Speaking for science: does it matter how and where?

By Diarmid Finnegan, Queen’s University Belfast

Company: ArcSoft (hangzhou)

A diagram used to demonstrate the art of ‘chironomia,’ a system of gestures suitable for oratory taught to Michael Faraday by the elocutionist Benjamin Smart. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chironomia_Sphere.jpg Image in the public domain and out of copyright.

During every American election season, pundits find something to say about the way Presidential candidates speak. Perhaps more than ever before, the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump invited this kind of attention. Trump’s hand gestures and Hillary Clinton’s voice were just two aspects of their campaign speeches that were closely scrutinised. Psychologists, journalists and media coaches all offered their take on the nonverbal strategies and automatic reflexes of the two nominees. One expert in embodied cognition even counted the number of times Trump sniffed during the second presidential debate (answer: 104). If nothing else, fixation on these dimensions of the live performances of Trump and Clinton demonstrated public appetite for close descriptions of their voices and body language.

However difficult it may be to demonstrate the influence of vocal performance over voting patterns, there is a long history of political speechmakers and their critics drawing heavily on the arts of oratory. But what happens when we look not at political argumentation but at efforts to persuade live audiences of the importance of science? Should any significance be placed on the voice and body language of the science communicator? One understandable reaction is to say no. After all, the truth of scientific claims is not supposed to be measured according to emotional resonance or alignment with public tastes or political convictions. Science, as one early historian of the Royal Society put it, should be communicated with ‘mathematical plainness’ (Sprat 1667).

It might be surprising to learn, then, that one of the most celebrated science communicators in the nineteenth century, Michael Faraday, argued that lectures ‘depend entirely for their value upon the manner in which they are given. It is not the matter, it is not the subject, so much as the man’. Among other things, this reflected a career-long engagement with the arts of oratory. It is perhaps yet more surprising to find Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous nineteenth-century exponent of science as trained common sense, pointing out that less than a tenth of Faraday’s audiences understood him. According to Huxley, the crucial thing was that most thought they had grasped Faraday’s meaning. Huxley was convinced that the intellectual value of lectures was extremely low. Why, then, did both Faraday and Huxley invest huge amounts of energy in delivering lectures to non-specialist audiences? As I argue in a paper published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, both Faraday and Huxley were acutely aware of the power of speech to nurture sympathy for science and to support an agenda that placed science within a wider vision of social progress. Huxley declared on a number of occasions that he held oratorical techniques in contempt, but he also realized that the living voice could be used as a powerful means for swaying public opinion. There are good reasons, then, to reflect on how Faraday and Huxley used the power of voice and non-verbal action to persuade audiences of the relevance and public value of science.

Taking seriously the lecture performances of Faraday and Huxley also means taking seriously where they spoke. In basic terms, Faraday rarely spoke anywhere else than the lecture hall of the Royal Institution in London. Huxley, by contrast, travelled extensively. Faraday’s style of speaking, which included carefully choreographed gestures and vocal performances, was well suited for an auditorium custom designed for science lectures. Huxley’s manner and mode of address – standing stock still and speaking extemporaneously – remained constant even as he moved from one venue to another. This, of course, does not exhaust the geography of these speech events. Both Huxley and Faraday took care to position themselves within a wider landscape of oratorical performance. Their efforts to speak with influence, and assessments of those efforts, reflected unique combinations of expectations and assumptions about what constituted effective communication. Their lectures on science also helped forge novel spaces of speech that had influence beyond their own particular sphere.

Cultural and historical geographers, among others, have paid increasing attention to where and how any kind of ‘live talk’ is delivered and heard. An undergirding argument is that speech performance of whatever kind is closely tied to the place in which it unfolds. That this turns out to be true for talk about science lends special support to this argument. At least in the case of Faraday and Huxley, there was no single way to persuade an audience of the virtues, values and veracity of science. The voice, and the body, had to be mobilized in different ways and in different cultural locations to win an audience’s sympathy and assent.

About the author: Dr Diarmid Finnegan is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University, Belfast. His research interests fall within three main themes: (1) Science, space and culture; (2) Historical geographies of ideas; and (3) History of geographical knowledge. 

60-world2 BBC News 2016, August 16. What Trump’s hand gestures say about him BBC News. Retrieved November 17, 2016

60-world2 Beattie, G. 2016, October 14. How Donald Trump bullies with his body language.  The Conversation, Retrieved November 17, 2016

books_icon Finnegan, D. A. 2016,  ‘Finding a scientific voice: performing science, space and speech in the 19th century’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers DOI: 10.1111/tran.12159

60-world2 Khazan, O. 2016, August 1. Would you really like Hillary more if she sounded different? The Atlantic, Retrieved November 17, 2016

books_icon Sprat, T. 1667, The History of the Royal Society of London. London.

2 thoughts on “Speaking for science: does it matter how and where?

  1. Pingback: Speaking for science: does it matter how and where? – worldviewsoftware's blog

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