Exaggerations, hedgings, and boosting

I recently read James Watson’s latest memoir, Avoid Boring People (he of Watson & Crick DNA fame), and one of his “remembered lessons” is this:

Exaggerations do not void basic truths

Books, like plays or movies, succeed best when they exaggerate the truth. In communicating scientific fact to the nonspecialist, there is a huge difference between simplifying for effect and misleading. The issues that scientists must explain to society … require far too many years of training for most people to take hold of them in all their nuances. Sciences will necessarily exaggerate but are ethically obliged to society to exaggerate responsibly. In writing my textbooks I realized that emphasizing exceptions to simple truths was counterproductive and that use of qualifying terms such as probably or possibly was not the way to get ideas across initially.

James D. Watson, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Knopf, 2007, p.170

This is curious for many reasons: scientific writing demonstrates a balance between boosting (Watson’s “exaggerations”) and hedging (“qualifying terms” and other linguistic features). In most cases, scientists err on the side of caution and hedge their claims. Boosters are indeed used, but they are seen more in shorter correspondence and, I think, abstracts, including conference abstracts. Perhaps Watson is talking about science writing for general audiences, or at least for teaching purposes, because his most famous writing does not seem to follow his own advice!

In their famous  1953 letter to Nature describing the structure of DNA (available on Nature‘s 50 Years of DNA website), Watson and Crick are cautious about their claims: “We wish to suggest a structure …”, ending with this spectacular understatement:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing [of the four base “letters” of DNA] we have postulated immediately suggests a possibly copying mechanism for the genetic material.

In fact, this is the most significant finding in the paper, but it is presented as an accidental after-thought. In 1974, Crick explained why the sentence (a paragraph by itself, in fact) appears in this way:

This [sentence] has been described as ‘coy’, a word that few would normally associate with either of the authors, at least in their scientific work.

He goes on to explain that he (Crick) had wanted a stronger statement, but Watson did not want any mention of the “genetic implications” of their discovery (they would go on to write another paper later in 1953 on this topic). According to Crick, Watson was afraid of making “an ass of himself” by claiming something that would turn out to be wrong (which would not, in fact, be the case). It seems that, at least as a young scientist, Watson saw value in the use of the “qualifying terms” which he would later disown.

This suggests to me that when scientists balance hedging and boosting, they consider at least: (1) the novelty of their work; (2) the potential hostility of their readers; and (3) their own reputation and status in the field (Watson as a young postdoc in Cambridge, UK, did have the status of Watson, the octogenarian Nobel-laureate in Cambridge, MA!).

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

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