Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Communicating science to the unscientific public

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One of the bigger issues with communicating science to the general public is how educators continue to overestimate the hoi polloi’s grasp of scientific vernacular; ie. they ignore or forget the fact that laypeople hear one thing but understand another, simply because the scientific meaning to those terms is foreign or unknown to them. We see it all the time, with perhaps the most notorious example being those who claim that “Evolution is just a theory!” (as if that were a dismissal of anything other than their own credibility on the matter).

To demonstrate just how prevalent this problem is, here’s a useful, if somewhat discomforting, chart:

Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public
From Physics Today (October 2011), ‘Communicating the Science of Climate Change’ by Richard C.J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol
My transcript: (click the [+/-] to expand/collapse →) []
Terms that have a different meanings for scientists and the public
Scientific term Public meaning Better choice
enhance improve intensify, increase
aerosol spray can tiny atmospheric particle
positive trend good trend upward trend
positive feedback good response, praise vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
theory hunch, speculation scientific understanding
uncertainty ignorance range
error mistake, wrong, incorrect difference from exact true number
bias distortion, political motive offset from an observation
sign indication, astrological sign plus or minus sign
values ethics, monetary value numbers, quantity
manipulation illicit tampering scientific data processing
scheme devious plot systematic plan
anomaly abnormal occurrence change from long-term average

Phil Plait has more. It’s really crucial for the experts to understand that most people don’t share their expertise and simply won’t understand what they mean to say unless they speak a language that John and Jane Doe can actually understand, even if this means simplification to the extreme at times. That’s the price of communication.