Science and the English language

Having just completed the tortuous process of publishing an ATLAS data analysis, in particular 6 months of back-and-forward text-iteration, I find myself thinking of the excellent guidance on writing in English provided by George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language.

This is largely concerned with how banal, obfuscated and characterless English language can act as a cloak for vapid thought, and a smokescreen for vile political acts. (We've certainly seen plenty of that in the UK, USA, and parts of Europe in the last few years.) It is crucial short reading for anyone who aspires to good communication of facts and ideas, and I point all my students at it -- especially those who seem to believe that to be convincingly sciencey, a report has to be a Jackson Pollock composed of obfuscation and undefined technical jargon.

The pithy take-home message from the essay is a list of 6 excellent rules on language, emphasising clarity above all. The final rule is the one to rule them all: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." This invaluable instruction is expressed within a few short pages, to which I can't help but compare the ATLAS experiment's 51-page style guide, which says nothing remotely as interesting or profound.

But, as I was recently and painfully reminded, this tedious document is held up as the touchstone of English language by several individuals within the experiment. Frankly, the sort of people who will volunteer themselves to comment on hyphenation, the existence or not of possessive 's'es on words ending in s, or detailed footnote-marker placement are precisely the sort of busybodies who should be kept a good pole's length from any sort of editorial review. Rather than act as critical maintainers of ATLAS paper readability, they have made themselves the priests and guardians of an arcane grammar style guide, far more concerned with the trees than the wood. The joke is that the target journals (themselves hardly paragons of quality English) will anyway revert half these decisions, whether by design or accident.

As scientists, and particularly as scientists in a discipline with quite mathematical foundations, pedantry can come naturally. But we should -- must -- primarily concern ourselves with clear and correct description of our methods and results. After that comes readability, a nebulous concept involving not just clarity but also character. Formal grammatical and punctuational correctness honestly do not get a look-in: have a look through any of the best books on your shelf, either fiction or non-fiction, and you'll find "errors". Except they are not errors, they are character, voice, and awareness of what is important and what is trivial noise.

English language, like any other, is not subject to rules of algebraic correctness. It lives, breathes, and evolves. And its worth is tied into its variety and willingness to be interesting -- a style guide that thinks it appropriate to ban the use of the present perfect tense everywhere is a problem rather than a solution, by flattening the resulting language into a bland and repetitive drone.

Uniformly applied present tense, a limited and repetitive set of overly-adjectived nouns and ... this is the textual equivalent of speaking with someone on strong personality-suppressing drugs. Why would we want to inflict that on our readers in the name of "correctness"?

You should be concerned when a bunch of physicists or mathematicians appoint themselves as guardians of language. Unlike those subjects, language -- in general, and in its written representation -- does not have well-defined rights and wrongs. There are some robust don'ts for technical writing rather than creative, but far fewer of them than many seem to think. What matters is the readability of whole phrases or sections, not an algebraic absolutism on the level of grammatical atoms.

The experience genuinely made me question my interest in doing physics with ATLAS. That was several months ago, and fortunately it passed, but look at it this way: we already waive a lot of individuality by working in a big collaboration -- it involves following a lot of internal rules, of not having your name clearly identified with work which you led, or not having the right to be primary choice of conference speaker on your own work. So we have to make do with small things, and in corollary the small things matter... such as the small freedom to "voice" your own paper. It's hard enough to have busybodies with poorly calibrated comment filters make dubious change requests on work that they played next to no role in. And harder still to be asked to revert those comments in the next round of review, and so-on. But then to find that the collaboration places so little trust in its members' collective ability to produce a high-quality scientific paper, that it explicitly employs someone to make a bunch of acontextual (and frequently wrong) grammar complaints... blimey.

This is not to say that the feedback on language has been unhelpful. There have been places where phrasing or clarity has been improved. But it's a question of threshold: not a single hyphenation, nitpick on precise choice of sub-tense, or anal retentive replacement of "systematic" with "systematic uncertainty", or change from "observable" to "observable's value" has influenced scientific readability. And in some cases being technically correct really misses the point about communication: it has to be approachable and engaging, otherwise already dry scientific papers easily become about as captivating as the phone book.

So sure, give me feedback on language: but please keep to the stuff that makes a difference. Without this nonsense we'd have published nearly 6 months earlier, with a more readable document, and with my nerves significantly less shredded! But on the plus side, it's certainly revitalised my empathy for the authors of papers where I'm the reviewer. Proportionality and knowing when to stop... not natural physicist traits, but we need to learn -- especially when there's so bloody many of us.


Comments powered by Disqus