Thursday, October 27, 2011


Scientists use language in very particular ways in order to convey specialized meanings. This works fine among the peer group but it can lead to confusion, ambiguity and misinterpretation externally. Because science itself is concerned with being as precise as possible, it is a great shame if it\ loses precision because its audience misunderstands what they are told. In science, new words are often coined to describe new phenomena, or else old words are given new meanings to which the public is not privy. Scientists sometimes forget this.

For example, a soil scientist may refer unthinkingly to a soil layer as a ‘horizon’, whereas his lay audience may wonder what that line the sun goes behind is doing at the bottom of a hole. This is a case of one word having two (or more) meanings: technical and general. Classically, scientists often refer to their ‘models’, blithely unaware that many people in society think a model is an elegant person sporting stylish clothes, or alternatively, a small plastic aeroplane. In the sentence ‘We are using a new model to predict rabbit populations…’ the average person may be puzzled why the scientist would employ a mannequin to forecast rabbit plagues – and probably wonder how the scientist came by such a generous budget!

Scientific terms slip off the tongue, or the keyboard, very easily, and great care must be taken to avoid them or at least to translate them for the audience. Is a base an electron pair, a headquarters or the bottom of something? Is a phase part of a waveform cycle or a period in your life? Is a port the plughole in a computer, a place for ships to dock or a fortified wine? Is a bond a chemical link, a financial instrument or a manacle? Context will usually supply the answer, but one can never be sure what all readers will make of it and science writing must always be scanned carefully for such ambiguities.

A good test for whether a word is jargon is to imagine oneself standing at the supermarket checkout and saying the word to each person as they come past the cash register. How many would be able to provide even a rough explanation of the meaning? If the answer is ‘not many’, then the term should be avoided and a more common term used.

Avoiding scientific jargon is not as hard as it seems, as articles written for the public, for government and even industry usually focus on the application of the science, not on the science itself. It is nearly always possible to describe the application of science in plain language. Nevertheless, scientists sometimes complain that the translation of science into plain language ‘devalues’ it or ‘dumbs it down’. However, if the use of scientific terminology will only cause the audience to misunderstand – or, worse, completely misinterpret what is being said – then it makes no sense to use it, as the result will only be confusion. Scientists should never expect people outside their discipline to understand the exact meaning they ascribe to a specialised term – even an apparently simple one like ‘model’. Every effort should be made to re-phrase the language so that it has meaning for the audience. This sometimes takes more time and effort than some researchers can spare, and is the reason for the growing value of the skilled communicator as a messenger and interpreter between science and society.

Another challenge for the science writer turning scientific reports or articles into stuff the public can understand is ‘bureaucratese’: the leaden language of the public servant. Nowadays science is often twice as difficult to understand because it mingles scientific jargon with bureaucratese. This language is supposed to be dispassionate, but in fact it is usually clumsy, verbose and hard to read. It too favours the passive and the subjunctive, as well as a whole lexicon of specialist terms intended to exclude the uninitiated. Indeed, bureaucratese is often deliberately designed not to be understood, or else to be ambiguous, in order to withhold knowledge (and power) rather than share it. Because a great deal of science happens in bureaucracies – in universities, research agencies or government departments – the two languages often become horribly intermingled, resulting in a disaster for clarity and for the communication of science. In writing about science, it is very important to purge bureaucratic language as well as technical terms.

A nasty bureaucratic habit is to refer to everything by its initials or its acronym. This is fine if you know what it means – but is simply gobbledegook to the general public. Acronyms are bad in several ways: first, because they are meaningless by themselves and cannot even be looked up in a dictionary; second, because the phrase from which the initials are drawn is usually badly chosen and not easy to guess; third, because acronyms break the flow of meaning by forcing the reader to pause and puzzle over them; and fourth, because they sneer at the person who has not been initiated into the secret of their meaning.

A related phenomenon, even where the acronym is explained, is ‘alphabet soup’ – the excessive use of initials, as in the following example:

The FAIMMS sensor network will utilise leading edge technology to provide real-time 3D profiles of reef systems at seven sites along the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). AIMS is the national operator of FAIMMS, which is one of the components of the Great Barrier Reef Ocean Observing System (GBROOS), for which AIMS is also responsible. GBROOS is part of a nation-wide collaborative program, the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS), designed to observe the oceans around Australia.

It is possible for the general reader to fathom what is meant here, but the over-reliance on obscure abbreviations creates constant hiccups in the flow of meaning and should be avoided.

Another common vice of scientific (and bureaucratic) writing is to attach too many adjectives to a single noun. Sometimes as many as five, and even seven, adjectives may be piled onto one poor, struggling, inoffensive little noun. The words ‘one’, ‘poor’, ‘struggling’, ‘inoffensive’ and ‘little’ are the adjectives that describe the word ‘noun’. The use of such strings can perplex the reader, who has to decide which adjective is the most important in the context, and how each adjective affects all the others. The use of too many adjectives to over-describe an object is bad writing and unnecessary. If the adjectives are essential they can be distributed over several sentences. In reality, however, most of them can be left out without losing meaning. This improves both clarity and ease of reading. When pruning one’s work, it is good practice to remove all adjectives. Then go back and see which ones are truly vital and allow these alone to stand.

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 

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