UW News

October 21, 2016

Communication professor Leah Ceccarelli honored, discusses ‘rhetoric of science’

UW News

Leah Ceccarelli - story is a Q and A with her about her work, for which she was given the National Communication Association's 2016 Douglas W. Ehninger Distinguished Rhetorical Scholar Award.

Leah Ceccarelli

Leah Ceccarelli, a professor in the Department of Communication, is a rhetorical critic and theorist. She is the 2016 recipient of the National Communication Association’s Douglas W. Ehninger Distinguished Rhetorical Scholar Award.

Could you tell about the work that led to this award?

The bulk of my work is on the rhetoric of science. That means that I study the persuasive strategies used in arguments about science — by scientists seeking to convince their colleagues that a study is worthwhile, or by scientists addressing broader publics, or even by politicians wrangling over public policies that involve technoscientific matters.

This is a national award for a career of work around a particular subject, so my work on the rhetoric of science is the main reason I received it. But the awards committee also mentioned my work developing a rhetorical theory of polysemy – that is, how some texts are designed to carry different meanings for different audiences, whether for good or ill.

That’s interesting about scientists seeking to convince their colleagues — what arguments tend to succeed?

Some of my earliest work showed that scientists who persuade their colleagues to undertake interdisciplinary work do so by employing strategies of polysemy. That’s how I ended up studying that concept. For example, physicist Erwin Schrödinger inspired physicists and biologists to come together to form the field of molecular biology by hinting to each that they would find what they most desired across disciplinary borders.

There was a single passage in his influential little book, “What is Life?” that was interpreted differently by physicists and biologists, and each ended up seeing it as evidence that their discipline would benefit the most from a collaboration between the two. That type of strategic ambiguity is a masterful rhetorical move used by a someone who is both a brilliant scientist and a brilliant arguer.

What are some examples of polysemy that people might encounter in life or work?

Another type of polysemy is one that doesn’t serve the interests of the arguer, but is created instead by others. It’s called resistive reading, and you can see it in the current presidential campaign, where statements are read out of context to suggest a meaning that’s opposite to what its author originally meant.

A case in point is Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” speech. Few people know that her much-quoted line about “half of Trump’s supporters” was just the first half of an argument she was making to persuade a die-hard group of her own supporters that they shouldn’t write off those who plan to vote for her opponent.

After assuring her audience that she identified with their frustration with some of the most irredeemably racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and Islamaphobic supporters of Trump, she went on to talk about the rest of his supporters, the smart people who “don’t buy everything he says” but who “feel that the government has let them down.” Her speech made a moving appeal to her most faithful contributors to “understand and empathize” with opponents they would rather just dismiss. And if you listen to the empathy in her voice, and the way the audience gets silent and serious in response, it seems like she’s really getting through to them.

But that point is completely lost when the first part of her argument is ripped out of the rest of the speech as evidence that she hates Trump supporters. That speech has two meanings — one for the immediate audience and another that resists that meaning and turns it into its opposite.

You are honored for two academic books — “On the Frontier of Science: An American Rhetoric of Exploration and Exploitation” (2013, UW Today interview here) and “Shaping Science with Rhetoric” (2001) plus more than two dozen articles and book chapters. What basic themes run through the work?

In addition to polysemy, I do a lot of work with metaphors — the mixing of metaphors and the unintended entailments of otherwise productive metaphors. I’ve also done some work on manufactured scientific controversy, in which special interests falsely claim that a settled issue is still the subject of debate in specialist scientific communities. Also known as manufactroversy, this tactic is used most often to delay policy action, and it’s hard for scientists to respond to it without seeming dismissive.

Most of my work tries to help scientists come up with ways of improving their persuasive discourse, such as appropriately responding to manufactroversies, rethinking the metaphors they use, and designing effective appeals across disciplinary boundaries.

What work do you have underway now, and what’s coming up?

I’ve been doing a lot of work lately on the ethos of science — that is, how the character of scientists is presented in the public sphere, whether in presidential speeches or in movies, or in policy deliberations about risk. A division between scientists and citizens seems to be entrenched in our thinking as a culture. But scientists don’t give up their citizenship duties when they get their degrees, so I’d like us all to think more about the responsibilities of the scientist as citizen.

I should note that I’m encouraged along these lines by the number of young scientists and science studies scholars who are participating in a new Science, Technology, and Society Studies Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate that I’ve helped to initiate and that I currently direct. It’s exciting to see so many highly engaged people, from different fields across the sciences and the humanities, coming together to talk about how knowledge about the world is produced and communicated, how it’s inflected by the contexts of its development and use, and what we should do about it.

Ceccarelli and other 2016 honorees will receive their awards during the association’s 102nd annual convention, Nov. 10-13, in Philadelphia.


For more information, contact Ceccarelli at cecc@uw.edu or the National Communication Association at inbox@natcom.org.