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.

@Andybalmer

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8 thoughts on “Learning to Read

  1. Thanks for the detailed response.

    You quote an abstract from Nature Neuroscience. It is indeed full of technical vocabulary. But that’s largely because it’s about a topic that is ‘technical’ because it’s outside the range of ordinary experience and hence ordinary language. The average man in the street has never heard of microRNA or the olfactory bulb, and that’s fine, he has no need of it.

    But in the case I highlighted, the article is about men. The man in the street is the topic. So isn’t it problematic that the man in the street couldn’t understand an article which purports to, well, understand him…?

    1. The ‘man in the street’ is also the topic of neuroscientific research that seeks to understand human decision-making, or to explain Alzheimer’s disease, but we wouldn’t expect him to be able to understand an academic fMRI article on either subject. He is the object of medical knowledge, but we don’t expect doctors to publish academic papers that he could peruse in the waiting room. That being said, there is plenty to be said for attempts to make academic work relevant to policy-making and to make it accessible to public audiences. Indeed, the call for ‘public sociology‘ is good example of this. But, as with that case, it would be unwise to make all academic work subject to the same constraints as those more public enterprises. I’m sure that the authors of the piece intend for their research to have some – probably indirect – consequences on the strategies for helping men lose weight in a healthy way, but I’m equally sure that isn’t the only intention. A venue other than Health would be appropriate for communicating these findings directly to public audiences, since the man in the street is as likely to read Health as he is the Journal of Criminology, but both journals are good venues for academic discussion of practical and theoretical concern.

      1. Hmm. It’s true that much of neuroscience is about human beings, but not in the same way as sociology is. No-one would just have a conversation about, say, the role of the prefrontal cortex in decision making. They might well talk about decision making, but they’re not interested in which parts of the brain are involved. And with Alzheimer’s, many people talk about the symptoms and the ‘phenomenology’ of Alzheimer’s e.g. if they know someone who suffers from it, or are worried about it. But they’re not interested in which proteins interact with which to cause it.

        However with sociology the relationship with the man-in-the-street is surely more immediate because not only is he the object of study, it’s (in this case) aspects of his behaviour that he himself is interested in and (probably) has his own (perhaps implicit) sociological theories about. At least some of the men posting on that weight-loss forum probably had their own understanding of the social and cultural influences that made them want to lose weight – they might well say (for example) “Well, I didn’t used to be worried about it but then I started reading this magazine…” or otherwise as the case may be. Only a very unselfconscious / unreflective person would have no such theory at all.

        My point is, everyone is a sociologist, of a kind, albeit not in a formal sense (the same goes for psychology… but not neuroscience); and everyday people do not need technical terminology to conduct their informal (but often quite detailed) sociology.

        Of course it could be that academics have invented new terminology that’s better than everyday language for discussing society. All I’m saying is, that should be a last resort, everyday language should be used except if, in each particular case, it can be shown to be inadaquate…

  2. I think this is a very important debate. I have often wondered whether the social sciences or even the Humanities at large use their torturous language as merely a way of branding the initiated, though I accept that perhaps this is unfair.

    The point Balmer makes with reference to the Nature Neuroscience excerpt is that impenetrable technical language also exists in the natural sciences and as such we should not be surprised to find it in other disciplines. However, surely the existence of this neurological language is a necessity forced upon a field confronted with the task of naming its new discoveries in as efficient way as possible.
    Balmer warns against signal loss in making the language of the social sciences accessible to Joe public. Here I must agree with Neuroskeptic; we do not have a developed language of the cerebral cortex in our day to day vernacular because knowledge of the brain is relatively new. We do have words or phrases that perhaps convey with even more nuance the objects of social study. The Adamite danger of naming fluid and abstractly understood phenomenon in such declarative ways is that it traps thinking and makes inchoate concepts rigidly and clumsily defined.
    Furthermore, the labour of labeling and defining concepts in the natural sciences is a careful and rigorous one. In fact, simply learning these labels, becoming familiar with the ‘map of the cat’, is essential to any education in these disciplines. I would like to see where ’embodiment’ ‘negotiate x issues’ ‘bodily experiences’ etc. are given with stable definitions and what university departments take the care to make sure students understand them.

    And then there’s the syntax…

    1. I think you make some important points here. Thank you for an instructive response. I am in agreement that we already have a lot of terms to explain our everyday life and that these are potent and useful. Indeed, sociologists often find themselves defending ‘Jo(e) Public’ against claims that he/she is ignorant and stupid. Where I disagree is on the notion that everyday terms and explanations are sufficient for a professional study of social life and indeed of those explanations. As regards that latter point, sociology doesn’t only try to explain social life it also tries to explain how explanations of social life are produced, circulated, understood and rejected.

      We do produce definitions for terms but you’re right that these are more flexible and often less rigidly defined than in the natural sciences. But social life is more flexible and less rigidly defined than are natural objects. I’ve tried to make some points to this effect in my most recent post.

  3. Confusing argument?!

    It seems sensible that a specialised vocabulary is necessary only if ordinary language is inadequate.

    But is neurosceptic’s argument anything other than:
    Natural scientists are a better judge than social scientists about whether ordinary language is adequate for sociology, because they are better judges than social scientists about whether ordinary language is adequate for natural science.

    dubious.

  4. I really appreciate the back-and-forth with neuroskeptic.

    Just opining though that at this point an undergraduate in biology is technically taught all they need to know to understand the abstract of that Nature Neuroscience paper (assuming they take an embryology course). Post-graduate work is not needed.

  5. Regarding the final paragraph: What are you selling the public? Neuroscientists, in large part, are selling shoddy and good drugs worth billions, and can point to these drugs and their purported positive effects on the populace when defending their relevance and funding. As long as social scientists and philosophers can also point to products benefiting the public (or large enough portions thereof) their position is cool too. But if they can’t, simple survival needs dictate they have to work harder at doing so than many of the physical scientists (ecologists and the like probably have it as difficult as most social scientists).

    As a person who can’t even apply for funding due to credentialism, I greatly sympathize with this sucky situation. But it still exists. Given the hegemonic scientific ideology, it shouldn’t be too surprising how the natural scientists have been interpellated vis-a-vis the social scientists, and that the natural scientists have, to some extent, internalized their privileged position in this ideology. (I love those new words, and hope I’m using them correctly. They make me excited about philosophy again!)

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