Learning to Read

What I understand this recent post by Neuroskeptic (an excellent blog I thoroughly recommend) to be about is a general frustration with social scientists not writing in such a way that they can be easily understood across disciplines, particularly with reference to the natural sciences. As a sociologist, first let me say that I do believe the Campaign for Plain English is a valuable one and I believe such efforts should apply, in part, to social science writing. However, natural scientists’ complaints about social scientists’ writing are something of a pet peeve of mine. I work in interdisciplinary contexts and, on a day-to-day basis, this means I have to try to understand the language of my natural science colleagues whether they’re collaborators or, since I study science, an object of knowledge. I have something of an advantage in this respect since my first degree was in biology and I can lean on some of that knowledge when, for example, trying to understand the paper I am about to use as an example of neuroscience language.

Taking the first research article in the most current edition of Nature Neuroscience I found the following abstract:

“In the postnatal and adult mouse forebrain, a mosaic of spatially separated neural stem cells along the lateral wall of the ventricles generates defined types of olfactory bulb neurons. To understand the mechanisms underlying the regionalization of the stem cell pool, we focused on the transcription factor Pax6, a determinant of the dopaminergic phenotype in this system. We found that, although Pax6 mRNA was transcribed widely along the ventricular walls, Pax6 protein was restricted to the dorsal aspect. This dorsal restriction was a result of inhibition of protein expression by miR-7a, a microRNA (miRNA) that was expressed in a gradient opposing Pax6. In vivo inhibition of miR-7a in Pax6-negative regions of the lateral wall induced Pax6 protein expression and increased dopaminergic neurons in the olfactory bulb. These findings establish miRNA-mediated fine-tuning of protein expression as a mechanism for controlling neuronal stem cell diversity and, consequently, neuronal phenotype.”

This abstract is full of technical terminology that makes is practically impenetrable to anyone without postgraduate degrees in a biological science. Using my limited training in biology I now understand much of this after a couple of reads but I am quite certain that a colleague in the Department of Sociology without such knowledge would be quite unable to. Not because it is badly written. Indeed, it is quite clearly written. Rather, it is full of jargon and as such it becomes difficult to follow the meaning of the sentences and to keep in mind the sentences’ meanings as you move through the paragraph. This would not be so for someone used to reading ‘phenotype’, ‘transcribed’ or ‘dopaminergic neurons’, etc.  Conversely, the article used in neurocritic’s blog post from Health is – to my jargon-ready mind – quite clearly written. In fact, I was rather surprised at how clear it was since I was expecting something worthy of Sokal’s biting criticisms . I didn’t struggle with ‘ideology’ or ‘hegemonic’ because I’m used to reading these. I know what they mean without having to take time to look them up. As such, I can read the abstract and understand what it is arguing in much the same way that a neuroscientist or scholar from a related discipline would read the Nature Neuroscience abstract.

Importantly, neurocritic’s re-writing of the Health article’s abstract doesn’t only make it easier to understand for someone outside the circle, as it were, it also means that it loses some of its technical specificity. Society, for example, isn’t the same as ideology. How men construct a ‘body project’ isn’t just how they ‘think’ about such things. An ‘analysis’ does not tell me nearly as much as ‘a thematic analysis’ and the blog’s reference to ‘conventional’ masculinities is not quite the same as the article’s ‘hegemonic’ masculinities.

Furthermore, the rest of the Health article proceeds to deal with these technical terms in, frankly, a rather basic manner, providing definitions that would be relatively easily understood by an interdisciplinary readership that one would expect of Health. The same article written by the same authors for a different journal would, I suspect, be far more opaque to a non-expert. This is as much to say that there are limits on this project of making work understandable outside of its immediate disciplinary context. Take the example of ‘phenotype’. We could change this to be ‘physical and behavioural characteristics’ and we might not lose too much of the technical specificity. This is similar to what neurocritic has done by turning ‘hegemonic’ into ‘conventional’ in  the Health abstract. However, we couldn’t really find an easy alternative to ‘dopaminergic’ or ‘transcription’ without actually explaining what those mean and thus making the piece infuriatingly simple and overly long for anyone reading the article with the requisite expertise. This is true of ‘interpellation’, which is a similarly technical term that would need explanation and not simply a plain English substitute.

Of course, natural scientists have little time to engage substantively with a discipline almost entirely alien to them because they are exceptionally busy people. I understand and sympathise. In the hinterlands of interdisciplinarity this is not quite the case and so an article in Health would do well to try and be as clear as possible, which I firmly believe this article has done. This gets to the crux of my irritation. The problem is that natural scientists, from my personal experience, expect social scientists to do all the work of trying to explain their findings in as simple and general a language as possible. Partly this is because they are busy, as I say. But it is also because they seem to have the underlying assumption that our technical terms are just there to make us sound clever whereas their technical terms are essential to properly characterising phenomena and communicating efficiently. This is not the case. Social scientists have created an expert language to describe social phenomena and whilst those of us engaged in efforts to exchange knowledge across the historical divide will do our best to explain these technical terms and to reduce our use of them, we cannot do all the work. Natural scientists must, if they genuinely wish to benefit from scholarship outside of their fields, take time to learn the language, just like they did when they took their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in physics, biology, neuroscience, etc. Finally, the demand that we make our social scientific work more available to our colleagues in other disciplines invokes a particular instrumental and power-laden position. In general, social scientists, if they want to be heard, have impact and contribute to solving problems, are forced to give way to the needs of natural scientists because – institutionally, nationally and locally – they have more power in defining the circumstances of interdisciplinary work and in defining the problems to which it is oriented. Perhaps we social scientists could do more to explain ourselves, but natural scientists could do a lot more to try and understand.