Scott Mogull

Scott Mogull

Assistant Professor
Texas State University


Rhetoric of Scientific Data and Evidence-Based Medicine

Relying on an outdated theory of scientific positivism, general and semi-technical audiences tend to think of scientific findings as certain, absolute, and supreme (Cummings 1998; Miller 1992; Rude 1992). Simply using the label science, falsely implies a certain ethos regarding the certainty and authority of the information. The term science (or label scientific) often implies fact or truth in general discourse, and as such is beyond dispute. Even within the rhetoric of science, our discussion has not transcended at a certain level of the scientific argument. I am interested in a deeper analysis of scientific data and in refining our use of the term science to the verb, as use by scientists.
When we consider scientific “facts,” or claims as used by Fahnestock (1986; 1988), there appears to be three levels. These levels are that of data, truth claim, and argument. Of particular interest are the levels of data and truth claim. I am using the term truth claim to distinguish a particular level of scientific argument from the use of claim elsewhere, especially by Fahenstock (1986; 1998) and Latour and Woolgar (1979). The three levels of “facts” presented here underlay the five-fold classificatory scheme that corresponds to different types of statements developed by Latour and Woolgar (1979, pp. 75-79). The term truth claim corresponds to a statement that is generally accepted as a “fact” by scientists, as their direct interpretation of data. This has significant implications for health, which is moving towards evidence-based medicine.
As is argued in the rhetoric of science, there is always a degree of uncertainty in all truth claims, which is the basis for this term. In selecting an example, I decided to analyze an excerpt from a scientific paper that has been previously analyzed for another purpose. Fahnestock (1986; 1998, p. 335) compares the rhetorical change of the claims (or truth claims) presented in scientific papers to comparable statements presented in popular articles. Beneath the level of the truth claim is the second, detailed level of the data. This level is the direct measurement or output. The level of data has traditionally escaped comprehensive rhetorical dissection in lieu of following the developing the scientific argument that is being assembled in scientific papers. As Fahenstock (2005) observes, “Scientific arguments and movements are then seen to deploy the same structures of reasoning and the same means of institutional and interpersonal persuasion used in any argument field” (p. 278).

Key words to describe research

Rhetoric of Science, medical rhetoric, evidence-based medicine, healthcare

Work in relation to symposium keywords

Theory and ethics: The answer to this is partly a response to the question regarding medical rhetoric versus health communication (below). I tend to think of medical rhetoric as a theoretical field tied more closely to the analysis of communication whereas health communication appears more applied with a more immediate connection between research findings and implementation of solutions. I see ethics as inherent in rhetorical theory, so these two keywords are closely tied and the most relevant to my own interest.

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