I made some raisin buns the other day, and I swear there’s a connection to science coming.
The recipe called for, among other things, 2 eggs, 3½ cups of flour, ½ cup of brown sugar, and 2¼ tsp of yeast. Two and a quarter teaspoons – that’s quite precise, isn’t it? One can imagine a test kitchen industriously experimenting, through dozens and dozens of batches, to nail down just the right quantity of yeast for this recipe. 2 tsp isn’t quite enough; 2½ is definitely too much. But if you bake a lot, you might smell a (metaphorical) rat. If 2¼ tsp is just precisely right for this recipe, why does nearly every yeast-leavened recipe call for the same 2¼ tsp? How can 2¼ tsp be the precisely right amount for raisin buns, and for dinner rolls, and for molasses bread, and for pizza dough, and for – well, you get the picture.
In reality, the precision of 2¼ tsp doesn’t matter. It’s just that yeast is conventionally sold in little foil packets, and one packet contains ¼ ounce of yeast – or 2¼ tsp. Frequent bakers don’t buy the packets, because yeast is much cheaper and more convenient in bulk; but a lot of us still carefully measure out 2¼ tsp, over and over again, for every different recipe, without stopping to actually think about it.
This unthinking conformity to ritual is the very thing you wouldn’t expect to find in science. Scientists prize logical and independent thinking, and have an empiricist’s disdain for the argument from authority. Right? Don’t we?
Maybe not. There’s a strong argument to be made that science is rife with unthinking custom along the same lines as the 2¼ tsp of yeast. There are things we do not because we’ve thought them through and decided that they’re just right, but because they’re what everyone does. Let me give you two examples: one quite field-specific, and one rather general.
For my field-specific example, I offer the use of “leaf packs” to measure decomposition rates in stream ecology. A leaf pack is a bundle of dead leaves, zip-tied to an anchor and usually enclosed in screening, that you place in a stream; after some set amount of time you return and measure how much leaf mass has disappeared. This simple technique has become ubiquitous among stream ecologists (I’ve used it myself), and on the plus side, it’s produced an enormous volume of nicely intercomparable data on decomposition rates. On the minus side: leaf-pack data are often of questionable relevance. Real leaves in real streams don’t decay in stationary packs isolated from the mechanical action of tumbling rocks and other substrate, for one thing. Stream ecologists (including me, when I was one) don’t do leaf-pack experiments because they’re precisely the right experiment for the question they’re asking. Stream ecologists, mostly, do leaf-pack experiments because leaf-pack experiments are what stream ecologists do.*
Leaf-pack experiments are a rather narrowly focused example (and I hope you’ll suggest others, from your own fields, in the Replies). How about something that nearly all of us are guilty of? How about acronyms? Scientific writing is notorious for its heavy use of acronyms. Are they just exactly what’s needed, or are the 2¼ tsp of yeast? The case for acronyms is that they make our writing more compact. Thing is, most of the time, it’s a weak case. Measured by number of characters, acronyms often make our writing only a little bit more compact. Measured the more important way, by effort needed for a reader to digest the prose, they often make our writing less compact. So brevity may be why we tell each other we use acronyms, but I don’t think it really is. The real reason? I’m pretty sure it’s simple: as scientific writers, we use acronyms because that’s what scientific writers do. This starts early, when we “teach” scientific writing by telling our students to read papers from the literature, and to write like them. So that’s what our students do – producing exactly the kind of turgid, colourless, acronym-packed prose that came before them; and that can in its turn be modeled by the next generation to come. This tyranny of circular expectation is, I think, responsible not just for the plague of acronyms but for a lot more of what’s wrong with our literature. If we thought about it carefully, we’d use many fewer acronyms; but we generally don’t think about it. Prose dripping with acronyms just sounds like science to us, so we keep producing it.
Raisin buns, leaf packs, and acronyms. Similar underpinnings – but only the raisin buns are delicious.
© Stephen Heard October 13, 2021
Image: The raisin buns, my photo CC BY 4.0; yeast packets © kiliweb via openfoodfacts.org CC BY-SA 3.0
*^I didn’t choose this example to heap particular shame on stream ecologists – I hope that’s clear from my admission that, while I was doing stream ecology, I did leaf-pack experiments too. Every field has its blind spots. “Wait”, you might be saying, “that’s not a blind spot, it’s a standard method”. Well, it can be both.