Scientific writing and the pronoun I
Why are scientists so scared of writing their statements in the first person? Open any journal, and look for the word “I”. Chances are, you won’t find it. You’ll see article authors jump through hoops just to avoid this word. As if it were dirty, illegal. For example, instead of a normal, complete sentence like “I found existing methods to be insufficiently accurate,” you’ll find the sentence “Existing methods were found to be insufficiently accurate.” This leaves the most important thing out: who found them insufficiently accurate? Is this a generally known thing? Does the whole world share this opinion? Was it the dog that didn’t like the method? Why do they shy away from the word “I”? Does it make science less objective?
In the example above, the author tried to avoid subjectiveness by rewriting the sentence and leaving out the active subject. As if that makes the concept less subjective. It was the author, after all, who evaluated and discarded these methods. The author didn’t like them. This is a subjective evaluation. The only way to avoid subjectiveness is to devise an experiment, and prove that existing methods do not meet the required accuracy requirement. Lacking that, the statement is subjective, and hiding this fact is misleading.
Scientists are subjective, this is no secret. They are human, after all. This means that, no matter what people want to believe, the scientific process is subjective as well. A scientists chooses what to study, and his (or her) opinions influence which of his (her) results are published, for example. This leads to publication bias, of course, but otherwise does not taint the objectiveness of the scientific results. As long as these scientists are honest, and don’t invent data, or misuse statistics, their opinions should not influence the outcome of their experiments.
But if it is subjectiveness that these authors are scared of, why is it less of a problem to use the word “we”? Is it the implied consensus? It is no longer the opinion of a single person, but that of a group of people, and thus more objective in some way. This leads to strange things, like the editors of IEEE replacing all occurrences of “I” with “we” in a recent paper of mine (if there is only one author, who is the “we” in “First we will give a short description of…”?). There’s a famous quote of Mark Twain that is relevant here: “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we.’“
Interestingly enough, this fear of the pronoun “I” is rather recent. Einstein, at the beginning of the 20th century, wrote things like “It is possible that the movements to be discussed here are identical with the so-called ‘Brownian molecular motion’; however, the information available to me regarding the latter is so lacking in precision, that I can form no judgment in the matter” (in the first paragraph of “On the movement of small particles suspended in stationary liquid…”, a translation of which can be had here). Going back in time to the 17th century, we can find even more extensive use of the first person pronoun. Newton, for example, gives a good example of how experiment-based papers should be written (in my opinion): “[…] I became surprised to see them in an oblong form; which, according to the received laws of Refraction, I expected should have been circular” (from “A new theory of light and colors”). This is so much more vivid and pleasant to read than “they had an oblong form, not circular as predicted by laws of refraction.” But maybe the beginning of that same sentence could have been redacted out, as it certainly does not relate in any way to the science being described: “It was at first a very pleasing divertisement, to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby […].” Nonetheless, this paper would have been much more boring to read had it been written today.
So I wonder, why did this openness about the subjectivity of the scientific process disappear? When did they start to become afraid of “I”? Why? Please weigh in by adding a comment, I’d love to hear your opinions!