Field of Science

Precision: why we should not submit

An On Scientific Writing post.

One aspect of scientific communication that is essential in both oral and written modes is precision. Scientific writing should be precise. Of course, we know have to define what it means to be precise and maybe the best way to do that is to use some examples. As you read each sentence below picture the image the sentence conveys to you.
1. "An animal went into a building," is a fairly vague sentence.
2. "A cat went into the brick building," is a lot more specific.
3. "A Siberian tiger went into the brick hospital," is more specific still.
4. "A sick Siberian tiger went into the brick animal hospital on 4th St," is the most specific example to date.
Now I expect you imagined something completely different with the different sentences, particularly sentences #3 and #4.

One of the points I want to emphasize is that words have meaning. Depending on the word choices we make, we can communicate effectively or we can communicate in a much less efficiently. This is precision. In the case of science writing I prefer the 'distinguished from every other' definition of precise. You want to be clear when you write and one of the ways you do that is to use the most concrete and direct words possible, a sick Siberian tiger vs an animal, a building vs. the brick animal hospital on 4th St.

One problem in trying to be precise is the invention of fucking pronouns. Pronouns breed imprecision. In your science writing the mantra should be 'pronouns are used with extreme prejudice.'
The car was parked on the street, it was blue. What was? The car? The street? Fucking pronoun.
Another problem in trying to be precise is that the meaning of a word is somewhat fluid, words exist in cultural contexts, and the definition of a given word can evolve. Our language conspires against us. Now we could take the relativistic approach, throw up our hands, and give up. I prefer to take the bit by the teeth, get my hands dirty, and actually try to communicate. (This latter approach is generally worthwhile if you happen to live amongst other humans.) The point is that we have to be vigilant and thoughtful by the time we have completed our writing (the emphasis on the finished product is intended because, if we worry about 'perfect' word choices while we are drafting, then we will never get out of the starting gate).
Jack and I went to the gay parade yesterday. Meant something slightly different in 1911 than it does in 2011.
which brings us to 'submissive'. When you read the following, what does 'submissive' mean?
"Tax law? I hate taxes," she [Michele Bachmann] continued. "Why should I go into something like that? But the lord says, be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.'" CBSNEWS
In the universe Michele Bachmann inhabits, submissive = respect. In my universe, submissive means something a little different. Things like relinquishing power to another, compliance, to be subservient to, cowed come to mind. Respect? not so much.

In my quest to obtain the Bachmann quote, I stumbled across a site that provided the following opinion regarding Bachmann's submissiveness respect.
According to Karen Seat, a religious studies professor at the University of Arizona, some conservative evangelicals argue that women’s deference is itself empowering, because it’s what God intends, and because it is the fullest expression of womanhood. In this world of opposites, submission is strength and inequity is proof of equality. It’s quite possible that a President Bachmann would primarily define herself not as the first female president of the United States, but as a wife and mother. And she would not see that as anything less than progress.
But of course we have always been at war with Eurasia.


Anonymous said...

Have always hated pronouns myself. Amatuer nouns... that's the way to go.

The Lorax said...

This came up in my class on teaching writing. Verdict was pronouns must be culled as much as possible.