Monthly Archives: December 2011

Humans are the only animals that …

When I saw this tweet by Ed Yong, I had to smile:

… because it reminded me of a quote I love from Daniel Gilbert’s awesome book Stumbling on Happiness:

Priests vow to remain celibate, physicians vow to do no harm, and letter carriers vow to swiftly complete their appointed rounds despite snow, sleet, and split infinitives. Few people realize that psychologists also take a vow, promising that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book, a chapter, or at least an article that contains this sentence: “The human being is the only animal that . . .” We are allowed to finish the sentence any way we like, of course, but it has to start with those eight words. Most of us wait until relatively late in our careers to fulfill this solemn obligation because we know that successive generations of psychologists will ignore all the other words that we managed to pack into a lifetime of well-intentioned scholarship and remember us mainly for how we finished The Sentence. We also know that the worse we do, the better we will be remembered. For instance, those psychologists who finished The Sentence with “can use language” were particularly well remembered when chimpanzees were taught to communicate with hand signs. And when researchers discovered that chimps in the wild use sticks to extract tasty termites from their mounds (and to bash one another over the head now and then), the world suddenly remembered the full name and mailing address of every psychologist who had ever finished The Sentence with “uses tools.” So it is for good reason that most psychologists put off completing The Sentence for as long as they can, hoping that if they wait long enough, they just might die in time to avoid being publicly humiliated by a monkey.

Of course, he writes this just before going on to put his own Sentence in print for everyone to see, but with an introduction like this I’ll cut him some slack.  Perhaps one day I’ll write The Sentence myself…

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Jargon: the new black sheep.

tl;dr:  Reducing jargon is good, but some jargon words are important and we need to keep them.  We should choose the words that give the public the best chance of understanding real science.  

The conversation about jargon in scientific communication has been thrust before my eyeballs a fair bit lately, starting with the Southern Fried Science piece – inspired by this paper – that got picked up by Boing Boing (which is where I saw it) and spawned an editable Google Doc spreadsheet of bad jargon words that should be replaced by “better choices”.  Then I noticed Christie Wilcox mention the issue while coining a term that I quite like:  “jargon walls”.  Her description of the issue is, frankly, awesome and so I’m going to quote it directly to set the stage:

Right now, science is almost entirely a one-way conversation. Scientists, as a group, pride themslves on doing cutting-edge research and publishing it in the top-tier journals of their field – then most feel that their part in the conversation is over. The problem is, these publications aren’t really communicating science to anyone but other scientists. Articles are kept locked behind expensive paywalls, and even those that are published in open access journals are still inaccessible, as they lie behind what I like to call jargon walls.

It’s not that non-scientists are too stupid to get science. Far from it. The average person simply doesn’t have the specific vocabulary to understand a scientific paper. I’m not stupid, yet when I take my car in to the mechanic, I don’t have the specific vocabulary to understand exactly what is making my check engine light keep turning on.

This jargon wall breeds distrust. Do I overall trust mechanics to know how to fix my car? Sure. But when one starts going on and on about how my timing belt needs adjustment, my fuel injectors need to be replaced, and there’s an oil leak in my engine that needs fixing, do I fully trust that he’s not just making up problems to get me to pay more for repairs? Not for a second.

And just before Christmas, another piece showed up in my Twitter feed from Deep Sea News by para_sight, with the tagline

Scientists must use the #language that we ALL possess, not the one only scientists possess

So many smart people have commented on this issue (and there’s a lot of links I’ve forgotten here, so please forgive me!) and agreed that scientists have to speak clearly and use more accessible language that the misgivings I felt when reading these blog posts and papers bugged me.  I commented on the aforementioned Boing Boing post at the time to express some of my shaky feelings on the matter:

Differences in interpretation are often ideological.  Someone mentioned climate change deniers above, screeching over “manipulation”.  What happens if scientists work really hard to change the words they use to exactly match the public use (which is a pointless moving target anyways; an example is the use of the word scheme, which as I’ve recently discovered means “government program” here in Australia), and climate change deniers and their ilk misinterpret the new word usage to mean whatever they want it to anyways?  You’re not going to solve the linguistic version of confirmation bias by changing the word you use – they’ll just move the goalposts and kick again.

Having said that, I’m not against the idea of reducing friction with the public by trying to avoid potential confusions.  It’s a worthwhile goal.  But I do think that you have problems coming from both directions;  ideologues will misinterpret you no matter what you do, and *every* field has its own jargon, usually for a reason. Solving that will probably require a more sophisticated approach, likely involving some combination of word normalisation as the paper suggests, and better education about common variants as other commenters have argued for.

But while I still think that these things are true, they didn’t really get at the heart of what was really bugging me about the anti-jargon push.  And then today, when I was reading para_sight’s piece, it finally hit me.  What really bothers me about this issue is that not all jargon is bad.  Some jargon words are really important, and we need to fight for them.  Some, we can abandon, but some must be defended.

What is jargon, anyways?

Let’s put the discussion on an even footing by beginning with a definition.  What is jargon?  The term usually implies one of two overlapping but distinct definitions.  The first is a terminology which is especially defined in relationship to a specific activity, profession, group, or event, and is what I think of when I use the term jargon.  But the other common definition (e.g. #6 on this OED page) centers on the exclusionary nature of jargon: “Applied contemptuously to any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms, or peculiar to a particular set of persons, as the language of scholars or philosophers, the terminology of a science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade, or profession”.  It is this second definition, I believe,  that most people are working from when they call for scientists to avoid jargon.  To an extent, I agree with this argument.  A lot of the words that scientists use in technical publications don’t belong in communications aimed at the general public.  para_sight points out that tongue-twisters like “Ekman transport”, “population dynamics”, or “thermodynamic-anything” just get in the way.  At best, you end up spending half of your piece defining them, and at worst you don’t define them and the audience simply abandons you in frustration.

Evolution is a jargon word.

But not all jargon words are bad, and this is the point that I feel has been missed in the recent articles on this subject.  If you go back and look at those lists (here, here), you’ll notice some big words have been left off.  It’s never explained why, but nobody suggests that we stop using words like evolution or climate change.  Why? Evolution is, by either definition above, a jargon word.  It is terminology especially defined in relation to the field of biology, and while it is not unfamiliar in terms of exposure (most people have heard the word), it is certainly unfamiliar to many in terms of meaning.  I’d like to tell you how many, but I can’t find those numbers;  I can find plenty of numbers on how many people believe in evolution, but none on how many people can define evolution.  Even qualitatively, though, a simple scan of the internet will show you that the word is used about as many ways as there are web pages, and many of those usages are partly or entirely wrong.  Worse, creationists and people like them will deliberately misuse words like evolution in an attempt to redirect the conversation.  Virtual gallons of digital ink have been spilled trying to sort out the meanings of the word “evolution” and explaining its importance.

Evolution.  Natural selection.  Climate change.  Stem cell.  Herd immunity.  Quantum mechanics.  Pretty much anything from medicine.  These are all jargon words.  Why aren’t they on the lists of words-to-avoid?

They’re jargon, but they’re important jargon.

It may seem obvious, but we don’t avoid using the word evolution; we use the word because it’s an important word, even if it is jargon.  It is the central idea of biology (must … resist … overused Dobzhansky … quote) and instead of using a different word or just blithely re-explaining the word every time we use it, as biologists we spend a lot of time trying to get people to understand and remember this particular piece of jargon.  This is the battle we have chosen to fight:  we’ll try to avoid using words regression, or sensitivity, but we will not give up on words like evolution.

Climate change / global warming faces the same challenge.  Sommerville and Hassol note that “… many people confuse climate change with the ozone hole. They incorrectly identify the ozone hole, aerosol spray cans, toxic waste, nuclear power, and the space program as causes of global warming”.  Climate change is, in fact, jargon just like evolution or Ekman transport, but climatologists and other scientists involved in the fight to bring about change on this topic show no signs of avoiding the word.  Instead, they take every chance they can to go head-on with deniers and explain patiently, over and over, what the word really means.  They are trying, in other words, to teach the jargon to the audience.

So what?

The examples I’ve used are obvious and unlikely to cause dispute.  I’ll be really surprised if people show up at this blog post to tell me that we should stop using the word evolution because it’s jargon or because the public doesn’t understand it.  Yet I raise them because they’re an example of my point, which is that not all jargon is bad.  Some jargon must be retained and explained, no matter how many times we have to do it or how many problems it causes.  And so I would like to propose an unpopular idea:  that the message of reducing jargon is good, but incomplete.  It is incomplete because, in coordination with other members of the team (science communicators, social scientists, policy makers, etc.), we must have discussions about which words are unnecessary jargon and can be avoided, and which are necessary and must be retained.  This won’t be easy, because it will require not only detailed conversations among many parties with an axe to grind, but it will also require data and reasoning about which fights can be won (or should be fought even if we can’t win them).

I think the first discussions could be had about the list published at Southern Fried Science.  Here’s the list that they published there:

If I had any power over this, I would agree that some of these are unnecessary.  I can accept the “better choices” associated with words like assay, power, recent, or sensitivity.  Words like these, with obvious alternative meanings that conflict and cause confusion without the corresponding benefit to keeping the word seem like obvious choices to me.  But others on this list do not.  Gene is a good example.  Not only do I think that the “better choice” is most definitely not better – how is the public going to know what a “coding region” is without a lot more explanation, anyways? – but the word itself is so powerful within biology that explaining it and fighting for it brings tangible benefits.  In fact, I propose that we should value particular pieces of jargon in proportion to how much power they will grant the public in understanding the scientific world around them.  The scientific literature is not going to abandon the word gene any time soon, so if we spend our time explaining what a gene is to the public I would argue that it will pay off by giving inquisitive laypeople a boost over the jargon wall.  They can learn about the statistical meaning of confidence if ever they need to, but knowing the technical meaning of gravity will pay dividends in understanding the world around us that a fight over the meaning of the word primer won’t.

Back in the heyday of ScienceBlogs.com, before Pepsigate and the Mass Exoduses of mid-2010, there was a series of posts that attempted to explain basic concepts in science.  A few  of these directly address the ideas I’m talking about in this post, such as Larry Moran’s article on “What is Evolution?”, and I believe that this is one of the strengths that blog writing can bring to the table:  a platform for working scientists to directly address the public about the things that the public should (or might want to) know about science and the world around them.  As part of an overall strategy of scientific outreach, we can use blogs to fight for the jargon that is important, while learning the techniques of good science communication from good science communicators.

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Ben Stein is a sleaze…

Image by themadlolscientist.

I focus on science on this blog, but sometimes something ticks me off so much that I have to take advantage of this platform I’ve created for myself to climb on my soapbox and shout at the world.

Today, that “something” is Ben Stein.  I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I think that Ben Stein is a useless human being. His actions during the Expelled fiasco were enough to write him off permanently for me, but as I discovered a few days ago, apparently he can sink even lower.  How?  Well, I’ve been catching up on podcasts from the burgeoning Nerdist empire,  among which is a fun podcast by Riki Lindhome (actress and one half of the awesome comedy song act Garfunkel and Oates) called “Making it”.  On the fifth episode, Riki is interviewing the actress Doira Baird (imdb) when Doira drops a bit of a bomb about our favourite game show host and creationist pundit:  Ben Stein propositioned her to be his mistress.  You can hear the podcast here;  the fun starts at about 9:45 into the episode, and I’ve transcribed the best part:

RL: What, did he offer to pay for you or something?

DB: Yeah.

RL: Really?

DB: Oh, yeah. Secret girlfriend!

RL: Is he married?

DB: Umm-hmm.

RL: Oh, God.

DB: Good times.

RL: [wretching noise]

DB: That’s Hollywood for you, but I never …

RL: He doesn’t seem like that kind of guy [ed: *snort*], I mean, not that I’ve met him…

DB: I think he has some sort of, uh, agreement, I have no idea, I just know that he has a lot of money.  But I was so naive, I met him at the mall.

RL: Really?

DB: [laughs] Yeah, I met him at the mall. Of course, because when I came out here I didn’t have a car, so I would would just, like, take the bus to the Beverley Centre and hang out.

RL: [laughs] Totally.

DB: And he came up to me, and would take me to dinner.  I was so naive, I was like “he’s like my grandfather”.

RL: [mocking] “He’s not trying to sleep with me at all“.

DB: Uh, no!  And he would take me all these fancy places, and show me things in Hollywood that I would never have known about otherwise.

RL: Oh my God.  That shows, like, the true naiveté that you, like, thought it was, like, “oh, he just likes spending time with me!”.

DB: Completely.  It’s amazing that I wasn’t sold into white slavery …

RL: [laughing] … by Ben Stein.

DB: I have no idea how that did not happen.

Insert your own joke about Ben Stein’s money here.

Doira and Riki get a good laugh out of the whole affair and poke some fun at how naive she was as an aspiring actress in Hollywood, but the implications of what she was saying floored me.  Ben Stein, who seems to consider himself a righteous man lamenting the descent of the world into hell, is going to lecture us in between attempts to get young actresses into bed with him?  Where does he find the time?

Of course, maybe Doira made the whole thing up.  But if Ben Stein wants, he can sue Doira Baird for libel;  in the mean-time, the story is on the record for everyone to listen to.  Perhaps this story explains why Stein recently defended Herman Cain against the pile-up of adultery accusations:  maybe he’s preparing his own defence.

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Dear spammer,

Hi!  Remember me?  Probably not, since you misspell my name in every email you send me.  You obviously bought my email address from a third party, as I have absolutely no interest in your products, have never been in your stores, and wouldn’t do business with you if I had a gun to my head.  I never gave you my email address and never wanted to receive an email from you, but here we are:  you just won’t stop sending me spam.  I’ve even created rules specifically to filter your junk, but then it sits in my spam folder and mocks me every day, the unread count growing higher.

Perhaps this persistent campaign hasn’t had the effect you wanted. Well, I know it hasn’t, since I’ve never bought anything from you, but it goes further than that.  Since you’ve been spamming me for years, any time a conversation has even vaguely wandered in the direction of your company’s target market, I have specifically warned people that every employee of your company cuts the heads off of small flightless birds and drinks their blood.  I do not believe this to be true, but it amuses me to lie about you, because I hate you.

Let’s face it:  these emails were vaguely amusing when I lived in Canada, where you apparently have a retail presence.  Despite my flaming distaste for you and your products, a “Hail Mary” attempt to get me to buy your crap by spamming me *every day* even vaguely makes sense (at least from your point of view).  However, I now live in Australia.  I can’t buy anything from you, even if I cared the tiniest bit about you or your products.  So, for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, please stop sending me these stupid emails.  Please?  I’m begging you.  Just stop.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Your victim.

An email that I would like to send, but probably won’t.

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