Posts Tagged ‘scientific communication’

QOTD: Working out scientific insights on paper, Lavoisier case study

July 12th, 2017

…language does do much of our thinking for us, even in the sciences, and rather than being an unfortunate contamination, its influence has been productive historically, helping individual thinkers generate concepts and theories that can then be put to the test. The case made here for the constitutive power of figures [of speech] per se supports the general point made by F.L. Holmes in a lecture addressed to the History of Science Society in 1987. A distinguished historian of medicine and chemistry, Holmes based his study of Antoine Lavoisier on the French chemist’s laboratory notebooks. He later examined drafts of Lavoisier’s published papers and discovered that Lavoisier wrote many versions of his papers and in the course of careful revisions gradually worked out the positions he eventually made public (Holmes, 221). Holmes, whose goal as a historian is to reconstruct the careful pathways and fine structure of scientific insights, concluded from his study of Lavoisier’s drafts

We cannot always tell whether a thought that led him to modify a passage, recast an argument, or develop an alternative interpretation occurred while he was still engaged in writing what he subsequently altered, or immediately afterward, or after some interval during which he occupied himself with something else; but the timing is, I believe, less significant than the fact that the new developments were consequences of the effort to express ideas and marshall supporting information on paper (225).

– page xi of Rhetorical Figures in Science by Jeanne Fahnestock, Oxford University Press, 1999.

She is quoting Frederich L. Holmes. 1987. Scientific writing and scientific discovery. Isis 78:220-235. DOI:10.1086/354391

As Moore summarizes,

Lavoisier wrote at least six drafts of the paper over a period of at least six months. However, his theory of respiration did not appear until the fifth draft. Clearly, Lavoisier’s writing helped him refine and understand his ideas.

Moore, Randy. Languageā€”A Force that Shapes Science. Journal of College Science Teaching 28.6 (1999): 366.
(which I quoted in
a review I wrote recently)

Fahnestock adds:
“…Holmes’s general point [is that] there are subtle interactions ‘between writing, thought, and operations in creative scientific activity’ (226).”

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What a text means: genre matters

February 26th, 2011

Can you distinguish what is being said from how it is said?
In other words, what is a ‘proposition’?

Giving an operational definition of ‘proposition’ or of ‘propositional content’ is difficult. Turns out there’s a reason for that:

Metadiscourse does not simply support propositional content: it is the means by which propositional content is made coherent, intelligible and persuasive to a particular audience.

– Ken Hyland Metadiscourse p391.

I’m very struck by how the same content can be wrapped with different metadiscourse — resulting in different genres for distinct audiences. When the “same” content is reformulated, new meanings and emphasis may be added along the way. Popularization of science is rich in examples.

For instance, a Science article…

When branches of the host plant having similar oviposition sites were placed in the area, no investigations were made by the H. hewitsoni females.

gets transformed into a Scientific American article…

I collected lengths of P. pittieri vines with newly developed shoots and placed them in the patch of vines that was being regular revisited. The females did not, however, investigate the potential egg-laying sites I had supplied.

This shows the difficulty of making clean separations between the content and the metadiscourse:

“The ‘content’, or subject matter, remains the same but the meanings have changed considerably. This is because the meaning of a text is not just about the propositional material or what the text could be said to be about. It is the complete package, the result of an interactive process between the producer and receiver of a text in which the writer chooses forms and expressions which will best convey his or her material, stance and attitudes.

– Ken Hyland Metadiscourse p39

Example from Hyland (page 21), which credits Myers Writing Biology: Texts in the Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge 1990 (180).

  1. I’m really enjoying Ken Hyland’s Metadiscourse. Thanks to Sean O’Riain for a wonderful loan! I’m not ready to summarize his thoughts about what metadiscourse is — for one thing I’m only halfway through. []

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