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Out of order: A word about communication
Quand je parle, est-ce que vous me comprenez? O è tutto solo sciocchezze a te?
Living in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto, I often find myself surrounded by a Babel-like cacophony of conversations. A German couple over there, next to a Chinese family on a day out. A Somalian and three French women looking for directions. Some are local, others just visiting, but all speak words I do not understand.
And because English may not be their first language, when they do manage to speak in a way I can understand, they may not use English words correctly, either mispronouncing them or using them in the wrong context. (BTW: That they speak any English shames me in my inability to even attempt their languages, except French.)
I give them credit for trying. Suspecting I cannot speak their language, they do their best to communicate in words I can understand. And while their opening salvos may be bumpy, they will improve with time, becoming clearer with each attempt.
Those of us in science communication could learn a lesson or two.
Although the unofficial international language of science is English—following on the heels of French and German, best I can tell—it is in many ways only English in that its words come from the same dictionary as those of English-speaking nations. Aside from the truest jargon that litters scientific discussions, often derived from Latin and Greek, the words we use to describe our explorations and theories look and sound much like any conversation you might hear on a subway or bus. And yet, this seeming similarity is often what makes science so difficult to communicate.
Under its Sharing Science banner, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) recently blogged about the challenges of speaking jargon to non-specialist audiences (see link below). Aside from issues of meaningless acronyms and polysyllabic, multilinguistic tongue-twisters, one of the issues they highlighted was the use of words that mean one thing within a specific field of research and quite another outside of it.
Given the fields covered by the AGU, they pointed to some of the more glaring expressions such as “dating” being a method to determine age rather than a social interaction, or “mole” being a unit of measurement rather than a skin blemish or small mammal.
The medical and biotechnology industries offer similar confusions. For example, the word “positive” often means forward/increasing (e.g., positive trend; positive feedback) rather than good/better (e.g., speaking positively). “Error” is simply a deviation or spread from average or the norm rather than an indication that something is incorrect, and “bias” is similarly a trend to one side rather than a conscious or unconscious distortion or selectivity.
Thus, when communicating with people outside of our specialty, it is vital that we consider what might be heard more than what we intended to say.
I wrote about this several years ago as the “12-year-old boy test” to determine whether phrasing is inadvertently salacious. The idea was that you read the phrase or sentence out to a pre-adolescent boy. If the boy shows even the slightest smile, there is a “dirty” interpretation of what you just said.
More broadly applied, we spend inordinate amounts of time crafting our messages to present the information in the most coherent, meaningful and truthful manner. And we then watch as those words get reinterpreted or completely misinterpreted by journalists and the public at large through little or no fault of their own.
“But we need that phraseology,” we cry into the darkness—never willing to consider our language jargon—“as it is more precise and accurate than the multiple lay terms we might otherwise use.”
That position is weak, but defensible within our houses.
But what is the point of all that accuracy and precision when the message itself is completely missed (a best-case scenario) or erroneously and perhaps dangerously misstated by those living in other houses?
In the absence of clarity and unity of interpretation and understanding, precision and accuracy are meaningless.
We cannot allow ourselves to wear jargon and codified language as a mantle of achievement, an insignia of our special status. Rather, we must remain vigilant that this cloak does not become a gag that muffles the true meaning of our collected wisdom.
Given the increasingly vociferous attacks on science in recent years, it is increasingly vital that we make every effort to ensure the clear and unfettered communication of our message to the public. And that effort starts by reminding ourselves of what it is to not have a science degree.
Shakespeare captured the conundrum in Henry V, where the valiant young warrior-king struggles to win over the French princess despite taking her father’s country against overwhelming odds:
“Come, your answer in broken music, for thy voice is music and thy English broken. Therefore, queen of all, Katherine, break thy mind to me in broken English.”
In that spirit, I call on thee, science folk, to angle your discoveries to me in English that may stumble across thy tongue whilst yet tripping from it.
Randall C Willis can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jargon and how to avoid it can be found at: http://sharingscience.agu.org/jargon-and-how-to-avoid-it/