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Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Scientists as Writers

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Scientists study murky ponds, holes in space, and atoms that refuse to touch. Science is inspiring and beautiful. But scientific articles are not. Most scientific articles are so impenetrable that even scientists cringe to read them. Instead of expanding our collective wonder, they intimidate, and we leave it to science journalists and university extension associates to translate these ciphers into accessible prose. But shouldn’t good writing be required of scientists, too?

Today scientific articles are constrained by convention and myth.

The conventions of scientific writing have two goals: to convey authority, and to demonstrate the author’s objectivity. Conventions that convey authority include a standardized article structure (Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusion); booster words (Scientific articles contain more booster words [clearly, obviously] than other research articles, but less hedge words [may, seem, possibly].); and invocations of doom (To justify experiments articles often begin with overblown sentences like “As we all know, all species are dying.”).

Conventions that convey objectivity include the erasure of scientists as actors in their own experiments via past passive voice (e.g. “the chemicals were heated” versus “I heated the chemicals”) and the use of nominalizations or zombie nouns, which make actions themselves less visible by presenting their results as states of being (Compare “The rate was a reflection of population density increases,” to “The rate reflects an increased population density.”).

Scientists use these conventions consciously or unconsciously to assert distance between themselves and their subject, to achieve objectivity through prose. But experimental integrity is not the same thing as avoiding the first person – nor does avoiding adjectives protect scientific work from bias. Scientists merely perform authority and objectivity through their conventions, and the result is that experiments seem to unfold tidily and timelessly, making the scientific process appear foreordained – and boring.

Strangely enough, today’s conventions emerged in a seventeenth century attempt to make scientific writing clearer. They were first codified by the Royal Society of London in a 1667 booklet opposing the elitism of rhetoricians. Ornaments of speech were, in the Society’s opinion, “in open defiance against Reason”; poetry was “this vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue.” Honoring reason and clarity above such trickery, Society members insisted on “a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness: bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness as they can.”

Today the opposite concern – exclusivity – drives scientific writing. A certain suspicion of language’s promiscuity has been transmitted across generations of scientists. In a striking echo of the Royal Society, 339 years later, Robert Day and Barbara Gastel, authors of How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, write

In scientific writing, there is little need for ornamentation. The flowery literary embellishments – the metaphors, the similes, the idiomatic expressions – are very likely to cause confusion and should seldom be used in writing research papers. Science is simply too important to be communicated in anything other than words of certain meaning.

But which words are those?

On top of rigid conventions, scientists must contend with the pervasive myth that scientists can’t write. We begin differentiating scientists and writers in elementary school. One “likes math” or “likes English.” Our academic system, from pre-K through graduate school, contrasts science and literature – objectivism and subjectivism, reductionism and holism. We find it inconceivable that Vladimir Nabokov’s theories on butterfly evolution could be vindicated. We even take science’s and art’s objects of inquiry, nature and culture, to be separate spheres.

Still worse, we’ve naturalized and internalized these divisions in three ways. First, the cerebral cortex is still, after years of debunking, said to be organized into two hemispheres, the left the seat of language and logic, the right the seat of creativity and intuition. The notion of a well-rounded person is excluded by this construction. Second, specialization and collaboration are considered necessities of the modern world, and so no one scientist author is responsible for her or his prose. Third, and most broadly, elegant prose is considered unachievable given the extreme complexity of scientific concepts.

This set of assumptions does have its critics. In 1959 C.P. Snow delivered a lecture, “The Two Cultures,” in which he lamented the divide between the sciences and the literary arts. Snow, a physicist and novelist, recognized the difficulty that comes with moving between two communities “who had almost ceased to communicate at all.” Between them, he wrote, lay “a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

The myth of a rigid taxonomy – science as the study of objects, writing as an act of representation – creates two problems. First is the failure of scientific consensus to reach and persuade a broad audience: Given the state of scientific writing, it is unsurprising that the majority of Americans do not believe in evolution or climate change and do not know what species they are eating at the dinner table.

The second problem is that we’ve radically limited the number of people who speak for nature. Only when people discover I’m an ecologist do they ask me my opinion on the Endangered Species Act, hydrofracking, or deep-sea trawling. When they discover I’m a poet they only want to know if I like Shakespeare. I’m unconvinced that experts should have a monopoly on scientific questions, or that artists don’t have as many important, insightful, and true things to say about the natural world. Or that scientists can’t be artists, or artists scientists.

The conventions of scientific writing are rarely challenged, even though they sometimes require mashing observations into an awkward scaffolding. Even though the generative and positive aspect of literary genre is that it begs to be tinkered with.

Good writers and good scientists share many attributes. Both care about their representations of the natural world. Both work constantly to improve their craft. Both care about clarity and about audience.

Of course some scientific articles are excellently written. But, generally speaking, professional scientists do not consider themselves writers. Some even brag about hating writing or being poor writers. But they shouldn’t. Because in fact, story is deeply at work in science, and all scientists, whether they acknowledge it or not, attend to and represent the natural world.

Recently a handful of scientists have begun to reclaim natural history as a worthwhile intellectual pursuit. The term “natural history” signals some essence of storytelling. A history requires characters, setting, time, and an historian. There is no reason to fear this subjectivity. Subjectivity can be honest. In fact, acknowledging subjectivity might be the only honest way to write.

An anecdote from a biography of the nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman drives this point home. “I am well satisfied with my success with titles,” Whitman said near the end of his life, though some scientist friends objected to the title of his book Leaves of Grass on the grounds that “there are no leaves of grass; there are spears of grass.” “But,” Whitman recounted, and you can hear his sigh, “Spears of Grass would not have been the same to me.”

Conservatism reigns in scientific writing – a particularly strange situation given the advent of the Internet. Academic journals are facing various crises: declining volunteers for peer review, waning readership. Perhaps these pressures should encourage a radical rethinking of scientists’ roles as authors.

Image: Pete O'Shea

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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