Can Rhetorical Momentum Influence Agreement in Science?

We have all witnessed the rhetorical impact of language in popular culture. Certain terms may serve ideological goals but mislead us about the reality they signify. How about scientific language? Does a particular terminology help shape agreement even when it is misleading or seems theoretically neutral? Let's take one example: the prion. Stanley Prusiner, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1997, coined the term prion when he proposed in 1982 that the cause of scrapi

Jan 13, 2003
Carol Reeves

We have all witnessed the rhetorical impact of language in popular culture. Certain terms may serve ideological goals but mislead us about the reality they signify. How about scientific language? Does a particular terminology help shape agreement even when it is misleading or seems theoretically neutral? Let's take one example: the prion.

Stanley Prusiner, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1997, coined the term prion when he proposed in 1982 that the cause of scrapie, a neurodegenerative disease in sheep, is a protein particle that somehow replicated without nucleic acid. In that first article, the prion, or "proteinacious infectious particle,"1 represented a provocative idea that was, Prusiner conceded, heretical. He admitted that "skepticism ... is certainly justified. Only purification of the scrapie agent to homogeneity and determination of its chemical structure will allow a rigorous conclusion."

Prusiner's baptism of the new term began a new lexicon that gradually spread through the scientific community of researchers in transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) and related fields. The language of prions had, by 1990, become the dominant lexicon of TSE research, and for a majority of mainstream biologists today, the prion theory is no longer heretical. Could the prion terminology have had some influence on the gradual acceptance of the prion theory? I argue that it did.

SNAPPY AND POPULAR No terminology is going to spread unless someone promotes it. In 1986, Prusiner told journalist Gary Taubes, "Prion is a terrific word. It's 'snappy.' It's easy to pronounce. People like it."2 This snappy word appears in the title, abstract, and body of all the papers produced in Prusiner's laboratory throughout the 1980s. Declarative statements or definitions in these articles use prion as if it referred to an entity whose characterization had already been ratified and documented by collective experience. A typical example: "Scrapie is a degenerative, neurological disorder caused by a slow infectious agent or prion."3 What appears to be a statement about material reality is actually a tool in the materialization of an idea.

Another strategy Prusiner and his colleagues employed was to attach prion language to new discoveries. When Prusiner's colleagues identified the host protein involved in these diseases, they named it prion protein or PrP, and the gene that codes for it was named prion protein gene. Without agreeing with the original prion protein hypothesis, researchers could use the prion lexicon and assume their usage to be theoretically neutral. In the meantime another group of scientists, which included Patricia Merz and Laura Manuelidis, had also isolated the host protein; they called it scrapie-associated protein, and the protein particles were called scrapie-associated fibrils.4 Their terminology did not resist the prion lexicon's dominance. Eventually, the Prusiner group introduced "prion diseases," "prion sciences," and "prion biology," which, because of the implied authority in any classification scheme, created an aura of inevitability surrounding the new terminology and the prion theory as well.

Perhaps the eventual dominance of the prion terminology was due mostly to its ambiguity. Originally, Prusiner allowed the term to represent either a protein particle with or without an as-yet-undiscovered nucleic acid. This vagueness has been critiqued by several investigators.5-7 Richard Carp and his colleagues insisted that the ambiguity of the term "made it difficult to engage in precise dialogue about the term." Precisely! The term could be used by those who agreed with the protein-only hypothesis, by those who did not, and by those who were uncertain, with everyone unwittingly promoting the term's usage.

Discursive pressures within scientific communicative practice also helped create this "terministic infection" and promote the prion theory. Norms of politeness encouraged those who opposed the prion hypothesis to employ the terms in their refutations. An efficient, common terminology was needed, and prion, with its snappy and ambiguous quality, was efficient and vague enough to replace variant terms.

Usage perpetuates usage, which perpetuates some form of agreement. We might call this discursive "momentum," to borrow from Manuelidis' review8 of Prusiner's Prion Biology and Diseases.9 Manuelidis suggests that this book "underscores the stunning force of the declarative sentence and ... the peculiarly American sport of betting on popular momentum."

NOW MAINSTREAM Prusiner's idea was a catalyst for change in the TSE field and for enormous contributions of new knowledge. Evidence for the prion theory and characterization of the prion particle are still neither definitive nor thorough enough to please the objectivists. Even so, public debate surrounding the prion hypothesis has ended, and the theory has been accepted by mainstream biologists.

Rather than dismiss the linguistic and rhetorical dimensions of science, we need to better understand how those dimensions work. The rhetorical production of an idea can involve, as it does in the case of the prion theory, situating a new language, sufficiently vague to withstand conservative charges while evoking an idea whose intellectual currency stimulates productivity.

Carol Reeves is associate professor of English at Butler University.

References
1. S. Prusiner, "Novel proteinaceous infectious particles cause scrapie," Science, 216:136-44, 1982.

2. G. Taubes, "The name of the game is fame: but is it science?" Discover, 7:28, 1986.

3. S. Prusiner et al., "Purification and structural studies of a major scrapie prion protein," Cell, 38:127-34, 1984.

4. P.A. Merz et al., "Scrapie-associated fibrils in Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease," Nature, 306:474-6, 1983.

5. R.H. Kinberlin, "Scrapie agent: Prions or virinos?" Nature, 297:107-8, 1982.

6. B. Chesebro, "BSE and prions: Uncertainties about the agent," Science, 279:42-3, 1998.

7. R. Carp et al., "Nature of scrapie agent: Current status of facts and hypotheses," Society for General Microbiology, 7:1357-68, 1985.

8. L. Manuelidis, "The force of prions,": Review of Prion Biology and Diseases, Lancet, 355:2083, 2000.

9. S. Prusiner, Prion Biology and Diseases, Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1999.