Writers as scientists

Matthew Yglesias a while back on Quine’s Word and Object:

It’s tempting (and conventional) to imagine language working neatly through such correspondences. Each word refers to some object in the world; each sentence describes a fact. Quine’s somewhat fanciful speculations on radical translation serve to undermine this account of meaning. Language is a social phenomenon, and languages are social practices with no guarantee of such direct correspondences. Quine observes that if we hear of a place where the local inhabitants describe pelicans as their half-brothers, it would be foolish to interpret this as a sign of profound genetic misunderstanding on their part. Instead, we see that their words don’t quite line up with ours, and a concept exists that somehow refers to half-brothers and pelicans alike.

[…] Those of us who try to describe the world for a living aren’t just poor handmaidens of those who try to uncover the truth about it… Rather, the process of description is the process of discovery. Language and science are, together, a joint process of discovery. Quine uses the phrase “ontic decision” to bypass the traditional question of what kinds of things are “real” as opposed to merely nominal. As he puts it, “The quest of a simplest, clearest overall pattern of canonical notation is not to be distinguished from a quest of ultimate categories, a limning of the most general traits of reality.” To paraphrase loosely — no doubt a bit too loosely for the tastes of one of the most precise writers I’ve ever read — a writer’s search for better, clearer, more concise descriptions of what we know is fundamentally of a piece with the searches for new knowledge.

I agree that a writers’ choosing concepts to describe things is in some ways basically similar to the part of science which involves ‘explaining’, or finding simple theories to describe the complexity we see. Both activities can be about spotting regularities in the messy world and re-describing what’s left of the mess with those patterns factored out. However it seems to me that writers’ efforts along these lines are badly constrained by conflicting rules. A scientist might notice that everything falls at the same rate, so they might name this ‘gravity’ and in future just say that all the stuff they describe falls with gravity, instead of describing each trajectory individually. A social commentator might notice many situations have in common an “irresistible force that draws you back to bed, or toward any mattress, couch, or other soft horizontal surface”, after which they need only mention ‘bed gravity‘. Or more poetically, a writer may notice a similar pattern in the behavior of a certain man and that of a disease, and say “He is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad”.

Notice that ‘more poetic’ here goes with a much narrower categorization. One man’s behavior is like a disease, whereas ‘bed gravity’ links a large range of familiar situations. ‘Gravity’ is an even more widespread pattern. This points to what I think is a difference between writers and scientists: scientists are actually looking for patterns that apply most generally, whereas a writer is cliched or dull if they aim to use the same metaphor again and again. Or worse, to re-use metaphors many others have used before them. They often can’t even use the same word or phrase their recent self has used before them without it sounding weird.

If writers were in charge of science they would say ‘you can’t put this whirlpool down to the coriolis effect too! You just used it for the jet streams and boundary currents. And it’s so hackneyed already!’ Some writers do what scientists do, and look for ways to describe reality concisely. But usually I think this is a topic for their writing: to say it is part of writing is like saying that gardening is a part of writing by virtue of there being books about it.

This is all mostly for novel categorizations and phrases. Writers do get away with re-using English words and common phrases. And using words presumably involves a bit of changing the meanings of the concepts around the edges as one goes. This is similar to the part of science where a scientist sees a particular flower and says, ‘ah, that’s a marigold’, perhaps ever so gradually thereby shifting exactly what it means to be a marigold.

6 responses to “Writers as scientists

  1. This points to what I think is a difference between writers and scientists: scientists are actually looking for patterns that apply most generally, whereas a writer is cliched or dull if they aim to use the same metaphor again and again. Or worse, to re-use metaphors many others have used before them. They often can’t even use the same word or phrase their recent self has used before them without it sounding weird.This points to what I think is a difference between writers and scientists: scientists are actually looking for patterns that apply most generally, whereas a writer is cliched or dull if they aim to use the same metaphor again and again.

    Isn’t the analog of metaphors (and words) symbols rather than patterns? (Not that the conclusion is different.)

    You may be aware of the dispute regarding what’s called “elegant variation” in writing. The semi-consensus is that you should use the same word for the same concept. (My position on elegant variation is at http://tinyurl.com/poko5xm )

    But I think Yglesias’s comparison is facile. Scientists and writers search for different kinds of simplicity. Scientists measure simplicity according to our plausibility function; writers measure simplicity according to our comprehension function. They’re related but essentially different. (Re the “comprehension function”: http://tinyurl.com/8m65wry )

  2. First, there is no such thing as “science.” There are similar techniques for experimentally testing models for how things work which must results in measurable events yielding data. But any overall umbrella concept, beliefs or practices is just a made-up rhetorical trick of pop media – writers.

    The problem evidence-based knowledge (science) works to solve is that what we see and experience is caused by things we cannot see and experience, e.g. germs, gravity waves, brain processes, etc. “information is expensive.” and subjectively available experiences and the verbal behavior accompanying that is very cheap and easy to acquire and exchange. Thus, the information value is likely very low.

    The sole criteria for any knowledge and the truth of any statement is the ability to predict future events, within an error term.

    Subjective experience, consciousness, word-based behavior appears to be mainly unreliable about predicting. Thus, word-based subjective experiences, the main content of writing, are likely trivial and epiphenomenal. that in the increasing experimental evidence. Language behavior is always locally normed and conventional thus, mere ideology.

    Another point is that the analogical bodies of “knowledge” are effectively worthless at predictions, history, econ, etc. Philosophy has become another dead language.

    This article is disingenuous in it’s claim.

    • subjectively available experiences and the verbal behavior accompanying that is very cheap and easy to acquire and exchange

      How do you think you know that (relevant) subjective experience and writing skills are cheap and easy to acquire? In so concluding, aren’t you just organizing your subjective experience through verbal behavior, instead of inferring unobservable entities from measurements? “Cheap,” moreover, is a concept from “worthless” economics.

      • Language conventions are not to be confused with biological processes. So we have local, social language usage norms which only very remotely might approximate the biological facts. Thus, evidence-based knowledge and statements require specialized. expert and information heavy words to and mainly data to usefully communicate. However, it does appear most of subjective experience/word-based behavior is non-verbal since our systems all all adoptions of other animal systems.

        But, actually with other animals we can actually measure the energy cost of neuronal activation by stimuli and it’s predictive power in the future. We can do this with bacteria and other lower life forms. Biology is all about exchanging electrons inside the body and with the habitat, after all.

        so we have a lot of verbal behavior which is likely of very little value so why does it seem to proliferate and dominate human behavior? Well it doesn’t really for anyone other than rich, western folks. Verbal behavior for most humans involves mainly nonsensical ideas about magic. The core principal of magical thinking, and a lie, is “Mind over matter.”

        So, the hyper-reification of words is just another magical claim – consciousness/subjective experience is over/meaningfully informative about biological/brain professes. subjective experience is no more informative about behavior and the brain processes that drive behavior than it is about the function of the kidney. Thus medicine was created to stop the dying from dependence on subjective experience.

        So writers are merely selling a modern version of magical thinking, which is fine. That is mainly what humans pay for. humans demand and will pay the most attentions to lies/false promises. Others animals probably do as well.

        Sure, we are swapping words here – but they have little, if any, information value. Let’s be honest. no magic here.

        • Sure, we are swapping words here – but they have little, if any, information value.

          What value do they have? (When you say “This article is disingenuous” you aren’t (disingenuously?) implying that you are conveying information? Those words are what: a social pleasantry?)

          • Words are used for social signaling, like this. In terms of conveying information, which is statements that can predict future events, words have little value.

            It is a rhetorical trick to suggest that the implicit magical claims of writing are anywhere as potentially information containing as experimental data, which is the fundamental information value of what is called “science.” again, claiming words carry information value is magical thinking “Mind (subjective experience) over matter.”

            But this here is a meta exchange about semantics which is usually the first tactic to avoid the content of the statements. Focusing on word usage rather than statements. Predictable, but off topic.

            Again, simply if writing were biologically meaningful, other animals would have it.

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