The View From Here

The problem young scientists have with words is not just one of simple vocabulary
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The Independent Online
"So what does extant mean, then?" one of my graduate students asked. He was referring to a slide I had just made up showing the number of brain cells surviving during pathological degeneration in a region of the brain. It was not as if I had confronted him with a concept he had never encountered: after all, the phrase "extant species" is hardly unfamiliar fare to biologists. No, the problem was understanding what the fancy word itself meant when transposed to another, less familiar context.

But the problem young scientists have with words is not just one of simple vocabulary. Writing, too, is becoming an unassailable fortress for those for whom it might be presumed to be the stuff of life: science undergraduates and young professional scientists alike treat the writing of essays, or indeed the eventual writing of research papers, as the pre-fluoride generation might view visits to the dentist.

The generation to which I belong does indeed have dental caries, but we also had grammar lessons, and many of us learnt Latin. Main verbs, subordinate clauses and sentences, therefore, are precise, meaningful entities around which we longer-toothed ones consciously work when writing. By contrast, for many of the young, writing can be a vaguer and more haphazard affair exercised according to "intuition" and "what sounds right".

But does it really matter? In a world of spell checkers and grammar checkers, it will surely all be ironed out by the software. Yet a sentence that is merely technically correct is hardly interesting to read - and it is far from being stimulating to write. No wonder so many young scientists are reluctant to express themselves in words, if they simply record on paper, or on a screen, the half-finished thoughts of the spoken word, with all its unlovely, distracted phrases. You get slight reward for lashing together key words for the computer to repack into a legitimate sentence. Clear writing is a sure sign of clear thinking. So would the converse apply? Would an inability to write lead to an atrophy in developing thought processes more generally? Such an idea is impossible to prove, but it is surely a worry that cannot be easily dismissed. The frustration is that young people can be very bright, in terms of understanding and assimilating at speed a complex concept. But can they think through a new idea? It is hard to know, when the means of expression of developing a logical argument has become such a blunt instrument.

For some reason, the good writing gene has undergone a tragic mutation. Let's start from the beginning. We all know that you do well what you enjoy, not least because you are effectively rehearsing that skill, like a muscle in a gym. Many young scientists will not have written much, because of the increasing popularity of multiple choice questions, the pervasiveness in the physical sciences of symbol-based exercises, and decreased time for writing general essays in an ever more crowded curriculum. But was it the mere exercise of routine recording with smudgy fountain pens "What I did in the holidays" that made all the difference? Was it the authoritative, forensic dissection of each paragraph to exterminate any lurking, clumsy ablative absolute? Not entirely.

When I asked among my friends, many admitted to the same chameleon-like experience that I have, of echoing in our writing style that of whatever book we are reading at the time. It is, we decided, not a conscious or intentional process, but more like osmosis, where the cadences and vocabulary of the author permeate passively into our own inner thought processes. Much to my amazement, many of my younger colleagues do not have a "book they are reading at the time": it seems that the habit of reading is not as automatic among young scientists as I might have assumed. So, if they are not reading, no wonder there is no inner template, and no wonder that reconstructing the written word is so alien.

Could a lack of reading have even more dire consequences? One of the magic aspects of reading that fascinates me increasingly as a neuroscientist, is that one is there, in some vivid and yet hazy way, in the medieval bazaar or the Victorian drawing room. This indulgence in the inner world, of the imagination, is launched when you start to read as a child. The growth of the human imagination, which I would contend is massively enabled by reading, is a rite of passage out of the present, to roam free into the past and future. But if you live in the here and now, a key-press away from the immediate and lurid responses of the computer screen, when will you have time to escape into your own wispy inner world? Perhaps this is the terrible price we pay when we train young scientists to interact so brilliantly with machines, indeed to be machine-like in their own operations; perhaps they will be less able to use their imagination. The apparent discomfort of the young with reading and writing might seem to elicit one last cry of complaint from a crusty computer semi-literate. On the other hand, it could be the symptom that the next generation of scientists could be dominated, not by visionaries, but by button-pressing techies

The author is Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University

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