There is no concept in all of biological science that has had a greater impact on popular culture than that of evolution. No one, for example, but a biologist would think to write science fiction novels about pyramids of energy or make movies about the Central Dogma of molecular biology. No one but a biologist would go see such a film, either (not even if you could get Brad Pitt to play messenger RNA). Evolution, however, has had a blockbuster effect on art, literature, advertising, and just about every other form of creative expression.
Today, it is a given that no conspicuous element of popular culture escapes the notice of filmmakers for very long; the same was true even in the earliest days of film history. Evolution and the movie business more or less grew up together, with Darwin’s writings appearing just at the time moving pictures came into their own. Just as dinosaurs went public and started making headlines, theaters began showing films. The connection was natural. In 1872, Edward Muybridge created the first sequential series of photographs (of a moving horse), and in 1879, he invented the zoopraxiscope, the first moving picture projector. By 1882, O.C. Marsh published the first system of classification of dinosaurs. It was a marriage made in heaven—dinosaurs and movies.
Not just any movies, though—evolution seems to hold a special fascination for animators. In some part, this fondness of animators for evolutionary motifs results from the fact that change is essential both to evolution and animation. Just as evolution usually proceeds through small changes over long periods of time, the animator creates the illusion of motion by producing hundreds or thousands of sequential images with small changes in each image underlying the appearance of movement or transformation. The fact that the animator is bound only by the limits of his or her imagination and can visualize virtually anything, from extinct animals no human ever saw to processes taking millions of years, also figures in this phenomenon.
Dinosaurs have fascinated animators since the early days of film, often with some educational motive mixed in. America’s first cartoon animator, Winsor McCay, proposed to educate and entertain audiences with his third film Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914. He created the first animated dinosaur on a bet occasioned by a visit with fellow filmmakers to the American Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaur skeletons, at least according to the film’s live-action prologue. Challenged to bring a dinosaur to life, McCay spent the next two years creating 10 000 drawings which, when filmed, made Gertie move, much to the delight of audiences across the country (Canemaker 1987). Although inspired by reality, McCay did not feel constrained by scientific knowledge and freely incorporated anachronisms for effect—a tradition that characterizes movie depictions of evolution to this day. Willis O’Brien, later the creator of King Kong, began his career with a series of puppet animations from 1914 to 1916 which featured dinosaurs and cavemen in comic situations, followed by the 1918 film Ghost of Slumber Mountain (despite the title, more dinosaurs) and The Lost World in 1925, based on the still wildly popular Arthur Conan Doyle novel. And Max Fleischer, who animated such classic cartoon characters as Betty Boop and Popeye, made a combination live action and animated feature-length documentary on Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1925.
The most famous and influential depiction of evolution in an animated feature, though, was accomplished by Fleischer’s greatest rival, Walt Disney, in his 1940 classic Fantasia. Disney conceived Fantasia as a grand experiment in combining classical music with animated images in visualizing what the music was about in a form far more serious than most commercial animation of the time. One famous section of the film represents evolution from the formation of the Earth through the extinction of the dinosaurs, set to Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. Disney had at one point planned to include more of the Stravinsky piece and follow evolution through to the coming of humans but time considerations and some concern over the possible reaction of fundamentalists curtailed that scheme (Allan 1999). Musicologist Deems Taylor provides a live-action introduction, and however one may feel about Deems’s didactic commentary, it pales in comparison to the fulsome voiceover explanations added to this segment when it was released to schools in 1955 in 16mm under the title A World Is Born. The Fantasia segment also serves as something of a template for subsequent evolution-themed animation, providing touchpoints that recur throughout animation history: fairly whimsical renditions of one-celled organisms, fish climbing onto land and developing legs and lungs, an emphasis on creatures devouring one another as a symbol of the concept of survival of the fittest (with a focus on a tyrannosaurus battle), and the eventual march to extinction.
Beginning a tradition that continued for decades, the Disney studio trumpeted the fact that experts were consulted on the making of the film. The printed program for the film stated: “In picturing a primitive world Disney has let science write the scenario. Such world famous authorities as Roy Chapman Andrews [an explorer and naturalist who was director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, 1935–1942], Julian Huxley, Barnum Brown [an eminent paleontologist who discovered the first complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in 1902], and Edwin P. Hubbell [the astronomer who advanced the theory of an expanding universe] volunteered helpful data and became enthusiastic followers of the picture’s progress.” Although there are publicity photos of Hubbell and Huxley visiting the studio, the people who worked on the film later claimed that their influence was nonexistent. Dick Huemer, co-story editor, wrote that the animators relied on illustrated booklets produced by the Union Oil Company, illustrated by Charles Robert Knight, and other publications in the Disney library. According to Huemer, if they came to the studio, he never saw them (Allan 1999).
Fantasia was not immediately successful at the box office, but it did influence other animators for decades, including through spoofs and parodies. Warner Bros. cartoonist Bob Clampett was the first with his Corny Concerto in 1943, which skewers Deems Taylor by casting Elmer Fudd in his role. A full-fledged feature-length spoof, though, had to wait until 1977, when Italy’s foremost animator, Bruno Bozzetto, made Allegro Non Troppo. This may seem like a long time to wait for such a spoof, but Fantasia had seen several commercial re-releases, and in fact one had occurred in the early 1970s, the one best known for the discovery by college students that their appreciation of the film could be enhanced if they altered their brain chemistry before seeing the film. Like Fantasia, Bozzetto’s film combined serious music with animation, interspersed with live-action views of the orchestra and conductor and in this case, the animator himself (here played by comic Maurizio Nichetti). The parody here cannot be mapped sequence by sequence since Bozzetto was just playing with the idea of Fantasia, but there are at least a couple of segments which clearly recall specific sections of the Disney film, and none more explicitly than the story of evolution set to the insistent strains of Ravel’s Bolero. This time, evolution begins in a discarded Coke bottle left behind by a careless astronaut, but there are some familiar elements with a new twist. Bozzetto generally takes an ironic approach in his films and often ends with a pessimistic view of humanity, which is certainly the case here. The strong suggestion that the savage beast still lurks under humanity’s civilized surface is also a common theme in evolution-oriented films if they follow the process into the human era. The way that individual creatures morph into more advanced forms in Bozzetto’s film is also typical of the way most animators handle the concept of evolution. This morphing, by the way, is reminiscent of orthogenesis, an idea discredited by evolutionary biologists even at the time of Fantasia.
In 1971, the National Film Board of Canada took a less dark but still humorous look at the subject in the aptly titled short Evolution. Made by Michael Mills, it won awards and honors at festivals around the world and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Animated Film. It lost to an American film, The Crunchbird, literally a one-joke film—an adaptation of a shaggy dog story. Evolution follows the title process further than most of its predecessors but does it in a highly idiosyncratic fashion. Creatures this strange do not appear even in Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: the Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, but once again it does hit some notes familiar from Fantasia. Viewers must be warned, however, not to get too attached to any cute but deleterious mutations in this film; natural selection is swift and certain here.
Enter Life is by Faith Hubley, America’s most revered woman animator. Faith and her husband John, who was one of the creators of Mr. Magoo and Marky Maypo in his more commercial days, worked at the forefront of American independent animation, living up to their wedding vow that they would make one personal animated film each year no matter what other sorts of commissioned animation they made to support themselves (Solomon 1989). After John’s death in 1977, Faith continued that pledge. Made in 1977, Enter Life compresses 4 billion years of evolution (getting up to trilobites) into 6 minutes. Known for her abstract and dreamlike images, Hubley presents evolution as a dance of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen (CHON) atoms. This film was produced in partnership with the U.S. National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian. Advisor Kenneth Towe was apparently unaware of the fact that elements other than CHON are necessary for life. Sulfur, for example, is needed for proteins and phosphorus for nucleic acids. Perhaps the CHON song was preferable to a song with a word with all the letters, such as, say, “PONCHOS…”
How Dinosaurs Learned to Fly (Not a True Story), by Munro Ferguson (1995), is another film from the National Film Board of Canada. Although it is patently absurd, it nonetheless was produced in the spirit of educating. It presents a novel take on some reputable theories about dinosaurs as well as some less reputable ones such as the theory that eating junk food killed them off. The film capitalizes on the very well-known connection between birds and dinosaurs, widely accepted despite astronomer Fred Hoyle’s 1986 allegation that Archaeopteryx in the British Museum was a fake made with chicken feathers (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe 1986). In keeping with the didactic spirit of animation about evolution, even this whimsical short comes with a “teaching guide” with ponderous questions about Dip the Dinosaur’s motivation and the nature of junk food in the Cretaceous. One question from the study guide: “The dinosaurs seemed to have fun being birds. Ask the children which they think would be more fun, being a bird or being a dinosaur like Dip? Students should explain their answers with a combination of facts from the movie and examples from their own experiences.”
The extent to which animated films can be used in the classroom to teach about evolution and whether in fact animated films are an optimal teaching tool remain debatable. In a survey conducted by the American Museum of Natural History, almost 50% of respondents believed that humans and dinosaurs cohabited (Berenbaum 2000); experts other than Joseph Hanna and William Barbera (creators of Tom & Jerry and Yogi Bear, but also of the Flintstones and Captain Caveman) believe that dinosaurs went extinct about 64 million years before humans evolved. Given the current level of misunderstanding about the science of evolutionary biology, as manifested by ongoing legal battles across the country involving local efforts to alter or even eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools, animated films about evolution may have renewed significance in furthering, popularizing, and even explicating an idea as entrenched in science as animation itself is as an art form.
Allan, R. 1999. Walt Disney and Europe. John Libbey & Co. Ltd., London.
Berenbaum, M.R. 2000. Buzzwords: a scientist muses on sex, bugs and rock ‘n roll. Joseph Henry Press, Washington.
Canemaker, J. 1987. Winsor McCay, his life and art. Abbeyville Press, New York.
Hoyle, F.; Wickramasinghe, N.C. 1986. Archaeopterix, the primordial bird: a case of fossil forgery. Christopher Davies, London.
Solomon, C. 1989. The history of animation: enchanted drawings. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Richard Leskosky is the Associate Director of the Unit for Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is past-president of the Society for Animation Studies, does historical research on the sorts of moving image devices that preceded the cinema, and writes weekly film reviews for his local newspaper.
May Berenbaum teaches in the Entomology Department of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Buzzwords: a scientist muses on sex, bugs and rock ‘n roll; Bugs in the System: Insects and Their Impact on Human Affairs; and Ninety-Nine Gnats, Nits, and Nibblers, among other books.
Editorial: Quantifying the unquantifiable
by Geoff Hart (email@example.com)
People, and particularly other columnists, often ask me where I get my ideas. Having now passed my 300th published article, I have to confess that the process remains something of a mystery; so far as I can tell, my passion for writing coerces a rather active subconscious into constantly mining my daily experience for things that interest me. Things that interest me are clearly worth pondering, and that pondering often leads to an article.
An example may prove beneficial. This past spring, while reading Harper’s Magazine, I came across Eula Biss’ article The Pain Scale (June 2005, p. 25–30). Highly recommended. Since I’m what I often describe as a recovering scientist, numbers clearly still fascinate me, and in dwelling upon Biss’ descriptions of the unquantifiable nature of pain, yet another article was born.
This particular article revolves around the commonly used “pain scale” that most of us have encountered in the doctor’s office. (The fortunate among us only encounter it as a wall chart.) This is the scale that runs from 0, “no pain even if I concentrate on all my body’s sensations”, to 10, “the worst pain I can imagine”. That last word provides a strong clue that something is rotten in Denmark: some of us have superb imaginations, but others languish in the dark with all the imagination of a slug. That’s a clear sign that the scale is highly subjective, even ignoring for the moment the possibility that even slugs may have their Shakespeares and Einsteins.
A few summers back, while out rollerblading, I was seized by a foolish impulse to see just how fast my aging legs could drive me. This worked fine until finally, redlining at an entirely unwise speed, I hit a tar snake (one of those overly soft crack fillers) and flew through the air, parallel to the ground, for what seemed like 20 feet at the time. I hit hard enough to tear off my elbow pads and skid another 20 feet (again, an entirely subjective measure) on my forearms, tearing off a long strip of skin and embedding road grit in what remained. Even after the endorphins wore off, the pain wasn’t particularly severe, but I gained enormous numbers of macho points with my son when I came home, bleeding from an impressive-seeming wound that actually required no medical attention beyond what I could provide myself. My son, on the other hand, seemingly requires medication for a paper cut. My 10 on the pain scale clearly differs from his 10. Moreover, it’s clear to me that being able to imagine pain and understanding what that pain actually feels like are two very different things. It’s clear that I cannot imagine a pain bad enough to qualify as “the worst pain I can imagine” without first having experienced that pain.
The problem with the pain scale, like the Likert scale that runs from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” and many other equally artificial scales, is that they attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. Modern science has adopted the philosophy that if you can’t measure something, then you aren’t conducting science, and many “soft” sciences such as psychology and (in the case of the pain scale) medicine, suffering from some kind of Freudian “number envy”, have rushed to embrace this modern form of numerology. That statement appears to be sufficiently facetious to merit further clarification: I am by no means stating that numbers are meaningless or that their importance is overblown. Rather, I am making the point that not every observation must be numbered for the observation to be valuable. Sometimes it’s more important to concentrate on the significance of the observation.
How might we derive a pain scale that is both less subjective and more useful to the doctor? By focusing on the meaning of the assessment rather than the number: what does the rating mean for the patient who is suffering? This is clearly something we technical communicators excel at, since much of our daily work focuses on translating difficult technical information (such as the numbers on the pain scale) into something that is meaningful to our audience. Consider, for example, the following pain scale derived based on this principle:
- I feel no pain, even when I close my eyes and concentrate.
- Something hurts, but I can easily ignore it and might not have mentioned it if you hadn’t asked.
- It hurts badly enough that I’m here to ask you to make it stop. I can ignore it, but it takes some effort.
- The pain is sufficiently great that I must concentrate with most or all of my strength of mind to be able to ignore it.
- I am in so much pain I cannot force myself to concentrate on this question. (Alternatively: “The patient was in so much pain they could not even determine that I was asking them to rate their pain.”)
Note that I am not proposing this scale as a replacement for the current pain scale, even though I do feel it’s a promising start. This new scale serves only to illustrate the larger point: that expressing the formerly numeric scale in the patient’s own language, framed in the context of how it interferes with the patient’s ability to function, will often prove more useful to both the patient and the physician.
How can we know when it’s unimportant to quantify the unquantifiable? Sometimes the numbers themselves give us the clue. For example, it’s clear that the space between 0 to 1 could be considered finite, because 1 – 0 = 1, and because we can assign a number to that result, we have quantified the problem and given it a handle we can grasp. Yet it’s equally clear that the space between 0 and 1 is infinite, since we can fit an infinite number of fractions within that same space. The proof is simple: take each counting number (1, 2, 3,… infinity) and assign that number as the numerator (top part) of a fraction, then take the next counting number (2, 3, 4, … infinity) and assign it to the denominator of this fraction. Clearly, unless “infinity” has an actual upper limit (it does not), this process can generate an infinite number of fractions.
More often, this kind of analysis is a very subjective judgment call: we must examine the thing being measured, and ask ourselves whether the number or its meaning is most important. In some cases, it is indeed the number that is important, as is the case (trivially) when we need to recall a friend’s telephone number. In other cases, both will be equally important, as in the case of understanding the fundamental physical constants that govern the laws of our physical universe. The numbers themselves are clearly important because they appear in so many calculations, but the question of why those numbers have their actual values and what the answer to this question means is giving new life to the careers of many physicists and mathematicians—and enriching the bartenders who supply them with the alcoholic beverages required to fuel such speculations.
It’s the third case that is most interesting and most relevant to our efforts: sometimes, as in the case of the revised pain scale I proposed, only the meaning of the number matters. As scientific communicators, we must learn to look for situations when that meaning is more important to our readers than the numbers that so fascinate the scientists who generated the numbers. In understanding the difference between the number and its importance, we discover opportunities to really communicate.
New SIG manager comes on board
by Kathie Gorski (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Greetings fellow SciCom SIG members. I have volunteered to take over management of the Scientific Communication SIG, effective January 1, 2006. Do not panic—Geoff Hart will remain as editor of the excellent newsletter and will also, at least temporarily, continue as moderator of the discussion list. I am joining our intrepid new Webmaster, Cory Koeppen, in having heeded Geoff’s recent call for SIG members to become more involved in managing the SIG.
My involvement started when a headline in the December 2004 issue of the Exchange caught my eye: “Keep our SIG alive!” In the article that followed, Geoff explained that the SciCom SIG (along with all other STC SIGs, chapters, and communities) had been asked to recharter, essentially to justify its existence. He posed some questions that got me thinking about why I value the SIG. And then, at the annual STC conference in Seattle in May, I sat at the SciCom table during the SIG networking luncheon and learned from Geoff that he was seeking to hand over management of the SIG to someone else. After a few months of off-and-on reflection, I decided to volunteer for the role.
In a follow-up article in the next newsletter, I will explain why I value this particular SIG and how I see my role as manager unfolding. In the meantime, I am looking for several volunteers to help get the rechartering process started. If you’d be willing to spend a bit of time, starting in January, discussing how we might approach and accomplish the task, please send me an e-mail. I’d be very grateful if other new volunteers were also to “come on board”.
But it is rocket science: coordinating public information for the Space Science and Engineering Center
by Terri Gregory (email@example.com)
I am the Public Information Coordinator at the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I manage a one-person PR/media relations/public relations shop, though since June 2004 I’ve had the extreme good fortune and pleasure of working with a paid science writing intern from the University’s school of journalism. I’m working with my second intern, and I cannot say how grateful I am for her help, her intelligence, and her enthusiasm. If you’re in my position, get an intern if you can. They are worth far more than the pittance you’ll pay them.
Our job is getting the word out—seeing that the SSEC is visible to the general public and other audiences, which include funding agencies, Congress, and the rest of the university, particularly the Chancellor’s office. To release news, I work with University Communications, who sees that news is covered for the university. Most of what I do—answer information queries, serve as a reference desk, put on open houses, give tours, produce informational brochures and booklets—is done autonomously, with only Center resources. Our outreach department, a relatively recent addition, primarily provides educational workshops, and though they occasionally help with tours, their focus is on lesson plans, not on providing information on what the Center does. They are our educational resource for K–12 students, whereas I handle public and media relations.
My greatest challenge
I must ensure that everything I write meets the scientists’ requirements for precision and accuracy while still being intelligible and engaging for our multiple audiences. That’s harder than you’d think and it often feels like I’m in the middle between what I know the public can understand and what the scientist believes is right.
It’s been particularly difficult to convince them that the U.S. public does not have basic physics knowledge and cannot understand atmospheric science without the use of analogy, metaphor, and graphical descriptions. These are all valid tools, but it’s been difficult to get scientists to use them. They’d always like to use the language of their scientific papers, maybe with a little extra explanation, but certainly without ever yielding to the slightest imprecision.
I meet that challenge by convincing scientists that they have a story to tell and that we’re finding the best way of telling that story. If I wrote exactly as they’d like me to, the story would not be very compelling. Only recently, I’ve started to not put all their “changes” into the final draft when I know these changes will make the story cumbersome, unintelligible, or unusable.
In the last 10 years, our funding agencies, and especially NASA, have required more public outreach. SSEC satisfied this requirement by adding EPO modules to our funding proposals. In NASA-speak, EPO means Education and Public Outreach. There are as many different ways of fulfilling and defining this requirement as there are proposal writers. In spite of this no-longer-new requirement, I’ve still needed to pull teeth to get the Center’s most important work into the public eye. The newest generation of scientists, however, seems to appreciate the need to explain their work intelligibly. Working with those in their 30s has been a refreshing change, and gradually the whole science staff is moving in the direction of greater understanding of the need to disseminate if not popularize our research. Simplification is particularly necessary when we deal with Congress. They’re not impressed by big words and have no patience with acronyms, of which atmospheric scientists are particularly fond. (An acronym allows a scientist to communicate a complex meaning efficiently and precisely, if not clearly.)
I’ve found useful the argument that, because we’re federally funded, our real employers are the public, and that they deserve to know what we’re doing, the implications, and the possible impacts on their lives. Still, it’s difficult to get the scientists to explain their extremely technical work transparently enough. And we don’t have a dog, cow, or human to talk about. Clouds and atmospheric constituents are ephemeral at best. What we have going for us is the fact that everyone talks about the weather, and many people love gadgets. The challenge is still to please the scientist with the quality of an explanation without talking over the heads of our audience. And, as I’ve needed to remind my intern, we’re not writing for the scientist.
Our staff includes no university faculty. The director of our Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies is a faculty member, with tenure, but within SSEC, he functions as a staff scientist, like all the other SSEC newsmakers. I have given media relations training to graduate students in the teaching Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and when I work with the Department, I often work with grad students. Their ability and desire to work with the public vary widely. I am thankful that more and more students are being required to take at least a seminar in public relations or outreach. I am not happy that the terms are being used interchangeably, especially as NASA, and, by extension, the rest of the federal government, has redefined outreach to mean any sort of education. Though I do some of that, my function is not formal education—it is public information and media relations. It is purveying information, or seeing that the public learns about and understands our work. We do work for them, after all.
Rocket science, but…
Okay—maybe what I do is rocket science. But that doesn’t mean that it should be as difficult for the public to understand as the research is for our researchers to do. As is so often the case in scientific communication, the task becomes one of striking the right balance between faithfulness to the science and responsiveness to the needs of our audience.
Terri Gregory is the Public Information Coordinator at the Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin–Madison (http://www.ssec.wisc.edu/)
Book review: “Metaphor and knowledge”
by Candie McKee (firstname.lastname@example.org). Reprinted (with permission) from the May 2004 issue of Technical Communication.
Baake, K. 2003. Metaphor and knowledge: the challenges of writing science. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. [ISBN 0-7914-5744-3. 245 p., including index.]
Great attention has been paid to the rhetoric of science over the past several decades. From Paul Ricoeur to Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, and Alan Gross to Bernadette Longo, the research on the rhetoric of science has been wide and varied. Ken Baake’s Metaphor and knowledge: the challenges of writing science, an ethnographic study of writing at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), provides the latest informative look at how and why the use of metaphor continues to be both rejected and valued by scientists seeking to communicate across disciplines. Through Baake’s observer-participant role, technical communicators and researchers of the rhetoric of science can begin to see how Baake arrived at his argument that metaphor composes and refines science, creating harmony between cross-disciplinary lines.
Baake’s presentation of the age-old argument over metaphor in science remains engaging from beginning to end. He successfully navigates the details involved in the analysis of metaphor in science through comprehensive presentation of the thoughtful and complicated arguments surrounding the issue. Throughout the discussion, he invites readers to engage in the contemplative thoughts of the user (the scientist or technical writer) of metaphor and whether or not it always meets their ultimate goal of accurate communication.
Baake’s rhetorical strategies provide him the means by which to gain credibility with audiences who study the role of metaphor in science while providing those not as well versed with the background information necessary to understand his methodology and conclusion.
The first chapter presents information on how he came to study the use of metaphor at SFI, and specifically why SFI provides a rich atmosphere for such a study. After introducing the study, Baake dedicates a chapter to his own experience with writing at SFI. His experiences make available a medley of examples, discussions, and conclusions about the issues science writers face. Baake’s experiences provide readers with an understanding of the issues scientists address when considering the use of metaphor in their writing.
Baake follows his experiences with an expansive review of the treatment of metaphor in language and rhetoric in science, philosophy, chaos theory, and modeling of complex systems. Like the scientists at SFI, Baake crosses disciplines and provides insight into the similarities and differences in studies of its use. This review engages readers who have not studied the treatment of metaphor by providing the necessary background to understand the lengthiest, and most dense, chapter of the book, “Metaphor and mathematics”. In this chapter, Baake discusses the relationship between metaphor and mathematics at SFI.
As in the first few chapters, Baake gives voice to the scientists through interviews, providing arguments about the purpose of metaphor and when it fails to communicate the reality that scientists find in their research. Baake explains the scientists’ preference for mathematics and their understanding of the limitations it brings to the presentation of science. Scientists support their cautious approach to using metaphor through evidence, demonstrating that in some cases it may provide a narrow view of the concept, voiding the concept of its significance in science, or that it may invoke meanings not applicable to the scientific concept, promoting false representation.
The next chapter shows how these risks create difficulty for writers seeking to meet the needs of their audience. Baake’s use of illustration in this chapter supports his argument that writers of science should start the writing process over for each new audience. Doing so, he says, provides writers with the opportunity to avoid many of the issues discussed in previous chapters. He also addresses the value of single-sourcing, noting that the research and base text add value to the presentation for each audience. He ends the chapter with a discussion of the issues that cross-disciplinary presentation invites.
Then Baake narrows his discussion to a specific term, complexity. He begins the discussion by presenting the varied meanings and uses of the term across disciplines. He centers the discussion on the subjectivity scientists associate with the term. While they understand its relationship to their studies, they feel the term can be too misleading to accurately describe their research.
Baake ends his discussion by reflecting on the goals of SFI and the challenges that lie ahead for both the scientists and the technical communicators of science. He addresses his audiences directly by offering insights into how each can apply the results of the study and by discussing the future rhetorical challenges of writing for science.
Metaphor and knowledge provides readers with a comprehensive look at the use of metaphor in science and with a fresh perspective on how to approach the challenges in writing for science. Academic readers will find the book useful for bringing together the multitude of research to promote more scholarly studies in the emerging fields of chaos theory and modeling of complex systems. Technical communication practitioners will find the book useful for understanding the complex studies devoted to the use of metaphor and will develop an understanding of why scientists both admire and reject the use of metaphor in scientific writing. Both audiences will find chapters specific to their interests and needs, making the book worthy of a place in a technical communication library.
Candie Mckee is a senior member of the Oklahoma State University student chapter and is working on her PhD at Oklahoma State University. She is past-president of the Oklahoma chapter and currently serves as the manager of International Student Technical Communication Competition.
Compared to what?
by Jean-luc Doumont
Previously published in the IEEE Prof. Commun. Soc. Newsletter 46:6, 10 (November/December 2002)
Much of my recent vacation in Northern Spain was devoted to hiking the stunning landscapes of Picos de Europa (the “peaks of Europe”), a national park overlapping the communities of Asturias, Cantabria, and Castilla y León. An exceptionally sunny day brought us to Fuente Dé, a place known for its teleférico or cable car—the type that hangs from a cable, not the type that climbs the steep streets of San Francisco. This teleférico‘s claim to fame, or so I read in the flyer I received, was that it was the world’s third largest, climbing 750 metres in one span.
Interesting as it was, the cable car’s ranking raised more questions than it answered, at least to our inquisitive minds. “Third largest?” my wife commented. “I wonder where the world’s largest and second largest are.” “Yes,” I concurred, “and I wonder how large those are, compared to this one.” Though I did not say so out loud, I also wondered what “large” referred to: the size of the cabin, the length of the cable, the difference in height? Who knows?
The lack of a proper reference point plagues communication, whether professional or otherwise. As a stereotypical example, commercial ads routinely praise products for being “better” or “cheaper”—than what? Similarly, the cashier of a U.S. supermarket I recently stopped at highlighted on my receipt the amount I had saved by shopping there. I’m still wondering: shopping there, as opposed to… where?
Research articles and engineering reports frequently suffer from a lack of comparison points in two places: the Introduction and the Conclusion. But the problem is more acute still in the Abstract or Executive Summary, where the comparison point is omitted, authors argue, for lack of space. Though the objection seems logical, the result is ineffective writing, especially for the less-expert reader.
The Introduction of reports or articles normally attempts to motivate the audience by stating the need for the work or research. One way or another, this need corresponds to a gap between the actual state and the desired state. Many documents, however, limit themselves to stating only the purpose of the work or research—that is, the desired state. Yet the motivation does not lie in the desired state alone; it lies in the gap. Although specialists may know the actual state or be able to infer it from the desired one, the argument loses strength for lack of an explicit point of comparison.
As a case in point, every year at a major Belgian university, various faculty members and I work with engineering students on the oral presentation of their undergraduate thesis. We encourage them to motivate their work, but few of them go beyond the sole purpose, with such statements as “our goal is to find a new algorithm for…” Even the specialists in the audience then ask, “what’s wrong with the current algorithms?”, a question students find themselves ill-prepared to answer.
The Conclusion of reports or papers, which is supposed to interpret the findings in view of the need, suffers even more frequently from incomplete or missing comparisons. Yet the comparison is at the heart of the interpretation. When readers learn, for example, that the new catalyst allows the chemical reaction to take place at 235°C, they will want to know whether this is better or worse than with the old catalyst, and whether the difference is large or small. Specialists might be able to guess, of course, but leaving the interpretation to the reader is taking the risk that the message will not be received accurately—if at all.
Accurate comparisons fulfill three requirements. First, they require relative values, such as “20% faster than” or “four times as large as”. These relative values do not exclude the usefulness of absolute values, which specialists might still find interesting. Second, they require a meaningful point of comparison. Clarifying, for example, what a bushel is by stating that it is four times as large as a peck will not help those who do not know what a peck is. Third, they require clear criteria that define what exactly “fast” or “large” refers to. All three of these requirements were missing in the flyer of the teleférico de Fuente Dé.
Dr. Jean-luc Doumont teaches and provides advice on professional speaking, writing, and graphing. For some 20 years, he has helped audiences of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities structure their thoughts and construct their communication.
“Life cannot be classified in terms of a simple neurological ladder, with human beings at the top; it is more accurate to talk of different forms of intelligence, each with its strengths and weaknesses. This point was well demonstrated in the minutes before last December’s tsunami, when tourists grabbed their digital cameras and ran after the ebbing surf, and all the ‘dumb’ animals made for the hills.”—B.R. Myers, author (1963- )
“I want very much to communicate science to as wide an audience as possible, but not at the cost of dumbing it down, and not at a cost in getting things right. If I can lure readers to raise their game and tackle something a bit harder than they would normally do, if I can do that in an appealing way, without dumbing down, without making it all jokey and larky and fun, but retain the integrity and lure them into it by some kind of literary merit—that would be my ideal.”—Richard Dawkins
“Although in science we eschew intuition because of its many perils…, we’d do well to remember… that intellect and intuition are complementary, not competitive. Without intellect, our intution may drive us unchecked into emotional chaos. Without intuition, we risk failing to resolve complex social dynamics and moral dilemmas.”—Michael Shermer, The Captain Kirk Principle
“Isn’t it weird how scientists can imagine all the matter of the universe exploding out of a dot smaller than the head of a pin, but they can’t come up with a more evocative name for it than ‘the big bang’? That’s the whole problem with science. You’ve got a bunch of empiricists trying to describe things of unimaginable wonder.”—Calvin, speaking to Hobbes (Bill Watterson)
“If you try to talk to scientists or scholars about their work and they seem to you to be reluctant,don’t assume that it is because they think that you wouldn’t understand. It is usually because it’s so hard to correct or update the results of research once they are a matter of public knowledge. Researchers know that they can make one casual careless remark and then—to their horror—find that remark appearing on the morning news in no more than a day or two. This tends to make them cautious about discussing what they are doing and what they believe they have learned.”—Suzette Haden Elgin, The last word on the gentle art of verbal self-defense