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Editorial: Puncturing the orthodoxy

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2002. Editorial: Puncturing the orthodoxy. the Exchange 9(1):2, 6, 8.

A while ago, conversation in the Internet’s copyediting–l discussion group turned towards postmodernist criticisms of science. In my response to one defender of these criticisms, I referred to a hoax article by Alan Sokal (http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/index.html) published by Social Text despite the fact that the article was plainly nonsense. Given that Sokal intentionally set out to write an article that the editors would have rejected if they had actually tried to understand what he was saying, this struck me as a telling blow against their editorial process. Here’s what Sokal had to say about his hoax:

“In sum, I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof. Evidently, the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article... without bothering to consult anyone knowledgable on the subject.” (http://skepdic.com/sokal.html)

The problem Sokal pointed out so elegantly has several components:

In my commentary on copyediting–l, I also noted that postmodernism notwithstanding, science is demonstrably real, both as an easily observable human activity and as a body of knowledge that anyone (including nonscientists) is encouraged to question and demonstrate as being real or false by a clearly defined set of standards. To the postmodern critics of science, I say eppur se muove, Galileo’s reported final sotto voce comments when forced to recant his heliocentric view of our solar system. (“It doesn’t matter whether you believe me… Earth still moves around the sun!”, with apologies for my moderately irreverent translation of the Italian.)

That being said, historians and philosophers of science and technology continue to gleefully discuss the weaknesses of science and scientists, often at great length. They are heard with interest and respect by most scientists because the critics at least understand what they’re criticizing, and because science as a whole encourages criticism of its findings and of its methods. Equally important is the fact that few scientists believe science has the answers to all questions. I haven’t heard the same things said about postmodernism from anyone working in the field. One wonders which of the two professions (science and postmodernism) has the most significant vested interest and the least interest in challenging that status quo.

Yet the postmodernists and indeed, Sokal’s hoax, raise an important point, namely that scientists and scientific communicators must still do what the postmodernists (and Galileo’s spiritual kin) have done for centuries: challenge our assumptions. For example, has anyone actually studied the effectiveness of old-fashioned, convoluted scientific language versus clearer, more direct language—and have they either demonstrated an advantage or (at a minimum) no disadvantage to the old ways of doing things? I very much doubt it. The argument that “everyone is familiar with this kind of writing and will understand it” has been used for decades, if not centuries, to protect bad writing in the sciences and elsewhere.

This logic was used to enforce the use of unclear or misleading passive constructions (among other things), and it’s become clear in recent years that in this respect at least, the old emperor had no clothes. While it’s true that experts in a domain gradually develop proficiency in deciphering specific writing conventions in their field, there’s no evidence that this proficiency makes them faster at reading poorly written but stylistically familiar text than at reading better-written but stylistically less traditional text. Again, a simple example: The inappropriate use of passive voice is gradually being superceded in scientific writing by appropriate use of active voice, and the resulting writing is inevitably much clearer. Many oldtimers in the field still protest this change in style, but their voices are gradually being drowned out by those who are more interested in clear communication than in blindly following old habits.

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a sea change away from obfuscatory language because of the growing recognition that unnecessarily dense writing impedes the communication of important knowledge. Moreover, as Steven Gould repeatedly reveals through his amazingly well-researched essays, such language often leads to persistent and pernicious misunderstandings that do a great disservice to science as a whole. It’s self-evident and a tautology to say so, but clear writing is always easier to understand than convoluted writing. That applies universally.

Using science’s standards for what constitutes “real or false” to judge science’s reality or falseness could certainly constitute tautology (in which the proof is implicit in how you define the test), and it’s clear to most scientists that restricting yourself to a narrowly defined set of precepts prevents you from discovering anything new that goes beyond those precepts. (Most major scientific breakthroughs have come from rejecting the prevailing paradigm and replacing it with one that better explains reality.) The scientific review process regularly lets new ideas overturn the old, albeit sometimes grudgingly and with some difficulty, and this suggests to me that the process works quite well. The process is demonstrably imperfect, but like democracy, it’s only the worst possible system if you ignore all the alternatives.

To my knowledge, science (including other disciplines that adopt the scientific method) is unique in that it explicitly adopts the philosophy that every so-called truth must be tested to destruction, and replaced with a more broadly applicable truth as soon as one can be discovered. By so doing, an increasingly sophisticated view of reality is developed by the field as a whole, and is eventually communicated to those outside the field. As a scientific communicator, I urge you to approach your own work similarly. Accept the orthodox explanation and the traditional way of doing things with informed, judicious skepticism. I also urge you to make others aware of what work we’re doing. Science is about challenging authority and inspiring change, and sometimes the most productive challenges come from outside the orthodoxy.


My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.


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