Chad Orzel is wondering about the origin of some irritating habits in science writing. His first point puts the finger right on the issue:
Myth 1: First-person pronouns are forbidden in scientific writing. I have no idea where students get the idea that all scientific writing needs to be in the passive voice, but probably three quarters of the papers I get contain sentences in which the syntax has been horribly mangled in order to avoid writing in the first person.
It’s not exactly right to call this a “myth”; as Andre from Biocurious points out in comments, the injuction to use the passive voice is often stated quite explicitly. There’s even an endlessly amusing step-by-step instruction guide for converting your text from active to passive voice. What would Strunk and White say?
The same goes for using “we” rather than “I,” even if you’re the only person writing. There are also guides that make this rule perfectly explicit. The refrain in this one is:
Write in the third person (“The aquifer covers 1000 square kilometers”) or the first person plural (“We see from this equation that acceleration is proportional to force”). Avoid using “I” statements.
Interestingly, these habits did not just emerge organically as scientific communication evolved — they were, if you like, designed. I learned this from a talk given by Evelyn Fox Keller some years ago, which unfortunately I’ve never been able to find in print. It goes back to the earliest days of the scientific revolution, when Francis Bacon and others were musing on how this new kind of approach to learning about the world should be carried out. Bacon decided that it was crucially important to emphasize the objectivity of the scientific process; as much as possible, the individual idiosyncratic humanity of the scientists was to be purged from scientific discourse, making the results seem as inevitable as possible.
To this end, Bacon was quite programmatic, suggesting a list of ways to remove the taint of individuality from the scientific literature. Passive voice was encouraged, and it was (apparently, if Keller was right and I’m remembering correctly) Bacon who first insisted that we write “we will show” in the abstracts of our single-author papers.
It always seemed a little unnatural to me, and when it came time to write a single-author paper (which I tend not to do, since collaborating is much more fun) I went with the first-person singular. I decided that if it was good enough for Sidney Coleman, it should be good enough for me.
Keller has a more well-known discussion of the rhetoric of Francis Bacon, reprinted in Reflections on Gender and Science. Here she examines Bacon’s personification of the figure of Nature, specifically with regard to gender roles. Bacon was one of the first to introduce the metaphor of Nature as a woman to be seduced/conquered. Sometimes the imagery is gentle, sometimes less so; here are some representative quotes from Bacon to give the gist.
“Let us establish a chaste and lawful marriage between Mind and Nature.”
“My dear, dear boy, what I plan for you is to unite you with things themselves in a chaste, holy, and legal wedlock. And from this association you will insure an increase beyond all the hopes and prayers of ordinary marriages, to wit, a blessed race of Heroes and Supermen.”
“I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”
“I invite all such to join themselves, as true sons of knowledge, with me, that passing by the outer courts of nature, which numbers have trodden, we may find a way at length into her inner chambers.”
“For you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able, when you like, to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again.”
[Science and technology do not] “merely exert a gentle guidance over nature’s course; they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”
But, while Nature is a shy female waiting to be seduced and conquered, we also recognize that Nature is a powerful, almost God-like force. Tellingly, when Bacon talks about this aspect, the metaphorical gender switches, and now Nature is all too male:
“as if the divine nature enjoyed the kindly innocence in such hide-and-seek, hiding only in order to be found, and with characteristic indulgence desired the human mind to join Him in this sport.”
So much meaning lurking in a few innocent pronouns! We like to pretend that the way we do science, and the way we conceptualize our activity, is more or less inevitable; but there are a lot of explicit choices along the way.