Scientists do a lot of things well, from treating and curing diseases to predicting storms and protecting wildlife. But despite all their talents, there's one thing many scientists don't do well: articulate themselves to non-scientists.
In a new study titled "Communicating the science of climate change," two scientists try to break the positive feedback loop — ahem, I mean "vicious cycle" — of confusion and contempt, offering a list of words that scientists and laypeople often define differently (see above). This problem has become especially relevant lately in climate science, thanks to a political backlash against global warming research that has cast intense public scrutiny on climatologists.
With untrained critics parsing their words in search of controversy — and with world-changing decisions potentially at stake — today's climate scientists can't afford to use loaded terms like "scheme" when all they mean to say is "systematic plan." As Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy points out, the recent "Climategate" pseudo-scandal was largely fueled by a misinterpretation of what some scientists meant by the word "trick."
The word list above was just one table within the broader study, and it isn't based on formal research. On the American Geophysical Union's Mountain Beltway blog, science professor Alice Bell argues that it's "not really rigorous social psychology," prompting this response from the AGU's Callan Bentley: "You're right, it's not. ... No one is suggesting it's a peer-reviewed opus: just two authors' insights. Take it or leave as you see fit." On her own blog, Bell contends the list oversimplifies the gap between scientists and non-scientists, urging us to "not be reductive about language, please."
Many scientists and science writers are praising the list, though; the blog Southern Fried Science has even made a crowd-sourced spin-off, which adds words like "control," "confidence," "organic" and "mutant." And Plait, while admitting the risk of "dumbing it down," offers this articulate defense of using jargon judiciously:
"[H]ere's the point: communication isn't simply casting out information from atop a tower. There are two parts to it: presenting an idea to someone, and them understanding it. Sometimes we have to change the way we word things to make that second half happen. Otherwise we're shouting all the facts in the Universe to an empty room."
And that wouldn't be a very effective scheme, would it?