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The Cinematic Turn in Public Discussions of Science

Von Burg, Ron (2006) The Cinematic Turn in Public Discussions of Science. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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The specialized vocabularies and complex methodologies of scientific practice complicate efforts both to communicate scientific information to lay publics and to enable those publics to sort out competing scientific claims when public policy decisions hang in the balance. Consequently, technical experts strive to invent rhetorical practices and argumentative strategies that appeal to non-scientific audiences. One such strategy involves the use of popular fictional films to support technical arguments that bear on public policy questions.Film references are not simply clever labels or cursory illustrative examples, but important communicative acts that serve a unique rhetorical function in public argument on scientific matters. Scientists, science journalists, and science educators use films as metaphors, narratives, or heuristics to help galvanize public attention or teach scientific and technological principles to non-scientific publics. However, this rhetorical exercise invites debate over the appropriateness and efficacy of using fictional films to educate publics about factual science. The citation of film as evidence in public argument expands the rhetorical landscape to include texts that transcend traditional modes of address within the scientific community.This dissertation draws from rhetorical theory and film studies theory to investigate how science interlocutors reference films in public discussions of science. It examines three public discussions of science and the film references highlighted in such discussions: The China Syndrome and the Three Mile Island accident, GATTACA and policy debates over genetic science controls, and The Day After Tomorrow and climate stewardship policies. Each case study reveals how advocates articulate and maintain the boundaries of acceptable scientific arguments. By attending to how the use of films as resources for the invention of arguments, this research suggests avenues for engaging scientific controversies that are not predicated on intimate knowledge of a particular scientific practice.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Von Burg,
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairMitchell, Gordongordonm@pitt.eduGORDONM
Committee MemberLyne, Johnjlyne@pitt.eduJLYNE
Committee MemberFischer, Lucylfischer@pitt.eduLFISCHER
Committee MemberSimonson, Petersimonson@pitt.eduSIMONSON
Date: 20 March 2006
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 31 October 2005
Approval Date: 20 March 2006
Submission Date: 4 December 2005
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Communication: Rhetoric and Communication
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: film studies; genetics; global warming; nuclear energy; public understanding of science; rhetoric; rhetoric of science
Other ID:, etd-12042005-005725
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 20:07
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:53


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