Science in writing: discovery vs. debate

Phases of the moon – by Galileo, who enjoyed a lively debate.

I love words. I also love science. So anything that sits in the overlap of my nerdy Venn diagram makes me rather excited – just as well I get to write about science for my job! But although I spend a lot of time thinking about how to express a particular concept, or explain something in a new and creative way, I don’t often get the chance to step back and get a bit meta.

So when I found this article by Daniel M. Wegner on Twitter (thanks @ivanoransky) I had a little nerdgasm – writing about science writing, fun! It’s all about the language of science, and it’s a really interesting take on what science communication is all about. The author sets up two conflicting ways of communicating science – the language of discovery vs. the language of debate.
Once upon a time I thought it was obvious (always a mistake) that science was all about finding the truth – discovering a fixed reality that exists somewhere ‘out there’.

This is where the language of discovery comes in – scientists ‘finding out’, ‘uncovering new evidence’ and exploring the world we live in. I love this way of looking at science, because it harks back to what most of us loved about science as kids – that feeling of figuring out how something works, and having a eureka moment.

Daniel Wegner phrases it nicely – ‘Discovery words convey wonder and astonishment. They are the things we say when we either know the truth or believe there is such a thing.’

But science just isn’t as neat and tidy as this. Scientists are people, and they get things wrong, explore down blind alleys, and let biases sway their judgement. Studying a bit of the philosophy of science showed me the error of my ways – the truth might be out there (that’s an even bigger question) but we can’t necessarily find it.

Although some of things we think we know about the world are probably ‘true’, science is actually better at showing us how little we understand, and the history of science proves that the ‘current’ view often looks rather silly a few decades or centuries down the line (phlogiston, anyone?).

That’s why I don’t agree that ‘when it comes to science writing, discovery trumps debate every time.’  Obviously (!) it depends on what you’re writing – scientific papers, which Wegner mentions at the end of the article, are written in a very fixed, objective style, to emphasise the effort to reduce bias and to make sure readers can copy the described experiments exactly.

As Wegner puts it, ‘when you write your next scientific paper, you might pause to reflect on this: Do you want to draw readers’ attention to the way things seem to be, or would you rather impress them that this is the way you see it?’

I think it’s pretty important that scientists make it clear that the way they see it is not necessarily the way it seems to be. The way one scientist sees the world, through the prism of research they’ve designed and explained in a paper, is not objective, even though it aims for that ideal.

As anyone who reads a lot of papers knows, scepticism should be your default setting – not because scientists aren’t trustworthy, but because science should be all about evidence. We can’t discover everything independently for ourselves, but we can recognise when research isn’t giving us a nice tidy answer. That’s why every paper has a section covering possible sources of error and bias.

So I’m coming down on the side of debate. Wegner says that ‘Debate language suggests itself into oblivion, creating by innuendo the expectancy that there is no reality being discovered, only an arbitrary, socially determined judgment being negotiated.’ This is an extreme take on the language of debate, but I think it’s pretty damn important to recognise that the ‘reality being discovered’ is just an approximation. It might be wrong. That’s what science is all about.

Wegner says that ‘science presented as debate is defensive’ – but it doesn’t have to be. A good debate can be about presenting your opinion (with evidence) for inspection by others – not defensively, but welcoming different takes on it, and realising that everyone makes mistakes. Science does this – and benefits from it. And what’s wrong with a bit of lively debate anyway?

‘Science’ is made by people. Sometimes science is wrong – but science enjoys a debate and is happy to be corrected. Just like all the best people.

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