Scientists really value evidence. Or at least, that’s what we all tell each other: we test hypotheses by confronting them with data, and our view of how the world works reflects the results of all these hypothesis tests. We get very, very upset when charlatans push irrational nonsense like intelligent design, ivermectin treatment for COVID, or the supposed dangers of vaccines. After all, in each case we have a well-founded rationale for declaring “nonsense”: there’s a mountain of evidence that all life on Earth has evolved through natural selection, that ivermectin is useless or worse against COVID, and that vaccines are safe and effective.* If we have a belief about the world, we ask if there’s data to support that belief; and if there isn’t, we change it. Right?
Well, surprisingly often, no. I’m fascinated by the high prevalence among scientists of what I’ve decided to call SOURs: Strong Opinions Unmoored from Rationale.** Given my obsession with interest in scientific writing, you might not be surprised to hear that I think they’re particularly rampant in that sphere. Scientists think all kinds of things (and argue them vociferously) even when those things fail any simple test of evidence: either there isn’t any evidence in favour, or there’s strong evidence against.
Let me give you an example I ran into recently. We submitted a manuscript, in which we used the last few lines of the Introduction to summarize our major result. Now, some writers (and some readers, including me) prefer an Introduction written that way; others don’t. No shock there. But the editor wrote that our statement of results “didn’t belong” in the Introduction; and while they didn’t give a reason, I’ve often heard the argument that you shouldn’t “give away your result” in the Introduction. This attempt at a rationale is specious, of course: if you don’t like giving away your results before your Results section, are you aware that your paper has an Abstract? If you prefer to end the Introduction with a hypothesis statement instead of a results statement, that’s completely reasonable. If you claim that you shouldn’t end one with a results statement, because that gives away the secret, that’s a SOUR.
No-results-in-the-Introduction is far from the only scientific-writing SOUR out there. Consider folks who argue that humour has no business in science, and will dissuade readers from taking you seriously (and in considering that, weigh our recent demonstration that humour in titles increases citation rates). Consider the notion that common contractions (it’s, isn’t, and their ilk) don’t belong in scientific writing. Consider the notion that one should never write “nearly significant”. Consider… well, rather than my listing a bunch more, let me throw this open to you. Please use the Replies to suggest your favourite scientific-writing SOUR.
We tolerate these SOURs in scientific writing, and that’s fascinating, because we wouldn’t tolerate them in vaccine hesitancy, climate-change denial, or mathematics. A very large contingent of scientists seem to think of writing as fundamentally different from those more obviously science-relevant things – something that doesn’t have data, or a literature, that might guide opinions about it. But of course there’s a huge literature on what makes writing effective, based on centuries of thought but also on modern approaches including big-data text-mining. How is it that scientists – with their supposed thirst for evidence – are either unaware of this literature, or don’t care about it? SOURs are easier, I guess (he says cynically). To be fair, it’s true that we have a lot to read just in our own fields, so expecting everyone to also master the literature on rhetoric and science studies might be unreasonable. But that’s why there are guidebooks! I worked hard, for example, to include some of the evidence behind the advice in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.*** We’re (Bethann Garramon Merkle and I) are doing the same in our new book, Helping Students Write. We can make our thinking about scientific writing less SOUR – if we choose to.
© Stephen Heard March 14, 2023
Image: Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions. Odds are, his were not SOUR.
*^Barring extremely rare side effects, of course; the point is that vaccines are overwhelmingly safer than going unvaccinated.
**^Science does not, in general, need more acronyms. Science does, however, need this one. By the way: I considered Strong Opinions Without Rationale, but SOWR isn’t as good an acronym. More importantly: it’s not even that people hold opinions in the absence of rationale – it’s that a rationale exists, but people hold strong opinions that are at odds with it. Unmoored from rationale, not without it.
***^In the interests of readability, I didn’t go too far there: the book isn’t a comprehensive review of the literature. But I did work hard to summarize what’s known, when something is; and to indicate when, sometimes, not much is.
Nicely put and a fine acronym! I’d add data is/data are to the list of examples. Grammatically, both are correct, and “data is” always sounds and looks better.
That’s a good one! I’m reformed, on that one: I held a SOUR and let it go (https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2020/01/21/why-i-threw-in-the-towel-on-data-is/)
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Hey! Don’t be SOUR. The word ‘data’ is used in two senses: First, as a synonym for ‘information’ and second as a synonym for ‘numbers’. I agree that the singular sounds better for the first sense. But I the plural for the second sense sounds better. However, as with a pithy summary of the results at the end of an introduction, using ‘data is’ is up to you.
That we have to pretend that everything we do was planned and carried out as a test of a clearly formulated hypothesis – even when what we are reporting was previously unknown.
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I have a much less polite term for that. Talkin’ out of your @$$. (I often sub in “hat” for the cuss word.)
And editors have words for people who do this with grammar, usage, punctuation, etc. We call them peevers (and sometimes sticklers).
I have a nice list of blog posts that talk about the evidence against various peeves and stickles. Most of them written by editors, usage experts and lexicographers. I do tend to whip them out fairly often. 🙂
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Oh yes, rife in grammar and punctuation! And scientists have strong opinions on those, and seem not to recognize the expertise of those who actually study language. (I have been guilty sometimes myself).
Harumpf, I hear more Heard heresy here. A summary of results in the intro? Write a scientific paper as if it was a newspaper story? Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell them, tell ‘em, and then tell them what you told ‘em. That’s not very erudite and scientifical.
I think the potential downside to including s summary of results in the intro is that the intro gets longer. Mine almost always are too long. It seems like a way to sneak results into the intro might be to close with a paragraph along the lines, ‘Thus we hypothesized A and B. Our results supported/did not support this hypothesis.’
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