Consider this, you are tasked with the responsibility of writing a piece on what the people around you are doing. Sounds easy right? Sally eats a sandwich, and Bob reads a newspaper, done. But wait, the piece that you are writing needs to be in the form of a scientific report. Well, this little detail changes everything.
This semester I wrote a workplace analysis ethnography for my capstone course and it was probably the most frustrating experience that I have ever had writing anything. I am used to adapting my writing to fit the style that the paper has been assigned (MLA, APA, etc.). Typically if I am using MLA I write in a more personal and humanistic way, I use personal pronouns, and I use pathos to persuade my audience. On the other side of that, when I use APA I am usually writing a paper that includes research so I talk less about the personal characteristics of the people involved and more about whatever research was done on them.
The ethnography report that I wrote felt like an entirely different animal. As I wrote the paper I found myself painfully aware of the coldness of it. Scientific writing most often uses APA style but there is, I have found a big difference in a typical research centered article and a scientific article. I tried to structure my paper to resemble that of a science article, cold, clinical, void of any emotion and in doing so found myself questioning the ethics of the way that scientists construct present their arguments.
Let us not forget that the articles, and reports that we take as “fact” are indeed arguments, even the reasoning behind the style of scientific writing is an argument. Language and writing are ever-evolving. Charles Bazerman says in his essay “Codifying the Social Scientific Style,” from The Rhetoric of Human Sciences language is “a human accomplishment,” which “must be constantly reevaluated and remade as the human world changes” (125). Science hasn’t always been as detached as it is today, it has changed and I’m sure scientists would like to think that it has evolved. Audubon for example was a scientist who recorded his findings on birds and plants in essays that he sometimes wrote in the forms of letters. This old style of scientific writing was accessible; one reading it could see the argument being made and then decide whether or not to accept it.
Today scientists construct reports that are unintelligible to most people. Why? Because scientists have an agreed understanding that the best way to communicate their findings is to remove any trace of pathos or humanizing qualities. If people don’t understand what they are reading they won’t question it right? But there is an ethical problem with this writing style. When information is presented in a way that the audience cannot understand they are cheated of the ability to make their own decisions about the information they are receiving. Scientific writing often assumes that the audience either knows nothing about the subject or knows quite a bit. Where does that leave us, your everyday people?
I cannot say that I agree with the style of scientific writing, or that I particularly enjoyed writing in the style, as I wrote I was faced with the overwhelming urge to change the style to something more reasonable. I understand the motive behind the control technique, but as a writer and a technical communicator, I say there has got to be a better way to communicate scientific information. Luckily, as Bazerman noted, language grows and changes as people grow and change. Maybe one day writers and scientists can find a middle ground between the old style and what is used today.