Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Just the Facts, Ma'am."

Gillen, Christopher. “The Data Suggest: Writing in the Sciences.” They Say, I Say
                  2nd Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 156-174. Print.   

Facts, facts and more facts! In, “The Data Suggest: Writing in the Sciences”, we are told the facts obtained from data collected during scientific research should be the foundation of any writing about science. Here we have the first difference between writing we have done all semester and science based writing. In our class where we discuss pop culture, our first assignment was to complete a survey and give our opinion on what pieces of pop culture we found amusing. The ability to have and communicate an opinion and in some cases (as with the blogs), how creatively and fluidly we express that opinion is how we approach writing in our English class. Facts tend to be secondary and are only relevant in terms of how well they support our opinion. Also, the sources we used as evidence to support our claims were  usually from the opinion-based writings of someone else. In my final paper for class, for example, many of my citations are from academics that have opinions on the subject I am writing about and not necessarily any conclusive research that they have conducted. Rattling off facts based on empirical evidence is not however, the only component in scientific writing.

Explaining the methods used and the underlying scientific theories that support the data you’re writing about is another requirement in scientific writing. In our class, by contrast, when we discussed our favorite piece of music we did not also need to know what key that song was written in, or how to read sheet music in general. If we discussed a movie, we did not need to understand what camera angles were used in the scene being analyzed or how to break down the beats (a term some actors use when dissecting a script) of the dialogue we were quoting. Our aesthetic judgment was enough to give us some sense of ownership over what we were discussing in terms of pop culture. In science this is not the case. Some background knowledge of the subject you’re writing about is essential and must be demonstrated in your writing. If you are writing about data from research on a new diet pill, you must first discuss theories on how metabolic reactions take place in the body or explain how glucose is absorbed by cells at the molecular level before delving into how the new pill works and whether or not the data supports the drug manufacturer’s claims. Again, personal opinions are not at the center when presenting background information regarding relevant scientific theories.

The big question in writing for science is: does your opinion ever matter? Yes and no. If you are conducting your own scientific research then absolutely your opinion as a result of your data counts. You can utilize the conversation based style of They Say, I Say and show how you agree or disagree with previous studies based on the same theory. Templates like “X’s work leads to the question of _____, therefore, we investigated _______,” (167) allows you to answer the question “Who cares?” or “Why is this important?” for your reader while not deviating from the fact-based approach of scientific writing. If you’re not a researcher, like many of us students, interpreting the quality of the research you’re summarizing can be your opportunity to express your opinion. If the sample size used to conduct the research was too small to gather conclusive evidence or important experiments were excluded from the research in question (173), expressing those observations can strengthen your writing. Those observations however, must have some basis in science and cannot be based solely on personal beliefs.

Overall, writing for science is comparable to venturing off to outer space. You need to be well prepared and knowledgeable before taking off. Once you’re in orbit, you quickly realize many things: the universe is much bigger than you are, and in the grand scheme of things, the little world you come from, and your opinions in general, don’t count for very much.



  1. I think the writing we did for this class and scientific writing are pretty similar. Of course, the scientific writing would be more specific with the data but the overall format of that paper would be similar to regular papers.

    1. Yes and no, Chelby. The actual organization for a science paper is very strict; think of filling out a lab report for a science class. You have to report certain stages from your experiment into the proper places. But yes, the way you go about making your claim is basically the same :-)

      Great post, Dawn, as always! I should have you give a "How to Write Awesome Blog Posts" workshop in my next class :-)