In July 2012, J Craig Venter, a key figure in the Human Genome Project and the development of synthetic life, gave one of the keynote speeches to the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) at Trinity College, Dublin entitled ‘What Is Life?: a 21st Century Perspective‘. Venter called it a ‘reboot‘ of Erwin Schrödinger’s famous lectures ‘What Is Life?’ sixty-nine years earlier in the same university. The original lectures influenced everyone he knew, Venter said. While public engagement orthodoxy promotes dialogue, we must not forget how individuals have become vital nodes in the history of biological ideas. Paradigms are a network of histories; nevertheless the summarised rhetoric of key idea has remained important, especially in twenty first century sensibilities of the politicization of the personal. But it was always there in ‘virtual witnessing’ (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985) (seeing, assessing , preparing for scientific replication) and mediation (traditionally print and wordof-mouth, now also various media platforms). While Darwin’s idea was seismic, his popularisers were his cousin Francis Dalton and his so-called ‘bulldog’, TH Huxley. The oratory powers they possessed contributed to acceptance of Social Darwinism and eugenics policies. Throughout the history of biology, the lecture and oration format helped create thought communities (Fleck, 1935), enhancing credentials among core-sets of expertise while popularizing and ‘creating belief’ among non-expert publics. Jakob Von Uexküll‘s oration was less successful to the Nazis when warning against Jewish ‘immunisation‘, but his ideas were a major influence on the social sciences. There is now a new breed, depending less on the voice clarion in itself and as embodiment of an idea , and more on voice as one element in crossmedia discourse, with PowerPoint of course, and networked socially and technologically eg Venter’s speech with Clinton and Blair at the announcement of the HGP or the less obviously political Brian Cox. The political and communicative in biology is ever-present, yet sadly lacking in biology text books and curricula; indeed reflexivity is lacking in (bio)science communication. By tracking from Uexkull to Huxley to Cox, this paper will demonstrate, through an STS-type of rhetorical analysis, the changing mechanics of the bio-orators, and their separations into the anti-political and the ultra-political. In speeches, lectures and debates, biological ideas were always political and now so too, are the biosciences. In the era of TED biology, we need our bio-orators in schools, civic spaces and parliaments.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

The bio-orators and the communication of big ideas in biology

Padraig Murphy   Dublin City University

In July 2012, J Craig Venter, a key figure in the Human Genome Project and the development of synthetic life, gave one of the keynote speeches to the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) at Trinity College, Dublin entitled ‘What Is Life?: a 21st Century Perspective‘. Venter called it a ‘reboot‘ of Erwin Schrödinger’s famous lectures ‘What Is Life?’ sixty-nine years earlier in the same university. The original lectures influenced everyone he knew, Venter said. While public engagement orthodoxy promotes dialogue, we must not forget how individuals have become vital nodes in the history of biological ideas. Paradigms are a network of histories; nevertheless the summarised rhetoric of key idea has remained important, especially in twenty first century sensibilities of the politicization of the personal. But it was always there in ‘virtual witnessing’ (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985) (seeing, assessing , preparing for scientific replication) and mediation (traditionally print and wordof-mouth, now also various media platforms). While Darwin’s idea was seismic, his popularisers were his cousin Francis Dalton and his so-called ‘bulldog’, TH Huxley. The oratory powers they possessed contributed to acceptance of Social Darwinism and eugenics policies. Throughout the history of biology, the lecture and oration format helped create thought communities (Fleck, 1935), enhancing credentials among core-sets of expertise while popularizing and ‘creating belief’ among non-expert publics. Jakob Von Uexküll‘s oration was less successful to the Nazis when warning against Jewish ‘immunisation‘, but his ideas were a major influence on the social sciences. There is now a new breed, depending less on the voice clarion in itself and as embodiment of an idea , and more on voice as one element in crossmedia discourse, with PowerPoint of course, and networked socially and technologically eg Venter’s speech with Clinton and Blair at the announcement of the HGP or the less obviously political Brian Cox. The political and communicative in biology is ever-present, yet sadly lacking in biology text books and curricula; indeed reflexivity is lacking in (bio)science communication. By tracking from Uexkull to Huxley to Cox, this paper will demonstrate, through an STS-type of rhetorical analysis, the changing mechanics of the bio-orators, and their separations into the anti-political and the ultra-political. In speeches, lectures and debates, biological ideas were always political and now so too, are the biosciences. In the era of TED biology, we need our bio-orators in schools, civic spaces and parliaments.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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