Hunting for the Philosopher's Stone of "objective" scientific language

Centuries before chemistry developed as a bona fide science, Renaissance alchemists conducted primitive experiments with various metals. Their dream was to change base metals, such as lead or mercury, into gold. Their quest was to find the Philosopher’s Stone, a mythical substance they believed would enable this transformation.

Flash forward four or five hundred years, and today’s scientific community is still looking for a version of the Philosopher’s Stone. The hunt now is for an element to facilitate a different kind of transformation, to turn ideas and data into writing that’s perfectly clear and perfectly accurate.

Popular legend would have us believe that objective language is the wonder-tool that will do this trick. But language is never one hundred percent objective—it’s always tinged with the perspective of the speaker. Scientists who realize this abandon the impossible quest to kill subjectivity and instead embrace it. They recognize that clear communication happens not when language is completely transparent but rather when it connects the subjective perspectives of writer and reader.

Way back in the 1980s, anthropologist Emily Martin produced a particularly striking exposé of the failure of so-called objective writing. She analyzed a set of standard physiology textbooks used in pre-medical and medical classes at Johns Hopkins University. What could be more basic, more linguistically neutral, than explanatory texts about how our bodies work at a cellular level,right?

Wrong. Martin discovered a covert bias in the medical descriptions of how human conception happens. She uncovered “gender stereotypes hidden within the scientific language of biology.” [1] The moment when egg and sperm join was, she noticed, framed up as a kind of “scientific fairytale,” with the egg appearing as passively feminine and the sperm as heroically active.

Take, for example, this brief inventory of some of biased language Martin exposes as she quotes from various textbooks :

It is remarkable how "femininely" the egg behaves and how "masculinely" the sperm.' The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey, but passively "is transported," "is swept,"' or even "drifts"' along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, "streamlined," and invariably active. They "deliver" their genes to the egg, "activate the developmental program of the egg," and have a "velocity" that is often remarked upon. Their tails are "strong" and efficiently powered. Together with the forces of ejaculation, they can "propel the semen into the deepest recesses of the vagina." For this they need "energy," "fuel," so that with a "whiplashlike motion and strong lurches" they can "burrow through the egg coat" and "penetrate" it.

But surely, you might say, it’s the job of a science textbook to bring dry scientific concepts to life. And descriptive language is a great way to do that. Shouldn’t we be congratulating the text book authors on their rich vocabulary that so vividly portrays a complex physiological process?

The trouble is that the word-pictures Martin quotes may be memorable, but they’re not technically accurate. For instance, the egg isn’t truly passive at the moment of conception; it contains adhesive molecules that trap the sperm (which aren’t quite the powerful, strong-tailed swimmers they were once thought to be). So the conventional medical narrative of how egg and sperm combine is indeed more fantasy than pure fact.

It’s been almost 30 years since Martin published her controversial article, and yet the scientific community has been slow to catch on to the infallibility of so-called objective writing. Researchers cling to the belief that there’s a perfectly transparent, perfectly truthful way to write, and they seek for that Philosopher’s Stone of linguistic expression in various ways. Some try to find it by avoiding any kind of ordinary-sounding language, thinking that arcane technical language is somehow more pure. Others studiously avoid the active voice, insisting that the passive voice de-emphasizes the presence of the reader in the text. And others become sticklers for odd points of grammar, developing strange fetishes, such as semicolons in bulleted lists or twisted phrasing to avoid a split infinitive.

A more enlightened approach, more suitable to the 21st century than the 16th, is to accept that culture inevitably shapes our language choices. There’s simply no such thing as perfectly accurate or perfectly neutral scientific writing. And that’s ok—because language isn’t a magical substance, it’s a human-made tool we use to communicate with other humans. Once we accept that readers bring their own perspective to any given text, we can acknowledge and work with their different points of view. We can write not so much to inform as to be understood, not so much to relay data points as to communicate and collaborate.

Is striving for a perfectly objective scientific style hampering your ability to express yourself in ways your target audience can easily understand? Contact me for a free coaching session to help you discover easy ways to start connecting with your readers in more powerful ways.

[1] Martin, E. (1991). The egg and the sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles. Signs 16 (3), 485-501.


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