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Book review: Assembling Arguments: Multimodal Rhetoric and Scientific Discourse

By Geoff Hart

Jonathan Buehl. 2016. Assembling Arguments: Multimodal Rhetoric and Scientific Discourse. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. [ISBN 978-1-61117-561-5. 282 pages, including index. US$59.95.]

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2017. Book review: Assembling Arguments: Multimodal Rhetoric and Scientific Discourse. Technical Communication 64(2):177–178.

Buehl’s Assembling Arguments: Multimodal Rhetoric and Scientific Discourse deconstructs how scientists use textual and visual “modes” (hence, “multi-modal rhetoric”) to assemble evidence, develop arguments, and circulate arguments within their discourse community. Science’s importance in modern society makes such studies crucial. To develop a framework for multimodal communication and support pedagogy, Buehl describes how scientists select evidence to support their arguments. In so doing, he accounts for how visuals create meaning and the importance of audience and community. His conception–assembly–circulation model unites these processes within cognitive, material, and social domains. He provides enough theoretical erudition to satisfy academics, including some whose theories are (charitably) abstruse, and enough practicality to satisfy practitioners. Unfortunately, the balance may satisfy neither; the result is both sophisticated and practical.

Buehl begins by summarizing modern rhetorical theory, which he expands to include graphics, a neglected rhetorical component. Ironically, these 36 dense pages contain no supporting visuals (apart from two plates). Omitting Bertin’s Semiologie Graphique and Edward Tufte’s work undermines his discussion of visual grammar. Nonetheless, this is deconstruction done right, illuminating rather than concealing. Importantly, he notes the emergent behavior of text and images: meaning often evolves in unanticipated ways. Buehl doesn’t insist on discrete categories; rather, his categories overlap and iteratively modify each other as rhetors craft and revise their rhetoric. Left implicit until later is how scientists use this approach to extract meaning while assembling their evidence. Assembling Arguments is appropriately illustrated, but Buehl creates no new graphics to show his model’s ability to improve communication.

Scientists value “elegance”, which biases them towards certain visualizations. Buehl reminds us that even objectively choosing evidence influences our thoughts and what conclusions will satisfy us and our readers. Visualizations “model” data—they are not the data itself—and shape what we see and ignore. This has ethical significance: in deciding what evidence to include and exclude, communicators risk concealing inconvenient or contradictory evidence. Recognizing this inevitable subjectivity decreases the risk of self-deception. Buehl repeatedly demonstrates how the scientific discourse community influences how scientists assemble arguments, including assumptions about what constitutes facts and truth and how this shapes arguments and the signifiers that support them. Scientists tend to neglect the social context in which they’re embedded, but truth does not speak for itself; the audience defines it.

Rigorously researched examples show how scientists have revised their rhetoric to achieve persuasion by conceiving, assembling, and circulating knowledge, thereby demonstrating Buehl’s model. Buehl writes clearly and well, with profound understanding of science’s history and philosophy, but his jargon-heavy text will dissuade many scientists who would benefit from Assembling Arguments. Conversely, the first case study’s dense equations will dissuade many rhetoricians. The book’s cramped type exacerbates the effect, creating intimidating pages.

Buehl’s model matches my experience redesigning the text and graphics for 6000+ science manuscripts. The model should now be applied prescriptively rather than descriptively to test its utility. Chapter 14 begins this task, but at only 8 pages, does not codify a pedagogical model for teachers.

Rhetoric and science are both ways to approach truth. They’re a powerful combination if rhetoricians and scientists can learn from each other. Assembling Arguments will help.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved