Aug 24 2006

The language of science

Good scientists write carefully but not defensively. By carefully, I mean that they strive to be clear and to not over-reach, i.e., reach conclusions beyond what is warranted by the evidence. But they are not overly concerned with whether their words will be taken out of context and misused or subject to other forms of manipulation. It is an unwritten rule of scientific discourse that you do not score cheap debating points. Scientists are expected to respect those who oppose them and deal with the substance of their arguments and not indulge in superficial word games.

This is a why a scientist like Niels Bohr, who was notoriously obscure in his speech and writing, could still became a giant in the field. Scientists like Einstein who thought Bohr quite wrong about quantum mechanics, recognized the value of his insights, and took the trouble to pierce through the verbal fog and clarify Bohr’s own ideas and make him understandable to others.

But scoring points using debating tricks such as selective quotation and word play is the norm in the political arena. Hence political speech requires people learn to speak defensively, so that an unfortunate choice of words will not be used to imply that they said something that they did not intend to.

As long as these two worlds of science and politics remain separate, there is no problem. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain that line. Scientists who, intentionally enter the political arena or inadvertently do so by getting involved in questions that have political implications (say global warming or intelligent design) often find themselves blindsided because they have not learned to use the kinds of defensive circumlocutions that politicians use.

For example, scientists will often use anthropomorphic language when describing phenomena. They will say things like “the electron wants to go here” or “this organism is designed to survive in this ecosystem.” Scientists do not actually mean that there is some consciousness behind these things. But this breezy language livens up the subject and it serves as convenient shorthand for the more correct but convoluted consciousness-free language. Fellow scientists understand this custom.

But those who wish to pursue a broader agenda often use this casual language to imply things that the authors never intended. For example, intelligent design creationists (IDC) carefully scour the scientific literature to look for the word “design” and pounce on it to imply that the scientist writers are implicitly acknowledging that there the world is designed. They try to imply that many members of the scientific community secretly believe that the world is intentionally designed but try to hide it because of their secular political agenda, and that their language often inadvertently reveals their true beliefs.

For example, in a science article on butterflies physicist Pete Vukusic, is quoted as saying: “It’s amazing that butterflies have evolved such sophisticated design features which can so exquisitely manipulate light and colour. Nature’s design and engineering is truly inspirational.”

This was seized on by IDC advocate William Dembski on his website where he highlights the phrase Nature’s design and engineering is truly inspirational as if Vukusic was implying that butterflies were the work of a designer. This is just nonsense borne out of desperation.

The more politically savvy scientists, veterans of these wars, have learned to play this game. For example, I am currently reading an excellent book called The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins (more on this fascinating book in later postings) and in it, whenever there is a chance that what he says maybe misconstrued as implying intent in nature, he repeatedly warns intelligent design creationists to not take those sentences out of context and imply that they mean something other than what he intends. He sometimes takes the same ideas and writes it defensively to show how to translate between popular and very precise scientific writing.

But others have to learn the hard way. Consider for example, the experience of Peter Doran, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2002, he and his colleagues published a paper in Nature that ” found that from 1996 to 2000, one small, ice-free area of the Antarctic mainland had actually cooled. Our report also analyzed temperatures for the mainland in such a way as to remove the influence of the peninsula warming and found that, from 1966 to 2000, more of the continent had cooled than had warmed. Our summary statement pointed out how the cooling trend posed challenges to models of Antarctic climate and ecosystem change.”

That paper was immediately seized upon by opponents of global warming to argue that the Earth was actually cooling, even though Doran tried to explain that his paper said no such thing.

Doran said that this legend has only grown in the four years since, despite his efforts to kill it. He says “Our results have been misused as “evidence” against global warming by Michael Crichton in his novel “State of Fear” and by Ann Coulter in her latest book, “Godless: The Church of Liberalism.” Search my name on the Web, and you will find pages of links to everything from climate discussion groups to Senate policy committee documents — all citing my 2002 study as reason to doubt that the earth is warming. One recent Web column even put words in my mouth. I have never said that “the unexpected colder climate in Antarctica may possibly be signaling a lessening of the current global warming cycle.” I have never thought such a thing either.”

He ends with this plea. “I would like to remove my name from the list of scientists who dispute global warming. I know my coauthors would as well.”
It would be too bad if scientists, like politicians, had to also begin to carefully parse words so as to avoid even the remotest possibility of being misconstrued. It would be sad if they had to pepper their writings with the kinds of disclaimers one sees on medications (“This statement should not be taken to imply that we are supporting the following positions:. . .”). Scientific writing already suffers from various maladies: an overdose of passive-voice, jargon, and formulaic style are among the sins that immediately come to mind. To add defensiveness to the list would make scientific writing even more difficult to read.

1 comment

  1. 1

    Hey, don’t knock the passive voice. It’s useful!

    For a funny knock-down of the passive proscription, check out this Language Log post.

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