Tag Archives: Science

Writing Styles and Ethics

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.

Bridging the Gap Between Art and Science

Sometimes the best way to understand how to move forward is to take a look back. Looking back over some of the papers that I have written over my college career I discovered some things that I could have done better, and a few mistakes. I also found some things that I did really well. Two years ago I took an Environmental Literature course. We spent the first half of the semester studying Audubon and writing short essays about what we learned. For the latter part of the semester we took class trips to the university arboretum, sometimes with a guide and other times exploring on our own.

Throught the course of the class I learned how to take my writing skills and combine them with the scientific knowledge that I was learning. The professor was enthusiastc about teaching us how to write about science in a way that was creative and full of emotion and passion, something that I hadn’t realized was possible in writing for science.

This new approach to scientific writing inspired the topic of one of my essays for the course. In the essay I wrote about how scientific writing doesn’t always take the form of the cold, clinical statistics and technical jargon that we are used to. I used Audubon’s Birds of America to provide examples for how scientific writing can be aesthetic and more importantly how English, in regard to writing, and science can sometimes have signifigant overlap.

“In the world of writing it is common for the scientific and the aesthetic to be compared, and in most cases dismissed as completely different entities. But why is this, is one better than the other well certainly not.”

For my paper to be effective I needed to use some of my rhetorical skills. I needed to establish a level of ethos in order to make my discussion relevant. To do so I used what I can now define as Nullius in Verba or “On the word of no man”. I quoted Audubon to support my argument, in the hopes of gaining some authority for myself in the eyes of my audience. To establish Logos I asked the question, as you can see above, what makes one field better than the other and then went on to attempt to explain the ways in which the two fields can work as compliments.

The best part about reflecting over old papers is discovering how far I have come. In the essay that I wrote I didn’t discuss the ways in which technical writers bring English and science together as they create documents. I wasn’t aware that I, an English major, could build a website for a scientific, or any other company that is technically sound as well as aesthetically pleasing. I didn’t fully understand the range of English, and the skills that I would gain in studying it, would give me.

Thanks to a few great professors I understand now. So when my friends studying various sciences joke about my English degree, I laugh right along with them because little do they know we could be working together in the future.