A Thought about Writing

My recent blog about “the science is settled” contained a writing difficulty. We prefer active voice, for reasons outlined below, but the phrase “the science is settled” speaks with a passive voice. In fact, it turns out to be hard to find a way to say “the science is settled” in anything but a passive voice. So, what’s the problem with passive voice?

For starters, it rankles to use passive voice to describe something so lively and dynamic as science. Writers in institutions, bureaucracies, and ivory towers all prefer passive voice, but many of those writers describe science rather than do science. Maybe they earn fifty cents per word, and passive voice provides for plenty of words. Maybe they think passive voice brings authority to what otherwise reads as soulless bureaucratic verbiage. One of my scientist friends once told me that if he ever started to write that way, to please take him outside and shoot him. Fortunately, it never came to that.

Active voice, by comparison, tends to speak directly and to the point. It conveys a sense of authority, and often a sense of timeliness. Writers use active voice to put you into a situation, while passive voice has you stand back and watch politely from twenty paces away. If you want to describe something here and now, something taking place in real time, or something still in progress, you can’t beat active voice. Passive voice tells you about a mud fight; active voice has you slinging the stuff.

With these distinctions between passive and active voice in mind, how would you say, “the science is settled” in active voice? Let’s try, “we know the science,” coupled with an admission of what we don’t know. After all, part of the fun of science is learning new things, and learning is a life-long enterprise.

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