Tag Archives: language

Carbon pollution and other metaphors

This was my October column for Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read current edition including my virtual tour of the Science Museum.

There’s a new phrase on the block: “Carbon Pollution”. Barak Obama used it 30 times in a recent speech as he tried to draw more attention to role of carbon emissions. As Carbon Brief’s Ros Donald wrote: “It sounds made up, and it is.”

But just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it is not useful. All scientific terms are made up. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Just because it’s constructed by people doesn’t mean it’s either unreal or malign. It just means people fashioned it from the materials they found in the world, with all the good, bad and complex in-betweens which come with that.

Attaching human words onto the workings of the natural world will always be fraught and inevitably contain a fair bit of creativity. Scientific terms are always simplifications – whether they are also a deliberate spin – and to what degree you are comfortable with any particular simplification will vary depending on your position in and around it. They are simplifications of the detail of scientific understanding, which itself is a simplification of the actual reality out there. It’s one of the reasons science gives us so many of our new words, as scientists need to make new terms to cover the new things they’ve found. It is also why maths is often more useful, and scientific publication increasingly looks to new forms of visualisation (if you don’t know JOVE, you’ve been missing out).

There is a fantastical element to much language – especially when it comes to metaphor and analogy – but then science is always a bit fantastical. There is something fantastical about graphs too, indeed most inscriptions of scientific research as they pull out particular bits of the world in detail for us to examine. As our dim human forms scramble to comprehend the huge complexity of our universe we might as well use everything at our disposal, including this amazing thing called language.

As anyone who’s studied the atom in any way knows, at times it can feel like your teacher keeps going “so you know that thing we told you last year, well, about that…” It’s like film stars having special ways to pronounce their name depending on how close you are to them; each different twist on the reality acting as a shibboleth to the core of power. Except that the early simplifications – whilst also kind of lies – are an invitation for further study. If scientists offered their full view of what we should probably call ‘the artist formally known as the atom’ up front, they might alienate a lot of people. And it is, after all, still only their current idea with all the uncertainties and gaps any science has. There is a sort of honesty in the way chemistry teachers lie to their students. Nature is the ultimate annoying teacher pointing out that the thing you thought was true was merely a sketch of reality.

I think my favourite turn of scientific phrase is the start to Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker, where is describes a large willow tree pumping seeds into the air with the line: “It is raining DNA outside”. It is a magical image, but hooks you in to wanting to know the reality and offers a way to help you start thinking about it. Dawkins is maybe better known for idea of “the selfish gene” is possibly better known because many felt that particular hook was problematic, offering a particular vision on life via the idea of the gene they took offense to.

It is interesting how some such simplifications of science are seen accepted and others contested. Another good example is the hole in the ozone layer. The actual origin is contested. Joe Farnam – aka the co-discover of this hole – told the British Library’s Aural History of Science project no-one quite owned up to coining the phrase, though it seemed to have appeared somewhere between a NASA press release and a piece in the Washington Post “they had a press release and the Washington correspondents must have asked some questions, someone said, well, it looks like a hole doesn’t it, or something [laughs]” (pdf of full transcript). According to Reiner Grundmann, Sherwood Rowland – another ‘co-discoverer – coined the metaphor, used first when talking to a student newspaper (See Transnational Environmental Policy: Reconstructing Ozone, p.206). Wherever it came from, the idea of a ‘hole’ to describe what was going on up there might be enough of a simplification that not everyone finds it accurate, and it may well have helped facilitate a particular political outcome, but perhaps because of both of those reasons, it seems to have stuck nonetheless.

I don’t want to suggest metaphor and analogy are always a good thing though. Take, for example, another example of complex and esoteric systems the public often feel confused by: finance. At a recent public lecture from Andy Haldane of the Bank of England, I was struck by the sheer weight of metaphors (yes, I know that is a metaphor). There were fat tails and short minds, logjams, dark sides, siren voices of boom and bust, lumpy outcomes and webs. At times it took a geographical turn, with cliff edges, cross-border flows, storms at sea and even some “sunny uplands” (of stability). It had medical moments too, with antidotes, myopia and a ‘pock-marked’ history.

It was kind of poetic, and one way of looking at this is to congratulate Haldane for his articulate explaining. The Richard Dawkins of economics perhaps. Another would be to argue he used such language to create a further barrier between him and his audience. If he really wanted public involvement he’d invite it; he’d show us the language and ideas of financial workers use so we could talk to them on their own terms. Instead, he just stood on a stage and spouted linguistically-produced pictures at us. Which were pretty, but left little space for audience agency (again, the Richard Dawkins of economics, perhaps).

None of this is simple. As Donald notes of “carbon pollution”, the term seems to be designed with a deliberate political end in mind, compared to climate change or global warming which we might see as having slightly more scientific ancestry (useful blogpost on the two from NASA). It was made to provoke action, not understanding. But scientific terms can be put to political work too. For example, the idea that ‘climate change’ sounds less threatening than ‘global warming’. I also suspect Obama’s application of carbon pollution reflects the increasing tendency of advocates for action on climate change – including scientists – to talk about using the atmosphere as a rubbish dump. The science and politics are rarely divisible, for all that it might suit some to imagine so.

As that wise old teacher Seymour Skinner once said, much science is half BF Skinner and PT Barnam. Linguistic play is part of the latter. As long as we can find ways of playing with words which involve listening and debate along with a strong respect for empiricism (“listening to nature”, if you will), not simply showmanship.

For fracks sake

“Who even invented that word fracking anyway? I bet it was an environmentalist.”

Anthony Giddens, 17th January 2012

Anthony Giddens doesn’t seem to like the word fracking. At a debate on shale gas at the Policy Network earlier this week he wrapped his mouth around it as if the very sound produced a bad smell right there under his nose. It sounds ever so slightly like a rude word you see (I know. Naughty) which leads to punning headlines which sensationalises debate.

I disagree with this as necessarily a problem though. In fact, I’m all for punning headlines when it comes to very esoteric debates like shale gas. Yeah, you could see it as a distraction from real* issues. Or you could see it as an invitation. This thing that sometimes gets called “sensationalism” is not necessarily a bad thing.

The crucial issue for me was that Giddens expressed this distaste for the word fracking while sitting in a small, not especially full room in the centre of Westminster; a small room in the shadow of Big Ben, above an ecclesiastical outfitters and nestled behind one of the UK’s most exclusive private schools. There were at least two members of the House of Lords there. Possibly more (I’m not very good at peer-spotting). There were certainly a lot of suits. Apparently it was an open event, although an academic from the LSE also told me it was invite only and although it may not have been intensionally closed, it did feel a tad elitist. I felt scared emailing to ask if I could go, and slightly out of place when I arrived. And I work for two of top universities in the country. I even used to work in those offices, above J Whipple and Sons ecclesiastical outfitters, back when it was rented by NESTA. I should feel reasonably at home there.

I should make it clear that I don’t want energy policy dictated by punning headline. I do want people who make the decisions on these issues to take the time to be expert, probably for them to understand it better than I do and talk about things I don’t have time to learn how to understand. I like that people sit in small rooms in Westminster being a bit geeky. But I do not want them to be disdainful of popular debate while they do so. In fact, I’d want them to spend time thinking about how to open the debate up as much as possible. Punning headlines being part of that.

Let’s take, for example the Fracking Song which includes this little beauty of a lyric: “What the frack is going on with all this fracking going on, I think we need some facts to come to light…” (complete a slight emphasis on facts to assonate with frack). The song accompanies a short animated video which is offered as an introduction to the issue, something it’s makers describe as an “explainer”. They stress that an explainer is not meant to take the place of the detailed investigation, it’s just a starting point. It’s a lovely bit of video; really makes you feel like you understand an issue and are able and want to know more. It is also, I should underline still a framing of the issue, a starting point from a particular position. For all that the word explainer may sound comfortingly straightforward, logical and educational, it is still a version of the more complex events going on. It is still a take on the topic, a story, form of spin even. That lovely feeling where you think you understand an issue is produced because it’s such a great piece of rhetoric. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad thing, just that it’s rhetoric. Lots of things are rhetoric. Including all the debate from Giddens et al I heard on shale gas (not fracking) at the Policy Network. One person’s “sensationalism” is another’s “hit the nail on the head”.

So, let’s talk about fracking. And if Giddens thinks this is the wrong way into a debate about shale gas he should join in and help enrich public debate, not turn his nose up at it.

* Whatever the “real” issues are. Personally, I think the focus of these issues is up for debate, which is part of the point. Incidentally, I don’t think it was an environmental campaigner who coined the term fracking, it’s been an industrial process for several decades. But even if it was I’m not entirely sure what the problem is.

EDITED TO ADD: years ago, when I was an undergrad studying science in the mass media I wrote an essay on the politics of sensationalism and remember reading this paper (paywall, sorry). Not sure I agreed with it then, or now, but people reading this might find it interesting.

S#*@ scientists say

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.