Humanities vs Science. 2. Rhetoric

Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

Before you click away…rhetoric is not just a colloquial term for chicanery, hyperbole, and all the empty words that unscrupulous politicians and lawyers use to exaggerate claims and get their way. Rhetoric, the discipline, is the art of discourse – the art of speaking or writing eloquently and persuasively. Studying rhetoric teaches us how to put words together in a way that communicates our point well and builds a convincing argument – a skill that is very relevant to science.

Something happened on the way to the Agora

To understand the foundations of rhetoric, we need to spend a bit of time in ancient Greece, one of the earliest established democracies; here, public contribution to politics was considered really important. Each city-state (e.g. Athens) had a central meeting place, called the Agora. This is where intellectual, artistic and spiritual ideas were aired, shared and discussed so that anyone could contribute and participate in the dynamic process of political and cultural development.

The art of rhetoric arose from this need to convince lots of people from lots of different backgrounds, some of them probably heckling you as you speak, that your ideas were true and relevant to everyone…even the hecklers. This is why rhetoric is probably mostly linked to politics; but it wasn’t just politicians who were well-versed in rhetoric.

Aristotle, one of the first ‘ecologists’, is also generally credited with building the foundations of rhetoric. He thought rhetoric was extremely useful for knowledgeable types, because “argument based on knowledge implies instruction”, and not everyone in the audience may be ‘instructed’ in your specific topic. Therefore, a well-crafted, persuasive argument could surpass the limitations of knowledge in any given audience. But to build that argument, you had to understand the audience.

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. This is not a function of any other art. Every other art can instruct or persuade about its own particular subject-matter; for instance, medicine about what is healthy and unhealthy, geometry about the properties of magnitudes, arithmetic about numbers, and the same is true of the other arts and sciences. But rhetoric we look upon as the power of observing the means of persuasion on almost any subject presented to us; and that is why we say that, in its technical character, it is not concerned with any special or definite class of subjects.

~ Rhetoric, Book I, Part II


Shades of grey

And of course, like everything, there is a light and a dark spectrum for the shades of rhetoric. Today, it’s easy to assume that rhetoric is just a little bit poetry, a little bit debating, with a splice of marketing – but back in the day, it was taken very seriously.

Even in ancient Greece, rhetoric was having a hard time over its reputation. Plato’s classic Gorgias discusses how easy it is to abuse the power of rhetoric, and how this impacted the discipline itself and the greater search for knowledge. Yes, Plato often had unrealistically high expectations of humans in regards to morality; but this particular text raises some good points on how we use and misuse truth.

In his conversation with Socrates, Gorgias (a master of rhetoric) uses the example of a trained boxer who uses his strength to strike one of his parents in anger. Neither the art of boxing or the boxer’s teachers are at fault, because, in good faith, those teachers taught an art that was not intended to be used that way.

And the same argument holds good of rhetoric; for the rhetorician can speak against all men and upon any subject – in short, he can persuade the multitude better than any other man of anything which he pleases, but he should not therefore seek to defraud the physician or any other artist of his reputation merely because he has the power; he ought to use rhetoric fairly, as he would also use his athletic powers.


The art of rhetoric transcends disciplines and demographics – just like good science communication. It’s about disseminating knowledge in a way that can be understood clearly, even by those who are not intimately involved with the details of that knowledge. So, as Socrates explains in Gorgias, being skilled at persuading others within your field of interest doesn’t guarantee you will be able to persuade others outside your field. And he also stresses that, because of all the moral shades of grey, the study of Philosophy (coming in a future post) is an essential complement to reputable Rhetoric.

Rhetoric in modern education

From the years of ancient Greece until the 19th century, rhetoric was core education in most of the western world. However, in the 20th century it disappeared from high schools and many undergraduate degrees, despite enjoying “considerable intellectual prestige” in the academic world.

So we now have a situation where a small group of humanities academics know the true origins and nuances of rhetoric; most of the rest of the world thinks rhetoric is just the art of bullshit; and an increasing number of students are starting university without any real understanding of how to construct an argument. And coincidentally, rhetoric is mostly only available to study as an advanced elective in a humanities degree.

This is a problem because, as James Kinneavy noted in 1988 (referring to rhetoric’s fall from favour): of the ‘liberal arts’ “…rhetoric was the bridge that linked the humanities to the real world of the populace.” A bit stuffy, but he has a point.

Successful communication is not just dumping concepts, knowledge or ideas in everyone’s lap and letting them sift through it themselves; it’s a two-way relationship – the communicator needs to take the audience’s hand and show them how to navigate that knowledge. This involves actually taking the time to understand the audience, their emotions, their values, and their level of understanding of the topic. This great video made by Clemson University communications graduate students explains this really well. Rhetoric teaches the skills to communicate an idea in a way that can be accessible to everyone, not just within a particular peer circle.

But wait, Science is just about presenting the facts, right?

Science is the pursuit of knowledge and the presentation of Facts. To many scientists, the idea of having to then coax an audience to accept those facts through argument and emotion implies brainwashing, proselytising and just plain dodginess. This is certifiably not cool in science. If something is true, you shouldn’t have to persuade people to believe it, right?

Not necessarily. Misuse of this technique by salespeople of all kinds has given the genuine use of rhetoric a bad name. Everything has a context, and many people aren’t able to accept a truth, especially an inconvenient one, unless they understand the whole context behind it. ‘Persuasion’ is about convincing someone to accept something, through facts and valid reasoning – if they don’t have all the facts in front of them to achieve that reasoning, then they may need some help. Today, a lot of science needs to be communicated persuasively, from climate change to conservation and everything in between. The more we (as humans) remove ourselves from nature and natural processes, the more we need to be persuaded that understanding nature and science is actually essential to our survival…as individuals, communities, and a global population.


© Manu Saunders 2015

11 thoughts on “Humanities vs Science. 2. Rhetoric

  1. sleather2012 July 20, 2015 / 4:56 PM

    Interesting post – although I am refereeing to Aristotle as the first published entomologist in my plenary at ENTO’15 in September 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders July 20, 2015 / 7:36 PM

      Thanks. Aristotle is a bit of a legend for a lot of disciplines! 🙂 Would have loved to hear your plenary – had to withdraw my abstract from ENTO’15 because travel from Aus too expensive.

      Liked by 1 person

      • sleather2012 July 20, 2015 / 8:31 PM

        that is a shame – the printed version gives you the general gist but I have sound effects and many more images in the talk – but given the amount of information I collected but have not been able to use there may be a book in the fairly near future 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. mccnmatt July 21, 2015 / 6:54 PM

    Thanks, interesting post. I wonder if there are national differences here – I know, for instance, that US colleges teaching liberal arts require students to take composition classes. Our university system which specialises earlier means this kind of thing doesn’t happen so much in Australia. I guess a paradigm that sees science communication as dissemination of information either distorted or lacking in distortion would tend to view rhetoric in a negative way.

    In my discipline, media and cultural studies, the idea that communication (and indeed the framing of ideas, the asking of questions, the selection of methodologies) always involves choices, elisions and preferences that speak to who you are, your discipline, cultural background etc. is a pretty standard one. Is this true in the sciences? I would be really interested to know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders July 21, 2015 / 9:51 PM

      Great comment, thanks! Yes, I think there are definitely national differences. Of course for this series, I’m speaking from an Aus education perspective – I don’t know the details of other countries, but I know US has a standard of ‘general background’ before specialisation, and many European countries place a bit more value on a broader education. Specialisation here in Aus really starts in high school – you’re expected to decide what you want to ‘be’ in grade 10, which is a bit ambitious!
      Your point on science communication is really interesting – I’ve been trying to untangle this for a while…I think there are very different views of what ‘scicomm’ actually is, and this contributes to the confusion. I’ve been trying to decide if it’s worth a blog post, so maybe it is!
      And I think your last point is spot on! I did an English/communications degree before I went on to do a science degree and the focus of each was very different. In the former I learned to think about choices/symbols/preferences and, in particular, contexts; while in the latter, the focus was all about facts, often regardless of context. But now I’m actually working as an ecologist, the traditional science perspective of ‘regardless of context’ doesn’t always apply. Sadly this doesn’t always come across in undergrad degrees.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mccnmatt July 21, 2015 / 10:15 PM

        How interesting that you have a background in the humanities. I have no post-highschool training in the sciences (wish I did now!) but I sometimes wonder if some sorts of ecology, especially more observational methods, might be closer to a discipline like history, where you are studying complex processes that you can’t intervene in directly, than the experimental sciences… Context would seem to be tremendously important to the naive eye….

        Liked by 1 person

        • Manu Saunders July 21, 2015 / 11:00 PM

          Yes, Ecology as a modern science is really an extension of what Natural History was many years ago – which is why many ‘pure’ scientists still don’t consider ecology as a ‘science’. And ecology is taught as part of traditional science courses, which just builds on the confusion. I think it’s important that ecology is treated as a bona fide rigorous science, but at the same time the observational side of ecology can’t be compared to controlled lab-based sciences…confusing! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  3. ScientistSeesSquirrel July 24, 2015 / 12:06 AM

    Great post. Like many scientists I’ve had little formal training in rhetoric. This is interesting, because rhetoric can be thought of as a science, or at least can be developed scientifically (what argument is most persuasive? What grammar is clearest? Data!) I batted this oddity around a bit here: In hindsight, I wish I’d paid more attention to humanities 😦


    • Manu Saunders July 24, 2015 / 9:49 AM

      Thanks for the link to your post – agree, there is ‘science’ in science writing! Not just rhetoric, but language structure & function is a science in itself. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Holistic Wayfarer July 28, 2015 / 12:20 PM

    I was a linguistics major in college – the science of language. =) Our Classical homeschool model is preparing my son for rhetoric in his teens.

    Liked by 1 person

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