Scientific Speech Acts
How do scientific acts of speech differ from other kinds, say political? In analyzing speech acts Austin distinguished “locutionary meaning”, “illocutionary force”, and “perlocutionary effect”: how do these categories manifest themselves in the speech of scientists? Locutionary meaning pertains to the propositional content of speech acts irrespective of the communicative intentions of the speaker (assertion, command, conditionality, warning, etc.). Here we can say that scientific speech acts typically have theoretical or explanatory locutionary meaning—for example, propositions about planetary motions or the origin of species or the nature of photosynthesis. They are not typically simply reports of observable fact, except when functioning as evidence for hypotheses. They are not like the proposition that the cat is on the mat; they are more general and explanatory and “scientific”. Still, they are propositions equipped with truth conditions, so don’t differ in this respect from many other types of locutionary meaning. It isn’t as if we express propositions in scientific speech but not elsewhere (elsewhere it’s all emotive exclamations or some such). Scientific speech does not differ from other types of speech at the level of locutionary meaning, or not fundamentally. However, things change when we come to illocutionary force: here we have a significant shift in speaker intention. For in scientific discourse we are admonished to limit ourselves to what the evidence strictly warrants; we must be epistemically responsible. In this respect scientific speech differs dramatically from political speech. Thus, we find speech acts that begin “The evidence suggests” or “Experiments indicate” or “It is consistent with available data that”. The mark of such statements is that they are tentative, cautious, provisional. According to some views of science (Popper), we can never assert any general proposition because of the problem of induction; we can only assert statements recording episodes of falsification. The illocutionary force of a scientific speech act is captured in the formulation “So far p has not been refuted”. Scientific speech acts have the illocutionary force of conjectures not confident assertions of fact. This can be confusing to outsiders, because they are used to more committed forms of speech. The scientist really needs a special sign for his habitual illocutionary force: not Frege’s assertion sign but a sign meaning “I conjecture that the following may be the truth based on the evidence I have so far”. The scientist is engaged in a different type of language game, as Wittgenstein would say. His speech intentions differ from those of less responsible speakers. In this he is following the rules of scientific discourse and may be punished for violating them (expulsion from the scientific club).
But it is in the area of perlocutionary effect that the most marked difference shows up. This is because science is, or can be, subversive, revolutionary, earth shattering. I don’t need to dwell on this story: Galileo, Spinoza, Darwin, Einstein, Dr Fauci, and many others. These effects are not all of the same kind. Some involve religion, but others involve technology and politics: I am thinking in particular of Einstein’s statement that his theories could be used to construct an atomic bomb. The scientist must be careful what he or she says, because the effects on hearers can be momentous. Think of the speech acts performed by scientists during a pandemic: they can save the lives of millions of people, and yet the scientist must stick to the illocutionary force that defines his calling. He must steer a fine line between securing the requisite perlocutionary effect and not overstating what the evidence warrants (and the evidence can change over time). I was struck in reading Darwin’s Origin of Species by his careful acts of written speech: he wants to urge a specific theory of the way species come to exist, but he must be scrupulous about the evidence for his theory and the evidence (apparently) against it, because the perlocutionary effects are potentially so large. The scientific speech act becomes fraught, risky, possibly devastating. It almost becomes a performative, because it foreseeably performs an act of revolution (“I hereby destroy established religious orthodoxy”). Darwin’s speech is both scientific and activist, given its predictable perlocutionary effects—as was also true of Copernicus and Galileo.
We can thus see how Austin’s threefold speech act theory, though designed for ordinary language, can be made to apply to the speech of scientists, revealing it as susceptible to the same basic treatment as others forms of speech, but also demonstrating interesting variation. This is an example of the general project of applying philosophical analyses of language to the case of scientific language, with an emphasis on pragmatics. Obviously much more needs to be said, but it’s a start.
 We might say that the pure politician is concerned only with perlocutionary effect, targeting a specific audience.
 This kind of study might be useful to scientists in understanding and regulating their habits of speech (“Watch out for those perlocutionary effects!”). At present, speech concerning climate change is of particular concern.