What images does the word “power” bring to your mind? Weapons? Bulging muscles? A mean-looking capitalist smoking cigar? Whatever your mind’s eye brings up, it is most likely not a fragile figure hunched over a keyboard. But maybe it should.Words have power, today more than ever. Riots and rebellions can be arranged by text-messages, a single word made hashtag can create a mass movement, 140 characters will ruin a career, and a video gone viral will reach out to the world. Words can destroy lives or they can save them: “If you find the right tone and the right words, you can reach just about anybody,” says Cid Jonas Gutenrath who worked for years at the emergency call center of the Berlin police force :
“I had worked before as a bouncer, and I was always the shortest one there. I had an existential need, so to speak, to solve problems through language. I can express myself well, and when that’s combined with some insights into human nature it’s a valuable skill. What I’m talking about is every conversation with the police, whether it’s an emergency call or a talk on the street. Language makes it possible for everyone involved to get out of the situation in one piece.”
Words won’t break your bones. But more often than not, words – or their failure – decide whether we take to weapons. It is our ability to convince, cooperate, and compromise that has allowed us to conquer an increasingly crowded planet. According to recent research, what made humans so successful might indeed not have been superior intelligence or skills, but instead our ability to communicate and work together.
In a recent SciAm issue, Curtis W. Marean, Professor for Archeology at Arizona State University, lays out a new hypothesis to explain what was the decisive development that allowed humans to dominate Earth. According to Marean, it is not, as previously proposed, handling fire, building tools, or digesting a large variety of food. Instead, he argues, what sets us apart is our willingness to negotiate a common goal.
The evolution of language was necessary to allow our ancestors to find solutions to collective problems, solutions other than hitting each other over the head. So it became possible to reach agreements between groups, to develop a basis for commitments and, eventually, contracts. Language also served to speed up social learning and to spread ideas. Without language we wouldn’t have been able to build a body of knowledge on which the scientific profession could stand today.
“Tell a story,” is the ubiquitous advice given to anybody who writes or speaks in public. And yet, some information fits badly into story-form. In popular science writing, the reader inevitably gets the impression that much of science is a series of insights building onto each other. The truth is that most often it is more like collecting puzzle pieces that might or might not actually belong to the same picture.
The stories we tell are inevitably linear; they follow one neat paragraph after the other, one orderly thought after the next, line by line, word by word. But this simplicity betrays the complexity of the manifold interrelations between scientific concepts. Ask any researcher for their opinion on a news report in their discipline and they will almost certainly say “It’s not so simple…”
|Links between different fields of science.|
Image Source: Bollen et al, PLOS ONE, March 11, 2009.
The problem with linear stories doesn’t only make the writing about science difficult, but also the writing in science. The main difficulty when composing scientific papers is the necessity to convert a higher-dimensional network of associations into a one-dimensional string. It is plainly impossible. Many research articles are hard to follow, not because they are badly written, but because the nature of knowledge itself doesn’t lend itself to the narrative.
I have an ambivalent relation to science communication because a good story shouldn’t make or break an idea. But the more ideas we are exposed to, the more relevant good presentation becomes. Every day scientific research seems a little less like a quest for truth, and a little more like a competition for attention.
In an ideal world maybe scientists wouldn’t write their papers themselves. They would call for an independent reporter and have to explain their calculations, then hand over their results. The paper would be written up by an unbiased expert, plain, objective, and comprehensible. Without exaggerations, without omissions, and without undue citations to friends. But we don’t live in an ideal world.
What can you do? Clumsy and often imperfect, words are still the best medium we have to convey thought. “I think therefore I am,” Descartes said. But 400 years later, the only reason his thought is still alive is that he put into writing.
 Quoted in: Evonik Magazine 2015-02, p 17.