Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.
How can literature benefit science?
Science needs to be written. It’s not science if it’s not shared, critiqued and built on over time. Science communication applies to everything from journal articles to popular science blogs. Ambiguous wording, too much jargon, or bad writing can turn off editors, reviewers and readers. Sadly, developing writing skills is not always a priority in modern science degrees. Graduates are being betrayed when they are packed off into the world of scientific research without a good command of written expression.
Including Literature subjects in science degrees is a good way to address this. Much of the ‘how to write’ advice that scientists can find online is not really useful if they don’t have a context to weigh it against. Top 10 lists of writing tips and ‘A vs B’ arguments are limiting, not enlightening. They teach a ‘one size fits all’ approach to communication. But effective communication is all about contexts and variable relationships, so teaching scientists how to identify, and work with, contexts is much more useful. Teach a man to fish…, as the saying goes.
Different styles of language apply to different narratives. The language conventions of a poem are different to those of a technical manual. No one can stop you from writing a poem in the style of a manual. But, if you do that, your audience will instantly change and the impact of your message may be lost.
There are three general stables of storytelling genres – fact, fiction and hard-sell. The main difference between fact and fiction narratives is the ‘accuracy’ of the content, although there can be some overlap (e.g. historical fiction). Beyond that basic classification, there are myriad styles, languages, and techniques used to present the context of the message, and gently open the reader’s mind to the author’s ideas. Science can easily be translated through many styles within either category, from science fiction to peer-reviewed poems.
But hard-sell is in a world of its own. Hard-sell is marketing, PR and business evangelism. This kind of story works by pushing the audience to support a product, service or idea, sometimes based on a fraction of the truth. Hard-sell narratives are loud; they don’t leave room for other perspectives, shades of grey, or inconvenient truths. Science is classier than that.
So, while hard-sell writing advice (similar to this Top 10 post by a business strategist, which recently got a lot of attention on social media among scientists) is great for pushing your latest brand, it’s not the best approach for communicating science. Science is unbiased, fact-driven communication…but that doesn’t mean the facts can’t be balanced by beautiful, persuasive prose!
Writing starts with reading
Studying literature opens the mind to language contexts. Beyond the black-and-white rules of spelling, punctuation and verb conjugations, grammar is highly contextual. Do I use ‘which’ or ‘that’? Should I say ‘him and me’ or ‘he and I’? ‘Predominant’ or ‘predominate’? Just like statistical analyses, neither option is wrong in itself…it becomes ‘wrong’ when used inappropriately. And just like statistics, the easiest way to learn these contexts is by reading literature.
The active vs passive voice debate is a classic example. Active voice is Journalism 101, the standard for mass media communication styles, e.g. news stories, marketing material and corporate press releases. It’s immediate and attention-grabbing. When used effectively, it’s a great hard-sell technique. Active voice encourages action and acceptance.
Few arguments for using the active voice in science point out that passive and active are just two different types of language context, each with their own relevant usage. The main error that pro-‘active voice’ arguments make is claiming that passive is outdated and has no place in science. This is not true. In fact, as Simon Leather argues eloquently in this piece, the active voice simply ‘encourages carelessness, partisanship and…does no favours to the English language or science.’ In contrast, writing in the passive voice creates prose with discipline, precision and an unbiased viewpoint. It encourages thought and questioning. Isn’t that what science is all about?
Scholarly journals didn’t invent peer review. Literature (of the literary kind) has undergone a similar qualitative process for centuries. How do we know that Jane Eyre is ‘better’ (and a thousand times more romantic, in my opinion!) than 50 Shades of Grey? Or that The Ancient Mariner is not in the least bit comparable to Little Miss Muffett?
Quality literature is timeless. Its impact and messages last long after its contemporary trend fades. Why? Because its narrative engages many people, across many walks of life. It has application and relevance far beyond a niche audience.
History of science
Studying literature also gives modern science a context. From the works of Aristotle and other classical scientists, to Chaucer’s (1343-1400) astronomical lore, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s (1743-1825) dream sequence, The Hill of Science, we learn that the struggle between science and society is not a new development.
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), a much-misunderstood Victorian poet, wrote (Literature and Science, 1882): “…we shall find that the art and poetry and eloquence of men who lived…long ago, who had the most limited natural knowledge…have in fact [a power] capable of…helping us to relate the results of modern science to our need for conduct, our need for beauty.”
Whether or not we agree with the sentiments we read in these texts, understanding contemporary views of science over time can help us deal with the science communication obstacles we face today (more on this in a future post).
Empathy and intuition
Not the most popular words in scientific circles. However, these critical human qualities are increasingly overlooked as we get more and more complacent about technology filling in the gaps for us. A recent study showed how reading literary fiction, compared to popular fiction, non-fiction or nothing, improved the capacity for empathy. This is not surprising. Literary fiction is real and engaging. You need to pay attention to follow the story and understand each character’s development. Sometimes you have to fill in the gaps yourself based on your gut feeling.
Long ago, Aristotle wrote (Nicomachean Ethics, 1.7): “Wisdom must be intuitive reason combined with [scientific] knowledge.” It might sound strange, but empathy and intuition are really useful in scientific research. Intuition and creative thinking balance the logic and reason of scientific thinking, allowing a more realistic perspective of study systems. The ‘hard’ questions about humanity are the often the ones that can be most useful to solving sustainability problems, particularly in studies of ecosystems that are intricately linked to human communities (e.g. urban or agricultural landscapes). Read Joern Fischer’s nice summary on how intuition can benefit science here.
What do you think? Can studying Literature benefit science disciplines, or is it a waste of time?
© Manu Saunders 2015