Science: the language of miscommunication

I often mangle the English language really bad. Take the following sentence. If you had to put it in your own words, how would you say it?

I read of a scheme to manipulate aerosols to reduce positive feedbacks between anthropogenic CO2 levels and positive temporal patterns in climate change.

We scientists know that our wordy sentences get translated in lots of ways. But sometimes there’s an enormous difference between what we think we said and what others believe we said. Believe it or not (according to a new study), the sentence above could easily be interpreted to mean…

I read of a devious plot to illicitly tamper with spray cans to reduce the great response between CO2 levels, attractive foreheads and climate change.

Wow, where did that mess come from? Taken as a whole, the interpretation is incomprehensible. But word by word, the translation could be impeccable. What went wrong? What got lost in translation?

In a great new paper, Richard Somerville and Susan Hassol describe why it’s so difficult to communicate the science of climate change to the general public. It’s an interesting, and highly readable, article. Many of the issues they describe are relevant to many conservation issues, not just to climate change.

Misinformation campaigns and poor reporting certainly make it hard to get climate change messages across. But the authors also place the breakdown in communications at the feet of scientists like me. And since many of my colleagues in environmental management talk the same way I do, this problem must extend beyond research to the broader field of environmental management.

Scientists typically fail to craft simple, clear messages and repeat them often. They commonly overdo the level of detail, and people can have difficulty sorting out what is important. In short, the more you say, the less they hear. And scientists tend to speak in code. We encourage them to speak in plain language and choose their words with care. (Somerville & Hassol 2011)

They point out the obvious, of course.

Many words that seem perfectly normal to scientists are incomprehensible jargon to the wider world. And there are usually simpler substitutes. Rather than “anthropogenic,” scientists can say “human-caused.” Instead of “spatial” and “temporal,” they could say “space” and “time.”…. And they shouldn’t expect a lay audience to do mental arithmetic.(Somerville & Hassol 2011)

The authors present a neat table in which they compare how scientists and the public interpret many words that we use in our papers and reports.

Table 1. Terms that have 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

(From Somerville & Hassol 2011;

A quick glance through the titles of my papers (let alone their contents), reveals a litany of abuses. I’ve only been a short step from crafting titles like, Spatial and temporal impacts of enhanced anthropogenic disturbances. No wonder no one understands me.

The list raises some interesting questions. Should we use these words in our papers, but different words when we speak to a wider audience? Or are some of the words just as useless in our papers? Do I write enhance instead of increase just cause it sounds more posh? Is there any other good reason to do so?

When I did my PhD many years ago, whenever one of my relatives asked – “what are you studying?” – I realized that their eyes glazed over when I described my real project. I worked out that it was better to invent a parallel project that meant something to them. So I’d say I was “working out how to save endangered species”. And they’d say, “that’s wonderful dear!” Delighted by the brevity of my reply as much as its content, no doubt.

My ‘parallel project’ description may have stretched the boundaries of factuality, but at least it communicated something. Somerville and Hassol emphasize the value of simple metaphors and analogies in communicating science.

Consider what your audience cares about…. Try to craft messages that are not only simple but memorable, and repeat them often. Make more effective use of imagery, metaphor, and narrative. In short, be a better storyteller, lead with what you know, and let your passion show. (Somerville & Hassol 2011)

It’s a big challenge to write good papers AND to communicate research findings to a wide readership. New researchers face lots of pressure to adopt the latest concepts, frameworks, buzzwords and jargon. This is awesome. This is how science progresses. But our system gives few rewards for translating research findings into ‘simple, memorable narratives’ that don’t rely on the buzzwords. When we strip out the concepts and jargon, what have we got to deliver? It’s not simply a matter of running an ‘edit replace’ through our wordy text. To get our messages across we have to repackage things completely.

Somerville and Haslon provide a fun picture that compares these two ways of communicating. It highlights the need to turn our language inside out, so we can get our messages across better.

scientist vs public
Opposite ways of communicating. Somerville & Hassol recommend that we, “start with the bottom line and tell people why they should care.”

There’s an old story (possibly apocryphal), about a survey of what the public thought the word biodiversity meant. One common response was, a laundry detergent. It would be interesting to find out how the ‘general public’ [and I know that’s a condescending word – ‘which public’ I hear you ask?] interprets lots of terms that we use in conservation management. Probably a lot less than we think – not because people aren’t interested, but because we often fall into a fanzine geek-speak that can be impenetrable except to the converted.

I’m sure everyone has experienced this challenge to communicate. How do you describe your work, research or passion to Uncle Jack and Auntie Mabel? Most importantly, how do you get them to say, “That’s wonderful dear, tell me more”?

Further reading

Somerville RCJ & Hassol SJ (2011). Communicating the science of climate change. Physics Today 64(10), p. 48. [This link should let you read the whole article on line for free].

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3 thoughts

  1. Great post Ian! You might also be interested in work by a company in the UK called ‘Futerra’ that has done a lot of stuff on communicating climate change, and other environmental concepts such as sustainability and biodiversity.
    The marketing/sales world has known for a very long time how to sell a message to ‘the general public’ (and it definitely doesn’t need any more jargon) but there doesn’t seem to be much dialogue between scientists and marketing people on this. Climate change is a good example of an issue where the broader community needs to understand and take action, but to be honest I think most scientists don’t see a great need to communicate their work to the broader community and are happy to stick to the jargon speak that only other scientists, and their funding providers, can understand. Thankfully there are exceptions to that and I hope that more will get on board.

    1. Hi Els, thanks very much for your comment, and for the link. The Futerra report is a fantastic example of how environmental messages can be better ‘sold’. Its great to see focus groups being used ‘for good’ for a change 🙂 Best wishes Ian

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