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Can someone please clarify for me if there is a difference between an explanation and an interpretation in scientific discourse?

Whenever I am writing up results, I am careful to distinguish observations (which I associate with results) and interpretations (which I associate with discussion), because results are describing your data, where discussion is interpreting the data (which I always thought of as coming up with explanations for the results). However, I got into a discussion today with another scientist about the meaning the word explanation when they asked me add explanations into the results section of our paper (I thought they should go into the discussion).

I am particularly interested in the differences between these terms in the natural sciences (my area), but welcome comparison of the terminology between the fields of math, natural science, and social science in order to help clarify their definitions.

Concisely, here is how I view the terminology:

Observation ≡ Result

Interpretation ≡ Discussion ≡ Explanation

Is this misguided? And if so, can someone please clarify?

  • I'm tempted to say this might be a better fit for the English language SE, but it's also sufficiently on-topic here I think. That being said, this might just be a semantics argument. I would automatically associate both observation and interpretation with results, as the simple act of graphing/presenting data involves interpreting it somehow. – tonysdg Dec 15 '16 at 20:56
  • I think the question is on-topic, because I interpret the question to be less about the particular terms "explanation" and "interpretation" and more about what the colleague meant when suggesting "adding explanations" to the results section. Maybe OP could edit the title slightly to emphasize this part of the body of the question, because the body tells me that semantics is not the real point of issue here. – Bryan Krause Dec 15 '16 at 23:46
  • I always had the feeling that interpretation is more flexible when it comes to explaining results, so it can be more personal, biased. Thus, we say "this is your interpretation of what happened". We could use explanation instead, but it seems a little bit odd and explanation seems to be (or should be) more objective. – BioGeo Dec 16 '16 at 12:14
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I think I understand what your colleague is suggesting, and I think an example might help, so let me try:

I grabbed a (roughly) random article from the most recent copy of Nature by Govero, et al.

A bolded "explanation" in the Results section:

At day 7, we observed high levels of viral RNA in all male reproductive tract tissues (Extended Data Fig. 4a). At day 13, we observed ZIKV RNA in germ and Sertoli cells in Rag1−/− mice, and this was associated with a decrease in TRA98+ germ cells and Lin28a+ spermatogonia and breakdown of the BTB. However, interstitial Leydig cells remained in ZIKV-infected Rag1−/− mice even though the architecture of the seminiferous tubules was altered (Extended Data Fig. 4c–d). Thus, damage to the testis appears to be mediated both by ZIKV infection and adaptive immune responses.

Versus an "interpretation":

Our experiments with mouse-adapted ZIKV-Dakar show that infection causes testicular and epididymal damage in mice that can progress to reductions in key sex hormones, destruction of germ and somatic cells in the testis, and loss of mature sperm and fertility. Sertoli cells may be a key target for ZIKV in the testis, resulting in cell dysfunction, detachment from the basement membrane and dissolution of the BTB. Infiltrating inflammatory cells may amplify destruction of the testicular architecture.

So, in some ways there is a bit of overlap, and I don't know if "explanation" vs. "interpretation" are the best words used to differentiate them. I'm also not holding up this article as some optimal way of presenting things: opinions will no doubt vary. My personal opinion is that some contextualization is necessary in the results of all but the most straightforward papers. I think "explanation" is especially needed when you are discussing the control experiments you did, and it's a matter of personal style the order in which you present this, either: "In order to make sure XXXX wasn't a problem, we did YYYY" or "When we tested YYYY, we found ZZZZ, therefore XXXX did not contribute to our previous finding MMMM."

Essentially, in the results section, they didn't only state what exactly they found (i.e., virus levels and counts of cells), but they also explained what those result means in the context of what they are studying. In the discussion, they go further, interpreting the results in the context of other discoveries in the field and future directions for study.

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Disclaimer: Opinion

First, I believe your description in what goes into Results and Discussion aligns with general writing guidelines for scientific writing. However, time to time there are also some articles that clearly violated this "rule" but still reads surprisingly well.

Now, back to your words: "Explain" usually indicates making something more understandable and apparent. While "Interpret" may not necessarily fulfill that function. One way to best gauge what your peers meant would probably be asking them to identify the phrase that "explains" something in the Results section in a sample article, or ask them to write you a couple examples.

Time to time, to "explain" may just mean coaching people how to read a plot, pointing out what is the focus in a table, providing a neutral statement on the direction and magnitude of a statistics, etc. They don't necessarily serve to interpret or provide any qualitative comment, but more to orient readers so that they can glean the most useful information efficiently.

Now, if your peers actually meant "to convey higher-level idea on why or why not a certain finding behaves in a certain way," then I'd vote for putting that in the Discussion section as well.

However, as I said, there are examples written by authors who relaxed this categorization and still managed to keep the paper very clear. I'd consider that skillful rather than rule-defying. But for less experienced writers, my recommendation will be to learn the craft the way as it was suggested by consulting the proper style and writing guides in your field. And later, start to also consider use of space, types of audience, questions that the audience might have when they read up to this line, etc. and adjust accordingly. Is it worthy to mildly break a rule by adding half a line of interpretative statement in the Results section so that the readers can read on without suspense hanging over them? I'd say maybe.

Generally (really, really opinion here), I would rather not to be too dogmatic when discussing scientific writing style with others. Keep an open mind but do know your own field's general "rules." Communicate with them, experiment a bit, it's all fine.

(Yet, one thing that I probably will never mess with is APA style... APA style fandom is strong and I'll steer away from upsetting them.)

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