Even Scientists Have a "Voice"

When they write, scientists like to think of themselves as Jack Webb, a detective in an old police show who was famous for saying, "Just the facts, ma'am."

But scientists usually do more than just present the facts. They construct an identity for themselves with the words they use. Consider this opening sentence from an article in the February 2017 issue of the American Economic Review:

An important objective of theoretical research in industrial organization is to achieve a conceptual understanding of the mechanisms through which actual price-fixing cartels arrive at collusive outcomes. 

What they basically mean is this: Theorists really want to understand how cartels collude. So why didn't they write it that way? 

Borrowing a page from Deirdre McCloskey, who wrote a well-known book on rhetoric in economics, we can say that the authors write like they do in order to establish an "ethos" or "character": who they pretend to be when they're writing. Here, the authors want to be taken seriously by the people who matter to them, and that is why they write as they do. They have a commanding knowledge of theoretical research in industrial organization (they know what is "important"), a knowledge so developed that they can distinguish a "conceptual" understanding from other kinds of understanding. In line with their wide scope, the authors leave room for a broad approach to their subject, as communicated by the vague plurals mechanisms and outcomes. They believe the quest is worth it: achieve an understanding sounds grander than simply understand. Wanting to sound scientific, they load the sentence with abstractions: objectiveresearchindustrial organizationunderstandingmechanismsoutcomes.

The truth is, whenever we use language, we never just present the facts. That goes even for scientists, who, as McCloskey demonstrates, rely more on language to persuade than they perhaps want to admit.