Humanities vs Science. 1. Literature & Language

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. Continue reading

Causal language in ecology papers

‘Correlation does not imply causation’ is a statistical mantra. Most good high school and undergraduate statistics courses teach this, and most good science bloggers, journalists and scientists repeat it over and over again. But when and how far does that mantra extend into regression model territory? And what of the no-man’s-land surrounding this mysterious terra statistica?

Causal language refers to definitive statements that describe a cause and effect between two variables. It is in the same camp as the active voice, which is increasingly being promoted as the ‘way to write’ for scientists. Passive voice and non-directional language, once the standard of scientific writing, are now seen by some as vague, ambiguous and open to misinterpretation. But in our rush to be active, confident and ‘own’ our research results, are we risking misinterpretation and misunderstanding of science at the other end of the scale? “Building more roads increases bee abundance” might sound dramatic, convincing and galvanising…but it doesn’t mean quite the same thing as “Bee abundance was associated with the number of grassy road verges in the landscape”.* Continue reading

Humanities vs Science: is writing a dying art?

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.

Mentioning the word ‘humanities’ in a room full of scientists is pretty risky. For some scientists, there is a stigma attached to the study of ‘arty’ subjects. The process of research and inquiry in classics, history, literature and anthropology is very different to the scientific method. Yet neither approach is wrong, both are equally creative, and both have the ultimate goal of discovering and sharing knowledge. Having studied and worked in both disciplines, I can’t see any way that one is more rigorous than the other. But there is a huge difference in the way that most students are educated in each discipline. Humanities courses, in particular, are often better at teaching students how to write.

Science is about generating and sharing knowledge to build our collective wisdom. So communicating the results of scientific research is a core responsibility of a scientist…something that has become a bit of a topical issue. Experts of various disciplines have been sharing great ideas through blogs, popular science media and academic journals on how scientists can communicate more effectively. However, the majority of these pieces focus on communication as a practising scientist, i.e. after graduation. Far less attention is given to how communication skills can be enhanced prior to starting a science career by top-down initiatives at the education level. Continue reading

Natural Culture

To what extent does culture (i.e. arts and entertainment) affect how people view nature or ‘the environment’?

Nature is not ‘immediate’ – she needs time to grow, time to heal, time to be appreciated and understood. Yet, for many people, their most available culture (‘popular’ culture) is all about the Now – if it looks to the past or the future, it measures it in days or weeks, not years or decades. Does this then influence their attitude to the environment?

It’s a pretty interesting question, and I’m sure the answer is mighty complicated. There would be some effect from nationality, racial background and possibly gender (as these things can sometimes determine what cultural elements you are mostly exposed to or ‘wired’ for), but the answer goes beyond that – not all ‘women’ think the same, not all ‘Australians’ think the same, and not all ‘English men’ think the same. Continue reading

To be or not to be … Scientist or Writer?

I have just had the opportunity to attend the Publishing With Impact workshop, facilitated by Camilla Myers from CSIRO Publishing. Without any overstatement, it was the most enjoyable and helpful workshop I have ever attended. Although the ultimate success of a workshop is purely context-specific – dependent on the dynamics of the participants and the facilitator as well as the information involved – the structure of this workshop is invaluable for any academic who struggles with either writing or the publishing puzzle … and inspiring for any who don’t!

I am currently in the final scenes of my PhD saga, in which I have to “write” The Unwritten. Ironically, this has always been the part of my PhD I was most looking forward to. I have been writing “creatively” since high school and my first degree and pre-enviro science work history were all about Writing and using English as a creative tool (rather than an arduous accessory to life!). So, suffice to say, I thought I was a pretty good wordsmith when I dove naïvely into the world of Science. Continue reading

The Origin of a Species

It’s easy for some to think that we’ve stopped evolving as a species, at least for the time being. As far as we can tell, Homo sapiens has looked, and mostly behaved, fairly similar since it developed speech and communal living, albeit with small changes in language, customs, clothing, transport and house structures. But evolution of any system never really stops, and sometimes can even work in reverse (e.g. Darwin’s finches and Seattle’s sticklebacks).

After all, as Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species, “Under domestication we see much variability… [which] is governed by many complex laws, – by correlation of growth, by use and disuse, and by the direct action of the physical conditions of life.” A species can only keep reproducing carbon copies of itself for multiple generations “as long as the conditions of life remain the same”.

And the conditions of human life have changed.

But when I was young, we ate meat!

Continue reading

‘Communication’ … overworked and underpaid

Homo sapiens are the great Communicators.  That’s what apparently makes us more advanced than all the other animal species on Earth—we can talk, write, sing, dance and draw pictures to describe what we are trying to say.  And we can conjure up a plethora of technological and physical aids to help us.

So one might say it’s ironic that, of all the animal species, we suffer the most from misunderstanding and lack of communication.  Other animals may have what we call simple, primitive communication tools, but they never pick up the wrong end of the stick.  When a group of meerkats spies an approaching predator and starts screeching and jittering around, old mate foraging on his own down the hill doesn’t just roll his eyes and mutter ‘Women!’ under his breath, he hightails it out of there. Continue reading