Rewriting Science

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

Illustration by Paige Davis, MC ’21, YH Staff

“Well, vaccines are just a Big Pharma conspiracy.” I usually am able to hold my tongue when one of my friend’s parents makes such an erroneous political remark, but considering the recent outbreak of measles across the country, I likely would have bitten my tongue off if I did not say anything. “Do you not think vaccines work?” I asked, hoping I had misheard her previous remarks. I hadn’t. My friend shoots me a glare across the table to drop it. I can’t. I take a sip of water before I dive into a speech about how vaccines have existed for centuries, how George Washington had used them at Valley Forge, and how vaccines had helped to eradicate smallpox. All of it falls on deaf ears. My friend again shoots me a glare, making me wonder if I will make it home alive that night. I decide life is more important than this argument and change the topic of conversation. In the back of my head though, I realize there is a much larger social problem afoot than just at this dining room table.

According to the PEW Research Center, a reported 12 percent of Americans believe the benefits of the measles vaccines do not outweigh the risks. While this statistic appears initially low considering the mass hysteria surrounding the measles outbreaks across the country, 55 percent of those with self-described “low knowledge about science” answered that they believed vaccines had little benefit, whereas only 9 percent of those with a “high knowledge about science” answered the same. It is evident that the work of the scientists, professors, and researchers of the scientific community is not reaching everyone, especially those without a strong scientific background. As we have seen in the past year, a lack of information — or even worse, misinformation — can be dangerous and expose the American population to fatal events such as the measles outbreaks in California, Washington, Texas, Illinois, and New York in 2019.

How can we bring science to those who need to understand it the most? The answer is clear: we need to better integrate the concepts of rhetoric and composition into the sciences. To ask every individual to complete advanced scientific degree programs in order to understand science is absurd. It is a simply unrealistic expectation. Thus, the responsibility of resolving the information deficit falls to the scientific community.

Though STEM and English are often considered separate fields — and the very thought of the other sends chills down the spine of each community — STEM and English are not mutually exclusive. Scholars and researchers in both STEM and the language arts rely on a communication of ideas in order to produce advances and breakthroughs in their respective fields. They both rely on the presentation of evidence to support a hypothesis or claim. Furthermore, both fields seek to build upon a previous foundation of scholarship. Science is mathematical and quantitative while English is humanistic and qualitative. Even in this regard though, science and the language arts converge. The scientific community often uses qualitative descriptors (color, texture, smell) as measurements in experiments while English, at the molecular level, follows a very mathematical, structural format in the creation of sentence structure.

This piece is not to critique the current quality of scientific work. Many scientists are masterful writers of empirical research and have honed the craft of scientific composition. However, these papers are purposed for their colleagues, an audience that does not need to be persuaded that climate change is real or that vaccines are beneficial. Scientists should be focusing their writing towards a non-scientific audience: the general public. In English classes, students and writers are taught to consider their audience and what background information they need to know in order to understand the overall argument. The scientific community and the general public possess different knowledge. They require different levels of background information. They require different lexicon and terms.

For example, the scientific community may require that a paper provide the previous experimental scholarship and a complex explanation of the experimental procedures. The general public, however, may need a more lengthy discussion of the basic underlying scientific jargon behind the experiment. The general public and scientists are to be persuaded in different ways.

Scientists must be cognizant of audience and rhetoric in their work, but the merging of STEM and English should be a long-term goal for everyone. This is a mission for the workplace, the laboratory, and the classroom. At all levels of science, we must advocate for the inclusion of English composition in long-term educational objectives. Teachers are already beginning to push for a convergence between the language arts and STEM through STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). The objective of STEAM is to introduce an intersectional developmental program of creativity and critical thinking more frequently found in the humanities into STEM practices.

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