Natalie Mesnard: “A Response to Jamie Zvirzdin’s ‘Observations of a Science Editor’”

Natalie Mesnard
September 8, 2016
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What makes science writing a literary art?

In 2008, a scientific article was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience titled “The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations.” Its abstract begins as follows: “Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation.”

I heard about this article when I started hanging around with scientists, and considering the ways they communicate—something I’d never really done before. As a teacher of rhetoric, my first reaction to “Seductive Allure” was to think, “well, duh.” It’s obvious brain pictures enhance ethos—I’d expect my freshman students to point out similar facts in any analysis assignment I gave them.

Jamie Zvirzdin writes, “In the seventeenth century, some Enlightenment thinkers wanted to eliminate classical rhetoric from formal scientific writing, as rhetoric—with its ornaments of speech—came to be seen as ostentatious, unclear, and elitist.” Though this Enlightenment effort could only fail, since all writing is in some sense rhetorical, it did apparently accomplish a related goal: making scientists unaware of rhetoric, imagining instead that dry writing evokes some essay-writing platonic ideal, wherein “truth,” and little else, is efficiently communicated. We’re even at the point now where scientific explorations like “Seductive Allure” rediscover facts they could have learned by speaking with their companions next door, in the shoddier academic buildings allotted to the humanities.

The scientists who aren’t unaware of persuasive tools, use them—and see fantastic success when applying basic techniques to an audience with an incomplete rhetorical education. There’s a common hook employed in science articles that goes like this: “For a long time, people have thought x. Now the results of this study prove x was wrong.” A critical reader would first ask, “Did people really think x in the first place?” But most readers don’t: science writing is made possible by, and exists for the purpose of, obtaining grant money, so dramatic claims are often both warranted and accepted. And when writing is undiscernible, it contributes to an authoritative mystique.

If ethos is at the center of science writing, then maybe “Seductive Allure” is self-aware—its writers might be using their position of power to reveal, and criticize, how scientists achieve success. That’s a rhetorical move I can get behind. I’m also a fan of the article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science in response. Its title is ‘The Seductive Allure of “Seductive Allure,”’ and the terse abstract reads as follows: “The idea of fMRI’s ‘seductive allure’ is supported by two widely cited studies. Upon closer analysis of these studies, and in light of more recent research, we find little empirical support for the claim that brain images are inordinately influential.” How ironic that this paper uses such a catchy title to assert rhetoric is not a concretely observable phenomenon, at least in the case of brain images!

By the way, I did a little rhetorical analysis on Zvirzdin’s article, too. Implicit in her request for literary science writing is the idea that we should involve more people in STEM. But there’s sacrifice involved in making obscure, difficult subjects your life’s work. My partner Patrick’s grandfather, Fred Kummerow, is a 101-year-old nutritional biochemist who still publishes scholarly papers. To connect with him, his adult children read aloud letters from fans of his book Cholesterol Is Not the Culprit: A Guide to Preventing Heart Disease. That’s commitment. Sometimes I think boring science writing sets up an important barrier, one intended to weed out people who don’t have the obsessive force of personality that brings scientists like Fred back to the lab each day, for an entire lifetime.

The problem is when we weed out the wrong people—those who, regardless of background, would enjoy doing that crazy focused thing. With this in mind, asking science writers to use tools of fiction—and rhetoric—could be a politically vital act. It would certainly help pull back that heavy reliance on ethos I mentioned earlier, since fiction writing techniques make other powerful appeals.

Creative, appealing science writing could also help data and results enter cultural discourse more effectively. I remember when Patrick was writing this cognitive neuroscience paper titled Underlying sources of cognitive-anatomical variation in multi-modal neuroimaging and cognitive testing. The study looked at lots of data to find the basic factors contributing to the anatomical make-up of brains, in part because people want to understand the relationship between brain biology and nebulous concepts like intelligence and memory. For me, Patrick’s results made a culturally relevant point: “intelligence” and even “sex” are probably not inherent parts of brains—they are ways we interpret combinations of anatomical factors.

Being political is one of the ways science writing can become literary art, and there are others. Less so than using gorgeous descriptive language and metaphor, I think writing is literary when it acknowledges context, and responds with grace, range, and power. Boring science writing isn’t useless, and neither are articles selling the reader on scientists’ mystique and innovation, but they only tell one type of story. I prefer something more complex, maybe even writing that will make my brain light up all over, like the one in this picture:

mesnard1

 

Comments from other contributors to the Poetics of Science online discussion:

L. Shapley Bassen: “The scientists who aren’t unaware of persuasive tools, use them—and see fantastic success when applying basic techniques to an audience with an incomplete rhetorical education.” This reminds me of when my scientist brother was at Rockefeller U. and complained that his grad students didn’t know how to write. With relief, he gave them a handbook (W.I.F. = Writing Is Fundamental) that my English-teacher husband had created with an NYS writing grant, detailing rhetorical methods that I’d learned from Norman Friedman, my grad prof, whose excellent (out of print!) book, Language, Rhetoric & Style (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1963), rests in honor on our book shelf. Another quotation from NM’s strong commentary is, “Less so than using gorgeous descriptive language and metaphor, I think writing is literary when it acknowledges context, and responds with grace, range, and power.” I also appreciated (smile) Natalie doing as she says, “I prefer something more complex, maybe even writing that will make my brain light up all over,” by pasting the brain scans in her monologue. Humor in writing tickles/inebriates like champagne.

One thought on “Natalie Mesnard: “A Response to Jamie Zvirzdin’s ‘Observations of a Science Editor’”

  1. Hi, Natalie–what an insightful response to an insightful essay. You say, “Sometimes I think boring science writing sets up an important barrier, one intended to weed out people who don’t have the obsessive force of personality that brings scientists like Fred back to the lab each day, for an entire lifetime. // The problem is when we weed out the wrong people—those who, regardless of background, would enjoy doing that crazy focused thing.”

    I think you’re hitting on a really important point here. Following any sort of writing methodology–or lexicon, rhetoric, etc.–alienates readers. It’s easy to Romanticize the Romantic scientists because “literary” writing, such as books of poems, were on every coffee table a hundred years ago. So literary language and strategies inevitably found their way into what they were writing.

    But now, I think it’s language itself, or the pursuit to understand it past our daily speech, that’s become effaced. And so those who do any “crazy focused thing” and document it in writing are stuck with whatever language they learned their subjects in. For science writing, maybe it’s statistical, “dry,” binomial: isolating. The same of poetry: each word is meant to open a world past the realm of normal thought (sometimes), and strange word choice is lauded.

    Natalie and L. Shapley Bassen, Do you think there’s a way to find a happy medium between staying true to the rhetorical conventions of your “crazy focused thing” and still trying to appeal to people outside your field?

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