Saturday, August 18, 2012

Scientists as Writers

Great guest blog at SciAm about scientists as writers.

Again, echoing my earlier rant about the importance of philosophy to everyone (including scientists), this is another reason why we need to debunk the myth of "specialization = necessary," like, yesterday.

Here's a secret: I didn't start out my life as a math and science nerd. I mean, to some extent it was more or less inevitable, given my surroundings, but it took a while. I spent my school years dreading calculus and physics and taking as many classes with my favorite English teacher as I could (three, as it turned out). I chose my college (Hamilton) based on the fact that there were no core requirements: I wouldn't have to take any math classes at all to graduate! On the flip side of that coin, a calculus pre-requisite dissuaded me from pursuing higher-level computer science courses.

What I mean to say is: I came back to science (and math) "from the other side," so to speak. Working at a cave reminded me how much I loved rocks and chemistry and things from inside the earth; symbolic logic as part of my philosophy degree reintroduced me to the clean lines and satisfaction of solving math-like problems. Engaging science writing from people like Matt Ridley, Stephen Jay Gould, and Sam Keane reintroduced me to topics I hadn't studied since high school.

I appreciate that sometimes science is difficult. If you haven't spent years and years studying something, it's going to be hard to grasp no matter how good the writing is. But dressing up science articles in roundabout grammatical constructions and zombie nouns goes a long way to being more, and not less, difficult to understand. And when science writers can't even recognize the passive voice and "translate" it to an active sentence? How can they expect to communicate those ideas in a way that's readily accessible?

Science, of course, isn't the only field guilty of dressing up its interior communications in an impossible veil of needlessly academic language. Philosophy is just as bad. For an exercise in stark contrasts, read Kant's What is Enlightenment? and then read The Critique of Pure Reason.

Likewise, not everyone will be a great writer. It would be unreasonable to expect every scientist in the laboratory to be the next Carl Sagan. But I think it's equally unreasonable to continue to impose these byzantine language standards on official science writing in the name of "objectivity" or "clarity." They accomplish neither of these things; they only serve to keep the most interesting work of science in the domain of the elites instead of the public.


  1. I agree with everything you said.

    Except, I really wish I’d known that about your desire to take CS classes. I think you either received bad information, or it was interpreted incorrectly. The only math class I had to take was Discrete. No calc, no differential equations, nada. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have managed to major in it. (And it wasn’t a matter of coming into college with an AP credit or anything… I failed out of HS AP calc (or well, dropped out before I could officially do so).)

    1. I think you either received bad information, or it was interpreted incorrectly. The only math class I had to take was Discrete.

      Well, there's a minor technicality that altered the entirety of my undergrad career.

      Is it too late for me to go back and rack up another BA?

      The road not taken, indeed!

    2. Yeah, I’ve been wondering that lately too :\ I suppose we could. It’d just be wicked expensive the second time around.