Ethics vs. Overstatement: Language Choices in Scientific Writing

Scientists avail themselves of many different instruments in conducting their research, but as Emeritus Professor Jeanne Fahnestock reminds us, “another, less-appreciated instrument always used in science is language.”


Fahnestock, a specialist in the rhetoric of scientific debates, spoke Thursday, February 6, at an event sponsored by the UC Davis Religious Studies Department and the Humanities Institute’s Rhetoric @ Davis research cluster. She compared several controversial claims made in peer-reviewed journals and in the popular press to illustrate what she calls the “Grammar of Hedging” that writers use to report—and often distort—the results of scientific research.

Using rhetorical principles from Aristotle and Cicero, Fahnestock traces elements such as word choice, repetition, and verbs of certainty to analyze contemporary scientific writing. In 2005, for example, Science magazine published the claim that sightings of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, long thought extinct, had been “confirmed” and that the existence of the bird “persists.” Fahnestock illustrated how this language of certainty shifted towards hedging and became less certain as other investigators questioned the claim.

Can brain cells reproduce? The possibility of neurogenesis has been widely, and dramatically, confirmed in the popular press recently because of the discovery’s obvious promise to humans. Yet Fahnestock’s close examination of the research reveals the rhetorical distortion: cellular regeneration that only happens in certain parts of the brains of certain birds has been overgeneralized and applied to humans.

In both of these cases, the rhetorical moves made by scientists and journalists both announce and subtly distort their claims. The “Grammar of Hedging” distances reporters from the claims they report, and allows them to capitalize on controversy to sell books and publish articles.

The danger, Fahnestock argues, is that when scientific reporting yields to economic and media pressures that thrive on controversy, the degree of fraud tends to negatively affect public opinion of science.

Thus, while writers of scientific claims have an ethical responsibility to be truthful, ultimately we readers must be sensitive to the rhetorical arguments and language choices if we are to accurately interpret what we read.