Is scientific writing crap? Lewis Spurgin thinks so. In his blog post on Science and the English Language, he complains that a lot of academic science writing is “poorly constructed, stale and pretentious”. Further, it’s “full of cliché, crap puns and metaphors, and borderline plagiarism”. The reason this matters, according to Spurgin, is that “Science is about finding the truth and making sense of things. An essential part of this is communicating clearly and honestly.” The communication he refers to is not only that between professional scientists, but also from professional scientists to the broader public who, to the extent that they fund academic research, “have a right to see it should they want to”.
So, academic scientists need to write better. Against what ideal should their writing be judged? The title of Spurgin’s article of course echoes that of George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Spurgin discusses some of the tricks by means of which (as Orwell says) “the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged” and ends by quoting Orwell’s six guidelines for avoiding bad habits in one’s own writing. “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration”, said Orwell.
Would getting rid of these habits also lead to scientific regeneration? To answer that, we might ask why scientists, as Spurgin supposes, indulge in them so frequently. Orwell clearly saw sloppy language as both symptom and cause of sloppy thinking. Our language “becomes sunshiney and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”, he said. For Orwell, the issue was that if our language (written or spoken) is unclear, then that is because we are either unable or unwilling to think clearly ourselves, or because we do not wish those we address to think clearly. Unclear language betrays conflicting motives. So what are the conflicting motives of the scientists who, as Spurgin supposes, so frequently use unclear language?
In answer to that, I will simply observe that when Spurgin writes of “communicating clearly and honestly”, he supposes that there is something clear and honest to be communicated in the first place. He implies that the business of “finding the truth and making sense of things” somehow happens in a place where the inability or unwillingness to craft clear language no longer “makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”. He hasn’t quite thought through the full implications of Orwell’s essay for what he takes to be scientists’ poor writing skills. So what happens next, I wonder? Does he step back from Orwell, or does he step up her criticism of scientists to include their thinking as well as their writing?
Orwell was a political writer. If we read her, we do so for the polemic. In her essay Why I Write, he said: “looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” Scientific writing is also something we read for the polemic, to find the true truth among all the pretender truths. Good science writing isn’t so much a matter of style, as Spurgin seems to assume, but more a matter of having something worthwhile to say. Spurgin isn’t the only one who supposes it’s a matter of style. Jerry Coyne follows up Spurgin’s post with some similar suggestions of his own on How to Write Good Science. That Coyne himself knows how to write well is demonstrated amply in his book ‘Why Evolution is True’. However, I think it’s rather clear that even though it is a science book, he had political motivations for writing it. Was it that clarity of purpose that gave him clarity of language? If other scientists write badly, perhaps it’s not so much because they lack writing skills but rather that they don’t have a clear idea of what they’re doing or why.