Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Challenger, Katrina, and rhetoric

I've been reading a couple of articles by Arthur Walzer and Alan Gross on the rhetoric of the Challenger disaster. One of them, "Positivists, Postmodernists, Aristotelians, and the Challenger Disaster," was published in College English in April of 1994. The other one, "The Challenger Disaster and the Revival of Rhetoric in Organizational Life," is available online.

Let me begin my discussion by focusing on a sentence from the first one: "Although there is a degree of simplification in any attempt to identify a single or even a principal cause of an accident involving a complex technology, the Challenger case is unusual, if not unique, in the annals of recent disasters in that the reliability of the component that failed (an O-ring) was questioned and debated on the eve of the launch" (420). These debates are of intense interest to rhetoricians.

In my view, these debates have much in common with the debates about the levee system in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. In each case, engineers believed that the existing system was insufficient; in each case, they presented powerful evidence; in each case, they weren't heard until it was too late. Although rhetoricians have commented widely on the response to Katrina after the disaster, they've said much less about the events that led the city to be so poorly prepared for it. So far as I've been able to find, no one has taken the sort of Aristotelian approach that Gross and Walzer took to the Challenger disaster.

This might be worth pursuing.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More on Einstein and ethos

I had trouble sleeping last night, so I took a look at The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max Born. It's a bit too interesting to work well as a cure for insomnia. It's especially interesting to read in conjunction with anything about Einstein, because Born and Einstein were working at the same time and had some of the same influences. (It was to Max Born that Einstein made his famous remark about God not playing dice with the universe.)

But what I really wanted to mention is this line, which relates to the last post: "Some physicists threw the ideas of Einstein and Lorentz together, referring to 'their' theory as the 'Lorentz-Einstein Principle of Relativity'" (41). If Einstein's lack of citations in his paper was, indeed, an attempt to create a division between himself and other scientists, it apparently didn't work well at all.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Ethos in scientific articles

Rather than doing a single long review of Gross's book, I thought I'd comment on various things as they occurred to me. One point, which I've been thinking about since his earlier work, involves the creation of ethos in scientific articles. On page 27 of Starring the Text, Gross explains,
By invoking the authority of past results, the initial sections of scientific papers argue for the importance and relevance of the current investigation; by invoking the authority of past procedure, these sections establish the scientist's credibility as an investigator. All scientific papers, moreover, are embedded in a network of authority relationships . . . within the text, a trail of citations highlighting the paper as the latest result of a vital and ongoing research program.

Although I think this description is accurate for almost all modern scientific papers, it's fascinating because of one brilliant paper that it doesn't describe: Einstein's "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies." In Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance, Dennis Overbye tells us, "Unlike many scientific papers, it did not specifically refer to any other scientist or body of experimental data and contained no footnotes. This, remarks Galison, may be a reflection of Einstein's experience in the patent office, since footnotes, suggesting that somebody else has been there first, are anathema in a patent application" (139).

It's not clear to me why Overbye would claim that the paper refers to no other scientist or body of experimental data. The first sentence refers to Maxwell, and the rest of the introduction places Einstein's work in the context of Newton's. He also mentions the work of Hendrik Lorentz. But Galison's suggestion makes sense. The lack of citations in this work, so unusual for a scientific paper, may actually have helped develop Einstein's ethos.

Or it may not. Overbye points out that "most physicists couldn't tell the difference between his [Einstein's] approach to electrodynamics and that of Lorentz . . . " (145). Perhaps Einstein made an error here. He was still at the stage of his career when he could most effectively have developed his ethos with a Burkean identification, showing the connection between himself and others. Later on, he might have had more luck with division than identification, much as Pasteur did in his late career. In 1905, though, he wasn't ready for that yet.

Hmmm. I'm not sure. In any case, it's gotten some thoughts going, and I see that as a good thing.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The NCA Convention

About three months ago, I submitted a paper to be presented at the National Communication Association's annual convention in San Antonio. It's been accepted. The title is "Burke, Pasteur, and the Rhetoric of Science."

I wrote it alone, with no feedback from anyone else, in spite of the many times I've told my students about the importance of feedback. So I had no idea whether it was even in the same league as the other papers that would be submitted. Apparently, it's quite acceptable; the reviewer's comments floored me. I'm very much looking forward to presenting it and getting feedback from other experts in the field. I submitted it through the American Association for the Rhetoric of Science and Technology, so there should be plenty of scholars with similar interests who will have worthwhile input.

This is why I'm returning to academia.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Starring the Text

I just stopped by the post office this morning to pick up my shiny new copy of Alan Gross's latest book, Starring the Text: The Place of Rhetoric in Science Studies. I'll comment on it in more detail later. Just looking over it, however, it seems to address some of the issues and clarify some of the misunderstandings presented by the critics of his earlier work, The Rhetoric of Science.