Thursday, December 18, 2014

I Believe You're Undermining Your Own Writing

I believe that I was reading a scientific document last week that contained several instances of sentences that went something like:
We believe that our novel approach enables decreased rates of infection. 
I believe that my training in Awesomeness uniquely qualifies me to carry out the proposed work.
I believe that these sentences contain a word that significantly weakens the writer's message. I believe that I have two major objections:

1. The words "I believe" or "we believe" are redundant. It is assumed that the writer believes what he or she is writing.

2. Scientific writing is not the Nicene Creed.
We believe in one God. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Catholics have to announce that they believe in the Holy Spirit in large part because there is limited evidence that the Holy Spirit exists in our physical world. In contrast, I sure as heck hope that there is very real evidence for the claims within your scientific document. E.g., if you believe that your novel approach enables decreased rates of infection, there had better be some evidence of reduced infection in your proposal/manuscript/letter to your grandmother. And if so, you don't need to qualify your sentence with the word believe. There is nothing supernatural about dead bacteria.

Our words are weakened by the word believe. You can get rid of it, cross it out, liberally employing the delete key (or backspace for my PC-minded friends). While we're at it, let's get rid of I think as well - which, frankly, is far more egregious than I believe.

I believe in gravity and entropy and other foundations of science. I believe in cats and dogs and the stinkbugs that invariably die in my bathroom. I believe that caffeine can be extracted from coffee, and I believe that Tuesday will follow Monday, everlasting.

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