A while back, I discussed Lewis Spurgin’s piece Science and the English Language. Spurgin has now posted a follow-up in which he answers criticisms from grammar jockey Geoffrey Pullum. The row seems to centre on whether or not avoidance of cliché makes for better writing. I’d say it depends on whether you’re trying to better explain your meaning to the reader or simply trying to avoid sounding clichéd. I suspect that Spurgin and Pullum would be in violent agreement on that.
Spurgin says that “Scientists are involved in the difficult business of communicating often complex ideas, and figurative language can be a powerful tool in achieving this“, at which point I ask: in what medium do the ideas exist before being rendered into language?
To say that language “can be” a powerful tool of communication seems to imply that we have the option of performing the task entirely without language. Well, to be sure, diagrams, drawings and photographs are all frequently used in communicating scientific ideas, but they hardly ever stand on their own and almost always need to be accompanied by verbal explanations to be properly understood. My point, however, concerns the medium in which the ideas are embodied before being rendered into words or diagrams. Do ideas somehow exist ‘in the raw’?
Some might say that they exist as neurophysiological states. Now, while it is quite reasonable to suppose that some kind of neural state precedes the linguistic actions that explain an idea, I’m not sure it follows that the idea itself exists there. Neural states associated with certain imagined or intended actions can be identified to a certain degree, but it’s not at all clear how (or if) anyone could point to specific neurophysiological states and demonstrate that they are the physical substrate of a given scientific concept, hypothesis or theory (I take that to be what Spurgin means by “complex ideas”).
Turning the problem around, let’s imagine that I have just become possessed by a strong conviction that I have reached new insights through conceiving a complex scientific idea. In itself, that can be understood as a neurophysiological state that gives me a strong predisposition to act in some way. But how? I might act to produce new practical solutions to practical problems. Others, seeing my success, might start acting in similar ways. One might say that we ‘had the same idea’. But is there really any need to invoke an ‘idea’? Isn’t saying we ‘had the same idea’ just an abstracted way of saying that we act in similar ways?
Now, suppose that the practical problem I am trying to solve is one of getting others to acknowledge my new insight. I have to get them to talk of my idea and attribute certain actions and decisions they make to my idea. That means providing them with words that they are likely to repeat to themselves, to others and when rationalising certain practical decisions. This is ‘explaining my idea’. I may rehearse the words in my imagination first, trying various permutations. But how do I decide the final form of words? Spurgin’s gripe with science writing is that “most journal articles bore me, bore other scientists, and completely deter anybody not in science“. That is appropriate. The words have to interest us enough to act on them. In the case of a scientific idea, the actions involve examining the world in new but specific ways. Almost as soon as that starts, however, there will be people who act in ways that they rationalise by reference to the communicated idea, but which the author of the idea does not see as exemplifying the idea at all. That is as it should be, because experiencing the world is ultimately more valuable than experiencing people talking about the world. But that leaves us wondering where the idea went. Did it ever have any existence beyond that particular choice of words that referred to it as though it was a real thing?