Three terrible academic habits

There’s been a lot of criticism lately of badly written science, following the publication of Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences in which Billig writes:

"The author is not someone who is offering criticisms as an outsider looking in upon a strange world. I am an insider, a social scientist, and I am publically criticising my fellows for their ways of writing…

 …Because social scientific disciplines are so diverse today, the young apprentice academic has to do more than become a ‘sociologist’ or an ‘anthropologist’ or a ‘psychologist’. Typically, they have to associate themselves with a specific approach, a theoretical perspective or an already existing body of work. To do this, they have to accept the technical terminology of their chosen world, as well as the assumption that this technical terminology is superior to ordinary language. And then they are expected to promote their own work, their approach and the language of their approach."

Billig limits his critique to the social sciences, but problems with writing styles run across the board. This is one of the first lessons of Stanford’s Writing in the Sciences course which only just started, where we are reminded that in general we should always write in the active voice rather than the passive voice, with the exception of when writing a methods section. When scientists avoid using the simple words "we" and "I", things can get incredibly convoluted. It has become commonplace for academics to avoid using such words, communicating everything passively, which is more cognitively taxing and obscures important information. The classic example of good science writing (that we receive on Kristin Sainani's course), as well as being a classic example of outstanding science, is Watson and Crick’s landmark paper which begins: “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.)”. The journal Science's style guidelines state “Use active voice when suitable, particularly when necessary for correct syntax (e.g. "To address this possibility, we constructed...").

Billig writes: "the defenders of technical jargon seem to overlook that academic terminology is heavily weighted towards nouns and noun phrases, with verbs, by comparison, hardly getting a look in. For me, that characteristic of contemporary academic writing is highly significant." The very same message is delivered in the Stanford course. To say anything clearly you must use verbs and not fall into the "terrible academic habit" of finding ways to turn them into nouns. We learn that academics can also be guilty of pushing verbs to the end of the sentence, adding dead weight and generally being unnecessarily wordy, which are all recipes for ambiguity. Some of the examples contained in Sainani's course (that extend to a wide range of scientific disciplines, not just in the social sciences) really are staggering in the level of fluff that can be cut from academic work while actually increasing meaning rather than reducing it.

If communication is something you do - which I guess includes pretty much everyone - then why not join me and 20,000 others and sign up for Stanford's completely free Writing in the Sciences course?

Image Credit: Flickr/Macrj

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Meet the Bajau sea nomads — they can reportedly hold their breath for 13 minutes

The Bajau people's nomadic lifestyle has given them remarkable adaptions, enabling them to stay underwater for unbelievable periods of time. Their lifestyle, however, is quickly disappearing.

Wikimedia Commons
Culture & Religion
  • The Bajau people travel in small flotillas throughout the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, hunting fish underwater for food.
  • Over the years, practicing this lifestyle has given the Bajau unique adaptations to swimming underwater. Many find it straightforward to dive up to 13 minutes 200 feet below the surface of the ocean.
  • Unfortunately, many disparate factors are erasing the traditional Bajau way of life.
Keep reading Show less

Life is hard: Jordan Peterson and the nature of suffering

The Canadian professor's old-school message is why many started listening to him.

Jordan Peterson addresses students at The Cambridge Union on November 02, 2018 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire. (Photo by Chris Williamson/Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • The simplicity of Peterson's message on suffering echoes Buddha and Rabbi Hillel.
  • By bearing your suffering, you learn how to become a better person.
  • Our suffering is often the result of our own actions, so learn to pinpoint the reasons behind it.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists create a "lifelike" material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less