Complicating the Conversation: Rhetoric, Substance, and Controversy in Parapsychology

Article excerpt

In my last presidential address presented in NewYork City in August of 2001 (Zingrone, 2002), I talked about the lessons that can be learned from science studies and its examination of controversy in mainstream science, across the boundaries of scientific disciplines, across the boundary between mainstream and marginal science, and within parapsychology itself. In a sense this address is a continuation of that one. Instead of speaking more generally on science studies and parapsychology, I will be narrowing the focus to the rhetoric of science and to the ESP controversy that both consumed and constituted the American parapsychological community from the publication of J. B. Rhine's monograph Extra-sensory Perception (ESP) in 1934 to the publication of Extrasensory Perception After Sixty Years (ESP-60) in 1940 by J. Gaither Pratt and his colleagues. Although this particular controversy occurred more than 60 years ago, we all know that our phenomena and methodology are still misrepresented and maligned and that our community still remains under attack at the margins of mainstream science.

The main thesis of this address, then, is that relevant lessons can be learned from a re-examination of that decade of controversy. To illustrate this point, I will discuss some of the rhetorical choices embodied in, and speculate on the possible impact of, these choices on the reception of these two documents.


Before heading into an illustration of my points, it is necessary to describe what I mean by rhetoric. In the preface to the second edition of his seminal work, The Rhetoric of Science, Alan Gross (1996) noted that his book was meant to "alter the state of the question. To create a disciplinary space ..." (p. viii) through which aspects of scientific text such as style and structure might be examined for what they can tell us about science itself. Gross's brand of rhetoric of science was based on Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's recasting of classical rhetoric in their treatise on argumentation published in 1971. To illustrate what a "reconfigured" (p. xxi) rhetoric might contribute to the discursive terrain of science studies, Gross reviewed, among other studies, Boyd's (1979) survey of the use of metaphor in scientific theory, a topic that Carl Williams and Diane Dutton (1998) explored in parapsychological texts. Gross's own research examined the persuasive presentation of science and how the rhetoric of published scientific texts are related to day-to-day science practice. To do this, he compared Boyle's records of his experiments to the published framing of "Boyle's law" (pp. 85-91), the content of Charles Darwin's private Red Notebooks to the text of his The Origin of Species (pp. 95-100), and Einstein's laboratory notes to his published work on relativity (pp. 92-96). Gross concluded that published scientific papers instantiated a myth of logically developed scientific progress modeled on Baconian induction, in contrast to the much more complex trajectory from experiment to theory and from theory to experiment that was revealed in scientists' personal work records. (2)

In 1991 Peter Dear edited an anthology called The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument. Among the studies of rhetoric in science included in the volume were: T. H. Browman's (1991) review of the growth of the scientific journal as a genre, Peter Dear's (1991) own examination of the repackaging of "anecdotes and experiments" into coherent scientific reports in the seventeenth century, and B. J. Hunt's (1991) treatment of the impact of referees on the construction of scientific articles. Done by historians of science rather than rhetoricians, the chapters in Dear's anthology had similar goals to those outlined by Gross in that they attempted to show how scientific practice came to be packaged in its current narrative forms. Dear described the volume as the product of the "literary turn" in intellectual history which was sparked in part by the reinvigoration of rhetoric that was embodied in the Perelmann and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1971) text that also inspired Alan Gross. …