A Wealth of Arguments: Using Science Writing

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Authored by

  • Lawrence Scanlon
    Brewster High School
    Brewster, New York

A Rich Area for Inquiry

The AP® English Language and Composition course primarily focuses on rhetoric and argument. In our classes, students need to learn how to trace the discursive path from effect back to cause; follow a reasoned argument; question the validity of assumptions; understand the relationship between claims and their support; and understand the purpose of sources, references, and footnoted material. Early in their secondary education, students learn to use sources to support or reiterate their positions: at first, they are likely to allow those sources to do the talking for them. In high school English, students typically use research to find information. While that’s good, what they need to do in AP English Language is move beyond that stage and learn to use sources in conversation and argument with one another—to question, challenge, and evaluate sources.

You might consider bringing science writing into the curriculum for its value in those very areas. First of all, science takes as its subject the entire physical world and then some, providing a rich area of inquiry. Science essays offer analysis of argument and prose models of how to use sources for support and for argument. Classic 19th-century pieces employ the schemes and tropes that we study in our English classes, and can offer an excellent introduction, especially for close reading. In fact, past AP English Language and Composition Exams have included passages from Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Of course the most obvious example would be the work of Darwin; but two other selections—both included in the anthology Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century—are useful examples of the breadth of possibility that science writing can offer. Students might read an excerpt from Lyell's 1833 text, Principles of Geology, in order to study his use of analogy as a rhetorical device. Lyell’s analogy between human and geological history in order to explain the idea of time could lead to a comparison with an excerpt from William Whewell’s 1840 book, Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Whewell provides not only keen historical insight into the scientific process, but also a consideration of time as a medium through an analogy with space, comparing temporal and spatial entities. For illustration, Whewell discusses rhythm, or meter, as a manifestation of time. This is also a perfect occasion to bring the rhetoric of poetry into dialogue with science. A splendid companion here would be Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing,” in which the poet works with his classic theme of the immensity of time by breaking the meter, or time, in the concluding line.

Reasoning and Rhetoric

Lyell and other natural philosophers (Whewell was the first to use the word “scientist” to describe them, in 1833) regarded science less as a body of knowledge than as a process of reason. It would be effective for students to follow how Lyell investigates the way that beliefs and attitudes influenced learning and confirmed some of the popular misunderstandings of his time, and to study how he posits an opposing view in order to trace its conclusions. These concerns are relevant for our students as they consider modern arguments on social, political, and scientific issues. For example, are our views of stem cell research, space exploration, global warming, or cloning similarly influenced by our current attitudes and beliefs? As students note how the methodology of science hasn’t changed a great deal in over a century, they might also consider our attitudes toward its findings. To foster such considerations, such magazines as Discover, Natural History, National Geographic, Scientific American, and Smithsonian include suitable pieces for the classroom. The science section of The New York Times is a great source for timely articles and essays, and especially for charts, graphs, and other visuals. The material found there is useful for close reading and analysis as well as for discussion of current ethical issues.

In addition, several essays from The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004 and The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century would be suitable for such studies. Philip Boffey, for example, develops an argument about policy regarding cloning. Nobel Prize–winning physicist Stephen Weinberg’s stance on missile defense argues against pure as opposed to applied science as a practical motive influencing political and industrial decisions. Ronald Bailey takes on eight arguments regarding neuroscience and pharmaceutical treatment.

An important feature for the English classroom, of course, is the quality of the writing in these selections. Students might note the lively style of David Ewing Duncan’s “DNA as Destiny,” or “The Stuff of Genes” by Horace Freeland Judson: the voice in each is both personal and technical. Similarly, students are sure to enjoy the highly engaging voice of “What Makes Us the Way We Are,” in which Judith Rich Harris imagines a future through the device of looking back from 2050. Another excellent piece that addresses the nature of our era is “The Bottleneck” by Edward O. Wilson, in which he posits the arguments of the environmentalist and the economist as they address what he considers the most important concerns of the century. In addition, this piece is useful in class for its presentation of opposing arguments. Wilson’s essay can also be compared with one by James Q. Wilson: “Cars and Their Enemies,” which also posits opposing arguments. Analyzing these writers’ arguments and evaluating their effectiveness could be a useful student exercise.

In the AP English Language course, an especially important consideration is expressed by the rhetorical triangle of Aristotle, which describes the relationship among the speaker, the text, and the audience. Science writing can be used to teach a keen awareness of audience and also to investigate the use of classic appeals. In the 19th century, Lyell quotes both John Milton and Walter Scott in his discussion of volcanic activity. He states that his subject “would accord far better with Milton’s picture,” using Milton’s grand vision to support his own view while qualifying Scott’s as awesome but too romantic for the awful reality depicted. In Lyell’s time, references to literature effected an authoritative appeal among scholars raised on the classics; his selected quotations appeal to pathos as well.

In our time, an article in Scientific American very likely will include mathematical equations as support, while writers such as Gould or David Quammen, writing for Natural History, Discover, or National Geographic, for example, allude to literature and popular culture to reach a wider audience of those more acquainted with the humanities. Science authors also write with each other in mind, often expressing divergent or conflicting views. Such attention to an audience of peers, perhaps more often noted in 18th- and 19th-century essayists, informs the construction of their arguments and the rhetorical flavor of their presentations. Students could read cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s essay, “The Blank Slate,” with Roger C. Schank’s “Are We Going to Get Smarter?” and pieces by Gould and Edward Wilson to see examples in dialogue with one another. Reading such pieces, students learn to consider the reliability of evidence and the cogency of supported positions, as well as come to appreciate argument itself as a living process of reasoned inquiry.

Using Gould's Writings

That process can be most readily observed in Stephen Jay Gould’s engaging writing. Two excellent essays, “Uniformity and Catastrophe,” a model argument from his first collection, and the much anthologized “Women’s Brains” might make a good start. In the first piece, Gould presents both an argument against simplistic reduction and a qualification of claims concerning the age of the earth, in the language of the intelligent nonscientist, which is eminently suitable for an AP English Language class. The essay serves as a good model of argument for careful analysis of method. In the latter essay, Gould writes, “Intelligence testing replaced skull measurement as a favored device for making invidious comparisons among races, classes, and sexes.” Surely such a claim will appeal to our students. In both pieces students can study how Gould includes quoted material not only to bolster his thesis but also to challenge that material through counterargument.

To return to the more familiar creative landscape of imaginative literature, we might consider using the scientific perspective to inform our view of literature, and particularly of genre. In his book The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities, Gould discusses Vladimir Nabokov’s complaint regarding Edgar Allan Poe’s and Hieronymus Bosch’s use of factual inaccuracies in their fiction and art. In Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution, on the other hand, paleontologist Richard Fortey discusses the differences in literary and scientific cultures. Fortey begins with an account of his own tracing of the path walked by a hero of Thomas Hardy’s novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes. In a literal cliff-hanger, Hardy’s protagonist comes face to face with a trilobite fossil embedded in the cliff face. Hardy writes, “Such is the supremacy of habit over occasion […] that at this dreadful juncture his mind found the time to take in, by a momentary sweep, the varied scenes that had their day between this creature’s epoch and his own.” A sweep that is “not a bad account, scientifically speaking, of the succession of life through geological time as conceived about 1860,” Fortey informs us.

But the fact that there are no such fossils in that immediate geographical area prompts Fortey’s own reflection on the nature of truth itself as discovered by science and by art. “I was intrigued” he writes, “by the difference between the novelist’s truth, which has nothing to do with testability and everything to do with the impact of the work on the mind and emotions, and scientific truth, which has everything to do with testability, but also with the emotions of discovery—many of them the stuff of novels.” In our time, when so many works of literature are so hard to classify and represent a mixing of genres, Fortey’s reflections on memory, truth, fact, and fiction can promote a discussion about the literature we read and the purposes it serves. And it is the AP English Language and Composition course, with its emphasis on reason and rhetoric, that might allow us to forge a tentative creative synthesis between testability and discovery.

Recommended Resources

For a list of science writing for you to use in your AP English Language and Composition course, click here.