Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Writing in Science

via Andrew Sullivan

An interesting critique by Rachel Toor in The Chronicle of Higher Education of how terrible writing in the sciences can be:
Whenever I ask Godfrey to explain his medical and scientific work to me — something I do frequently — I am captivated. He has the ability to get at the most interesting issues, to draw out the implications of what he's studying, and to explain them in ways that are fascinating. He knows how to tell a story in conversation. He knows which details will enhance suspense, which will come as a surprise.

But when it comes to putting it on the page, those skills desert him. He writes in simple, declarative, passive sentences. He endlessly repeats words and phrases. His language is complicated not only by terms of medical and scientific art, but by using unnecessary Latinate words when plain old Anglo-Saxon ones would do a better job. He has no idea how commas and paragraph breaks can be your friends, doesn't understand that adverbs are the refuge of the weak and lazy, and that semicolons, like loaded guns, should only be handled by those trained to use them.

In general, none of that has hurt Godfrey in his extensive publishing career. Having read a fair number of articles and grant proposals by his colleagues and peers, I would say he's no worse than most scientists and physicians, and better than many. Thankfully there are saintlike journal editors who follow in his wake to clean up the linguistic messes.

I think it should be clear from my posting on this blog that I'm not much more than a pedestrian writer, but what might be surprising is that relative to my field, where nearly everything you do of importance is a written communication... I'm actually fairly good. I've worked in a research laboratory for over ten years now, and seen my share of postdocs and fellows come through, and as Rachel Toor notes, quality writing is a rarity. I would bet my boss would freely admit that a large part of his success in operating solely on "soft money" (i.e. money from grants from places like the NIH) is his ability to write well. Indeed, a statement by my Senior Project Professor (now Dean of BU's School of Engineering) that "you could do the best study in the world, but if you can't communicate the results it's worthless" has been etched into my brain since he uttered it. However, besides his class, the only writing I was required to do was in that Freshman composition class that every Freshman in the universe takes. Now, I took some literature classes as electives because I like writing, but it suffices to say that those choices were viewed as "eccentric", at best, by my fellow engineers.

One wonders how much of this is self perpetuating... people who don't like English class gravitate towards the sciences, and once they get into college try to stay as far away from those classes as possible. Your answer to an electric circuit theory problem is either right or wrong, and you don't tend to get points taken off for style. To someone with that mindset, the grading of an English professor can seem utterly arbitrary and thus poor results completely unfair. It had never occured to me, but perhaps classes specifically in grammar and syntax is a way around this? I don't think I did much with such things past elementary school, and I don't imagine that's unusual... and it's obviously something that could be taught more like formulas and math and presumably be of great benefit to science types.