A lot of scientists and science writers I follow online seem to be sharing a table outlining terms which have, apparently, different meanings for scientists and the public, as if it was some sort of incredibly useful resource.
Physics Today, October 2011, pp51.
It popped up on one of the American Geophysical Union blogs as well as Southern Fried Science who has extended the conversation with a googledoc. Then it got Boing-ed. I think the table has been taken a little out of context, lifted from a pay-walled article in the American Institue of Physics’ magazine, Physics Today. None of the people passing around this table seem to care about the basis for this advice. How did they learn that this was a meaning the public would take from a word? How did they test the ‘better choice’? This sort of questioning was my first reaction to the chart, and frankly I’ve been a bit shocked by the uncritical attitude approach other people have taken to it.
So, I dug out the article and although it covers a lot of what might easily be described as probably quite sensible media training advice, that is really all it is. It is based on the experience of the authors, which I’m happy to agree is pretty decent experience, but is still rather partial, not to mention unsystematic. That doesn’t mean the debate prompted by the table hasn’t been useful. I’m not disputing the idea that scientists use different language from other people. But scientists often use different language from one another too, or at least, one specialist will have a different set of terms from another. Moreover, it’s plain silly to assume all members of the public (whatever ‘the public’ is…) take the same meaning in all contexts. To take, for example, the 6th word on that list: ‘uncertainty’ won’t necessarily mean ‘ignorance’ to everyone without scientific training, all of the time. Let’s not be reductive about language, please.
I’m all for people reflecting on the multiple meanings of words associated with science, and for people sharing advice and experiences to help come up with a ‘better choice’. By all means think about terms, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is anything other than a bit of useful blah, please don’t take any of this as set in stone and please, please, PLEASE don’t generalise about the whole of science and the whole of the public as some sort of simple and discernible binary. Otherwise I’ll just start stabbing things. As that Physics Today argues (if you read it, not just blogposts…) climate change communication is worth doing well. Precisely because I agree with this, I want to stress that it is important that we keep in mind the specific context of our various utterances on science, and avoid the lure of too-easy generations.
Personally, I think we should be investing in detailed and rigorous social science on this issue. Although I do think a bit of general chatter is useful (if you are interested, do go and play with that googledoc), I also think it is worth more than that. It’s worth being clever about this. It’s worth being precise. It’s worth being evidence-based.