) trivia or one may espouse the Aristotelian theorem that knowledge is sui genesis and can only be discovered. Perhaps scientific knowledge can be discovered through proper classification or through replication of experiment. At the heart of this question is a comparison of competing views of how knowledge is created.

These competing viewpoints are the key; knowledge is created by consensus. Consensus is crafted from competing conversations that clash and crystallize into a common perspective. This perspective is what Kuhn [1] would call a paradigm and Gross [2] has labeled a “field of argument.” Foucault describes this process of perspective-making as competing discourses converging to reflect an “epistemic shift.” He defines the episteme as “the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems…” [3, 191]. These competing dialogues essentially create a shift in thinking or in the creation of ‘truth.’ This creation of knowledge is enabled by the use of language and, more specifically, rhetoric.

Both Kuhn and Gross investigate the use of rhetoric to present new ideas and eventually establish new modes of thinking. For Kuhn the paradigm is born by anomaly and forged in crisis. For Gross, rhetoric plays a (perhaps) more prevalent role in the clashing of competing methods of inquiry. For Darian [4], rhetoric takes an active role in the creation of knowledge by actually being instrumental in the formation and definition of categories and subcategories. In all three, rhetoric is vital to construct discourse that eventually will form convention.

Baake [5] demonstrates that a chief tool of rhetoric to influence the formations of knowledge is the metaphor. When I first encountered Baake’s metaphor of harmonics I was skeptical (it reminded me of Leff’s [6] use of vibrate) but I have warmed to the usage. I especially like “an image consistent with my argument would be that of scientific knowledge as musical notes assembled into some kind of meaningful and evocative pattern” [5, p. 7]. In some ways, this view of metaphor could be consistent with Foucault’s object of formation.

Although these readings do demonstrate the important role of verbal rhetoric in shaping scientific knowledge, I do wonder about the role of diagrams and visual models in this process. For instance, Gross does note in passing: “the persuasiveness of the crucial experiment depends on its replicability; but the crucial experiment in this first paper is accompanied by neither diagram nor clear directions” [2,p. 9]. Later, in his praise of Optiks, Gross reduces the role of diagrams to only inference: “the rhetorical presence of Newton’s experimental method is enhanced by the sheer number of experiments described, and by the quantitative meticulousness with which their methods and results are reported” [2, p. 12]. What is the role of diagram in the rhetorical formation of scientific knowledge?

Certainly science communicators use diagrams to understand complex scientific ideas (the electron, proteins, and so on) but this rhetorical tool is conspicuously absent from our readings. Darian makes prodigious use of diagrams in his classification models [4, see 184 as an example] but these are little more than genealogical trees. How can visual metaphors contribute to the understanding of “complexity” or “paradigm”? A paradigm is essentially a rubric; could the notion of scaffolding better illustrate this concept? What about a Vinn diagram to illustrate the harmonics of “rules” in complexity theory?

Perhaps the lack of visuals in these readings in rhetoric demonstrates a preconception of rhetoric as speech—even though most rhetorical critics analyze texts. Most recently rhetoric is explored within the discipline of speech and yet visuals have long been a part of oration. Today PowerPoint slides are ubiquitous in all disciplines—including science. How do they contribute to the formation, explication and dissemination of theory?

I wonder if visual representations of complex concepts contribute more to a deductive (if/then) approach to investigation rather than the inductive approach that is prominent in the scientific method today. Perhaps visual representations in inductive methods are more diachronic and tend to illustrate specific steps within the process. I am not sure but this may be an interesting study.

-Safari Bob

[1] Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-226-45808-3

[2] Gross, A. G. (1988). "On the Shoulders of Giants: Seventeenth-Century Optics as an Argument Field." QJS 74 (1): 1-17

[3] Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge. A.M. Sheridan Smith (trans.). New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN: 0-394-71106-8

[4] Darin, S. (1998). "The Language of Classifying in Introductory Science Texts." In Essays in the Study of Scientific Discourse, John T. Battalio (ed.). Stanford: Ablex Publishing Company: 181-206

[5] Baake, K. (2003). Metaphor and Knowledge. Albany NY: The University of New York Press. ISBN: 0-7914-5743-5

[6] Leff. (1980, Fall). “Interpretation and the Art of the Rhetorical Critic” WJSC: 337-349

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