One of the basic tenets of science journalism is that a more informed public will make better decisions. While scientists are doing a stellar job – if I may say so as a scientists myself – performing the necessary research, there are still barriers that prevent common understanding of what the scientists are finding out.
I recently came across this article at Physics Today entitled “Communicating the Science of Climate Change” part of which addresses this problem in terms of the common language used by scientists to communicate their results. Part of the problem is that scientists typically use words that are not in the common vernacular to describe their results when sometimes a clearer substitute could be used. From the article:
Scientists tend to speak in code. We encourage them to speak in plain language and choose their words with care. Many words that seem perfectly normal to scientists are incomprehensible jargon to the wider world. And there are usually simpler substitutes. Rather than “anthropogenic,” scientists can say “human-caused.” Instead of “spatial” and “temporal,” they could say “space” and “time.”
The other, and I think more interesting, part of the problem arises when scientists use words that are use commonly in everyday language – but they have a different meaning for scientists than they do for those in the general public. Here’s a short table of some of these offending words, again from the Physics Today article:
It’s easy to see where the break in communication between scientists and non-scientists can arise. If a researcher referrs to “the error in the measurement” a non-scientist could – taken to the extreme – arrive at the conclusion that there is something incorrect about the results and therefore the conclusions cannot be trusted!
I’m not sure how often this happens in reality, but I can certainly see the potential for some confusion. I can also see the potential for hilarity:
Scientists: “Now if you’ll direct your attention to Scheme 1…”
Public: “Aha! Those devious scientists are scheming against us! I knew it all along!”
While these scenarios are probably far fetched, it certainly can’t hurt for scientists to be as clear as possible when writing for a broader audience than just their peers. This also highlights the need for science journalists – people who can translate scientists’ sometimes confusing speech in to clear statements.