The Virtual Bookshelf: Scientific Characters

VB: Keranen HeadshotLisa Keränen, Scientific Characters: Rhetoric, Politics, and Trust in Breast Cancer Research (Tuscaloosa:  University of Alabama Press, 2010).

Moving back and forth between news coverage, medical journals, letters to the editor, and oncology pamphlets, Lisa Keränen draws insights from rhetoric, literary studies, sociology, and science studies to analyze the roles of character in shaping the outcomes of the “Datagate” controversy, a scientific dispute that erupted after a 1994 Chicago Tribune headline: “Fraud in Breast Cancer Research: Doctor Lied on Data for Decade.” Throughout the scandal, debates about the character of surgeon and researcher Dr. Bernard Fisher and other key players endured, showing how scientific knowledge is shaped by perceptions of the personal temperament, trustworthiness, integrity, and transparency of those who produce it. As administrators, politicians, scientists, patients, journalists, and citizens attempted to make sense of what had happened, and to assess the integrity of the research, they raised questions, assigned blame, attributed responsibility, and reshaped the norms of scientific practice.

Scientific Characters thus addresses what happens when scientists, patients, and advocates are called to defend themselves in public concerning complex technical matters with direct implications for human life. In assessing the rhetoric that animated “Datagate,” Scientific Characters sheds light on the challenges faced by scientists and citizens as science becomes more bureaucratized, dispersed, and accountable to varied publics.

In 2011, Keränen received the Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award from the NCA Public Address Division for Scientific Characters. Nicole Parker, in the New York Journal of Books, calls Scientific Characters “articulate, engaging, and insightful,” and Victor Vogel, the editor of Management of Patients at High Risk for Breast Cancer, says the book “captures all of [the] complexities,” of the case it analyzes and “does a great service,” to the research and health care communities that are concerned about breast cancer.

Lisa Keränen is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado-Denver. She researches the interface between science, publics, and the state in biomedical controversies, end-of-life discourse, and the biodefense industry. Her research concerning rhetoric, medicine, bioethics, and terrorism has appeared in outlets such as Academic Medicine, Accountability in Research, Argumentation & Advocacy, the Communication Yearbook, Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Journal of Medical Humanities, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric and Public Affairs, and the Western Journal of Communication. Keränen’s website also features a useful discussion guide for classroom use of Scientific Characters.

Book site:,4813.aspx 

Watch Keränen on YouTube discussing her work on the NCA-Forum: