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the Complete Review
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The Scientific Voice

Scott L. Montgomery

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To purchase The Scientific Voice

Title: The Scientific Voice
Author: Scott L. Montgomery
Genre: Science
Written: 1996
Length: 459 pages
Availability: The Scientific Voice - US
The Scientific Voice - UK
The Scientific Voice - Canada
  • Several chapters previously appeared, in different form, in Science as Culture, Central Park, and Cultural Critique

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting essays on science and language

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Nature . 13/6/1996 William Shea
Science . 20/9/1996 Geoffrey Nunberg

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)s Scott Montgomery points out in this thoughtful collection of essays, the very constitution of the modem scientific voice militates against any serious efforts at writing well (.....) Montgomery's lesson here is something else again: if language doesn't make the world, it may nonetheless shape the ways we apprehend it." - Geoffrey Nunberg, Science

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Language is an obvious and essential aspect of science, but one that is generally and readily ignored. Recording, conveying, transmitting, and translating science, language is often seen only as background, a necessary but inconsequential part of science. In the six essays that form this book Scott L. Montgomery shows that there is considerably more to it, and that an awareness of the role of language can help shed a useful light on science, scientific discourse, and the scientific enterprise.
       As Montgomery points out, when confronted with scientific language "one hears the persona of univocity, unbroken statement, the single voice of the scientific style." Scientific language is often a peculiar one. It tends to be jargon-laden, claiming authority by being (apparently) precise, definitive, and specific, and also exclusive (i.e. incomprehensible to those not in the know). It tends to be impersonal, implying objectivity.
       Montgomery begins with a useful overview of scientific language in his first chapter. From there he moves on to providing a history of scientific discourse, considering how scientific language evolved, and why it evolved in the way it did. Technical language has long been in use: Montgomery ascribes the first use of it in English to Chaucer, in his 1391 Treatise on the Astrolabe.
       Montgomery dates the "true beginning of scientific writing (...) as a conscious style" to the 17th century, with Francis Bacon the most influential figure. The evolution Montgomery traces is an interesting one, influenced by a variety of factors. For a time there were "a plurality of relevant discourse, each vying for the reader's attention in different ways." Richly metaphorical language was still employed by numerous authors, but inexorably the movement has been towards the present ideal.
       Montgomery is aware of the limitations (and also advantages) of the various forms of presenting science. Usefully he points out what has been lost, comparing scientific writing from the past several centuries. There is some sense of regret as to modern practise, closing off science from the uninitiated, unlike the accessible writing from yesteryear. Of one recent text he writes:

Such language does not breathe or undulate, it hums and clicks. It is now much closer to a mechanism, a technology, tumblers falling into place.
       In the third chapter, Montgomery looks specifically at biomedical discourse, emphasizing "biomilitarism". He shows specifically how military metaphors have taken hold in bio-medical language. Again he offers a useful historical survey, with numerous interesting examples.
       The fourth chapter examines the mapping and naming of the moon. His goal is "to sketch the outlines of how the Moon came to be seen, pictured, and possessed by Europe at a particular point in history." He again offers a fascinating historical overview. Among his interesting contentions is that until 1400 there was no sense of the moon as we know it -- and, remarkably, no image or pictorial representation of the moon as seen by the human eye. Montgomery argues that "the Moon was not drawn or painted up to a certain time because there was no reason to draw it or paint it." He then follows the first efforts at drawing it, as well as the efforts at naming the moon's features, a fascinating slice of history.
       In the fifth chapter Montgomery considers "Japanese science and the politics of translation" (this is material that he reworked in his more recent book, Science in Translation (see our review)). Because Japan was isolated so long, and the limited information that initially did enter the country can be so carefully traced, it is relatively easy to follow the influx and then influence of scientific literature there. Again, Montgomery provides a detailed and interesting history of Western science gradually taking hold in Japan. He also shows how different works first came to Japan, and how the translation of these works played a role in their acceptance and dissemination. He also provides a useful introduction to the Japanese writing system, and the consequences of the three writing systems (kanji, based on Chinese ideograms, and the two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana).
       The last chapter deals with Freud, and Freud in translation (and as translator). Montgomery notes that the Standard Edition of Freud in English is generally considered to be "more unified, congruent, and internally consistent in tone and terminology than is even suggested by Freud's German original." Translation transforms the text -- something that should not be forgotten. Montgomery notes that the first book Freud himself "wrote" was a translation (of Charcot), and Montgomery usefully compares this and Freud's own writing.

       The Scientific Voice addresses important issues and presents many fascinating examples. Montgomery's thorough studies avoid being boringly academic. There is exciting material here, throughout, and Montgomery makes both bold and interesting claims. The language of science is a subject worthy of more study, and this book provides an excellent introduction to various issues in this field.

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Other books by Scott L. Montgomery under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Science books under review

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About the Author:

       American geologist Scott L. Montgomery has written several books.

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