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The Manual of Scientific StyleA Guide for Authors, Editors, and Researchers
Academic PressCopyright © 2009 Elsevier Inc.
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Chapter OneElements of Science Writing
1.1 The Importance of Science Writing
People engaged in scientific research often believe that proper and effective writing lies outside their skill requirements for a successful career in science. This belief is usually engendered by the sense that writing skills properly belong to the humanities, or at most to the social sciences. Shouldn't science, they ask, speak with its data, or, to put it another way, shouldn't scientific data speak for itself? While it is true that a great many abilities are necessary for the successful pursuit of a career in science, the notion that careful and effective writing is merely an adjunct to these abilities is now understood to be deeply flawed for several reasons that arise from a clear understanding of what science, at its core, is and what role it plays in our society.
The image of the lone scientist observing natural phenomena or creating systems and theories in ("splendid") isolation is now understood to be an unrealistic image—a myth, now viewed as an idealization even in the science of previous eras. Newton, for instance, developed his mechanics during a period of isolation while Cambridge University was closed because of the Great Plague of 1665, but we know that he had contact with the leading figures of his day in many areas of science, both in Britain and on the European continent. (How else could so many priority disputes have arisen if there had not been a robust exchange of ideas and information at the time?)
This situation stands in stark contrast to that which prevailed in pre-Enlightenment times (say, before the sixteenth century and going back to antiquity). In pre-modern times, what scientific knowledge existed was safeguarded and kept secret, shared only with initiates and protégés who were honor-bound to maintain confidentiality and refrain from disseminating the details of the discipline they had been taught. The transition from this system to one in which scientists are encouraged to share their findings and insights as widely as possible (for both self-serving and altruistic reasons) is primarily responsible for the flourishing of science and its development over the past several centuries.
As a result of the growth of science communication and its centrality in the entire scientific enterprise, we can now make the following statements about the nature of science that make clear the importance of effective communication in its growth and well-being:
i. Science is a social enterprise, demanding the participation of many people and their interaction with one another if the accumulation of knowledge and human understanding of the natural world are to grow. Research nearly always requires the participation of many collaborators and an operational support structure, plus the professional institutions that enable individuals to acquire training (at a university, for example) and to pursue research in a laboratory or in the field. Even in antiquity, early scientists and naturalists relied on the assistance and collegiality of others who assisted them in their investigations and served as sounding-boards and advisors. The growth of modern science owes as much to the development of organizations and institutions that allowed for collaboration and cooperation as on the genius of individual scientists.
ii. Science is a political enterprise, and in almost all instances, has political ramifications. At the very least, scientific consensus will determine the allocation of resources and many issues in public policy. Decisions will routinely be made regarding which research programs to support financially and who is to receive which grant, but the impact of science on politics is far greater (and growing with each passing year), as scientists are being called upon to address and solve a number of difficult and vexing problems that humanity faces today.
iii. Science is an educational enterprise that depends on the continuous influx of talented and conscientious new practitioners to carry forward its ongoing effort to understand and harness the forces of nature and the resources of the physical environment. At the forefront of science, researchers must convey (and in no small measure convince) their colleagues of the value of their findings and conclusions. For this, effective writing is essential; the most successful scientists have almost universally been recognized as much for the clarity and effectiveness of their prose as the constructs and consequences of their theories.
But at a more fundamental level, every practitioner of science is a member of a community that has an obligation to convey the essence of science and the important role it plays in human affairs to the public. The training of scientists begins at an early age when the interest and imagination of young people are captured by compelling and inspiring popular science writing. The same sort of talent and dedication is required in creating the instructional materials used in classrooms at all levels. Well-written and well-designed science materials encourage young people to consider a career in the sciences. The same kind of engagement must be maintained with the general population if the aims and welfare of science and its practitioners are to be maintained, and if science is to be deployed for the betterment (and survival) of humankind.
iv. Science is a cultural enterprise that has enormous influence on what the great mass of humanity believes about the world and our place in it. This is not to say that the scientific worldview (itself an abstract idealization) is subscribed to by everyone, or even the majority of people. But the ongoing search and conversation regarding the great issues that confront humanity, both in practical matters and in areas of metaphysics (the so-called big questions), are informed by the findings and assumptions of science. No longer is science carried out exclusively in a hermetic "ivory tower" or in the unlit confines of the laboratory. The reliance of modern society on the technology that derives from the findings and constructs of modern science is so great that it is no exaggeration to say that the entire future of the human race depends on the wise and effective use of this body of knowledge and its technological capability. In this respect, the notion (ascribed to C.P. Snow) that there are "two cultures" —science and the humanities—that are doomed to isolation from one another, has been brushed aside by the ubiquitous and unavoidable presence of science and its technological product in our daily lives.
In all of these areas, science depends on effective communication, internally (among scientists), as well as in its relationship with society at large. Sound internal communication—which is dependent on clear and effective writing—is critical to the proper functioning of the scientific enterprise. Sound communication to the "outside" (meaning, non-scientific) world, however, is also critical for science in maintaining the support of the public and its representatives, and in inspiring confidence in science as a source of insight and policy in public matters great and small. In the largest context, the public application of science communication is carried out by authors of books, papers, and articles; producers of films, television programs, and documentaries; and materials in the many new media addressed to the general public.
The same interaction between the scientific community and the civilization in which we all live takes place at least thousands of times every day—in newspapers; magazines; television programs; classrooms; lecture halls; public lectures; museum exhibits; etc., at all age levels in virtually every setting. It behooves the community of scientists and of people who support science and the role it plays in promoting the welfare of human civilization to support, promote, and even demand the most exacting and rigorous manner of science communication in all settings and contexts. (Readers are directed to Appendix I for an annotated list of sources and supplementary reading for each section of this chapter. A similar guide to further reading and resources for each chapter appears in Appendix I, which contains a cumulative bibliography for the work as a whole.)
1.2 The Meaning and Nature of "Scientific Style"
The term "style" is ambiguous owing to an accident of publishing history. While in ordinary usage, the word "style" would be used to signify the characteristics of a mode of speech, dress, or expression, in publishing, the word specifically denotes the rules of grammar and usage to which published material must conform. This use of the term probably arose from its inclusion in the title of an informal booklet created by the proofreaders at the then fledgling University of Chicago Press—that was in 1896! Thus, in modern parlance, both in the title of books described as "manuals of style" and while speaking of "style issues" in the course of writing and editing, the word "style" is used in this restrictive sense. Yet, we believe any work that aims to guide and improve scientific writing must address both meanings of style, and must therefore provide guidance on both the methods of producing more effective and useful science writing, as well as on the strictures of grammar and usage.
This is especially true of the sciences for two reasons:
i. Correct language and correct science. In science, correct "style" (narrowly construed) is an important factor in creating effective prose. Plain and straightforward formulations of science have been valued since the time of Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century and in the period afterwards, during which the Royal Society was formed in England (in 1660), setting the standard for scientific discourse and investigation in Europe. Bacon urged scientists (in his day called "natural philosophers") to concern themselves with "things," and not with the host of elements that cluttered and obscured the science contained in much of the writing about the natural world of his day. This clutter included: the erudition and station of the author (which Bacon deemed irrelevant); the authority of the systems of the past to which the author appealed (which Bacon considered outmoded); rhetorical flourishes and emotional appeals to cherished human notions (which Bacon considered misleading); and imprecise concepts and terms that had no clear definition and no observational meaning (which Bacon dismissed as nonsense). The development of a straightforward standard of scientific writing made it possible to reproduce experiments, to verify or disprove results and hypotheses, and to crystallize the substance of any piece of scientific writing.
The transition from the "pre-Baconian" style of rhetoric that typified all writing on nature and science, to the fact-based and unadorned manner of writing that is characteristic of science writing today (and has been so for the past two centuries) was a gradual one, and not without its periods of backsliding, retreats into obscure writing, and appeals to arguments more rhetorical than logical or observational. Yet, articles in the science journals of a century ago (as Nobel chemist Roald Hoffman points out and demonstrates in his work, The Same and Not the Same) are linguistically accessible to scientists today, thanks to the insistence by the Royal Society and similar overseeing organizations in France, Germany, the United States, and other countries where the strictures of style are adhered to without compromise.
What has become clear over the past half-century is that biases of all sorts—personal, political, religious, and psychological—have a way of creeping into scientific writing in a way that contradicts the claim of the writing as being factual and unencumbered. It was once thought that clarity, simplicity, and precision, the values that are being espoused in this guide and the hallmark of the most influential science writing of the past two centuries, was enough to ensure correctness. William Blake meant something of this sort when he wrote (in his "Proverbs of Hell"), "Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed." It's a noble thought, but this notion is now regarded as naïve, if only because readers at every level have shown themselves capable of convincing themselves that they understand an illogical argument or an obscure piece of writing. (And, as in any human enterprise, science is subject to the same human ingenuity that allows the unprincipled to advance personal and ideological agendas in the guise of reporting or espousing pure science.) Blake's sentiment has been replaced by the aphorism propounded by H.L Mencken (and which newscaster Harry Reasoner was fond of quoting): "For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean, ... and wrong!"
For these reasons, the strictures of style—grammar; usage; word choice; sentence structure; paragraph and chapter design—all stand as watchtowers that safeguard (though not guarantee) the meaningfulness and clarity of what appears in scientific journals and in the popular and polemical writing about science that is ubiquitous in modern culture. The same may be said for the guidelines that appear in this chapter regarding word selection, sentence and paragraph construction, and paragraph and chapter design, though experience will allow a writer to know when the rules may be broken or bent—when deviation from this advice will improve communication rather than hinder it.
ii. "Science as writing." The distinction between writing science and doing science has become blurred, particularly at the frontiers of many disciplines. We owe this development, first, to the realization (arrived at relatively recently in spite of how clearly true it is) that the report of a scientific experiment or the elaboration of a scientific hypothesis are really the concluding phases of processes that include failed attempts; infuriating bouts with recalcitrant equipment (and obstreperous administrators—and sometimes the other way around); and many false leads and misguided thinking, all leading in unpredictable ways to insight and conclusions. In the past, such "blind alleys" were considered inappropriate for scientific discourse and were not found in the articles of leading scientific journals. Increasingly, however, such information is included in serious and cutting-edge articles (either as addenda or as supplementary electronic and online material, or in the body of the articles) as a means of allowing other researchers to faithfully reproduce and verify results, and, further, to allow others to retrace the steps taken in the thinking and expectations of the researchers. The desirability of this information leads naturally to the second reason it is so valuable.
The pathways of science lead through the thoughts and psychical meanderings of scientists investigating the structure and phenomena of nature, which means that many conclusions will be the result of thought processes that go beyond the strictly logical and mathematical. These processes include metaphysical underpinnings, social and cultural presuppositions (or biases), artistic and aesthetic values, and even spiritual and religious undercurrents—all playing often inscrutable and unfathomable roles. Einstein was fond of saying that "the whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking." We understand today that the term "everyday thinking" is packed with much more than the naïve notion of "common sense." It includes the specific everyday notions of not-so-everyday people, who have assumed the task of observing, investigating, explicating, and manipulating the world around us, to wit, the scientific community.
Out of this realization has come the idea of "science as writing" (the title of David Locke's landmark work), in which the presence of the author is palpable because the research and thought processes described are the work, words, and thoughts of a person or a group of people who bring their intellectual baggage with them in everything they do. Just as it would be misguided to believe that Newton's psychical life was irrelevant to his scientific work, no scientist working today (or arguably ever) produced scientific writing except as a human endeavor informed by his or her beliefs and predilections. This not only provides a new standard and tool for understanding and evaluating scientific writing, but it offers new means of communicating science at all levels, namely, through the art of writing. (Consult the references listed in Appendix I.)
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