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Saturday, 6 August 2016

Speaking Science

Scientists love big complex words. I've spent this week isolating halophilic endophytes, for example. But why do we do that? And what does it do to the public image of science?
The funny thing is, we actually use these big words because it's easier! And definitely more efficient. Take my earlier sentence, for example; it's far easier and quicker to say 'I was isolating halophilic endophytes' than 'I was taking bacteria that can happily tolerate high levels of salt out of the plant tissue where they live; not causing disease, but living in harmony with the plant'. Just in terms of word count, that's five words of science language versus thirty words of normal English. This is especially important for things like grant proposals and journal articles when there's a word limit, and those extra twenty five words could be used for other things. It's like those nice long words in German that mean abstract things like schadenfreude (enjoying someone else's misfortune/suffering).

In many ways Science is another language, or at least a different dialect. This is fine when talking to each other, but can throw up a language barrier when talking to non scientists. This is something ii was talking to my girlfriend about yesterday; I was saying how it's hard to reach people to engage them in science when they don't want to attend your fun event or watch your video (or read your blog...). But Ciara's a non scientist, so sees it in a different way; that science is seen as something just for super brainy people, so non scientists avoid scicomm stuff because they're worried they'll look or feel stupid. And the fact that we're talking a different language really helps perpetuate that. If a big fun looking event was held here but spoken in Welsh I quite possibly wouldn't go, even knowing that they would all be English speakers. Science is the same; all scientists can speak regular language, but the thought of not understanding and feeling out of place keeps people away.

I think it's easy to despair at public lack of interest, but we should look to ourselves and how approachable we are as well. It's science communication, not science lecturing, so everything should be a two-way street.

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