Waddell, C. (1990). The role of pathos in the decision-making process: A study in the rhetoric of science policy. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 76, 381-400.

In “The Role of Pathos,” (reprinted in Harris’ Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science Case Studies, 1997), Craig Waddell explores the 1976 debate surrounding whether or not recombinant DNA (rDNA) research should be allowed in Cambridge, MA. In particular, Waddell focuses on the city-formed Cambridge Experimentation Research Board (CERB) and a meeting it had with researchers from Harvard and MIT and concerned citizens. Waddell determined that though our culture in general and the post-hoc reflections of CERB meeting attendees tend to privilege the role of logos in policy decision making, that, instead, the arguments presented at the meeting involved a sophisticated coordination of logical, pathetic, and ethetic arguments. In follow-up interviews CERB members reported that emotional arguments such as appeals to the sanctity of human germ plasm and the tragedy of children with congenital illness were prominent and in some cases particularly persuasive. Furthermore Waddell explores how ad hominem attacks became the primary mode of argumentation in some parts of the discourse.

Ultimately Waddell argues that this data suggest that scientists interested in influencing policy and rhetoricians studying the science-policy interface need to pay attention not only to the logical appeals, but also the role of pathos and ethos in that discourse. And while these were important conclusions in 1990 and they still ring true today, subsequent research in the science-policy interface has rendered these findings somewhat obvious to rhetorical scholars. Nevertheless, I think it is important to continue to remind ourselves that the scientists who participate in policy discourse and those making policy decisions often think of those decisions as exclusively logical, if well made.

1 thought on “Waddell, C. (1990). The role of pathos in the decision-making process: A study in the rhetoric of science policy. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 76, 381-400.

  1. Kathy Kieva

    I referred to this article by Waddell (the reprint version) in a paper I wrote for a graduate-level class in Rhetorical Theory. As someone with an undergraduate degree in engineering who is going for her Master’s in Professional Writing (almost done!), I am endlessly fascinated by the role that rhetoric plays in the sciences, almost without being noticed. We think (and scientist’s themselves think) that science is all about, or strictly, logical, when in fact it is anything but, as Waddell’s article points out.

    In my own reading of Waddell’s exploration of the role of pathos in scientific discourse, he seems to go beyond simply reminding scientists to “pay attention” to the role of pathos and ethos. He goes so far as to caution us that too heavy a reliance on logos at the expense of pathos may actually rob us of the ability to make wise decisions since we would be lacking the moral compass that emotions can provide us.

    In comparing the testimonies given by Dr. David Nathan, the Chief of Hemotology and Oncology at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and George Wald, a professor of biology at Harvard, Waddell points out that there wasn’t much of a contest between Dr. Nathan’s emotional appeal of suffering children with names and faces and Wald’s “three billion years of evolution.” Emotional appeals have also been part of the debate on stem cell research, in which the anti-stem cell advocates use terms such as “pre-born children” and “snow-flake babies” to refer to frozen embryos left over from fertility treatments, while the pro-stem cell advocates describe embryonic stem cells in almost magical terms, citing the “almost unlimited potential” of these cells. We can come up with multiple instances in science today in which pathos and ethos are prominent players, while the scientists using these rhetorical tools are (mostly) oblivious to the fact they are using them.

    I think that while rhetorical scholars may not need to be reminded of the profoundly rhetorical nature of science, scientists themselves could use an occasional refresher course.

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