Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Preliminary Thoughts on Scientific Prose

Many ideological diatribes are stimulated by personal vendettas, and this one is no different. Today, I went to the physics office to pick up a paper I wrote for a class last semester (caution dictates that I put no damning evidence of which class), and I was surprised at the low grade I received on it. I do not think of myself as the world’s greatest physicist, but neither do I think it self-flattery to claim that I have the ability to dredge up info on a well-documented topic and to put said info into my own words—which was exactly all that was required for the assigned project. The result, a paper entitled “Strong Force Parity Violation, Maybe”, required quite a bit of effort on my part, and upon turning it in I was sorry that it was to fall stillborn on the presses, so to speak, as there would be but one reader of this paper: the professor (still unnamed, as caution dictates).

Since I have been on the teaching end of things myself, I understand that it is not possible for a professor to annotate each returned assignment fully; grading papers, after all, is not the sort of work that one would do without pay. But the two comments on the front page, which were the only comments given, did not (in my opinion) justify the low grade. For posterity, here they are:

The intent was to have these papers written in the style of a regular article for Phys. Rev. Lett., not in the conversational, informal manner presented here.


Overall, the content of the paper is fine. However, the style is too informal. The colloquial style, imbued with cynicism, is not appropriate for a research paper.

In brief, though my content was ‘fine’, the gently irreverent presentation manner was enough to bring me down to a B-, a grade that, in terms of graduate work, is on the borderline of unsatisfactory, an effective FAIL. Although this slight is a few weeks past, and although the grades are all filed away and history has marched on, I am still steamed about this issue. Of course, I’m going to tell you why.

The belief of the scientific establishment—by which I mean, the belief of all those who act as though Science were property that must be unthinkingly defended against the unwashed hordes—is that there is a proper order in which New Thought might be expressed. It is, approximately at least, the way that the big scientific journals are run. If a scientist has a research article he’d like published, he sends it to an Important Journal. The journal then sends it off to its team of volunteer reviewers. These reviewers are scientists who are hip to the jargon and ideas that are commonplace in the discipline that a journal addresses; if they weren’t, they, like the rest of the educated public, would not be able even to slog their way through the papers, so heavy are they with jargon and logical leaps that are filled elsewhere in ‘the literature’ (itself a loosely defined canon of oral tradition and common knowledge sometimes never put into print).

These reviewers have a few roles. First, they decide if the result described in the paper is plausible. If it is deemed too looney or far-fetched, it can be sent back to the author with a remark that says, ‘Sorry, this can’t possibly be right.’ If the reviewers think that it looks plausible, then there’s a further branching point. On one side of this branch, there’s the line that says, ‘Sorry, this is probably correct, but it’s too close to being the same as the result of [insert other paper reference here]’; the paper dies. On the other side, the hopeful vista after which all submitted papers desperately pine, there is the helpful suggestion. This means that the reviewers might send back the paper to the author with remarks saying things like, ‘Did you think of [X]? [Paper reference] makes it clear that this is something that all people thinking seriously about [topic of interest] should look into.’ After a few rounds of correspondence, if enough of the reviewers’ concerns are addressed to their satisfaction, then the paper goes to press. Victory!

This process of ‘Peer Review’ is posited by many establishment scientists as the wondrous thing which sets science apart from those unwashed masses, who truck in opinion and hearsay. If you ever go to a scientific talk on a politically explosive topic, you’re sure to hear it as a kind of proof—e.g., ‘There is not a single peer-reviewed publication supporting the concept of intelligent design’ or ‘Have you looked at the ratio of peer-reviewed articles that support human-caused global warming vs. the number of peer-reviewed against it? The number is staggering!’

Now. Peer Review, as such, may be necessary for something, but I contend that largely what it is necessary for is the maintenance of group cohesion among scientists. This is not to say that this cohesion is not at all valuable; the jargon-heavy prose, for one thing, sets a bar that says, ‘Persons not having the requisite amount of time put into breaking through this language barrier are not admitted.’ And in some sense, this is not so insidious as my bald statements might make it seem. There are certain facts that come out of the way that mathematics is set up, for instance, and people ignorant of these underlying assumption-based facts are going to have a hard time following applications to the forbidding hinterlands of Current Research.

But there are just as many things that are non-obvious facts, and these must be sorted out sociologically. (For scientists reading this blog and hating it: a concrete example is quantum-mechanical ‘spin’, which is a term that is often tossed around as if its definition were perfectly well-defined to people in the know, but which, it turns out, has an awful lot of sub-connotations that must be revealed by context.) Beyond this, there’s the issue of style—my reason for discussing all this stuff in the first place.

To examine the effect of style on credibility, let me tell you a little story. Just to be absolutely clear: it’s not factual. It’s not fair, either. I made it all up.

This story involves two brothers, Mechanic Bob and Scientist Jim. These two men were drive along the road, late on a Saturday night, when they suddenly pass by an incredible sight: an alien landing a la ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Since the aliens in that movie were pretty friendly, the brothers park their car and get out to greet them. Unfortunately, it turns out that these aliens are not benign, and they come at our poor wayfarers with a clear intent to harm.

The brothers are astounded, flabbergasted, amazed…and terrified out of their wits. They both jump into Bob’s hot rod, and by a hair they escape with their lives. Bob always figured that there was more going on than the scientists were letting on, so he feels finally vindicated, and believe me when I tell you that he lets Jim know it. Stupid scientists! Jim, on the other hand, is shocked as hell, but he is also secretly glad that he was the one to witness this grand occasion. Aliens—just like in the movies! Despite his otherwise lackluster scientific output, this is a discovery big enough to make him famous, enough to make him the world’s leading UFOologist overnight.

Here our story, like a paper on its journey through academic publication, splits off into possibilities .

In Scenario 1, the two brothers call the local police, babbling like fools, both out of their heads. They get the local sheriff on the phone, and Bob talks first. “The aliens,” he cries, “it was horrible! They tried to kill us! It was only because of my souped-up Chevy that we got out alive!” Jim is quick to corroborate the story. “Bob and I disagree on just about everything,” he says breathlessly, “but this time he’s right. The aliens were out to get us! We must run for our lives! Everyone evacuate! Listen to me—I have a Ph.D. in Science, goddamit…and I’m afraid to die.” On the other end, at the police station, the only sounds that anyone could make out were a sort-of incoherent moaning. A young patrolman listening to his radio thought it sounded like the proverbial ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ that they sometimes talk about, punctuated by cries of, “I saw this in the lab…”

Scenario 2 starts out just the same as Scenario 1. Bob immediately blubbers his innermost fears to a total stranger, the sheriff. The difference is in Jim’s response. Instead of acting as a fallible human, Jim puts on his Scientist Coat to address the feckless official. “Sheriff, can you hear me?” he says in a calm, clear tone. “Bob has seen something that’s given him quite a shock, and I believe that he may be in need of medical treatment to cope with what he’s seen. However, I can tell you that in perfect confidence, in my capacity as a scientist, that what he saw was very real, and presents a real threat. I believe that the aliens’ most probable method of attack will be to use gabba-gabba-gabba in their attack—I know this by the bitter scent emanating from their spacecraft, which is the same as the scent I noted when we used gabba-gabba-goo in our laboratory. The chemical compositions are nearly identical. What we did to reverse the effects of these reactions was to obbadooberate the gabba-gabba-goo. I would suggest, for the good of the citizens of Blah-de-dah-ville, that the National Guard be stationed outside of the city limits, ready and poised for obbadooberization.”

As anyone with a proper diet of sci-fi should be able to tell you, these two scenarios have very different outcomes. In the first case, the warning is ignored, and Blah-de-dah-ville is obliverated by the aliens in a crushing defeat that takes just under 90 min. In the second case, you can bet that the aliens were obbadooberized to the hilt…making Scientist Bob a hero’s hero’s hero.

The point of this silly little tale? Style matters, but not for the reasons that your typical establishment scientist thinks.

As far as I’ve been able to figure out, the proposed reason that scientific papers are required to be written in a stiff, ‘formal’ style is to let the content speak for itself, and hence to raise Science above the sad, grey affairs of common humanity. What I’m stating here, without proof, as a probably unjustified opinion that is obviously slanted by what I think was an unfair grade, is that formal writing masks more than it tells. IMHO, there’s a big problem with a system that lends credibility to Scenario 2, but not Scenario 1. Would it not be more rational for Scenario 1 to effect the bigger change? The problem here, it seems to me, is that the formal style, effective as it was in Scenario 2, is a two-edged sword. In some cases (I’m thinking of mathematical proofs), the dryness lends a certain intellectual clarity to the work which is appropriate; just as often (now I’m thinking of strings, multiverses and extra-dimensional fantasias), it lends an inappropriate air of seriousness to ideas which we have literally no reason to take seriously. The whole reason that style is important is that it forces writers to communicate rather than just speak, to tell as they show.

My complaint is registered. I feel much better, thanks.

Note: For an example of what is considered a ‘beautiful style’ by many physicists, see the writings of P.A.M. Dirac. That he was probably autistic should not be considered an unimportant side-note in a stylistic analysis of his work.


  1. I am a part of a list-serve called PowerGlobe, a community of electric power students and professionals. Every month or so, somebody will kick out a message saying "Fricken scientists! PhDs and all, think they know this topic! Have they ever even seen a control room?"...and descend into ad hominem attacks. This is because they are engineers, sworn by oath to hate scientists.

    I've read papers about topics that I believed I knew fairly well, and gotten lost after a page due to not a few logical leaps.

    So, I think I believe you. Also, someday, a high-school educated Wisconsinite will find a Higgs Boson in her clothes-dryer, and nobody will believe her. Unless my understanding of quantum physics is very wrong.

  2. Actually, that's kind of the opposite of the point I was trying to make. (See my last column here for proof that I'm not really on the side of the engineers.) I like Science, to a point, and even think that there have been tons of valuable insights from the pure sciences that engineers use all the time without completely recognizing it--just as there are all sorts of dimly-understood (by most) engineering breakthroughs behind any experimental achievement in the sciences.

    That's my way of saying that I don't think that scientists are, on the whole, incompetent. When they say that you're not going to find a Higgs Boson in your washing machine, you can be confident (if you believe at all in the universality of Scientific Laws) that you won't. That might not be for the reasons that you'd think, however.

    A Higgs Boson is (at this point, at least) not something that simply exists in Nature for us to discover. This guy is something that exists on paper entirely, and it is defined in terms of theoretical constructs. I.e., physicists have this thing by the short and curlies: if they see certain 'characteristic' decay chains in their particle detectors, then they can say, 'Hooray! Possible evidence of the Higgs!' On the other hand, if Linda of Wisconsin says, 'My washing machine makes this weird kerthumping noise, and I'm pretty sure that it's a Higgs Boson,' we would all say, 'Ha, ha! A crackpot!'

    Unfortunately, in that case, we'd be right.

    Scientific experiments do have a remarkable level of precision these days, and incompetence (in the guise of irreproducibility) is embarrassing enough that we daily make strides toward results that are more and more reproducible. That's the hope, anyway.

    All I want is the right to express things in idiosyncratic ways and not be penalized for it.

  3. I think there are really two issue going on here: the enforcement of disciplinary hegemony through peer review and the disciplinary preferences for writing style. Of course, the second is often a subset of the first.

    There are plenty of "peer reviewed" papers on intelligent design, because the intelligent design proponents have their own journal(s) and peer review their own papers. Pretty much anybody can start a "peer reviewed" journal and enforce the hegemony of their niche in it. I mean, have you ever seen J Sci Explor?

    I will say, though, that I think your discipline is one of the most forward looking in regard to the place of peer review due to the wide-spread acceptance of submission to

  4. Joel, I think you're correct on all issues discussed here. You've probably thought these things through quite a bit more carefully than I have.

  5. This was suggested on a POWER-GLOBE email thread this morning. I felt it to be relevant, if a bit silly. He may have a bit too much faith in the power and the place of the blog.

    "Someone has to break the news, pronto: the internet exists. Moreover, social media exists.
    How about this proposition: publish anything at all, online, in science blogs. Create and develop interest groups and informal, quick peer review networks based on blogging and wikis. Those papers that actually generated any interest at all through such free, public, open means can then be picked up for more rigorous and more formal scrutiny, and for further collective development. Those papers that did not generate interest can still serve as exercises for their writers, and references for their immediate cirlce of colleagues when the topic comes up in conversations.
    We need more publications, not fewer - but more robust, instant, open, social mechanisms for sorting."

  6. On second thought, this does not really refer to anything to do with writing in one's own voice, just the process of publishing papers. So, maybe it isn't totally relevant.