Finding the fun in scientific writing

“I for one find Hennig’s polysyllabic terminology irritating.  After years, the “heterobathmy of synapmorphy” still does not trip lightly off my tongue.  But no matter: the tide of terminological change can no more be arrested by protests of those of us who are more terminologically conservative than can the flow of molten lava from an erupting volcano be stayed by prayer.  Like it or not, “unique” is coming to mean “rare” and adverbs are going extinct.” - David Hull, Science as a Process

This is the end of a footnote from David Hull’s Science as a Process, and I don’t think an academic book has ever made me laugh more.  Then stop and think about why this is actually a pretty great piece of writing.

Science as a Process chronicles the sometimes vicious battle over taxonomic methods in the second half of the 20th century.  The social interactions between the scientists – centered at Kansas State University and the American Museum of Natural History – devolve sometimes into fights, but that is Hull’s point.  Scientific progress happens because of the groups and collaboration we form and debate against.  Science itself is an evolutionary process where the fittest theories survive and spawn the next generation of ideas. 

The book explains the science and sociology well, but its dense – I’ve been reading it for about a year and am still less than 200 pages in.  But that’s precisely why this footnote was so wonderful.  After pages of trying to wrap your head around the difference between phenetics and cladistics and phylogenetics, you get a brief look at the personality behind the text.  Hull is ironic, metaphorical, and despairing.  I really wish I could see him debate William Zinsser or Stephen King over the proper and good use of adverbs.  The footnote is a relief. 

Scientific writing tends towards dryness and, as Hull says, “polysyllabic terminology”.  Little bits of humor sneak in through an arch title or snide reference to some hotly debated topic.  There may be the occasional out-and-out argument at meetings and conferences – but those are only ever witnessed by a small handful of people.  Rarely do we enliven our professional communications with anything beyond a couple of lame puns.

Yet, we get downright gleeful when talking about our science in less formal settings.  One friend will wax lyrical about kelp at the drop of the hat.  Another is making a display of snake skins that she finds.  I will talk incessantly about Arctic climate change with little to no provocation.  And, contrary to popular belief, many of us are good at communicating our science.  We talk to public audiences and teach at high schools.  We involve kids in searching through mud for bugs or tracking zooplankton as they zip across a microscope slide.  Twitter erupts periodically with content like #overlyhonestmethods, #DistractinglySexy, and #fieldworkfail.  But that enthusiasm rarely crosses over to our academic writing.

Maybe scientific writing doesn’t have to be quite such a slog.  Maybe we can use humor and metaphor the way any other author does – to make a point.  I think there’s more of that now – Jeremey Fox over at Dynamic Ecology has a couple of posts on humor in scientific writing.  It's definitely essential when talking to non-scientists.  The CDC did an entire simulation on how they would handle a zombie outbreak, as a way to show how to effectively respond to any emergency.  I’m not sure how – or even if – I will work in something to make my dissertation a little more enjoyable for the reader (and myself).  But it is something worth thinking about.