Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Legacy Department

Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design


Katz, Steven B.

Committee Member

Morey , Sean W.

Committee Member

Mazer , Joseph P.

Committee Member

Cross , Sydney A.

Committee Member

Temesvari , Lesly A.


The emergence of visual media as prominent and even expected forms of communication in nearly all disciplines, including those scientific, has raised new questions about how the art and science of communication epistemologically affect the interpretation of scientific phenomena. In this dissertation I explore how the influence of aesthetics in visual representations of science inevitably creates ambiguous meanings. As a means to improve visual literacy in the sciences, I call awareness to the ubiquity of visual ambiguity and its importance and relevance in scientific discourse. To do this, I conduct a literature review that spans interdisciplinary research in communication, science, art, and rhetoric. Furthermore, I create a paradoxically ambiguous taxonomy, which functions to exploit the nuances of visual ambiguities and their role in scientific communication. I then extrapolate the taxonomy of visual ambiguity and from it develop an ambiguous, rhetorical heuristic, the Tetradic Model of Visual Ambiguity. The Tetradic Model is applied to a case example of a scientific image as a demonstration of how scientific communicators may increase their awareness of the epistemological effects of ambiguity in the visual representations of science. I conclude by demonstrating how scientific communicators may make productive use of visual ambiguity, even in communications of objective science, and I argue how doing so strengthens scientific communicators' visual literacy skills and their ability to communicate more ethically and effectively.

Included in

Communication Commons