Distraction Free Reading

Writing Science: Viewing Science as Social Practice in the Composition Classroom

Composition endures, in fact thrives, at universities that are heavily invested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But, this also means that composition instructors who are primarily trained in the Humanities and Social Sciences may encounter more and more students whose interests and majors are (for some) somewhat alien. Put simply, STEM topics do not readily offer themselves up to make writing assignments for broad audiences, and students may struggle in constructing them. A further challenge in working with STEM students has to do with their dispositions toward critiques of science and ideology. Students in STEM fields may not have been exposed to the possibility that social norms have been packaged into scientific knowledge production, and they sometimes find such suggestions threatening.

One way to productively engage students STEM topics is to highlight that science as a social practice. That is, science not entirely viewed as the ‘discovery’ of facts, but as a pursuit embedded within particular cultural and historical contexts. Scientific knowledge is produced and disseminated by people for other people, and so must follow the social and rhetorical codes of its times. Viewed in this way, scientists do not ‘reveal’ the nature of the world, but rather make arguments about it. As those arguments ‘go public,’ their authors take on a broader set of interests, concerns, presuppositions, and stakeholders than might be encountered among expert audiences.

Contextualizing the Arguments of Science

Considering the contextual nature of argument, we should take a look at the matter of kairos. For classical rhetoricians, this was “the sense of time that related to knowing when to speak and when to be silent, when the time was right to make a particular argument and when it was best to wait” (Hauser 2010: 28). Yet, as James Kinneavy argues, kairos describes more than this. Rather, it is an aesthetic, ethical, and logical appeal that argues the message’s timeliness – its urgency – at the same time that that the message is put forth. The context of an author’s rhetorical act (the time, place, intention, and tenor of the act) is as much a part of the author’s argument as the ideas he or she delivers. In this sense, Kinneavy suggests that kairos is “the right time and due measure” of the rhetorical act (Thompson 2000: 75). The urgency of an argument is not something that authors encounter ‘outside’ their rhetorical situations. Rather, it is something they construct through the very process of arguing. Considering the kairos of a scientific argument allows students to look further than a surface level view of science as the methodical discovery of facts. Below I offer a couple of examples I have posed to students in my composition courses.

The Scandals of Victorian Science

In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species after nearly two decades of deliberation. As the usual historical narrative goes, this new understanding of Nature, God, and humanity was the bitterest pill that Western civilization ever had to swallow. In 1844, Darwin famously wrote to his colleague that he felt like he was “confessing a murder” (1888: 23). He devoted another 15 years to research and composition before publishing his argument, seemingly the most scandalous knowledge in the history of Western science.

At the same time that Darwin was worrying over his research, another author published Vestiges of Natural History of Creation. This was a vastly inferior book to Darwin’s (published a decade and a half later), but consistently outsold On the Origin of Species. Vestiges offered many of the same conclusions as Darwin’s book, and similarly gathered together multiple lines of evidence to arrive at a suggestion of humanity’s animal origins. A central difference between the two books was their authorship: Vestiges was published anonymously for its first 11 editions (1844-1860) with a portrait of the author partially hidden behind a curtain.

The implication here was that he feared for his reputation, if not his life! The writer was eventually revealed as Robert Chambers, and the decision to publish anonymously has been since shown to be a publicity stunt (Secord 1999). His anonymity was central to the book’s success, and Chambers knew it. Victorians were absolutely scandalized by the knowledge coming from science, but then ‘scandal’ was a widespread and ultimately cherished part of Victorian culture. It was desired and nourished by both its authors and their audiences. This was the kairos of both Darwin’s and Chambers’ rhetorical acts. The former read the potential scandal as reason to delay his publication. The latter turned the potential scandal of popularization into a lucrative spectacle.

What kinds of arguments could students develop from such an example? That depends on which direction one wishes to go: science is part of a consumer market, and thus answers to the values of its audiences. People, even today, look to science for both education and entertainment, but does this mean scientists should work to be more entertaining? Or perhaps a student might counter this argument, posing that the drive for scientists to market their work is inherently bad for the kinds of work that they are ‘supposed’ to do.

When we examine these contexts, we also can also identify other ‘stakeholders’ in the production of scientific knowledge. In their arguments about the nature of the world, professional scientists are beholden (unsurprisingly, and sometimes lamentably) to the demands of a variety of interested parties. While the audiences of Victorian evolutionism delighted in the scandals of ‘forbidden’ facts that challenged their society’s ideologies in novel ways, today’s scientists contend with audiences of social media, television, popular publication, and their corporate funders, as I detail in this next example.

The Troublesome Case of Darwinius masillae

In May 2009, a 47 million year-old fossil primate was unveiled at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Named Darwinius masillae by its discoverers, the fossil would later be nicknamed ‘Ida’, after the lead researcher’s daughter. The unveiling was attended by scientists, journalists, and even Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The whole event had been overseen by the History Channel, which also set up websites and YouTube videos covering the fossil and the paleontologists behind it. A new book on ‘Aunt Ida’ and documentary on human ancestry were also released by the History Channel that same day (Strong and Schapiro 2009). Google even introduced a Doodle to mark the occasion.

Darwinius masillae fossil (CC BY-SA 2.5)

These sources repeatedly hailed Darwinius as ‘the missing link’. Representatives from The History Channel claimed that the fossil would “change everything that we thought we understood about the origins of human life”. The lead researcher boasted: “It is the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail”. On The History Channel’s webpage, its researchers additionally announced when our results are published, it will be just like an asteroid hitting the Earth” (Zimmer 2010).

A student examining the case of Darwinius would see a context in which the kairos of a scientific discovery was being constructed, its authors busily drawing on the popular presuppositions about evolutionary science and human ancestry. The fossil’s genus and species, Darwinius masillae, had been chosen as part of the 2009 bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth, as well as the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. Of course, audiences generally presuppose Darwin as the iconic figure in this branch of science, and so the fossil’s evolutionary importance was thus written into the very name one needed to talk about it. Even its popular nickname – ‘Aunt Ida’ – implied its importance as a direct ancestor to modern Homo sapiens.

But, as curious journalists began looking for the original research publication, they found that the first professional source had actually been published on May 19 (one day before the event). The article appeared in PLoS One, an open access publisher, known for rapid review and acceptance, as well as a controversial pay-to-publish policy. Interviews with the Darwinius research team revealed that History Channel executives had pressured them to rush their work. In subsequent investigations, the fossil would turn out to be not an ancestor to modern humans, but a precursor to modern lemurs (Dayton 2009).

What arguments could rise from the example of Darwinius? Again, it depends where a student wishes to take it. One train of argument yields a critique of science as entertainment, the promises and shortcomings of open access journals, or the consequences of external funding upon research. The point, again, is that science viewed as a social practice offers up a wide set of possible engagements. Preconceived notions about science as the ‘revealing’ of natural facts are challenged by the production and dissemination of those facts. In turn, students can see that very ‘human’ – and sometimes very problematic – events unfold as scientific knowledge is produced, disseminated, and revised. 


When we encourage students to contextualize and unpack the production of scientific knowledge, we push them toward richer understandings of expert knowledge and its dissemination. By recognizing the socio-historical presuppositions of scientists and their audiences, students may find a richer set of arguments to be made about the topics that interest them. By viewing science as a social practice, students may also gain a more complex understanding of the construction of facts as a persuasive process, as well the ideological issues that shape scientific knowledge. Students thus encounter a fertile set of possibilities for constructing their own arguments.

There are certainly broader implications for understanding the varieties of science and its audiences, and for recognizing the overlap between professional science and the social, political, and economic values that influence it. We have ample reasons for considering these implications. In the past, researchers in genetics and astrophysics have been excluded from publication because of their gender and ethnicity (Maddox 2003; Shetterly 2016). Social norms have crept into disciplines like biology that are supposedly free of the influence of ideology (Fausto-Sterling 2000; Martin 1991). Theories and practices (such as eugenics) have been developed under unlikely and sometimes deeply un-scientific circumstances, but have nevertheless been widely accepted as authoritative and legitimate (Kevles 1985; Leonard 2016). By approaching science as a contextually-embedded practice, profoundly shaped by the presuppositions of its authors and audiences, students may – it can be hoped – themselves become more critically-aware consumers of expert knowledge.


Works Cited

Darwin, Charles

1888   The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Volume Two. London: John Murray.

Dayton, Leigh

2009   Scientists Divided on Ida as the Missing Link. The Australian (May 21).

Fausto-Sterling, Anne

2000   Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books

Hauser, Gerard A.

2010   Introduction to Rhetorical Theory. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Kevles, Daniel J.

1985   In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf.

Leonard, Thomas

2017   Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Maddox, Brenda

2003   Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. London: HarperCollins.

Martin, Emily

1991   The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance Based

on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. Signs 16(3): 485-501.

Secord, James A.

1999   Victorian Sensation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shetterly, Margaret L

2016   Hidden Figures. New York: William Morrow.

Strong, Samantha and Rich Schapiro, R

2009   Missing Link Found? Daily News (May 19).

Thompson, Roger

2000   Kairos Revisited: An Interview with James Kinneavy. Rhetoric Review, 19(1/2): 73-88.

Zimmer, Carl

2010   Evolution and the Media. Evolution: Education and Outreach 3(2): 236-240.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *