The rhetoric of the scientific media hoax: humanist interventions in the popularization of nineteenth-century American science
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This rhetorical analysis of scientific media hoaxes written by prominent American literary figures from 1835 to 1880 treats hoaxes as rhetorical interventions in the process of scientific truth becoming public truth. Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Adams Locke, Mark Twain, and Dan De Quille all used hoaxes to shock their readers into an awareness of the subtle shifting of the basis for determining truth in America away from humanistic epistemologies and toward scientific ones. Using contemporary discussions of each hoax preserved in archival sources, I reconstruct a set of common expectations that nineteenth century readers had about scientific culture and science news. The interaction and competition of these expectations in producing either belief or doubt in the hoaxes is modeled using a methodology derived from Optimality Theory. Redefining hoaxes in this way—as exchanges with readers over scientific issues via news media, rather than strictly as texts—enables me to revise traditional assumptions about Poe’s and Twain’s use of science and technology in their writings. The concluding chapter explores the functional similarities between hoaxes and machines and suggests applications of the methodology developed in this project to problems in genre studies, reader-oriented studies of historical American literature, and the rhetoric of science. In an epilogue I analyze the recent Sokal hoax as an intervention by a scientist in a perceived movement by cultural studies scholars to recapture the right to determine truth for the American public.