Science writing versus scientific writing

With the shift away from third person passive to active first person writing:

The boiling point of the compound was determined.

Becomes

We determined the boiling point of the compound.

Now, for science writing (ie popular science), this is fine. For scientific writing, I am not so sure.

What do I mean by scientific writing?

I mean writing that has the same qualities as science itself. This is different from writing about science itself, or even writing about the results of science in a non-scientific way. We might call these latter two things ‘science writing’.

Science, to me, ought to be:

  • precise — even when uncertain, it should be precise about what is highly likely (give nothing can be ‘proven’), likely, possible or unlikely. In other words, science aims for precise and accurate results, but regardless of the precision and accuracy of the results is always precise about its degree of certainty
  • dispassionate — the whole point of science is that what humans think is not relevant to the correctness of a theory (even though what humans think will have led to the theory). The validity of an idea is tested against the universe, not against what people think; an experiment is a means of testing whether an idea is consistent with the way the universe operates

In my mind, scientific writing has these same attributes.

With scientific knowledge, it does not matter who did the experiment, only that it was done well so that the experiment really does (within whatever limits) test the idea’s validity. Of course, some people have a wonderful ability to think of an experiment no-one else has ever done. But once it has been done and written up, if repeated it should yield the same results.

So I don’t like the ‘We’ in the sentence above. It puts the experimenter at the focus — after all, they are now the subject of the sentence — when previously the result (the boiling point of the compound) was the subject. And the boiling point is what matters, and what (if done well) ought to be a valuable result for others to draw on.

Personalising scientific results allows a theory or experiment to be discredited by discrediting the theorist or experimenter. It puts a scientific result closer to the plane of an opinion or ideology than it ought to be, so making it easier to argue away. Science is the opposite of ideology. Ideology is the use of a framework of ideas to make decisions for you en masse and so avoid having to think. I’m not saying scientists never do that (they are humans), but when they do they are not doing science.

If the sense that science is objective (as much as any human activity can be) was more prevalent in the wider world, it would be harder for (for example) climate change denialists to get traction. And I can’t help thinking that maybe that objectivity ought to be embedded in the language of science, and that if we take it out we’re implicitly signalling that science is something less important and useful and relevant and non-ignorable than it is.

So while I can understand the shift to the more active and immediate in writing, and I agree with it in most cases, I find myself not so in favour of it when talking about science and its outputs. (Having said that, I’ve written plenty of papers that use ‘we’, sometimes at the behest of a coauthor, sometimes because working around it was just so clunky and wordy; but always with a nagging dis-ease.)

I guess I’m just as inconsistent as anybody.

Rant over.

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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