Thoughts on ‘As We May Think’

This week – last week, really (I am running a bit behind) – as part of #openlearning17 we were asked to read As We May Think, an article written in The Atlantic by Vannevar Bush in 1945.

I was struck by how abrasive the use of “man” to refer to people in general and scientists more specifically is in this article. I’m sure this is a combination of language evolving and the more overt sexism of the 1940s. I suppose we have made some progress on this front after all.

woman flying through air powerfully

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On openness in language and communication

In the article, Bush states:

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

Vannevar Bush

I have felt this paradox acutely over the past few years. We know so much about the human body that specialization is inevitable. You really do have to choose at some point between a more surface understanding of many topics or a deeper understanding of one or a few topics. No one can know/understand everything there is to know about physiology. With specialization comes a shared language, full of acronyms and advanced terminology accessible only to the initiated.

I believe that scientific and academic work should be accessible and open, both to the interested public and to those in neighboring specialties. Is it possible to deepen our knowledge via specialization, and to communicate our findings in ways that are open and accessible to those who haven’t chosen this specialty?

It must be, surely.

I think there are (at least) two factors standing in the way. First, the language that we use can be a barrier to openness. Second, the intensity and complexity of our current understanding can make it hard to understand the possibilities for any single piece of work.

Language as a Barrier to Openness

A few months ago we decided to look at Dean Ornish & colleagues’ seminal paper on lifestyle change and heart disease (Ornish et al., 1990) as part of our faculty journal club. Reading it, I was struck by how clean and simple the introduction was. As in Bush’s use of “man” above, the accessibility of Ornish’s introduction was put into stark relief by what I usually read in the introductions of research papers. The Ornish paper introduction was two paragraphs long, had three references, and was written in what I assume an average reader would consider plain English. (Alas, it is not an open access paper.)

This article in Science Magazine (one of my favorite articles ever) jokingly highlights how complex reading scientific papers can be by listing the 10 Steps of Reading a Paper. Step number two is: “2. Fear. This is the stage when you realize, “Uh … I don’t think all of these are words.” So you slow down a little. Sound out the syllables, parse the jargon, look up the acronyms, and review your work several times. Congratulations: You have now read the title.”

On a certain level, I can see both sides of this coin. If we cannot use complex language in academic publications designed to share our findings with others in the field, scientific progress may slow. Sometimes, this really is the easiest and most efficient way to get the message across. On the other hand, using this language is exclusionary to anyone who hasn’t come down the rabbit hole with us.

It seems to me that researchers must answer this question: For whom are you writing? If the message is only of importance to others in a highly specialized sub-field, then by all means, jargon away. If you would like your work to be open and accessible to those in other sub-fields – or other disciplines altogether – please communicate with an emphasis on clarity.

Complexity as a Barrier to Openness

As Bush notes, specializations are sometimes so deep that those fully immersed cannot keep track of the work of others or contextualize their own work outside of a sub-specialty. There is too much to know, and too little time to explore. I think it's important to acknowledge the pressure borne by those who are going deeper and deeper. 

I don’t have a solution to this one, and I can comment that the weight of what we know already is indeed staggering. Bush’s description of feeling “bogged down” is an apt one. While sometimes we revel in the mystery of it all, at other times it can feel a bit like drowning in detail. 

As the complexity will only continue to multiply, how do those of us trying to keep up keep our heads above water and working to bridge the gap?  ​

Making time to come back up the rabbit hole periodically to get some fresh air seems like a helpful practice. What we know about thinking and processing new information suggests that taking breaks, sleeping (!) and doing things that are not work-related (knitting, journaling, drawing, dancing, walking) actually helps to make connections in ways that aren’t linear or superficial. More on this in the fabulous Learning How to Learn MOOC. So: more diffuse thinking and less focused thinking may be they key.

Beyond that? Let me know if you know of anything. I'm all ears. 

two stuffed animal bunnies sitting on a ledge

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Ornish, D., Brown, S. E., Scherwitz, L. W., Billings, J. H., Armstrong, W. T., Ports, T. A., … Gould, K. L. (1990). Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial. Lancet, 336 (8708), 129-133. 

Lancet (London, England)336
Camille

Hi there. I'm Camille. I'm an associate professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology and pathophysiology. I'm also a licensed nutritionist, specializing in fertility and reproductive health. (I'm not taking any new clients!) Lastly but not leastly, I'm a mom, a gardener and a really horrible housekeeper.

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