The inseparability of writing and science

Whether you agree with Steven Pinker‘s views on cognition or not, it’s hard to deny that he’s an eloquent writer.  I recently found an interesting clip of Pinker discussing his new writing manual, The Sense of Style, which will be out in September.

I was first captivated by this quote: “There’s no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself.”

Throughout the video, Pinker explains why knowing more about the mind can help us to become better writers, which in turn will facilitate communication about scientific innovations like the mind. One reason Pinker makes this claim is because, in his view, “writing is cognitively unnatural.” In conversations, we can adjust what we’re saying based on feedback we receive from our audience, but we don’t have this privilege when writing. Instead, we must imagine our audience ahead of time in order to convey our message as clearly as possible.

Pinker points out that many writers write with an agenda of proving themselves as a good scientist, lawyer, or other professional. This stance doesn’t give rise to good writing. A writer should instead try to show the writer something that’s cool about the world.

He also points out that to be a good writer, you must first be a good reader, specifically “having absorbed tens or hundreds of thousands of constructions and idioms and irregularities from the printed page.” He uses the verbs “savor” and “reverse-engineer” to describe the process of reading to become a better writer. This echoes a lot of advice I’ve encountered (often in written form) since I first decided to pursue a PhD: read as much as you can. (I have also learned that any amount of reading I do will never feel like enough).

Regarding his style manual, Pinker wants to avoid the prescriptivist (someone who prescribes what constitutes correct language) vs. descriptivist (someone who reports how language is used in practice, regardless of correctness) distinction. Another great quote:

The controversy between ‘prescriptivists’ and ‘descriptivists’ is like the choice in ‘America: Love it or leave it,’ or ‘Nature versus Nurture’—a euphonious dichotomy that prevents you from thinking.

His overall point is that the humanities and sciences should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Instead, science should be used to inform humanities (in this case, writing, but I think his argument generalizes beyond this), and a knowledge of the humanities should inform science as well. To me, this is what cognitive science must necessarily be – an understanding of the human mind and behavior requires rigorous science, no doubt, but I think we need to continue to look outside the three pounds of neural tissue inside our skulls for the most complete understanding.

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