The Dangerous Disease

I think we tend to engage in a bit of managerial task delegation when it comes to the great works of humankind, or at least, in the ways that we label them. We draw neat lines in the sand and send Newton and Wordsworth to their own respective corners; we funnel skills sets into plainly marked professions and are content to never let them touch. We ask the poets to dream, entreat the writers to imagine, beg the artists to create. And we know they will, because that is what they do, and it is in the same vein of knowing that we leave the measuring, the discovering, the facts of the world to the mathematicians and the scientists. And in doing so, we perform the greatest slight of hand known to every magician to ever walk the stage: we split a human being apart.

That is to say, we forget the intrinsic overlap between the one who paints the world and the one who examines it. A scientist does not merely observe, he imagines. And, crucially, he creates, because what the scientist and the artist and the mathematician have in common is that they must find ways to communicate their bits of knowledge and truth with the rest of the world, and the way is almost always language. And while this is not inherently harmful, the language used by a wide majority of the scientific community is indeed overwhelmingly detrimental to minority groups, due largely to the fact that the rhetoric of this field was coined by the white male elites who had near exclusive control of it for most of its lifetime.

Hunting down said language (and said white male elites) doesn’t require too much work. After all, white men have consistently remained in a seat of power in this field since its birth: scientific racism actually calls upon physical bodily measurements to determine intelligence and competence. It is unsurprising that the men who possessed the power to write and therefore create the world did so with their own image in mind, to grant as much favor upon themselves as possible. Indeed, looking back to the classical thinkers gives us an idea of the long-standing nature of these concepts: Roman writer, architect, and engineer Vitruvius (70–25 BC), writes candidly that

“… those races nearest to the southern half of the axis are of lower stature, with swarthy complexions, curly hair, black eyes, and little blood, on account of the sun. This poverty of blood makes them over-timid to stand up against the sword … On the other hand, men born in cold countries are, indeed, ready to meet the shock of arms with great courage and without timidity.”

This sheds some light on exactly how pervasive these physically dependent ideologies are in the scientific world, and how long they have been working against the efforts of minorities to stand on equal footing. To get a more modern look at this phenomenon, Donald McNeil Jr.’s Zika: The Emerging Epidemic makes for a relatively quick and interesting read, covering the events of the Zika outbreak up until the book’s publication last June. Here’s the gist of it: the Zika virus was discovered in a monkey in Uganda in 1947. No one really bothered with the disease for a long time, even when cases started sweeping across island nations in the Pacific, mostly because it was relatively mild and didn’t seem to have any long term health risks. It wasn’t until August 2015 that doctors in Brazil began noticing high rates of microcephaly in the country’s hospitals, and it wasn’t long after that before the real threat of the disease revealed itself: its ability to cross the placenta and attack unborn fetuses. Since then, a number of precautions have been implemented to try and slow the spread of the disease, but scientists aren’t really sure where it’ll go from here, although this doesn’t stop McNeil from positing his own advice to the concerned readers (mostly, stay inside and stop getting pregnant).

The most immediate manipulation of language in this book feels quite unobtrusive to us until we consider it from a distance: the personification, and indeed, characterization, of the Zika virus. It starts when McNeil moves from “the Zika virus” to simply “Zika,” giving a distant and encompassing noun the feel of a singular proper one. Assessments about the nature of the disease move away from the abstract and towards descriptive quantifications of a single individual, as in the following example: “The more we learn about Zika, the scarier it gets” (18). Which reads more like a line from a novel about a zombie apocalypse than an account of an insentient mass of viruses. McNeil does this consistently in the book, and compounds it by attributing complex emotions and intentions to the virus, as well as a myriad of adverbs that coagulate into a bizarrely strong sense of what can almost be called character development. It doesn’t simply enter the cell; it hijacks, “like commandos invading a town and converting its car factory into a bomb factory,” covered in “sinister” spikes and hunting down new victims (23). And, conversely, that’s exactly what McNeil presents the cells to be: victims. They are under attack from the “aggressive spread” (53), the manifestation of helplessness at the hands of the merciless, the powerful, Zika.

In short, McNeil is using subtle word choices to effectively morph the Zika virus into the antagonistic star of a horror story. But this is not unexpected, nor, I would say, avoidable. Scientists must sort through infinite resources when preparing to write on a subject, and in deciding how to convey their selected information, they are invariably creating a narrative. Here we see science not as a pure stream of all that is true in the world, but as a sculpted pond reflecting our own faces back at us. This is the mystery debunked, how one set of data (say, for example, global temperatures over the past 100 years) can be the pinnacle of two very different conclusions (global warming is cyclic versus global warming is catastrophic). This is where the scientist becomes the inventor.

But such inventions are born out of necessity; not only because of the infinite variability of language as a whole, but also because scientific language is charged with the task of turning the physical world, the tangible, into the abstract. J.R. Martin and M.A.K. Halliday present this idea in their book, Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power, which examines the relationship between science and linguistics:

“The language of science is, by its nature, a language in which theories are constructed; its special features are exactly those which make theoretical discourse possible. But this clearly means that the language is not passively reflecting some pre-existing conceptual structure, on the contrary, it is actively engaged in bringing such structures into being. They are, in fact, structures of language, as Lemke has expressed it, ‘a scientific theory is a system of related meanings.’ We have to abandon the naïve ‘correspondence’ notion of language, and adopt a more constructivist approach to it.” (Martin, Halliday, 9)

That is to say, the mere fact that there is no one way to interpret or organize the world is indicative of the imprecise nature of scientific language. The scientist can never simply describe the world as it truly exists outside of linguistic interpretation. Instead every account is, at its core, a theoretical construction, which only comes into being by its enunciation. To observe the world is to interpret it. To describe the world is to create it.

It is this ability to mold reality that gives scientific language such weight, and why we must continually examine our use of such language. In that spirit, let us return again to the language of McNeil’s Zika. Although we have already established the inevitability of the creation of a narrative structure, we have not yet looked at how McNeil uses this particular narrative to impart meaning. I think a worthwhile place to start would be in examining the repeated emphasis on the virus’s origins in Africa. Not only is this the metaphorical birth place of the virus, but its childhood home: “It no doubt circulated there for centuries” (32). The problem here lies in the portrayal of the virus as the villain: if we accept this, then we are also accepting an African nationality for said villain.

Following our identification of a villain, we move imperatively to investigate the nature of our victim. McNeil specifies the aggressive and harmful nature of the virus when it moves into what is scientifically categorized as “naïve” territory (28). The word naïve calls forth the image of an innocent, unaware of the dangers of the world; this is the victim, the foil to the virus that actively seeks to cause destruction. On the cellular level, this victim is the host cell’s DNA; on the biological level, it is the unborn fetus; on the conceptual level, it is the American public, for whom McNeil expresses the greatest concern about the “impeding threat” (55).

In further distinguishing the characterization of both the villain and the victim, we can look to the surprisingly consistent rhetoric that McNeil uses to detail the nature of the relationship between the quasi-characters. When speaking of the mosquito known to carry the Zika virus, McNeil repeatedly emphasizes “how hard it was to kill Aedes aegypti because it bred and lived indoors with its victims, as cockroaches do, not off in the swamps, as some other species did” (84). The parallel between the mosquito and the cockroach carries no structural or informational significance, but serves to further encapsulate the villain-virus as something loathsome and repulsive. Mention of the swamps smacks of imperialistic literature caricaturizing African natives wallowing in overgrown wilderness, such as in Heart of Darkness: “Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him.” The victims, in contrast, are intrinsically more civilized by the mere virtue of living indoors. Interestingly enough, McNeil seems to fashion a sort of motif out of the “air-conditioned homes,” referring to them multiple times in the book as the safe space made inaccessible to the villain-virus, which (I’ll just be blunt about it) has developed into the image of a violently aggressive African savage on the hunt for unsuspecting American victims.

And this is where scientific language becomes harmful. McNeil’s narrative makes it easy for white Americans to cast themselves into the roles of the wronged innocents and simultaneously associate the black “others” with stereotypical lines of aggression, fear, and blame. The identification of an out-group, of someone to blame, provides a sense of control over a situation where we find ourselves feeling both frightened and powerless. We don’t have to look farther than the results of the latest election, into the “silent majority” of disgruntled and disenfranchised lower-class white individuals, to know that this is a narrative of deep familiarity. It has been recurrent from the conception of our nation; since then, we have sought to cast it out of the impressionistic and interpretive aspects of our culture, but have made little forward progress in removing its deep roots in scientific language. But we cannot afford to stand in place any longer. For as long as we continue to employ scientific language that stands on the backs of minority groups, we will continue to build a reality that holds true to these narratives. But if we ever hope to reach any semblance of equality, we must push consciously in reverse, making space for the narratives yet unheard. We must allow the powerful language of scientific construction to spill forth from the lips of the oppressed, and thus rebuild the world that we have long accepted. One block – one word – at a time.


Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover, 1902. Print.

McNeil, Donald. Zika: The Emerging Epidemic. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc. 2016. Print.

Martin, J.R., & Halliday, M.A.K. Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power. University of Pittsburgh Press. 1993. Print.