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Lessons from Aristotle for Synthetic Biologists


Guest post by Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher, Patricia Balbon, and Danielle Griffin


Almost a year ago today, MIT Technology Review broke the story of the first CRISPR modified embryos carried to term as part of a controversial experiment at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China by Dr. He Jiankui. All around the world people were confronted with a new reality brought upon by advances in human germline engineering, and they were all informed by a science communication magazine. The article, “Chinese scientists are creating CRISPR babies,” is rife with analogies such as “engineering cells” or “tailoring humans.” What exactly are we implying when we use language like this to describe scientific research? When we’re communicating about increasingly complex systems, language does more than describe our scientific research–it frames it.


Rhetorical Theory

In Greek antiquity, Aristotle wrote an extended work on a subject called rhetoric. Rhetoric is a term that now has a common meaning of fluff or nonsense. But the discipline of rhetoric, distinct from this vernacular use, is a thriving area of research that tells us about how we communicate with one another. Rhetoric is concerned with communication in service of the public sphere and in service of democratic deliberation. Rhetoric also reminds us, as speakers, of our moral comportment to our audience; what we say and how we say it matters.


Writing is a challenging task and writing about science particularly so. Sometimes writers worry about grammar or word choice. While these are important considerations, there are also higher-level concerns. For the rhetorical tradition, concerns center on broader questions of purpose, of situation, of audience, and of how to appropriately respond. That is, what is the most effective manner of communicating the message for a particular audience in a given situation? Questions of arrangement, of audience expectations, and of goodwill and an ethical comportment toward one’s audience are all central to the enterprise of rhetoric.


The Sphere of Your Communication

When considered as only an endeavor in popularization, science communication fails to account for the more crucial, deliberative functions of engagement with non-experts. As much as the bounds of synbio can be difficult to draw with the field’s interdisciplinary nature and range of applications, much conversation about synbio directs us toward questions of ethics and values. We may find ourselves justifying the distribution of benefits in the community and who should bear the burden of biosafety and biosecurity risks, or in discourse about the appropriateness of self-regulation in scientific inquiry with high uncertainty. Such situations warrant another kind of skilled approach to communication.


Certainly, the public can misunderstand techniques, and they might misunderstand applications, too. However, if we take the project of science communication seriously, as many scientists and science communicators do, then we must act with goodwill toward those we hope to communicate with and understand that there will be quite legitimate concerns that require deliberation among experts and non-expert publics—least we fall backwards into the deficit model of science communication. That is, the assumption if we could just better inform non-experts about the science, suddenly they’d agree with scientists. Not surprisingly, simply piling on more information does not move them to your side of an argument.


Synbio is well-positioned to lead the way in which we consider questions regarding deliberation and democracy and the role of communication. With its complex science, synbio presents an equally complex set of issues that publics are asked to deliberate upon, and an increasingly complex role scientists are asked to take in this public deliberation. Alongside predecessors in rDNA research and gain-of-function research who originally raised these issues, the establishment of projects such as SYNBIOSAFE and BBSRC’s Synthetic Biology Dialogue offer guidance for public deliberation.


Embracing Public Argument

Rhetoric helps science communications continue to move away from only popularization—which admittedly serves its own function, but not the function often ascribed to it by those advocating “science education”—to public deliberation. Deliberation requires some debate, which requires some argument, but not ones of mere impressionistic and subjective modes of engagement. Rather, rhetoric shows us that forms of argument are underpinned by certain shared logics of a community, a culture, and operate within those parameters, at least if one wishes for their argument to be heard by others in that shared sphere of argument.



Want to know more? See “Defending science: How the art of rhetoric can help” by Leah Ceccarelli on The Conversation.



An interesting example can be found in biofuels. As the development of high-yield alternative energy sources from algae is made possible by synthetic biology, displacement of palm oil and lignin-based biofuels relieve pressures to grow fuel crops in land that could be otherwise be used for food.  Incentivizing further research and development in third-generation biofuels must eventually address questions referring to the potential disruption of local economies.


Practical Rhetorical Lessons

You’re not translating, you’re accommodating.

Rhetorician Jeanne Fahnestock has written about why the idea of “translating” science from expert to non-expert audiences fails. When sharing science with the public, you’re not only translating language, but reframing arguments which originated in a disciplinary conversation for this new audience. Such reframing is more effective than trying to simplify complex science into fewer, less specialized words. When we accommodate science for the public, part of reframing arguments includes a consideration of the new genre we’re writing into, and also the public’s concerns and motivations. We could ask, then, what is the central question for the science we’re trying to communicate and why does our public audience find this issue compelling? Fahnestock is right to mention the pitfalls that can accompany poor attempts at accommodation—we see it in the form of sensationalized science communications, be it interviews, news reports or online. Accommodating science for the public audience does not mean merely translating scientific terms, but neither does it mean framing for the public irresponsibly. Taking into consideration rhetorical principles can help us recast our arguments without misleading.



Want to know more? See The Wilson Center’s Guide for Communicating Synthetic Biology.



You’re writing into genres, and those genres shape audience expectations.

In a subfield of rhetoric known as genre studies, rhetoricians study how different kinds of science communication are typified in their forms and how their use is recurrent. The research article is a good example. There are common structures in the text. We often talk about the IMRAD—Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion—model for the text overall. But within each section we can further model what is going on. John Swales provided a key mapping, by studying a corpus of STEM articles, of research introductions, known as the Create A Research Space model. Such models tell us not only how to write into a particular genre, but they also tell us the purpose of that genre. When you know the purpose of a genre, you can better engage with the genre expectations of your readers—your rhetorical choices in crafting a particular genre of text will interact with your audience’s expectations for whatever genre in which you are communicating, and so to be effective you must keep these genre expectations in mind.


You’re entering a broader conversation.

Engaging in science communication with non-experts means setting aside beliefs that science can be isolated from the communities, the cultures and the politics, within which it is situated. Instead, communicating science with non-experts, inclusive of policy-makers and publics, is a more sophisticated comportment, one which understands that science is not only embedded within a community but also constituted by and in service of a society. Ultimately then, science, and science communication, are implicated as ethically situated practices.


Your voice matters.

Including a diversity of voices in the communication and sharing of science is important to connecting with a diverse range of audiences. Science communication for diverse audiences requires, as discussed above, not only the “translation” of concepts or ideas, but fundamental transformation of arguments. To effectively understand what arguments matter to an audience it helps to have a number of different communicators sharing perspectives, insights, and approaches.





Dr. Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, specializing in rhetoric and science communication, at the University of Waterloo, the author of Science Communication Online: Engaging Experts and Publics on the Internet (The Ohio State University Press, 2019; free/libre copy CC BY-NC-ND). Mehlenbacher’s research examines science communication, citizen science, and experts and expertise.


Patricia Balbon is a B.Sc. student taking the Society, Technology, and Values Option with a minor in Biology at the University of Waterloo, in Canada. She is also an iGEM alumnus and has served as the Policy and Practices Lead for Waterloo’s 2016 project.


Danielle Griffin is an M.A. student in Rhetoric and Communication Design at the University of Waterloo, Canada. Her master’s work focusses on the rhetoric of eugenics and science communication on CRISPR germline engineering.

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