Behind the Science: Language's Influence on Science

Behind the Science: Language's Influence on Science

Author: Jonathan Faiz, Claire Filloux, Ben Davis

Dr. Jonathan Faiz, Senior Associate Editor of Angewandte Chemie, talks to author Dr. Claire M. Filloux (pictured right), Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA, and reviewer Professor Ben Davis (pictured left), University of Oxford, UK, about Filloux`s Essay in Angewandte Chemie. The article discusses how the use of imprecise language influences our understanding and interpretation of scientific phenomena. Filloux wrote the Essay while she was a postgraduate student and Davis, who was one of the reviewers, became involved in the project.


Dr. Filloux, you wrote an Essay on how ambiguous terminology leads to confusion about the term anomeric effect, and urging scientists to be more sensitive in their use of language. Can you summarize the overall problem for nonspecialists?

I wanted to challenge the belief that science can be performed or communicated with complete objectivity. Thought and language develop together in a reinforcing cycle: clear thought inspires clear language which inspires clear thought. In the studies I showcase, this cycle gets derailed.

In the Essay, I highlight an often poorly demarcated distinction between cause and effect. Effects are, more or less, observable. Causes are not. For instance, we can hear the frequency of an approaching siren get higher (the Doppler Effect), but we can’t directly observe the ever-tighter clusters of sound waves that are assumed to be responsible for the frequency change.

The best way I can think to describe the problem to a nonscientist is this: imagine that we renamed the Doppler Effect the Sound Wave Effect. Now say that many years from now, scientists discover that the Doppler Effect is not caused by sound waves, or that sound can’t be described by waves at all. Though I doubt scientists will actually reject the established explanation for the Doppler Effect, the origins of other effects are more tenuous.

What I argue in the Essay is that scientists will have a harder time accommodating fluxional scientific theories if the language they use to describe phenomena rigidly privileges one theory over others.


How did your attention come to be focused on this problem?

In my 3rd year of graduate school at Colorado State University, I was required to give a department seminar on a literature topic. I have always been drawn to physical organic chemistry, so I decided to present on the controversy surrounding the origins of the anomeric effect. My Ph.D. advisor, Professor Tomislav Rovis, enjoyed the seminar and encouraged me to write a review article on the topic, and that is how the project began.


Can you explain your motivation behind writing this Essay?

For two years, I read the literature carefully and wrote bits and pieces of a review article. In the process, it became apparent that I was not interested in writing a review article at all. I was not interested in summarizing origin theories or even voicing my own beliefs about the origin of the effect. Meanwhile, during conversations with a co-worker, I began to realize that what actually interested me about the anomeric effect was the way in which definitions (good or bad) inclined scientists to anticipate certain theoretical models. This colleague, to whom I am very grateful, encouraged me to take this angle, and I started to read about biases imposed by language (Wholeness and the Implicate Order by David Bohm, articles by Dr. Lera Boroditsky) and science philosophy by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Ludwig Wittgenstein.


How will the scientific community benefit from yours analysis?

I wrote the Essay, because I believe that language plays an active role in scientific discovery, and I want to share this conviction with others. Photography provides an analogy. A devil’s advocate could say that photography is not an art, because it simply copies reality. I think most would agree that this viewpoint is preposterous. In each photograph, an artist makes dozens of conscious or subconscious creative choices. The artist chooses the frame, the lighting, the filter, the angle, all of which conspire to make a photograph unique from the hypothetical others that could be generated under a different set of circumstances. In the same way, a scientist makes dozens of choices—what to study, which measurements to take, what instruments to use—all of which filter the world in some way.

The filter I focused on in this Essay is language—we cannot communicate science without it. Though scientific bias is inevitable, I hope that the analysis in the Essay will remind the scientific community to acknowledge its biases, especially those imposed by language.


What impact will your work have both within and outside chemistry?

I don’t know. I hope that the work persuades scientists who read it that communication is a creative endeavor, and that they should take responsibility for the words they use to share their discoveries. I have read on more than one occasion “the data speaks for itself”. It does not! We cannot describe science without interpreting it, and we cannot communicate clearly without thinking clearly.

I hope the Essay will motivate the scientific community to evaluate their research and the research of others not only on the novelty of the data but on the lucid thinking and precise language that interpret it.


You wrote the Essay whilst you were a graduate student. What have you gone on to do since and what advice would you give to other students who want to write such an article?

I currently teach organic chemistry to undergraduates, and I hope to continue to engage in writing-based scholarships. Though I am reluctant to give advice, I know that I am most productive when I am excited about the problem I am working on. I would say that if a graduate student feels the urge to try something different, whether that something is a new field of study, an unpracticed form of scholarship, or an unfamiliar analytical method, they should go for it! Diverse skills and interests only enrich our community.


You acknowledge the input of Professor Ben Davis. How did his advice help you with preparing your Essay?

In the first draft of this Essay, I performed a critical analysis of Davis’ Nature study (Sensing the Anomeric Effect in a Solvent-Free Environment). Specifically, I argued that language in the study blurs the distinction between the anomeric effect and the electronic interactions that underlie it. Professor Davis, who reviewed my Essay, suggested that I broaden the scope of my analysis. In the final draft of my Essay, I used Davis’ study as a lens to evaluate what I see as a more pervasive problem: Language used by the scientific community often confuses effects, which are observable, with presumed causes, which are at best conjecture.


Professor Davis, what was it about the Essay that made it interesting for you to read and motivated you to contribute to its improvement?

For me, such debate, such exchange of ideas and constructive criticism is one of the beauties of science. I enjoy greatly the philosophy of science and found the work very stimulating. Frank but thoughtful peer review was originally conducted in an open manner and has been one of the backbones of science for more than 350 years. My experience is that this is almost always useful and helpful; all the peers involved in such an exchange, learn from it. In an era when it has become fashionable to criticize peer review (and even to thoughtlessly question the point of it), I think we should be very clear about its value as a typically very helpful and enjoyable process to be part of (on all sides) and to erode it would cause great peril to science.


How will the points discussed in this Essay benefit the chemical and scientific communities?

I found it to be a compelling and quite fascinating analysis with incisive relevance to the way that we use language in science and indeed to the way that views can become quite unnecessarily polarized. This I think will give many useful ‘pause for thought’. I would suggest, that perhaps too few people think deeply about the strategy and philosophy of science and can, occasionally, be quick to ‘take sides’ in almost an emotional way.

Whilst we may not always agree on aspects of science (and passion is indeed important) each analysis should be part of a growing, constructive debate and an ever improving cohort of knowledge and the way that we conduct and indeed describe that analysis is often key.



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