Embrace scientific rhetoric for its power

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.311.6996.61b (Published 01 July 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:61
  1. Doron Junger
  1. House officer in surgery John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford OX3 9OU

    EDITOR,--I would like to join the formidable debate between Richard Horton and Trisha Greenhalgh on the rhetoric of research.1 2 As Greenhalgh points out, “Scientific writing is by definition rhetorical.” All researchers do, frequently without intention, use language to emphasise the likely truth of their results. The paramount question, however, is whether such “spin” is detrimental to science. I believe that the contrary is true.

    Firstly, the eloquence of basic scientific observation has of late been diminished by the growing need for its interpretation, as today's scientists deal less with straightforward facts than with complex probabilities. Hence, science is no longer truly meaningful without the projection of personal values and biases on to mere facts and figures.

    Secondly, the published volume of today's scientific literature is too vast to entertain the hope that results could speak for themselves. We rely on researchers to lend their findings a strong voice which illustrates, emphasises, and promotes their data's relevance.

    The “spin” in science writing, which alarms Horton, is almost always motivated out of a desire--far from wishing to deceive--to engage readers in the impact of one's data, in the distant hope that such resonance may constitute but the beginning of a lengthy process that ultimately may lead to improved clinical practice. Of course flagrant disparities between reported results and their subsequent discussion, or excesses of hyperbole, need to be contained (scientific journals must not degenerate into a marketplace for mere medical opinions), and to this aim the scientific community has widely embraced editorial and peer review, without underestimating the power of readers' own discernment.

    Sadly, by the time pieces of medical research have found their way into the popular press, such discernment is often lacking, owing to pressure to print headline news rather than the complex scientific truths that were originally reported. However, the responsibility for such misrepresentation of science writing lies not with the researcher and ought not to be advanced as an argument for the introduction of structured, conformist discussions. Let us, instead, embrace scientific rhetoric for its power, especially when infused with a touch of vision and passion, to excite scientific minds and invite debate.


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