Two years ago I treated you to the story of how in Alabama, spiders are legally insects. “Hold my beer”, said California, and two weeks ago a California court declared that bees are fish. I know; that’s ridiculous. It turns out, though, that it isn’t ridiculous in the biological way you’re thinking; rather, it’s ridiculous in a scientific-writing way. At least, that’s going to be my take, and I hope you’ll come along.
If you haven’t read the story, Kevin Underhill does a lovely job with it over at Lowering the Bar. In brief: the California Fish and Game Commission wanted to list four bumble bees as endangered species. It was sued by the Almond Alliance of California on the grounds that the relevant laws only allow the Commission to list as endangered a “native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant” – and bees don’t fit any of those categories. Especially, counter to the Fish and Game Commission’s claim, they aren’t fish.
Biologically, that’s a slam dunk. Bees just aren’t fish; never were, never will be. But if you dig a little further, you’ll discover that I misrepresented the court decision just a little bit (as has every other piece of media coverage). The court didn’t actually declare that bees are fish; instead, the court declared that bees are “fish”. That distinction is the real story. It’s a story about writing, and it holds a lesson for all of us.
Here’s the crux of it: what’s a “fish”, and is it the same as a fish? Nope. Section 45 of the California Fish & Game Code defines “fish”, and here’s the definition:
“Fish” means a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.
Bees are insects, insects are invertebrates, and so clearly and unambiguously*, bees are “fish” even if they aren’t fish. That is: the relevant law defines what it means by the sequence of letters “f-i-s-h”, and while it isn’t what most people mean by the same sequence of letters, that doesn’t pose any kind of logical problem at all. The legislature is adopting Humpty Dumpty’s position in Through the Looking Glass:
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
It’s true that you can define a word, or indeed any arbitrary sequence of letters, and then use it with that meaning in something you’ve written. This is a good thing: it lets us write with precision, and lets us write about new concepts and things we’ve discovered (for which there aren’t pre-existing words). But it’s also a bad thing, because it can ask your reader to do work they shouldn’t have to do. And that’s what’s happening here: while you can use the sequence of letters “f-i-s-h” to mean “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals”, you shouldn’t.
The creative definition of “fish” came about through several revisions of the statute, as the legislature added coverage of more kinds of animals. The writers took the easy way out, leaving the main part of the statute alone and simply expanding the definition of “fish” as needed. Or at least, that was the easy way for them as writers. But when you’re writing, what’s easy for you isn’t an important consideration. Instead, you should always be thinking about what’s easy for the reader. Here’s where the writers of the bee-fish law failed: using “fish” to mean something it doesn’t mean in any other context makes the reader’s job hard – not impossible, not logically untenable, just very difficult. And that’s something any writer should want to avoid.
The bee-fish bit of writing is, of course, completely over the top in the way it challenges – even upends – the reader’s expectations for what language means. You might be thinking “oh, but in scientific writing we’d never do that”. I’m sorry to tell you, though, that we do this kind of thing all the time. As an example, consider acronyms. How often does a scientific writer use an acronym to make their job easier (less typing, easier to hit word count limits), despite the fact that it makes the reader’s job harder? Every time a reader hits a new acronym, they need to learn and remember what it means – even if that same acronym meant something different in the last paper they read.** And I wish acronyms were the only way in which scientific writers sinned this way, but they aren’t.
So: bees may be “fish”, at least in one California statute; but bees being “fish” makes readers work too hard. And rather than feeling superior, let’s take a careful look at our own writing, and purge it of bee-fish.
© Stephen Heard June 14, 2022
Image: Bumblebee goby, Brachygobius doriae, © JSutton93 via Wikipedia.org CC BY-SA 4.0
*^There’s an unexpected wrinkle in that everything else in the list is (mostly) aquatic, so maybe “invertebrate” was meant to mean only aquatic invertebrates? Ah, but we know that’s not true because… wait, just read Lowering the Bar on this part.
**^Sure, you can declare that in your paper you’re using “DNA” to mean “denatured nonyl alcohol”, and no logical harm is done: but you’re making bees be fish and you’re making readers work too hard.