My writing has gone to bits - like my character. I am simply a self-conscious nerve in pain. - Oscar Wilde

by Tim Jones

A friend and I were discussing our tendency to hedge our bets when writing about science, for example: “The effect is somewhat observed“, “Our results are relatively consistent with”, “We conclude that our writing predominantly sucks”. These vagaries pollute our prose and muddle the mind of our readers. But is it necessary? Let’s start by addressing why scientists feel the need to be so inconclusive. First, science really is uncertain, and nobody wants to give an audience full of braniacs, geeks, and know-it-alls, a reason to think they don’t realise this. Second, writing is an act of psychology, because you don’t know what your readers know or don’t know, so you have to pre-empt the inevitable knowledge gap between you and them. The problem is that it’s impossible to determine the size of this gap and so the default position is to assume a chasm.

So how do you begin explaining the highly specialised niche you’ve carved for yourself? You type your first sentence and realise that the science is quite in on that particular matter, so you’ll need to slip in a plausibly here and a tentatively there. Then you go on to describe a theory, which, come to think of it, is based on several other ideas that aren’t very well constrained. You should start by explaining those ideas first and letting the reader know how much we don’t know about them. In fact, to make sure everyone is on the same page start with the big bang and just go from there. Finally, you’ll conclude with a statement about what your results might suggest.

Before you know it, your entire manuscript is littered with qualifications and caveats that make legal documents read like Hemingway. So how do you avoid needless gas-bagging while conveying the inherent uncertainty behind scientific theorising? The trick is to remember that you have a fairly smart audience who want to hear what you have to say and can likely fill in the blanks. If you tried to write anything and literally not be wrong at all, you’d fall into an infinite philosophical regress, asking questions like ‘what is it like to be a rock?’ or ‘do I really exist?’ Indeed, this is the opposite of what communicating science is about.

Next time you sit down to write, think of entering into an agreement. Your job is to deliver clear and simple, easy to understand prose. The reader’s job is to follow carefully the argument and recognise that your work won’t be the final word on the subject. If you both do your job adequately, there should be no need to hedge every bet. As always, there are exceptions and you will have to be cautious not to overstate your claims, but try explaining exactly where and how the idea doesn’t hold true, rather than stringing together a coy or evasive sentence that leaves the reader feeling suspicious. Every scientist knows that all theories are tentative, and prefacing with a probably or a maybe wont get you off the hook if you’re ever proven wrong.

With that in mind, remember that your main objective is to teach the reader something they don’t already know, first with clarity, and second, if you have time, with style. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have to deliver a linguistic masterpiece or show off your idiosyncrasies. Be clear and simple, as if you really are sure about what you’re saying.