As a new-to-the-game freelance science writer, publishing an article in The Atlantic a few weeks ago was a huge accomplishment. Even more so because it was my very first bit of paid freelance writing. Despite my lack of experience, they took me on to write them an article, which speaks in part to some level of writing ability on my part AND mostly to the quality of the idea that I pitched to them.
The idea that the language in which science is done (ie. English) might have negative impacts on the discipline seems to me at the same time fascinating and obvious. It’s clear to me that there are people and ideas that can miss out because of an Anglophone and Anglocentric science. Not all ideas, not all people, but some of them some of the time. That’s what my article talked about. Discussions of this kind -interdisciplinary and unusual, with wide-ranging interest- are what The Atlantic likes to cover, so apparently they thought that the fit with their magazine was good.
However, some people on the internet aren’t so sure it was worth it. I read through a fair chunk of the comments in the days after publication, and thought there was stuff in there worth responding to. I was not surprised to see a diversity of views, but the passion of the responses was unexpected. Here are a few points I want to address from the comments:
- There were several racist statements about the capacity of Indigenous people to contribute to science. This is unacceptable. Some examples: So we go from “people should be encouraged to do science in their native language” which is okay to “we should listen to a bunch of primitives who’s conception of science is ‘shit go boom.’; As for the scientific “value” of the deadly sky devil of the naked people of nevernever land …; first, they don’t contribute to science, and second, English prevalence has nothing to do with their illiteracy. I’m pretty sure they were illiterate long before the British Empire arrived and they’ll remain illiterate until someone teaches them English. People are welcome to have opinions about the state of science and whether its global language is a good or a bad thing, but words like primitives, naked people of nevernever land and remain illiterate demean indigenous people, their cultures and their heritage. I was sad to see these statements appear in the comments.
- It seemed like my criticism of the language of science prompted a lot of defensiveness from readers. There were flippant responses about my experience or knowledge posted that served to delegitimize my argument, instead of refuting my argument with better points. For my part, instead of believing whole heartedly in science without looking at where it can be improved, I think the best way to improve science is to try to pick out the things that need fixing, which was the aim of my article. I may not have pointed the way to specific solutions, but pointing out a problem within it does not mean that I am invalidating the whole endeavour of science.
- I noticed a lot of people think that English has become the universal language of science because of inherent features in the language that make it easier to speak and use. While there may be some value to this idea (which would need to be looked into much further with large comparative studies between many languages) on its own it seems like an easy way out of the difficult situation I describe. It makes it easy to ignore the problem and instead take pride in our ability to already speak the-best-of-all-the-languages.The question is this: given that English as the global language of science is here to stay (at least for the meantime), how can we better include ideas and participants from different world views into the discipline?
The last thing that I noticed is an issue that I need to deal with in my writing. If you’ve read my other blog posts, you know that this is an issue that I’ve been focused on for a while. Whether it’s from a scientific or a linguistic perspective, the intersection of those two things, specifically in regard to the English language is fascinating to me. However, reading some of the comments has shown me that my main point, underlying the rest of what I write, still lacks nuance and subtlety. It’s not yet inclusive enough of non-native English speaking scientists, and doesn’t articulate the major benefits of having a universal language.
My work definitely has room to improve, but fortunately there remains a lot to say about this topic, so I’ll definitely be working on it. In the mean time, I’m grateful to all the people who read, shared and commented on my article. I look forward to writing more of them in the future.