Archive for July, 2013

Wild Pronouns

July 24, 2013

Under the heading Pronouns: The Slightest Slip is Fatal, Jacques Barzun writes:

We now enter the dangerous wilderness of Pronouns. It is the duty of pronouns to be not wild but tamed, that is, tied down; yet their natural tendency is toward the jungle. At the same time, no decent prose is possible without the solid links afforded by pronouns with the right connections. […] Every pronoun necessarily has an antecedent. Which person or thing in the sentence that antecedent is must be immediately clear to the reader [p. 75, Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, 1985, italics in the original].

Later, Barzun calls pronouns ‘the greatest difficulty in the writing of English prose,’ and that which is the most difficult pronoun to tame. I agree that pronouns are difficult, but in the end they are only a part of writing clearly and with style. In my opinion, clarity and style are the greatest difficulties in writing English prose (and perhaps in any language).

And while we’re talking of style, ‘it is’ is bad style according to Natalie Reid. The sequence ‘to be not wild but tamed’ also seems graceless. Better perhaps is ‘The duty of pronouns is to be tamed and not wild.’

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An Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould

July 18, 2013

An Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould is a collection of book reviews, mostly written for the The New York Review of Books. Few book reviews standsthe test of time, but Gould does not write ordinary book reviews. Instead, he discusses issues of broader scope, with the book under review as a point of departure and to some extent as a sparring partner.

GouldGould (1941-2002) was a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science, and his wide arsenal of knowledge shines through. He discusses an array of issues with great wit and a rational, down-to-earth attitude. For example, in a harsh treatment of a book on human sociobiology, he swiftly (and rationally) deals with potential complaints about non-objectivity:

As a severe critic of human sociobiology from its inception, I clearly am not an impartial observer. Yet surely the equation of bland nonpartisanship with objectivity – a silly notion fostered by the worst traditions of television news reporting – must be rejected. We may scrutinize a known critic more carefully, but ultimately we must judge his arguments, not his autobiography [p. 29].*

I think many researchers have perverted ideas about so-called objectivity. In most cases, and particularly in the social sciences, objectivity can only be an Utopian idea that should be left behind sooner rather than later. Researchers are subjects and their rhetoric should reflect their subjectivity. And while I am onto rhetorics, I would like to quote Gould on the role of the narrative:

[The narrative style is storytelling in the grandest mode.] Narrative has fallen from fashion; even historians are supposed to ape the stereotype of physics [the prototype objective science, by the way] and be quantitative, or cliometric. Fine in its place, but not as a fetish. Narrative remains an art and science of the highest order, but of different form [p. 90].

And Gould keeps returning to what essentially is a discussion of scientific method:

Creative science is always a mixture of facts and ideas. Great thinkers are not those who can free their minds from cultural baggage and think or observe objectively (for such a thing is impossible), but people who use their milieu creatively rather than as a constraint – as Darwin did in translating Adam Smith’s economics into nature as the principle of natural selection, and as Hutton did in using the principle of finals causes to construct a cyclical view of the world.
Such a conception of science not only validates the study of history and the role of intellect – both subtly downgraded if objective observation is the source of all good science. It also puts science into culture and subverts the argument – advanced by creationists and other modern Yahoos, but sometimes unconsciously abetted by scientists – that science seeks to impose a new moral order from without [p. 103].

And again:

AnUrchinInTheStormAfter all, isn’t science supposed to be a cool, passionless, absolutely objective exploration of an external reality? […] But we scientists are no different from anyone else. We are passionate human beings, enmeshed in a web of personal and social circumstances. Our field [biology here, but the discussion is universal to all sciences, also the social ones] does recognize canons of procedure designed to give nature the long shot of asserting herself in the face of such biases, but unless scientists understand their hopes and engage in vigorous self-scrutiny, they will not be able to sort unacknowledged preference from nature’s weak and imperfect message [pp. 149-150].

Self-scrutiny! That is what it takes. That is also, unfortunately, what they did not teach in grad-school. The message I take from Gould here is that one cannot discount ones personal and social circumstances in a regression (or in other scientific methods), but that does not mean that our personal views and social situation will not interfere with how we read the results. As he wrote earlier, we cannot, simply cannot, think or observe objectively. As scientists, we are not objects, we are subjects.

Gould defends the narrative style as a scientific method (see quote above), perhaps surprising given his expert fields, but not so surprising as he also did work on the history of science. More surprising, to me at least, was his positive discussion of the dialectical approach, but Gould makes eminent sense out of it. As I work in a social science, his parallel between biological and social interaction was particularly delightful (pp. 153-154).

In a final quote, Gould leaves no doubt about the strong link between scientific knowledge and the social setting:

[A]n important theme advanced by contemporary historians of science against the myth of objectivity and inexorable scientific progress: science is socially embedded; its theories are not simple deductions from observed facts of nature, but a complex mixture of social ideology (often unconsciously expressed) and empirical constraint. This theme is liberating for science; it embodies the human side of our enterprise and depicts us as passionate creatures struggling with limited tools to understand a complex reality, not as robots programmed to convert objective information into immutable truth [p. 230].

I learned a lot from reading An Urchin in the Storm; Gould has so much to teach us (me), like what makes for an interesting book review (see p. 10), about biased reporting in science (p. 37), Darwin and evolution (pp. 59, 204-205), the social element in scientific knowledge (p. 84), the on-off history of the Atlantic (p. 96), the problems with IQ (pp, 132-ff), heritability (p. 147), his view of his own deductive powers (p. 165), the extinct solitaire (pp. 187-188), the governance of academic institutions (pp. 194-195), and a really great Gunnar Myrdal quote (p. 216). (I should have quoted all the sections I refer to here, but it wouldn’t make sense. Perhaps in a later post.) The variety of topics combined with Gould’s honest and witful approach makes Urchin a pleasant and interesting read. As my quotations amply demonstrates, a recurring theme is the scientific method and its social element, and anyone interested, and all scientists, should lend an ear (or rather, an eye) to Gould.

UPDATE: An odd thing about Gould’s reviews is that I was left satisfied without any wish to track down the books themselves and read them myself. Not a single one. Perhaps some of the biographies could be interesting, but none of the books Gould reviewed are now on my Amazon wish list (which is how I keep track of books I want to read). What are on my wish list, however, is another of Gould’s books and a detective novel by Dorothy Sayers which was mentioned by Gould. The point should be discounted somewhat because the Urchin is a rather old collection of reviews, but I am still surprised. So, Gould wrote essayic book reviews, but not reviews which generated much interest in the books themselves. Not even the books he liked.

*Page numbers refer to the 1988 paperback edition.

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Notes on an Academic Writing Class

July 10, 2013

While I visited UC Berkeley, I took the opportunity to follow a writing class aimed at visiting researchers. Natalie Reid, who has written Getting Published in International Journals: Writing Strategies for European Social Scientists, gave four lectures on the basics of punctuation, editing (your own text) and revising, organization and how to structure arguments, and a curious topic she called journal analysis. In her lectures, Reid drew on her experience as a professional editor and writer and supplied illustrative examples and instructive stories of writing gone good and bad.  And she made no mistake reminding us of her book throughout the course.

Ever since I entered academics, I have entertained an interest in good writing. I found Reid’s lectures a useful reminder of all those small things important but that is easily forgotten in the heat of the writing. Below, I have transcribed some of my notes from the lectures (in the order they appear in my notebook). Some are important, some are good, some I disagree with, and some are just great quotes.

  • English is not a language, but a language group, for example with differences between US English and British English. Reid repeated this message endlessly. Some of the repetition could with advantage have been traded for some important details on these differences, of which Reid said very little.
  • ‘Writing is thought made visible.’ (Famous quote, but I failed to take note of who said or wrote it.) Implication: Clear writing cannot arise from unclear thinking. McCloskey discusses the point at some length somewhere (in her Rhetorics, I think), and goes on to maintain that writing is thinking and thinking is writing. McCloskey’s point is that they are not unconnected processes and that they must and should happen in parallel.
  • A definition of Rhetoric: Organisation and strategies speakers and writers use to affect their audience. (And it is a two-way street: the audience affects the rhetoric.)
  • The reader should not have to think (by themselves), only absorb and consider.
  • Good academic writing (in the Anglo-Saxon tradition or whatever) follows Aristotelian logic.
  • Reid advanced the following advice for how to structure an article (or argument): Tell the reader what you are going to tell him; tell him; tell him what you told him. McCloskey (one of my rhetorical heroes, as my hypothetical readers may know) argues against such unnecessary repetition and I agree with McCloskey (see her Economical Writing if you think you disagree).
  • Rewrite.
  • Murphy’s Law will strike: If there is any chance the reader can misunderstand, he will.
  • A good sentence is clear on first reading.
  • We suffer from tunnel vision when we write. (We only see our meaning, not what we are actually writing; we should try and revise with a cool eye.)
  • Less is More: Make every word tell (see Strunk & White’s Elements of Style). Shorten structure words (like due to the fact that; in view of the above; in the course of).
  • Avoid too long sentences: You should be able to read a sentence out loud in one breath.
  • Avoid the common ‘previous literature’ (of course it is previous, what else?).
  • ‘It is’ and ‘there is’ is bad writing. (I find this advice hard to follow, by the way. What am I supposed to write instead when I want to make the reader aware of the existence of whatever?)
  • One of my favorites: Sound like an expert (reduce hedging).
  • Editing for clarity: avoid ambiguity; use the active voice, check modifiers, use parallel structure; check punctuation.
  • The solution to vagueness is (often?) repetition.
  • Use not ‘this’ and ‘these’ by themselves; attach the appropriate noun.
  • Only use ‘it’ when there is only one word it can refer to.
  • ‘Which’ and ‘that’ can only refer to the word immediately before them. Further, ‘that’ (with no comma) for essential information; ‘which’ (with comma) for nonessential information.
  • ‘Good writing is speech written down and then cleaned up’ (a Reid-quote, I presume).
  • Avoid the passive voice. It requires more words, it obfuscates the order of things and adds mental strain, and it is boring.
  • Watch modifiers. (This advice is also hard to follow as modifiers pop up all the time and seldom with a red flag.)
  • My notes on Reid’s lecturing on organisation and arguing in Aristotelian logic are unfortunately insufficient to be valuable.
  • Conclusions (the final part of an article) should derive solely and logically from the body of the article; no new arguments are to be introduced. If the journal in question has discussion and conclusions in the same section, conclusions are to come first and discussion second.
  • The abstract is the last thing to be written.
  • Outline, outline, outline. Reid laid out a strategy for outlining: 1. Write down the purpose statement in one sentence. 2. Write a (vertical) list of all things that goes into the article. No second-guessing: brain storm. 3. Do the entries on the list serve the purpose in step 1? Be critical, make everything fit the purpose. 4. Sort the list into  different sections. 5. Sort each section into a logical order. 6. Sort sections. (I actually tried this, but realized I did not know everything that was going into my paper. Not from the top of my head, at least. Step 2 has to be a deep exercise if Reid’s strategy is to be useful, I think.)
  • Revision: Is the language correct? Is stuff in the appropriate section? Do the argument support the conclusion? Boring or confusing? Counter all possible objections. Use an editor (a self-serving advice on Reid’s part, of course, but still not a bad advice). Follow journal guidelines.
  • Some advice on writing resubmission letters: Do not assume the editor remembers anything. ‘Echo’ comments before replies such that the editor do not have to check back to his original letter (in general, make the editor’s job as easy as possible). Use respectful language (can be trickier than one might think when one ain’t a native speaker).
  • On paragraph length: Language influences paragraph length. The British has a peculiar habit of writing long and short paragraphs in imperfect alternation. The Americans want their paragraphs to be no more than ten to twelve lines of type. But a journal may have its own ideas about paragraph length. McCloskey’s advice is that the paragraph is the unit of thought (or something); one idea (or perhaps argument) per paragraph. Some of my arguments certainly require more than twelve lines of type, but I am of course a rather poor writer.
  • Reid spent quite a lot of time on what she called journal analysis and implicated that serious scholars habitually spend considerable time on journal analysis every time they are about to submit something. Journal analysis helps you decide on where to submit work, and how to decrease the chance of rejection. Journal analysis covers several pages in my notebook, but I am not convinced of its usefulness. The process suggested by Reid would take too much time, in particular as much of the process is far removed from the actual writing.
  • Suggested literature (popped up at different times throughout the course): Dictionary of Concise Writing (Rob. Hartwell Fiske; vocabula.com). Ayn Rand’s book on writing. On Writing Well by Zinsser. Stephen King’s book on writing.

Gould on Biased Reporting in Science

July 5, 2013

At Bookish, a used book store in Berkeley, I picked up Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collection An Urchin in the Storm. In an essay on the fundamental problems with human sociobiology, a discipline that tries to explain social behavior with Darwinian selection, Gould has an interesting comment on the problem with biased reporting in science.

Few observers outside science (and not nearly enough researchers inside) recognize the severe effects of biased reporting. The problem is particularly acute, almost perverse, when scientists construct experiments to test for an expected effect. Confirmations are joyfully reported; negative results are usually begrudgingly admitted. But null results-the failure to find any effect in any direction-are usually viewed as an experiment gone awry. Meticulous scientists may report such results, but they disappear forthwith from the secondary literature (and are almost never reported in the press). Most scientists probably don’t publish such results at all-who has the time to write up ambiguous and unexciting data? And besides, they rationalize, maybe next week we’ll have time to do the experiment again and get better results. I call such nonreporting perverse because we cannot gauge its depth and extent. Therefore, we do not know the proper relative frequency of most effects-a monumental problem in sciences of natural history, where nearly all theoretical claims are arguments about relative frequencies, not statements about exclusivity [p. 37, 1988 paperback edition].

Incidentally, I just work through a referee report that asked for more motivation for a model complication which did not affect the main results much. I cannot help but suspect that if the complication had lead to larger effects, the referee would be less inclined to ask for further motivation. The irony: The referee agrees that the complication is novel and leads to a more realistic model, however slightly.

In introducing sociobiology, Gould mentions Kuhn. I sense a sarcastic tone in the final remark.

Thomas Kuhn’s seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, affected working scientists as deeply as it moved those scholars who scrutinize what we do. Before Kuhn, most scientists followed the place-a-stone-in-the-bright-temple-of-knowledge tradition, and would have told you that they hoped, above all, to lay many of the bricks, perhaps even set the keystone, of truth’s temple-the additive or meliorist [the doctrine that the world tends to become better or may be made better by human effort, definition from dictionary.com] model of scientific progress. Now most scientists of vision hope to foment revolution. […] We are therefore awash in revolutions, most self-proclaimed [p. 27].