Biology, History, Reviews

Review: Harmon and Gross, The Scientific Literature

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Last week’s edition of Nature carried an interesting review of Joseph E. Harmon and Alan G. Gross’s The Scientific Literature: A Guided Tour. As Nature’s Steven Shapin explains, Harmon and Gross’s fascinating new book delivers a unique historical account of scientific knowledge that focuses not on the facts, but the various rhetorical strategies scientists have used to report them:

Today, few scientists consider themselves to be rhetoricians. How many even know the meaning of anaphora, antimetabole or litotes?
But it’s not that simple. The scientific literature reports, but it also aims to persuade readers that what it reports is reliable and significant. And the arts of persuasion are inevitably literary and, specifically, rhetorical. It is an arduously learned skill to write in the way that Nature deems acceptable. Conventions of scientific writing have changed enormously over the past few centuries and even over recent decades. The very big differences between Jane Austen’s Persuasion and a scientific paper lie in the different patterns of rhetoric used in the latter, not in their absence from it.
There are now many historical and sociological studies of scientific communication. Joseph Harmon and Alan Gross’s book, The Scientific Literature, is something different—neither a research monograph on the history of scientific writing nor a straightforward compilation of excerpts. Originating from an exhibition held at the University of Chicago in 2000, it includes about 125 examples of scientific writing taken from papers, books, reviews and Nobel speeches, and covers material from the seventeenth century up to the announcement of the rough draft of the human genome in 2001.

A comprehensive anthology, The Scientific Literature is an essential contribution to our understanding of modern scientific knowledge.