Normal and Rhetoric of Science

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

For what seems like an eternity, English studies has tried to adopt scientific methodologies. For example, every assignment that is graded needs to be accompanied by a rubric, which I find somewhat ridiculous, but I can’t talk about that or even really think about that, right? Of course, like any good English teacher, I still do have rubrics for my major assignments because that is what I have been taught and it also helps out immensely when students confront a teacher about a grade. We also have a little thing called “assessment” where we “assess” student writing to see how well students perform the tasks we have instructed them to do. Even though we attempt to make all these things as objective as possible, they still are inherently subjective activities. The truth is we can sit there and “do norming” all we want to try to be objective, but you will still find 1-3 people giving a student portfolio a 5, more giving it a 4, and yet even more giving it a 3. Then there will be scattered 2’s and 1’s.

Methodology is indeed wonderful, as is ideology.

In my Rhetoric of Science class, we have been talking quite a bit how science has asserted itself and essentially lorded over us. One of the ways science does this is through rhetoric and its terminology. I would argue that science has reached the supremacy it has through creating its own terminologies. One of the best examples of this is through the word “normal.”

To an ordinary person, normal is a typical word that denotes anything naturally occurring. Normal is basically a set standard, which is how the OED tends to define it. Through researching the paranormal, I discovered that the word normal became to be used quite often in order to professionalize science back in 1840. It was used to make science legitimate as a professional field of study. William Whewell back in 1840 used the term “normal” a few times in reference to the professionalization of science in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Stephen Toulmin points all of this out in his article titled, “New Philosophy of Science and the Paranormal” where he briefly discusses how science took the word “normal” and used it to popularize and legitimize their field. Toulmin also discusses that these scientists didn’t want to use the word “natural” because it was a word associated with the Romantic poets of that time period. Thus, the Romantics had a sort of monopoly on that word and the scientific community didn’t want to engage a word that was already a bit overused by the Romantic writers. Science isn’t after all literature.

The OED is also an interesting source to use to understand the word normal and variations of the word normal. What is most interesting to me is that variations of normal, such as normalize, don’t come into being until after 1840. This, at first glance, seems to further the argument Toulmin made in his essay on the paranormal and the use of the word normal. (It is also interesting to note that the word Paranormal did not exist until 1920. Supernatural was often used to describe anything paranormal, and that word first arrived in 1530.) Now, I haven’t looked further into this to see what contexts the word normal and variations of it played into, but considering what I read so far, it seems likely that the first variations of normal were used by those in the scientific community.

Either way, this speaks for the power of terminology. It makes me think of how when I was writing my Philosophy of Teaching I was told to basically construct terminology (though explain those in some way) in order to somehow stand out. At first this sounded terribly unethical–making up words to sound smarter? But, considering how science has manipulated terminology in the past, it isn’t like it hasn’t been done before. And considering the way society sings the praises of science (or Science), it may not be a bad idea for us in the humanities to do the same. In this sense, we can learn a lesson from science, even though I do feel science also subverts us in other ways, though to administrators, those ways make us more powerful.

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2 comments on “Normal and Rhetoric of Science

  1. thom says:

    Go back and look at the reasons New Criticism emerged in the 1920a-30s. The English professoriate was trying to compete with tits colleagues in the “hard sciences” sciences for legitimacy, prestige, attention, and $$$. Let’s make the study of literature “scientific.” Let’s forget about history, culture, reader response, author, intention—instead, let’s look at the verbal icon, the well-wrought urn, the self-contained, self-referential “object.” If it’s an “object, then we can look at it “objectively.” And then it will be scientific and our colleagues in chemistry and physics and math will like us and respect us and we will get big grants! We will be just like them!

    • jessicarj says:

      With this I am looking directly at science and the rhetoric they use, but New Criticism will play a role within the argument itself. And this paper is supposed to be on the paranormal and how science confronts that, but what I’m talking about here is just part of that argument–though at the same time easily a whole separate paper. You know how it goes. But yes, thanks for reminding me about the New Critics and why that came about. Yay! Let’s all pretend we are objective and scientific like objectivism even really exists in this sense.

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