Because I forget stuff. Part of

Note: It appears you must have reached this page by a deep level URL. In general this site is currently down and unmaintained. See here

About This Post

Originally posted October 26 2011 at 20:10 under Physics. 0 Comments. Trackbacks Disabled.

The Language Barrier

From this Physics Today article and originally seen various places around the web:

Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public
Scientific term Public meaning Better choice
enhance improve intensify, increase
aerosol spray can tiny atmospheric particle
positive trend good trend upward trend
positive feedback good response, praise vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
theory hunch, speculation scientific understanding
uncertainty ignorance range
error mistake, wrong, incorrect difference from exact true number
bias distortion, political motive offset from an observation
sign indication, astrological sign plus or minus sign
values ethics, monetary value numbers, quantity
manipulation illicit tampering scientific data processing
scheme devious plot systematic plan
anomaly abnormal occurrence change from long-term average
From: Somerville R. C. J. & Hassol S. J. Phys. Today 64 (10) 48 (2011)

Obviously due to coming from a paper discussing how to talk about climate change the phrases are those that would tend to turn up in such a discussion but some of them are certainly much more widely applicable and it doesn’t take much effort to think up others. This is one of the great problems with science communication, possibly increasingly so in these media frenzy rich times when any “descenting” voice is given the same weight as majority opinion (and finds an easy outlet in the internet). scientists use terms in their communications because that is what they mean, and in general are careful about the terms and words they choose. The problem is that taken away from that context the precision is lost so that what was an exacting phrase becomes a source of confusion.

The obvious solution to this is to try and communicate beyond the high towers of science with words the public will understand in a natural way. This seems to me a double edged sword however. While it may lead to a better comprehension and less of a feeling of alienation there is also the increased risk of misunderstanding due to that very loss of accuracy—this can happen to the point that what is actually a clear cut point can become bogged down in what is actually an argument over semantics.

Something else which comes across from reading the article (well worth five minutes of your time if you care about PUS is how when dealing with the public we need to break of our normal shackles of discretion. Scientists are used to couching everything in a web of caution. We place error estimates on our numbers, add numerous caveats, talk about “probably” and the like (look how even the summary for policy makers of the Contribution of Working Group I to the IPCC says Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. (additional emphasis mine). Perhaps it is time to throw of the constraints and be more positive, simply stating what all the evidence indicates without all the rest of it (and ignore that this may cause longer term problems given that one of the ways to spot a crank is that they don’t tend to bother with this cautiousness).

In conclusion, communicate clearly, but be careful to still say what you mean!

As a further thought this does all remind me somewhat of how we learn to “read” papers. See for instance this list of actual meanings (I’m sure there are others around; that was just the first my googling turned up). I’m pretty convinced that one of the major barriers to science study and understanding is actually getting used to the language.

Comments (0):

Post a comment

Name and email address are required. Email address is never shown. If you enter a URL your name will be linked to it (this and other links will have the rel attribute set to contain nofollow). Markup allowed: <a href="" title="" rel=""> <em> <strong> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <p> <br />. Anything else is stripped; please be valid. Single linebreaks automatically convert to <br />, double to <p>'s. Additionally anything that looks like a bare URL should get automagically linked. Many acronyms and abbreviations are also automagically handled.

Please note this blog's comment policy


This Crazy Fool

Dr Ian Scott
Croydon (and Gateshead), United Kingdom
Bullding Services Engineer (EngDesign), PhD in Physics (University of York), football fanatic (Newcastle United), open source enthusiast (mainly Mozilla)

More about me [Disclaimer]

You may subscribe to IMS_Blog using the RSS Feed, the Atom Feed or by email.

Creative Commons License

From October 26 Other Years

© Ian Scott. Powered by Movable Type 3.2. This blog uses valid XHTML 1.0 Strict and valid CSS. All times are local UK time. For further details see the IMS_Blog about page.. All my feeds in one.