#205 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 3          March 1996

Language and Creativity:  Some Hints from History
by Scott L. Montgomery

Mr. Montgomery is a geologist, author, and translator residing in Seattle, Washington.  His recent research into issues regarding science and language are collected in The Scientific Voice (Guilford Publications, New York, 1996).  He has authored papers in the field of petroleum geology.

Most scientists and engineers don’t think much about the influence of language on their research strategies.  But the language we ordinarily use can have a significant effect on the way you try to solve problems.

This was made clear to me not long ago, while reading an article in a well-known popular science journal.  In this article, I came across some lines that inadvertently altered my entire outlook on medical science.  The topic was HIV infection and the words ran something like this:  “Organic invaders enlist the full range of immune responses, yet many of these enemies have evolved devious methods to escape detection....  The AIDS virus in particular, most insidious of all, employs a range of strategies... to invade and kill helper T-cells and therefore render the body’s defenses hopeless....”

What impressed me, first of all, was the ordinary quality of these words.  As exaggerated as they may seem out of context, they are actually a verbal extract out of our common speech about disease.  The only real difference, perhaps, is the rigor of their imagery.  At the time, I assumed this might be confined to popular discourse:  How often, after all, have we heard of a “war” being waged against some deadly illness; about the “hunt for magic bullets;” about various “crusades” for new therapies?  But curiosity, and much study, soon proved me wrong:  Medical language too, it seems even at the research level, is prone to such imagery, and has been for some time.  The field of immunology, for example, is replete with such terms as:  natural killer cell; killer T-cell; target cell; response triggering; viral proliferation; ion mobilization; supressor cells; and the like.

Medicine has absorbed many other images of war into its conceptions of the ill body.  Our popular speech in this area—in which illness “attacks” and “strikes,” releasing various “warning signs”—has been derived, historically, from medical knowledge itself.  Calling the AIDS virus an “invader” is umbilical to labeling part of our immune system a “killer T-cell.”

“War” Limits the Perspective

History shows this beyond any doubt.  It also shows that this image-system of war can not be called an “analogy” or a “metaphor,” as sociologists and philosophers may want to do.  Disease is not like, or incorrectly likened to, such things as “viral proliferation” or “bacterial invasion;” it is these things, in the same way that the body is composed of “organs,” “tissues,” and “cells.”  What might be called biomilitarism is endemic to our formal knowledge of illness, at the deepest level, and as such, has provided a kind of deep-seated logic or rationality for helping guide certain conceptions of therapy.  Many things might be mentioned here:  The long-term focus, for example, on disease “agents” rather than on disease “environments” or “ecologies;” the overriding preference for so-called “invasive” therapies meant to “strike back” at such agents; the long-standing resistance to more holistic treatments involving diet, exercise, and mind-body connections.  All these aspects of 20th century medicine can be linked at some deep level to the embedded outlook of biomilitarism.

These statements, admittedly, simplify a complex aspect of medical scientific knowledge.  The role of images and language in scientific thought is a profound subject and deserves no small amount of attention.  That this role has concrete cognitive effects, however, should be apparent to anyone who considers the matter in detail.  Image systems in technical knowledge have proved limiting in some ways, but also extremely fertile in others.  Some of the most fruitful areas of medical research have turned out to be those which have pursued some particular aspect of the logic embodied in the imagery devoted to disease.  Recent examples abound.  Approaches to therapy in immunology (since we have mentioned this field) now involve a range of procedures to enhance “T-cell mobilization;” to sharpen the body’s “detection and communication system;” and, on the other side, to “jam” a virus’ own ability to detect a potential host cell.

The fundamental point is simple:  language matters.  Language is the means by which any perception, discovery, or hypothesis acquires a solid and communicable reality.  What this means, in turn, is that technical knowledge and its advance are never wholly separable from the forms used to give them an existence.  Language and images can work upon the mind in many quiet, subtle ways—they can seem like part of the wallpaper, something we pass by every day without much notice, while actually comprising a crucial part of the architecture of our very ability to speak and conceive.

Thus, becoming more conscious of this architecture, its strengths and weaknesses, can be one avenue to enhanced creativity.  Taking hold of the images that dominate in certain areas of science and engineering is one possible way to help understand, perhaps even to discover, new directions for thought and research. 

“Darwinian” Limits Perspective

Another example can be gleaned from Stephen J. Gould’s and Richard Lewontin’s work on evolutionary biology.  Roughly a decade ago, they challenged the reigning explanatory theory on the basis that it was simply “too neat.”  This theory held that all physiological phenomena serve some purpose of survival.  Gould and Lewontin rightly perceived this as a narrative hypothesis, a logic for telling little “Darwin histories” always with a perfect type of happy ending (e.g. every physical feature being preordained in purpose therefore fulfills that purpose).  Nature, however, was much messier, Gould and Lewontin observed, being full of evolutionary “dead-ends” that defied any such scheme.  To describe Nature’s history, one needed recourse to a different sort of language, one able to emphasize non-development and discontinuity.

“Folded Rocks” Limits Perspective

Another example can be found in the history of recent geology.  The theory of “plate tectonics,” ushered in during the late 1960’s, strongly emphasized the relatively brittle behavior of the outer 30-100 kilometers of the Earth, its break-up into various plates, and the collisional or frictional interactions occurring along their boundaries.  The connotations inherent in this language of rigid and breakable phenomena helped create a shift in perspective as to the types of geologic structure considered most important.  Prior to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, geologic thought had a long-standing interest in folded rocks as a crucial indicator of Earth forces.  Since then, it has become apparent that the folded rocks are almost entirely a secondary result of faulting.  The change for geology has made for distinct progress in many areas, not the least of which has been petroleum exploration.

How is Language Limiting Your Perspective?

Again, taking hold of language can be a path to innovation.  The question then becomes:  How to do this?  Here, several suggestions might be made.  These, I should say, will not guarantee sudden or breathtaking insights and are no doubt more appropriate to some fields than to others.  But, as a means of possibly gaining a window onto processes of innovative research logic, they are extremely likely to provide some measure of enhanced awareness, both for those involved in managing and those pursuing such research directly.  These suggestions are as follows:

  Read or re-read the literature in a particular field, subfield, or frontier area with an eye to identifying the more obvious and consistent images (or image systems) that guide the description and explanation of relevant phenomena.  This can be aided by studying glossaries and by glancing through recent textbooks.  Reflect on the implications inherent in these images and how they might relate to current directions in research.

  Communicate with the past:  browse the historical literature in a particular area to discover what metaphors and images have dominated its discourse and how this may have changed or remained consistent to the present.  Often this is easier to do than with contemporary literature, because of the “aged,” slightly foreign character of the writing (an indication, one might note, of how technical discourse has evolved like any other portion of our semantic heritage).  Try to discern if, and to what degree, such metaphors and images have helped guide the development of the field.

  Become conscious of how researchers talk to one another, what language they use when describing, explaining, or summarizing their work.  Much of this language will be fairly standard, but perceiving it as an important part of scientific exchange, will provide an added opportunity for grasping the images that help guide conception.  Moreover, research jargon has a tendency to be modified and made more vivid by the natural inclinations of conversation; such modification, then, can make more apparent the hidden seeds of a useful imagery.  In this connection, also consider the value of such tuned listening with regard to meetings and conferences (more formal than hallway talk), email messages, and any other settings where spoken or conversational language is used.

  Read the work of science writers, journalists, and other popularizers with a similar sensitivity to imagery.  As in the case of medicine, these interpreters often take images that exist within technical language and exaggerate them considerably (at times beyond reason), bringing them to the surface.  (At the same time, ignore most examples of the all-too-common sports metaphor, which tends to be reflexive and therefore possess too little thought content).

  Consider the value of writing a summary report or abstract of current work in simpler language than is ordinarily the case, language intended for an educated lay reader for instance.  Note what types of abridgment need to be made, what terms require explanation or non-use, what kinds of details become necessary and what kinds expendable.  This will help reveal the more central metaphors or images that currently dominate your work.

  If you or someone on your staff is multi-lingual, or can read adequately another language, have them scan the foreign literature with a similar view to identifying the dominant metaphors, images, or image-systems.  You will find that these are sometimes quite different in different languages (the time-honored notion of scientific discourse as a wholly universal form of communication is much less true than commonly assumed).  Having seminal or important articles translated, or re-translated, may also help in this regard.  A focus on the languages of countries (e.g. Japan) that have proven strong superiority in specific research areas may also be valuable.

Such are only a few possible methods for using the tool of language as an added lever for insight.  Doubtless, as you gain experience with any of them in a particular field of research, other ideas will arise.  The point, overall, is not to develop a set of fixed exercises or tests for evaluating research results.  It is, instead, to try and make flexible, adaptive use of this most central and unavoidable element to scientific work—language—as a means to gain new understanding of research directions and to uncover new opportunities for taking charge over them.  As every scientist and engineer well knows, creativity and innovation very often come not from ideas that arrive “out of the blue,” but from the discovery of latent possibilities.  The study of language, then, is one means for making visible the previously invisible.  It is one more instrument, a new an untried one at that, in the conceptual laboratory of the manager or researcher.

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