Monday, February 14, 2011

Writing scientifically

“Writing scientific papers is rather like writing in an ancient verse form. Everything you want to say has to be forced into predetermined sections: introduction, method, results, discussion. You must never say “I,” and the passive tense is preferred. Inevitable all interesting things get left out.” Chris Frith, Making up the mind, p. 74.

At school I had to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. These works have been written in a strict verse form that is characteristic for epic prose: the dactylic hexameter. Each line of this prose has six foots: five dactyls (– u u) and then a spondee (–  –) (“–” means a long syllable and “u” a short one). Although some stylistic variation was possible, generally the author had not much freedom. Dutch Renaissance authors tried to copy the style but the dactylic hexameter is not very suitable for the Dutch language. It makes Dutch poems written with these verse form sound rather stiff and unnatural. Therefore it is used only in translations of ancient epic prose nowadays.

When Descartes wrote his Regulae ad directionem ingenii [Rules for the direction of the mind; published posthumously in 1684] he laid the foundation of modern scientific method. Only research that applied these rules or their improved versions could bear the name “scientific” since then. This did not only have its reflection on research as such but also in the way it was presented. Despite Feyerabend’s famous statement in 1975 that “anything goes” in methodology, implying that not so much the form of research is important but its results, scientists have stuck to their rules, at least in word. In order to show that their methods and results have to be taken seriously the strict presentation of scientific research did not change either, despite Feyerabend’s analysis. This makes that everything that influenced the results in an important way but that is not strictly “scientific” is left out in the presentation, even if the results would not have come about without these influences. The changing moods of the researcher; that she thought out the basic idea when taking a shower; that she had no budget to buy just those apparatuses she needed most; that a machine broke down and had to be repaired so that she had some time for extra theoretical study; and so on. All these things are omitted in the final report. Frith mentions the case that a test subject had got a clip in her brain in an operation. It took him much time to find out what metal it was made of in order to know whether it was safe to use his scanner. Although such facts are relevant for the outcome, they are supposed to be ignored in a scientific article. Even the researcher is absent: The “I” who did the research and wrote the article is left out as well in the text. The article is strictly limited to method, results, relation to other research and why the results are important; all this in a strict order: introduction, method, results, discussion. It is even better, if the sections are numbered and if as much mathematics as possible is used. Deviations of form are frowned on and reduce the chance of being published unless they are corrected, as if the writer is a mediocre ancient poet who does not know well how to apply the dactylic hexameter.


Fasulye said...

As far as I remember my student experiences at university, I know that the methods of scientific research in the so called "Geisteswissenschaften" in Germany whereto also Philosophy belongs, differ a lot from those used in Mathematics and Natural Sciences. In Philosophy for example you have to use your argumentation whereas in Mathematics and Natural Sciences you have to find out, whether a rule is true or false.


HbdW said...

Thank you for your reaction, Fasulye. Apart from that the "Geisteswissenschaften" are not called sciences in the Anglosaxon terminologie, I think that my point applies also there. The Geistenwissenschaften study their obejcts also in a methodological way and also here the I who wrote the article and all the other things I mentioned are omitted from the final article and articles are written according to more or less strict norms.