Facts and Opinions: Science Through the Lens of Fish’s Rhetorical World

Many see science as a beacon of truth. Facts, the argument runs, rein superior and opinions are irrelevant. As a result, many scientists view themselves as truth seekers. On the contrary, however, I would like to argue that science, like any other field, is full of opinions and rhetoric. After all, arguments about dealing with the coronavirus and climate change still exist. Stanley Fish explains that, “knowledge and truth rather than presiding over the field of argument are what emerge in the course of argument” (3). In other words, according to Fish, facts and truths result from argument and do not control argument. For science to contain and reveal any sort of truth, opinions and the rhetoric used to argue these opinions are necessary. Denying the rhetorical aspect of science creates an opening for manipulation, easily seen through the politicization of issues such as climate change or the covid response. Therefore, understanding the way rhetoric is used in science and its effect is necessary. Failure to acknowledge rhetoric and argument in science many times results in either inaction or misguided action. Using Fish’s idea of a rhetorical world, the presence and impact that argument and rhetoric has on our world can be easily seen.

Science creates an illusion of being fact based because it exists in what Fish describes as “a bounded argument space” (72).  Arguments made in the realm of science must follow certain controls, and these controls are presented as restricting scientific argument to only facts. Fish’s examination of case law highlights the existence of controls, particularly in criminal law. Few professions are considered as based on “cold hard facts” than the law. Law’s basis on the facts stem from its need for impartiality. To achieve impartiality, Fish argues that criminal law requires “enabling fictions” (136). Constraints put on the argument create these enabling fictions. The existence of enabling fictions is the same in science. Science has rules on the ways experiments can be run. The scientific method in itself is a constraint, as it suggests that for results to be reliable, they must be obtained from a specific methodology. The scientific method creates science’s own version of a fiction that then allows the results obtained from an experiment to be seen as true, just as criminal law constraints create a fiction allowing the trial decision to be fair and impartial.

The idea that science contains constraints on the argument leads to a second argument of how constraints should be implemented, once again highlighting the role of rhetoric in science. In criminal law, regular arguments occur over what should be considered admissible and what should not. Although rules determine what evidence can be accepted, the rules are not absolute, and, as Fish argues, many of the rules have their “exceptions, and the conditions under which those exceptions can be invoked are spelled out in detail (although, of course, the precision of the spelling out does not preclude disagreements about application)” (131). In other words, no absolutes exist as to what is and is not allowed, causing continuous arguments to occur over whether a litigant broke a rule or if an exception is interpreted properly. In fact, the job of the judge or the appellate court is to settle the arguments. Science creates its own version of the judge or appellate court through the process of peer review. Peer review involves a number of scientists reading over a piece of scientific literature and deciding if the content of the piece is valid and worth sharing. These scientists, in part, decide if the already established method of experimentation has been followed. The decisions reached by scientists are not always unanimous. It is possible for some scientists to herald a study as new groundbreaking research, while others will ridicule the experimental design, saying that it leads to unreliable results. In sum, peer review is scientists deciding the validity of a research study through their opinions. 

Even the facts produced and demonstrated in peer review studies have rhetorical beginnings. When establishing fact and fiction, Fish argues that the fact–opinion distinction is determined by the persuasiveness of a person’s argument. As Fish puts it, “you are entitled to your own facts if you can make them stick” (50). In other words, facts are actually extremely convincing opinions. Fish describes facts as opinions using politics. According to Fish, “making your facts . . . stick is the whole of politics” (50). In other words, both political sides argue over who has the truest facts. This idea is relevant in science as well. It is possible for a new theory to begin in the fringe of scientific thought, and as it is successfully, it becomes more accepted, eventually establishing itself as a well defended theory such as the theory of plate tectonics (Scott 9). This movement of ideas from opinions as possible explanations to widely accepted models is the same as in politics. Had Alfred Wegener (the man who created the theory of plate tectonics) and those who followed failed to persuasively argue his theory, it would not be taught in classes ranging from high school to college. Alfred Wegener’s theory is one of many examples in science that provides evidence for Fish’s statement that “while the distinction between fact and opinion is a real one, what falls on one side or the other at any time is a matter of persuasion” (50). Simply put, Wegener argued his opinion into a fact. As more evidence was brought in as support, Wegener’s argument became more and more convincing. Over time, the scientific community has come to accept it. 

Although the scientific community might accept a finding as fact, scientific advancements are practically useless without the acceptance of ordinary people. When implementing science into the real world, the opinion of the public becomes of the utmost importance. Public opinion determines what is persuasive enough to be a fact and what is opinion. Climate change exemplifies the need for public support. Through the politicization of climate change, the decision of fact and fiction has been placed in the hands of everyday citizens instead of the scientist. Currently, the general consensus of the science community, particularly those that study the climate, is that humans are responsible for the rapid rate at which our planet is warming yet, climate change is still controversial. The industries that climate policy will negatively affect have worked hard to cast doubt on the validity of climate science. According to Fish, to combat the existence of climate change, industries mounted “a philosophical argument in the light of which the science is inconclusive and regulation premature” (27). By creating doubt in the conclusivity of climate change, industries turned what is in the field of science considered a fact to an opinion in the eyes of the people. Sadly for the scientific community, they can not do much. Because, as Fish puts it, “all the evidence is never in,” (28) it is impossible to create a scientific argument free of doubt. Unlike much of the public, scientists know this and accept this. Scientists accept the scientific consensus as fact rather than what many consider a true fact to be: something that is beyond doubt. Doubt is also present in law. Almost everyone has heard the phrase ‘guilty beyond reasonable doubt.’ Law, similar to science, accepts that the complete elimination of doubt is impossible, and instead lawyers argue whether or not reasonable doubt exists. For scientists, their job is to convince the public that no reasonable doubt is present, which is something that will always be up for argument.

Tucker Carlson provides an excellent example of the doubt that has been created in a settled argument in the scientific community. Carlson argues that the science is not in fact complete and that there are still questions that need to be answered.

The methods in which facts are determined by science have much importance in today’s society. The pandemic currently raging in the United States has brought to question what information coming from the scientific community is actually fact and what is fiction. Similar to climate change, a huge amount of doubt has been created, causing much of the public to deny the existence or severity of the coronavirus. Dr. Osterholm, a well known infectious disease expert, has a daily podcast called Osterholm Update: Covid 19 that details the current situation of the coronavirus in the United States. In order to be seen as a trustworthy figure, Dr. Osterholm constantly reminds his listeners that he is coming from a nonpolitical point of view. The necessity of routinely reminding listeners of his nonpartisanship highlights a major issue; the politicization of science is causing the public to question the information that they have received from the Government. Things that should be viewed as simple, common sense actions, such as wearing masks and staying in doors, have become politicized. In addition to politicization of science, a new source of doubt arises, outside experts. To paraphrase Dr. Osterholm, scientists who are experts in fields other than pandemics and infectious disease control have been providing their own opinions on how to handle the pandemic, despite the fact that they lack the necessary knowledge and experience in the infectious disease field (“Message Chaos”). As a result, these non-expert opinions are being given the same or higher value than the opinions of the experts. Doubt is then created because of the appearance of a lack of consensus on the proper way to combat the pandemic. The results of this doubt are arguments over whether wearing a mask is just common sense or whether people who wear masks are falling into a trap set by the democratic socialist. 

It is necessary for the public to understand the constraints that exist in scientific argument so the public can avoid perceiving the presence of doubt as a reason for skepticism. Instead of viewing science as a field that only consists of facts, the public should view it as a field based on successfully argued opinions. The public should trust the opinions that are most accepted in the scientific community. If the public were to follow this reasoning, everyone would wear a mask and maintain social distancing. Ideally, the coronavirus response would be led by the reason of scientists and experts. Similarly, judges and not juries decide complicated matters such as the constitutionality of a law. The amount of knowledge needed to accurately assess the arguments given is simply too great for the average person. Fish illustrates this lack of expertise when he says the public “doesn’t know what it’s talking about and can be led to any conclusion desired by a master manipulator” (29). Therefore, why take the decision making abilities out of the hands of the experts and into the hands of the ignorant people who are easily manipulated? To avoid the manipulation of the public, experts must be listened to and be the judge of what is right and wrong. 

While listening to experts will not end arguments and opinions in science, it will limit the majority of the discussion to people who can make informed and beneficial decisions. The role of the public is not to decide the best course of action, but to help implement the best course of action. Instead of holding the argument of whether or not to wear a mask, the public should educate themselves and others on the benefits of wearing masks. If the public were to leave scientific arguments to the experts, the world would avoid many struggles. A climate crisis would be avoided, people would stop smoking, and masks would be worn to help eliminate the pandemic.

Works Cited

Fish, Stanley. Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom, Harper, 2016.

“Message Chaos.” Osterholm Update: COVID 19 from CIDRAP, 20 August 2020, https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/covid-19/podcasts-webinars/episode-20 

Scott, Eugenie. Evolution vs Creationism. Greenwood Press, 2009. PDF Download.