"Algae specialists, long near the bottom of the biology food chain, are becoming the rock stars."

Bourne, National Geographic, Oct. 2007

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pleasure in Anachronism

Gross, A. G., Harmon, J. E., & Reidy, M. (2002). Style and presentation in the 17th century. (p. 31-47). Communicating Science. Oxford: University Press.

This text is actually a bit of a dry read; it is a lot of hard-core textual analysis.  However, there are some moments of note.

If you read my post on Boyle, this is the century in which his writing style predominates.  At this time, there are two main scientific institutions: the Royal Society (England) and the Academie Royale (France).  As such, there are only two major scientific publication outlets at this time.

Science, as we recognize it today, is in its infancy.  How infant:, you ask? Let's just say that botany is a "new" science.  Science does not have the force of ethos it does today.  No one was walking around talking about "science says" or "scientists have found."  In England, this is the hobby of well-off gentlemen, although France is a little more civil-servant oriented.

Communication of science therefore is also in its infancy.  Like we saw with Boyle, detail is very important.  Scientific writing is more reliable testimony than creation of new knowledge.  Thus, the exposition is in qualitative style and personal, readily understood by others.  There is no specialized, technical language at this point; it doesn't exist.

While the writing is personal and verbose, while containing meager data, the tone however is neutral and lacks stylistic turns of phrase.  In fact, metaphors and similes are discouraged.  When used, they are functional, not poetic.

I have a little challenge for myself as I walk through these centuries.  I am going to take a paragraph from one of my studies and try to re-write it in the style of each century.  Please bear with my silliness and certainly don't take my paragraph as a wonderful example of x-century writing!  As writing is "thinking on paper," let's just say that I'd like to try my hand at thinking like these early scientists.

"I walked out from the driest part of the land, toward the waters of the bay, connected at one end to the river and at the other to the ocean, whereupon the land began to become muddied and a great stink as of rotting eggs rose from the ground, until at last water, unconnected to the inlets of the bay, collected in pools of various size among the marsh grasses.  The largest of these was the size of a farmer's pond, though not as deep, being as on a windless day, where waves did not muddy the waters, the spectators, as well as myself, could see the muddy bottom, marked with the tracks of waterfowl and the holes of various crabs and other burrowing animals.  After extensive rains in the spring, these pools were nearer to fresh water than salt, lacking the briny taste of the bay itself; indeed, many land animals made use of these pools, as feral swine were seen drinking from them without harm; likewise, upon entry into the pools, I often came within a pace or less, of river snakes bathing themselves in the spring heat, and upon one occasion, the spectators and myself observed an alligator, which normally resided in fresh lakes farther inland, swimming healthily in the nearby salt creek of the inlet, made fresh and swollen by the same spring rains."

Portion of Alsted, 1630. Image(s) courtesy History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries.

Alsted, 1630. Image(s) courtesy History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries.     

Monday, February 6, 2012

Theory and Philosophy: Taking a Breather

Fortunately for my sanity, I have a wonderful blog-mentor and hero, Dragonfly Woman.  My entire semester so far (all three or four weeks of it) has been laden with theory and philosophy from the social sciences.  It is definitely a great learning experience and opportunity to stretch my brain, but every so often I need to come up for air!

Hence my maniac giggling as I write this post.  You see, Dragonfly Woman researches giant water bugs and she recently wrote an incredibly beautiful piece on their respiratory behaviors.  Respiratory behaviors...taking a breather...up for air...*snort*

All bad puns aside, DW's post is an excellent example of how scientists can include their creativity and humanity into a "scientific article" without losing credibility.

Once I get done reading Communicating Science by Gross, Harmon, and Reidy, I'll let you know into which century her blog style best fits.  I'm actually considering trying to write a paragraph from one of my own studies into the style of each century, just for the immersion experience.  I'll let you know how that goes...

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bringing it to a Boyle: Virtual Witnesses to Matters of Fact

Shapin, S. (2010). "Pump and circumstance: Robert Boyle's literary technology." Never Pure: Historical studies of science as if it was produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 89-116.

Recently, I have been thinking about social construction of knowledge.  Shapin's discourse on Boyle underscores this reality.  Before "scientists" came "experimental philosophers" who took on the task of what we take for granted today: creating ethos for "matters of fact."  These matters of fact are the measurements and data that we modern scientists collect as evidence.

Whereas we report our findings as concisely as possible (and in some cases stash a brief methodology at the end), Boyle had to write in great detail to create "virtual witnesses."  His manuscripts were conducted to create the effect that the reader had been there and seen what happened at each step of the way, including mistakes and failures.

Thus, these matters of fact were not dependent on Boyle's word alone, reported through the text, but by consensus of the public community who could, in essence, observe the proceedings vicariously.

Considering Hoffmann's arguments, it is perhaps to a Boyle-style article that he wishes to return.  This would certainly make for a more open scientific community, as Shapiro notes that the modern scientific community is a subculture in which one can participate only after they have mastered the specialized language and form of communication practiced by scientists.

Despite the evolution of the modern article however, there are some Boyle-style elements that have been retained.  Boyle was extremely careful to separate matters of fact and conjecture/theory both through language and layout.  This continues today with the separation of the results (matters of fact) and the discussion (theory/explanation); however, I believe that the onus now lies more on the reader to separate the ideas, as the language we use has become more confident and direct.

The peer-review system is reminiscent of the credible witnesses that actually observed the conduction of the experiment.  We have moved away from the original intent of the budding "scientific community" however, in that our version of "public space" has been reduced to those that practice science and can afford access to scientific journals.  Much of the science that the broader public receives is passed through the oracles of media.

I will leave off with what I think is an interesting juxtaposition of two quotes from Shapin.  The first is on Boyle's principles of offering detailed circumstantial accounts, and the second is quoted from Ludwik Fleck.

"It was also necessary, in Boyle's view, to offer readers circumstantial accounts of failed experiments.  This performed two functions: first is allayed anxieties in those neophyte experimentalists whose expectations of success were not immediately fulfilled...." (p.100)

"Ludwick Fleck noted.... 'The optimum system of a science, the ultimate organization of its principles, is completely incomprehensible to the novice'" (p.115)

Has science gone wrong in the method of reporting its practices?  In Boyle's time, experimental philosophers were largely self-funded and publication, while affecting reputation, perhaps did not affect employment.  Has the switch to external funding and page charges in journals led to the conversion to brief reports of  success alone?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Promoting a Necessary Myth: The Arrangement of a Scientific Paper

Gross, A. G. (1996). The arrangement of a scientific paper. In The Rhetoric of Science. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 85-96.

Induction is a fallacy.  Gross argues that we recognize causes based on effects.  Thus, inductive reasoning becomes a circular argument in that in one case, a certain effect indicates a certain cause; therefore, one can continue to expect that cause to precede a similar effect (assuming uniformity).

I know... it makes my head spin too.  Here's the example that Gross uses: Everyday a man goes to feed a chicken.  The chicken correctly argues that if the man cares for the chicken, then the man will feed the chicken.  The problem however, lies in assuming that because the man feeds the chicken, he cares for it.  One day, the man will not come to feed the chicken, but to kill it for dinner.

So, what does this have to do with scienctific writing and the scientific paper?  Everything.  Last post, I talked about Medawar's assertion that the scientific paper is fraudulent and misleading.  His argument?  Scientists have an agenda of sorts, we don't actually use pure induction, but rather plan and execute experiments and observations with a hypothesis in mind.

Gross addresses this very argument in this chapter however, proposing that whatever developments have been made in the philosophy of science, the structure of the scientific article will remain the same to uphold the myth of induction.  He bases this theory on that of Levi-Strauss, who analyzes myths as "a logical model capable of overcoming a [fundamental] contradiction." (Gross, 1996, p. 95).

What is the fundamental contradiction in science?  Perhaps it is between theory and reality.  Even so, I think I would describe it like this:

 The inductive process tries to take little pieces of reality and put them together into new knowledge, whereas deduction begins with a series of simplified assumptions to create a "perfect world."  Experiments are analogous to induction; the scientist is trying to isolate random facts to later reassemble. Theory is analogous to deduction; the theorist creates a scholarly model of the way the world should work.  Bacon and Euclides are emblematic of these two realms and the scientific paper mediates between the two.

How does the scientific paper mediate?  I argue that in reality, the scientific paper combines deduction and induction.  Truthfully, this is what I've been teaching my students for the past few years.  The introduction serves to establish context and explain the underlying assumptions and theories that frame the proposed experiments.  Later, the discussion takes the myriad of results (isolated facts) and pulls them together into a solid argument.  Deduction followed by induction.

According to Gross, the mediating nature of the scientific paper requires that the structure remain constant.  Otherwise, the philosophy of science (we never really know) gets mixed up with the practice of science, and confidence in that practice is shaken.

Come to think of it... that's a pretty scary argument.  Do we have too much confidence in that practice?  Is this why many non-scientists distrust the practice of science - because of its ever-changing nature?  In this light, perhaps we should reconsider Medawar's arguments.

Especially since scientists neither read nor write scientific articles in the order they are structured.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ludicrous Pretense in Scientific Papers: Medawar's Three Laws

Medawar, P. B. 1964. Is the scientific paper fraudulent? Saturday Review, 49:42-43.

1. The Law of Conservation of Information: Generalizations cannot contain more information than the sum of their foundations.
2. The Law of Entropy of Information: Orderly general statements do not somehow emerge from a disorderly array of facts.
3. The Law of Bias in Information: There is no such thing as unprejudiced observation.

While this is a sort of "tongue in cheek" summary of Medawar's paper (and one I think Medawar would appreciate, based on his writing) the concepts merit serious consideration.

Like Hoffmann, Medawar challenges the structure of the scientific paper as a misrepresentation of the nature of scientific thought.  He even goes so far as to label the standard form fraudulent, a totally mistaken conception, and a travesty.  According to Medawar, the "orthodox" IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results, And Discussion) format follows an inductive structure.

Figure 1. This is how I illustrate the inductive approach to my students.  After making a multitude of observations in a number of areas, Charles Darwin posited Natural Selection as a mechanism of evolution.

So, what's the problem with the inductive approach?  Well, using induction, one cannot both discover and prove at the same time.  Doing both requires the hypothetico-deductive interpretation.  In other words, scientists generally have the end in mind when they begin an experiment.  Hypotheses allow for focus in experimental design.  Deduction gives us a framework or a lens through which to view data.

Figure 2. This is how I illustrate the deductive approach to my students.  Using theory, in this case Natural Selection, we can create hypotheses and posit an explanation for results.  Here, antibiotic resistance is explained.  Bacteria able to survive exposure to an antibiotic because of a mutation reproduce, whereas bacteria without the mutation die out.

Hoffman touched on this very same idea... that scientists do view studies through lenses; they have particular motivations.  As Hoffman says, "But of course scientists are human, no matter how much they might pretend in their articles that they are not."

This is a HUGE difference between the physical sciences and the social sciences.  From what I've learned so far, social scientists are all about identifying bias.  They know its there, acknowledge it, and move on.  I'm beginning to think we scientists are a repressed lot...

Anyway, Medawar's big take-home message here is this:  Turn the scientific article upside down.  Put your conclusions first and then set about showing support with the data. 

I find this suggestion rather intriguing, especially recalling Chris Mooney's post, "Good communication is good scientific practice."  He discusses the most important facets of communicating science to the public: put the bottom line up front.

In a response to last week's post, I talked about why I thought Hoffman's suggestions for change to the scientific paper were nigh impossible.  Medawar's may be closer to our grasp.  Indeed, some elements are already sporadically present.  While the discussion remains at the end of the paper, it is occasionally combined with the results, and introductions are often direct in the intent of the researcher to apply biological principles to some ecological "problem" or at least identifies the theory through which the study finds its meaning.

I have to run off to do a class visit, ironically on how to write a scientific paper.  I'll share my thoughts on this later.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"The Language of My Science"

Hoffman, R. (1988). Under the surface of the chemical article. Angewandte Chemie International Edition in English, 27, 1593-1602.

In case you want to read it too.  I recommend it.

Hoffman looks at the chemistry article through a non-science scholar's eyes and paints a beautiful picture of what chemistry (and science) really is, and how the reality of science can be obscured by the emotionless form of the scientific article.

My husband and I have a fundamental disagreement on the beauty of nature.  He sees chaos and danger, while I see an amazing interconnected world in which every drop of water, every leaf, every living, moving thing is amazing.  Except maybe spiders.  I might agree with him on spiders.

Anyway, the way I see nature is why I became a scientist.  The world is cool, and I wanted (and still want) to know more.  My view of nature is why I am so driven to share with others.  I want to make sure they're not missing out.  I'm really not trying to be sappy and melodramatic here, but it is true.  This world is crazy exciting.  Going deeper just makes it better.  Like ogres.

The thing is, most people don't see that kind of excitement when they read a scientific article.  Most of the time, it is because it is not there.  Science and science writing are supposed to be objective and unemotional.  Hoffmann argues that because of this personal distance in our writing, scientists come off as cold and stoic, an automaton that doesn't make mistakes.

I agree with Hoffmann. I think that this image has done science a bad turn.  When we remove humanity from science, science becomes this vague "thing" that does this or that.  Thus, when some public scandal hits one scientist, it hits us all.  But, who reads scientific articles anyway?  Not laypersons (not usually, anyway.  I do know a few.).

Hoffmann points out in this article that the current concise and objective form of the scientific article came about because of "Natural Philosophers" who pulled evidences from and described "Nature" without verifying what nature is actually like.  Thus, a standard format requiring experimental evidence squelched the poets and sages.  Has the squelching gone too far?  Maybe.  Scientists have a really hard time (in general) communicating with the outside world.  Maybe we do need to reconsider how we communicate with one another. 

I think perhaps that I should put on my history of science hat and think about this a different way.  The point of the article is, that the scientific journal article never tells the whole story.  It leaves out the real process - the trial and error, the frustration, the emotion, the fact that I had three months of sample data missing because I  dropped and broke an entire tray of crucibles containing my samples.  We might be able to understand the progress of the field by looking at trends in articles, but we'll never understand the progress of a single article by reading that particular article.  And yet, this does not invalidate the progress of science (see Hoffmann's Personal View #6: As a system, science works).

There is a lot to say about this article, and I haven't even really expressed a kernel of what Hoffmann succeeds in saying.  Perhaps the main take-home message is that the language and the form of the scientific article communicates more than we think and less than it should.


For the scores of followers who were disappointed at my absence, the end of the semester included a huge workload, followed by a two-week trip to Maryland for the holidays.

I really like the part of Maryland where my parents live; it is kind of a low-key area, very local, and close to the quaint beaches and bays of the Chesapeake.  One of my favorite aspects of the area are the fossil cliffs that erode away to reveal Miocene fossils, including scallops, barnacles, ray dental plates, and shark teeth.  I have some great photos and even brought home a couple fossils from the Calvert Maritime Museum, home of Bubbles and Squeak, the river otters.  It is also home to the Drum Point Lighthouse, the William B. Tennyson, and Mindy - an exhibits interpreter that works with the museum's outreach program.  I got to "talk shop" with Mindy, which was really great - CMM has a distance learning outreach program that I'm hoping to check out sometime, because it sounds pretty cool.

I also got my husband to touch a sea star.  No really. With one whole finger tip.  His favorite part was the ray tank (no petting there) featuring butterfly rays, Atlantic rays, and skates.

Anyway, I wanted to come back and say hello, because it is about to get all crazy on the ol'blog!  I am taking a History of Science course this semester, on the History of Science Writing and Rhetoric.  Since it is an independent study, my instructor has asked me to post my responses to the readings on my blog!

Since I'm carrying a 15-credit load this semester (which for a graduate student is near ridiculous), I am going to try and do a lot of the reading and responding for this course up front, before the semester really gets going.  With five units, and eight readings per unit, that means (hopefully) several posts per day!

One thing that I would love is feedback and discussion... so if you want to pass my blog on to others who might enjoy, I would really appreciate that.