When words aren’t enough

Alex Barrera
3 min readJan 10, 2017


Image credit: Calum MacAulay / Unsplash

I was reading this beautiful essay about how the scientific method is derived from early 20th-century child psychology, and the following statement made me smile:

“But the story is more complicated, and interesting, because [John] Dewey wasn’t happy that the steps he outlined grew into the standard representation of scientific method.”

They are referring to the following fragment John Dewey wrote in his book How we Think (1910):

“Each instance reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct steps: (i) a felt difficulty; (ii) its location and definition; (iii)suggestion of possible solution; (iv) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief.”

This small fragment became the basis for what we now know as the “scientific method.” I find it hilarious that Dewey was the first one to complain that he never intended this to become the footprint of the scientific method.

He just reflected on child reasoning, but because his observations were compact and easy to understand, they became wildly distributed. Not only it was easy to share, but once you took it out of all context, it lost the original meaning.

It’s not the first case or the last one. One that comes to mind is the infamous p-value.

“Gosset was more concerned with whether a result was practically meaningful than whether it was statistically “significant.” He referred to the concept of statistical significance itself as being “nearly valueless.” Gosset thought the evidence should be assessed depending on the “importance of the issues at stake” and not “some outside authority in mathematics.””

Nevertheless, Fisher, one of the most acclaimed statisticians of all time, insisted on hard coding a value, taking it out of its original context. More specifically, the now infamous p-value of 0.5.

According to many statisticians, this simple “out of context” error, has hurt science immensely.

And the truth is that, while writing down knowledge has been the primary source of human advancement, it still a lacking medium. Some concepts are extremely hard to put into words.

If simple observation remarks as Dewey’s or Gosset’s got grossly misinterpreted, now imagine anything dealing with abstract concepts. The truth is that some ideas, some teachings cannot be taught. They need to be experienced.

After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned — and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.”

Joseph Epstein, “Heavy Sentences,” The New Criterion, June 2011

And this is the significant problem with many books, many writings, and many theories. I always thought that the best way to understand what you’re reading is to try and understand what the writer was trying to say there.

There is a big difference between what someone wrote, to what that person meant. Taking things literally is always a bad way of achieving understanding.



Alex Barrera

Chief Editor at The Aleph Report (@thealeph_report), CEO at Press42.com, Cofounder & associated editor @tech_eu, former editor @KernelMag.