Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I don't see myself or others in this analysis

Over at Not the Lab, Vinylogous gave a stirring defense of why employers should hire chemists over English majors for general business positions. An editor at a chemistry department in the US wrote a long comment about chemists and their writing, which I thought was really dead on:
Chemists' bad writing isn't bad because it's blunt. I just finished reading The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz -- bluntness a-plenty in there, and it's a terrific book. No. Chemists' bad writing is bad because it's unaware audience exists, is inarticulate, hopeless with a narrative, jargon-ridden, lede-burying, resentful of the task, and mutely stolid. (Chemists' good writing is, of course, a beauty to behold.) English majors tend to have these things in their writing roundly abused, if not beaten into submission, by junior year. 
I hate to admit it, but I feel that's a fairly decent description of my scientific writing, and possibly some of the writing on this blog. However, this follow-on comment was equally interesting, yet much less accurate, I felt:
The problem, at university level, is the structure of chemical education, which has nothing but contempt for anything that eats minutes and dollars and does not produce a more useful bench scientist/grad slave. And that, frankly, is part of why I'd be less inclined to hire a chem major for a general-biz job than I would an English major. You guys produce hothouse flowers simply by not giving the kids opportunity to wander -- oh, sure, they can take a few electives, but they know where their time's supposed to be spent -- and the naivete outside these narrow bounds can be astonishing. The gender imbalance doesn't help, either; it's -- still, often -- as though there's no awareness of the macho/nationalist assumptions, which play *really poorly* in many parts of the world. I kid you not, I just sat through a meeting in which a chemist spent a good bit of time mocking a Chinese name in a bizarrely Archie-Bunkerish way. This...you can't do this. And he seemed utterly unaware. It's not rare.  
Let me make the contrast this way: A highly successful fiction writer of my MFA year decided, while in the writing program, that he wanted to be a doctor, and more or less went AWOL from the program so he could get his prereqs for med school taken care of. The faculty were annoyed -- he was, after all, a very promising writer, no less an eminence than Saul Bellow admired his work and called it out for special attention -- but didn't throw him out. He did become a doctor; he's also regarded as one of the best youngish literary writers in America.
I cannot begin to imagine a grad student in chemistry being allowed the same freedom. And in the end it makes a difference. 
You guys loosen up on the path to chemist -- kill that German military model -- and we'll see what happens. 
First, I just disagree with a description of chemistry students (undergraduates and grad students) as hothouse flowers. I would like to know more what they meant, but the environment of chemical academia is probably harsher (work ethic, etc.) than the general business world (so far as I can tell.) I also think the author does not understand the difference between a grad student in chemistry (more-or-less a paid university employee, even if the lawyers don't think so) and a MFA student (a paying customer.)  The administrative flexibility and time offered are going to be different. Finally, we don't really have a German military model, did/do we? Surely, this is exaggeration on the author's part.

Nevertheless, a thought-provoking read. 


  1. At the synthetic chemistry level, nature is blunt. I suppose one can say similar things about engineers.

  2. I actually agree with the statements and descriptions in the comments as being pretty much right on target. Chemistry education (and most other sciences and definitely engineering as well) in undergrad and then increased so in grad school is intensely focused and rigorous where frequently leaves little time or available course options (so yes a German military model make be good analogy) to pursue or get exposed to outside interests. The end products may know how to communicate to other scientist types but generally do lack ability to deal with wider audiences. I always felt the best partner for a Chem major would be an English major to provide exposure to a different perspective and can at times aid in achieving balance in how to present info either verbally or when written if they are the first reviewer of such.

  3. That anecdote might also be saying something about the relative difficulty of MFA writing programs...

    Nonetheless, I tend to agree with the "hothouse flowers" assessment for the undergrad program in my experiences at larger, research-oriented universities. The students I encounter are excellent chemists for their age but are much weaker at communicating (writing, presenting, etc). Students can pick up the specialized technical knowledge and skills they need in grad school out of necessity, but at that point their foundational creative skills are never going to get a lot of attention. A few more arts courses wouldn't be the worst thing in the world!

  4. I found passive-voice writing painful to read as a freshman undegrad chem major, but eventually got used to it. I suspect non-scientists probably have the exact same reaction.

    As for the lack of social skills, I think people who are naturally wired up that way would still be the same if someone forced them to take more non-science electives. In undergrad, you're generally around people majoring in lots of different things anyway; the problem is grad school where you're in a bubble with a bunch of other grad students, and don't interact much with regular 20-somethings with regular jobs.

  5. "...SEO, project management, social media, and so forth... "

    this isn't work you need a college degree to perform, and it certainly isn't work that requires a background in science. in my opinion a science education is wasted on someone who doesn't go into science, and i can't find the motivation to build a case as to why someone with a degree in chemistry would be great at selling paper, or whatever the hell it is normal people do for a living

    most people are bad writers. most writers are bad writers. i'm curious as to what it is he's editing, because his hallmarks of "bad" scientific writing, i.e. jargon-filled, stolid, neglectful of audience, are quite appropriate for grant-writing or academic publication.

    regarding the incident of racism in a group meeting - most chemists have chinese peers and coworkers these days, which makes for pretty good diversity training. i don't think i can be convinced that we're an uncommonly racist lot. it's true natural sciences students don't receive the progressive and revisionist brainwashing they dole out in the humanities, but maybe that's for the best. after all someone is gonna have to invent the next generation's napalm

  6. Maybe chemists should be urged to pick a poetry class in college. If it does not improve their vocabulary, at least it could help them impress their dates. (Droning on about your awesome chemistry project at a party is not the best way to hook up)

  7. I tell you what - I got an e-mail from an HR department a few days back - the sender name was "Recrutement ******". Must of been an English major.

    1. Must of been an English major.


    2. It's like raaaaaaaaaaaain...

    3. It's just that I read too much John Sandford.

  8. "English majors tend to have these things in their writing roundly abused, if not beaten into submission, by junior year."

    Except that English majors are not taught to produce good pieces of writing, but good pieces of literary criticism, which is not necessarily the same thing. I have serious doubts a layperson could make it through the classic Lacan treatise on Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Purloined Letter' any more readily than they could wade through a classic Jackass article.

  9. The Iron ChemistJuly 17, 2013 at 9:21 AM

    I think a hole has been found in my education; I have no idea what a "hothouse flower" is supposed to be.

    I would agree with the assessment that chemists' writing skills are generally pretty bad, particularly at the student level. The problem goes deeper than just garbled syntax and grammar. Most of the students with whom I've interacted cannot construct a convincing argument. They don't provide context for the topics that they discuss and assume that their conclusions are self-evident.

    Most of the early assignments in the curricula don't involve extensive writing; consequently, I suspect that most students (both undergraduate and graduate) don't really connect the ability to write with success in the field.

    1. 'Hothouse flower' is refers to something that might look really good, but can't survive outside of the carefully-controlled environment it developed in. 'Hothouse' being an antiquated term for a heated greenhouse.

      The term was apparently first used by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, which should tell you something about the types that use it these days.

    2. The Iron ChemistJuly 18, 2013 at 8:51 AM

      Ah, thanks!

  10. The Aqueous LayerJuly 17, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    I think that the vast majority of people in the US don't write well. It isn't a science education based issue. All one needs to do is read the comments on most internet message boards to see this in motion.

    The one part of the rebuttal I completely disagreed with was this:

    If you're running a business, and you need a peopleish person who's inventive and charming and flexible and doesn't mind looking stupid so long as some of the many schemes work, and can put a sentence together, I'd say go find yourself a nice English major, someone who's dreamed away untold hours reading stories about how people do. Preferably hours paid for by someone else. And if you need someone who'll show up on the dot and follow directions and streamline processes and come up with clever new systems and be thorough and respect a chain of command and suck it up well without flouncing away, go get you a chem major.

    This implies that English majors are all social butterflies who can interact with other people with relative ease, whereas science majors are data focused wonks who do nothing but follow orders, incapable of independent thought. I'm pretty sure there are plenty of English majors who would much rather read a book about other people's lives than interact with real people in the real world. The humanities majors aren't the only creative thinkers, and science does not have the corner on the market on misanthropes.

  11. @anonymous 7:31 - . "I'm curious as to what it is he's editing, because his hallmarks of "bad" scientific writing, i.e. jargon-filled, stolid, neglectful of audience, are quite appropriate for grant-writing or academic publication. ".

    The fact that you think it is OK for scientists to neglect our audience in publications or grants is most definitely part of the reason why this businessman thinks we can't communicate! Knowing your audience is the first and most important rule of ANY form of communication.

    1. 7:31 here, my thinking was that what he took for "audience neglect" was actually attributable to the fact that he wasn't the intended audience. his "filled with jargon" gripe makes this pretty likely. can you imagine trying to get published without using "scientific jargon"

      you can open up any journal and find articles that are inaccessible to the common man, but dumbing them down or expanding upon their bigger picture relevance would be doing the actual readership a disservice.

  12. I think there is something about chemists being too insular. I know I’ve gotten grief from other chemists about my personal interests in things non-scientific. This sentiment even wormed its way into a yearly performance review that I had about 15 years ago, when I worked in R and D at a large chemical company. My then supervisor started off the review by saying I made people at work uncomfortable because I am interested in “too many things”. When asked for specifics, she said “things like art and music”. She spit these two words out like she was saying “prostitution” and “illegal drugs”.

    I was dumbfounded. I did not recall ever speaking about art at work, and only minimally about music.

    To me, this is evidence of the anti-intellectual bias that too many industrial chemists I’ve worked with possess. Then again, many of our corporate executives and politicians have the same bias.

    Interestingly, the European chemists I have had the pleasure of working with harbor no such sentiments, most likely due to the high value placed on the arts in Europe.

    1. The Aqueous LayerJuly 18, 2013 at 12:16 PM

      When asked for specifics, she said “things like art and music”. She spit these two words out like she was saying “prostitution” and “illegal drugs”.

      I nominate this for quote of the year.

      Maybe it was the Robert Mapplethorpe screen-saver you had?

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