Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house. (Henri Poincaré)
Here are some thoughts about using accurate words in two different contexts.
When nuance is lost to brevity
A few months ago, a feminist Instagram account that I followed posted a picture with some saying about how “Men are trash.” Quickly this person received many critical comments and backlash, and this person followed up defensively with a response post. This post no longer exists, but my recollection of her response is: when she says “men,” she is referring not to “your boyfriend or your dad,” but instead to patriarchal systems of oppression. (Again for the record, this is my own paraphrasing.)
The original poster certainly is justified in wanting to criticize patriarchal systems of oppression. But the problem with using synecdoche—referring to a whole by using one of its parts—in discussing complex phenomena in sociology or science is that in many cases it does not accurately convey intended meaning and can very easily be misunderstood. Saying that “men” are trash, but not actually referring to “men” as we commonly use the word, seems unwise. (And, if one is going to make clarifications in follow-up posts anyway, one might as well just have been accurate the first time. But anyway.)
Unfortunately, synecdoche sometimes is the only way to work within media that are character-limited, like Twitter. There must be a solution to reach audiences which primarily use these media and still convey complex messages—but I don’t know what it is yet.
When nuance is intentionally sacrificed to approachability
I’ve written before about the necessity of unpacking phrases and literary devices when writing about science or social issues, but I have also been recently thinking about how emotional appeals are sometimes the most effective way to convince a person of facts. These two things collided the other day when I was having a discussion about using the phrase “global warming” vs. “climate change.”
The person I was talking to clearly had a disgust for the phrase “climate change”—saying that it is vague and means nothing. I understand this. A changing climate could mean anything, from an ice age to the warming planet to a season changing. But the person also said that climate change was a cop-out on the part of the left-wing to avoid naming a real problem. This, I feel, is not entirely true.
Global warming is indeed an urgent and frightening problem. Yet nearly half of Americans—48%—are neither extremely certain that global warming is happening nor extremely certain that it is not happening. I have not done enough research to understand why so many people fall into categories of uncertainty, but I would personally guess that it has something to do with a lack of a feeling of their own scientific expertise, combined with the loud swath of right-wing politicians who claim that global warming is inconsequential, combined with some degree of fear of a planetary-scale problem.
If this guess is true, how do we get these people to feel more certain in the facts of global warming? There are certainly many answers, but I suggest that the use of the phrase “climate change” helps the subject feel more approachable. If “climate change” as a phrase offers a better gateway to discussions that will lead to a more-informed public about human-caused global warming, then I see no reason to have disgust towards it. Is it nuanced? No! Does it provide an approachable conversation starter to getting into nuanced discussions with non-scientists? Yes? Then let’s use it.
Of course, these are just my own initial thoughts and I am more than happy to discuss them and hear other arguments.
One last thing—the aforementioned person believed that using “global warming” as a phrase is necessary for “scaring” people into “believing” in climate change. But I will discuss fear and science communication in a separate post.
When I was in middle school we used to go to Lake Arrowhead and play in a small cordoned-off bay for swimmers. Almost 10 years later I returned to find the bay almost completely drained, docks left high and dry, grasses growing on land that was once deep under water.
The California drought became real to me at that moment. As much as I had seen the statistics—maps in dark red and orange indicating severity, urging shorter showers—I didn’t feel them.
We now live in a time when facts aren’t always enough. The fact that clean energy jobs outnumber coal and gas jobs five-to-one in the United States did not stop the President from renouncing the Paris climate accord. And though the president is an especially idiotic anomaly amongst all Americans, about 40% of normal everyday people are unsure about climate change despite the consensus of an overwhelming majority of scientists.
Facts are hard to feel. Numbers are hard to relate to even when they’re about people. 37 people died in a Manila terrorist attack this morning, 137 people in the November 2015 attacks in Paris, 1.5 million (1,500,000) million Armenians murdered during the first World War, more than 5 million (5,000,000) Syrians fleeing from their homes. And there are numbers that are possibly too vast to ever feel—7.5*10^18 (7,500,000,000,000,000,000) grains of sand on Earth, 7*10^22 (70,000,000,000,000,000,000,
Facts and numbers are most effective when they can connect with the heart. And thus when writing about science we have to make you feel it. We have to show you a photo of the wondrous and messed up Pale Blue Dot you’re on. We have to tell stories of names and faces. We have to see the bays of our childhood drained and dry.
I used to think that appealing to emotion was cheap; clickbait. But honestly, all I do is feel. Science—all of its simplistic glory and elegant mathematics and long nights and tears and sacrifices—makes me feel a way, makes me act a way, makes me be a way. Now I suppose the point is to make you feel a way, too.
When I entered the ~workforce~ at 21, with a degree in planetary science (the degree where you learn the LEAST practical life/social skills), I had to learn a ton of stuff on the fly. Yes, a lot about science writing and office culture, but also a surprising amount about sweat and spilling coffee. So I made this lil list about the latter, my important corporate life hacks that won’t make you a better writer or anything but that WILL make you a tiny bit less of a frazzled noob.
Good luck out there, fellow dweebs.
*obviously, not actually scientifically
Being a science writer who was formerly a scientist is hard because it always subconsciously feels like you failed at doing the higher, nobler thing. It feels like you failed at making fundamental discoveries about the universe and now you are just the messenger. And while I think that science writing is important and I think I’m pretty good at it, these “evidences” of failure at pure science are always in the back of my head: The time when I discovered that a very close high school friend had written to the caltech admissions office to say that I should not have been admitted. The time when my research advisor fired me. The time when my grad school admission was rescinded because of low grades.
It’s particularly difficult to accept failure at science because there’s now so much push and motivation to get girls into STEM—and with this new push came, for me, the feeling that any other major, journalism or english or philosophy, anything “less” than science, was so exactly that: lesser; condescendingly expected of a girl. At 17 I really thought I would break all kinds of barriers and norms as a woman in astrophysics at Caltech. But I couldn’t do it. I scraped my way to graduation and exhaled. I couldn’t be the discoverer. Instead I am the messenger. The wingman. The assistant to the regional manager.
It’s hard to break this mindset of being disappointed in myself for leaving (not to mention, it’s probably offensive to other science writers lol) particularly because: writing is “for girls.”* Writing is “supposed” to be what girls are better at and science is “supposed” to be what boys are better at. So I’m not being a revolutionary by being a girl in writing. I’m just a girl that leaked out of the STEM pipeline because science was just too hard—and it makes me feel ashamed. I feel like I failed because everyone knows that girls ARE good at science, girls CAN succeed in science, it’s encouraged and championed and supported in order to overturn those old stereotypes. But I won’t be an example.
I look at the stories that I have published and I’m proud of them. I look at this past year of rapid promotion and growth and I am proud of it. I look at women who are boldly succeeding in science, who are pushing ahead and breaking barriers, and I will stand up and cheer and applaud and support those women. But I am not one of them. And I have to learn to be okay with that, I have to learn that success is not measured by a PhD or by papers published or by other people liking your words. I have to learn.
*I don’t actually think this is true
**Edited because some of you haters are real sticklers for proper capitalization damn
If you’ve been watching the news with any regularity throughout the year, it’s understandable to think that 2016 was a disaster. The phrase “dumpster fire” (which I am not a fan of) is flung around a lot. So I felt some conflict about writing about what a lovely year I’ve personally had.
Am I allowed to do this? Does it reek of privilege? This was a hard year for so, so many. And yet I keep coming back to these words by Beth McColl —
“celebrate yourself. speak about your achievements. ask others about theirs. help anyone you can help. be helped.”
For me this year was one of joy and beauty. A year of wandering through big cities and across snowy mountains, of celebrating love loudly and in every quiet corner.
I think that’s all I’ll say. Yes, there are so many reasons for sorrow — external and internal — but still, the sun goes up and down each morning and night. For this I am thankful.
I recently re-read this satirical essay from the 90s called “How to speak postmodern.” Here are some excerpts:
For example, let’s imagine you want to say something like, “We should listen to the views of people outside of Western society in order to learn about the cultural biases that affect us.” This is honest but dull. Take the word “views.” Postmodernspeak would change that to “voices”, or better “vocalities,” or even better, “multivocalities.” Add an adjective like “intertextual,” and you’re covered. “People outside” is also too plain. How about “postcolonial others”? To speak postmodern properly one must master a bevy of biases besides the familiar racism, sexism, ageism, etc. For example, phallogocentricism (male-centredness combined with rationalistic forms of binary logic).
Finally, “affect us” sounds like plaid pajamas. Use more obscure verbs and phrases, like “mediate our identities.” So the final statement should say, “We should listen to the intertextual multivocalities of postcolonial others outside of Western culture in order to learn about the phallogocentric biases that mediate our identities.” Now you’re talking postmodern!
It’s lighthearted, but he’s really making a point here. Most people, I think, understand if a thing is described as racist. That term is common enough.
But how about some other words? Xenophobia, nativism, decolonizing, misogyny, internalization, intersectionality, gaslighting, microaggression. These are very specific words, developed to accurately describe real things. They are important words.
But I think that when we sling these words around, they go over many peoples’ heads. They’re very technical; they’re jargon. Jargon is “a type of language that is used in a particular context and may not be well understood outside of it.” So, sure, when we’re Tweeting about these things, we could tell people to “look it up” or to “educate themselves” (which I have seen people do). But how many people would really take the time to do that?
Often, I have heard Trump supporters say that Trump “tells it like it is.” And, while this is incorrect in a factual sense, it is true that Trump doesn’t use jargon. He speaks at a middle school level.
Let me emphasize that “speaking at a middle school level” is not an insult. It’s kind of what I have to do for work every day. It’s why I wouldn’t describe MRI as “non-invasive imaging with unlimited depth penetration,” because I know that I’ve already lost like half of my readers. (Note that this is a real sentence that I included in a press release, and of course my editors chopped it out.) We have to translate in order to make things accessible.
Look, I am not trying to belittle or look down on any person here. However, very few people have the training or time to understand thick scientific jargon, and it’s the same for ANY kind of jargon — including sociological jargon.
I honestly think it resonates with more people to say: Trump unfairly judges Muslims to be bad people, and he is mean to women when they don’t look pretty, and he boasts about his policies being the literal cure to every problem, and he doesn’t truly apologize for his actions. Discuss the actions that warrant the labels. Discuss the actions that are sexist, racist, xenophobic…
Unpacking what we’re saying includes more people in the conversation. It’s tiring, I know—I do it every day with science. Please don’t think that I’m saying that any of these sociological words are unnecessary—they are so necessary. Just this summer, I had a lengthy discussion with my amazing friend Emily who taught me about the weight behind the word “racism” — how it comes with connotations of power imbalances, and sociologically means more than just “prejudice based on race.” So these words are complex, and wonderful examples of how nuanced language can be. But we have to speak to people who may not understand what they mean, we have to speak to people who feel like we’re talking down to them. We have to talk to each other.
It’s a sleepy hot Friday and I’m thinking how I am grateful that I did not grow up with snow. I am grateful that I never had to experience the frustration of gray slush, or, I don’t know, all the other complaints that you snow-dwellers have. I’ve been able to preserve the naive notion that snow is a magic thing, while all the cynics and haters are rolling their eyes.
This isn’t a life-long love affair; I only went skiing for the first time last year. I haven’t read all the snow-literature and poems and consequently my own writing will be full of cliches, like a pre-teen writing poems about his deep insights into middle-school love. I have very little originality to add.
But, for me, snow is an overarching symbol of a glorious soft season. Constantly having to adjust the little colored Christmas lights because I scotch-taped them to the wall and they kept falling down. That chocolate babka I baked with the wrong kind of yeast and yet everyone still loved it. Teddy eating that painfully hot pepper at that Mexican place after a long day on the mountain and then realizing that Stefan had cut all his hair off. Walking up Mont Royal alone. Making Armenian string cheese while deer wandered through the yard. Our warm and opening relationship.
2015 was hard and tiring and yet it closed with snow. 2016 has been a sweet, forgiving year, and it too will close with snow—a bookend with books on both sides.
Some rambles from the other day when it was cold outside, lol.
I’m writing out on the balcony, in need of an avocado. I’m extremely cozy in my ratty old university sweatshirt with coffee-ish looking stains on the wrists and chest and a bit of toothpaste smidged on one of the block letters, and as I’m looking down at myself surveying this sweatshirt I am realizing that there’s actually a lot more vague possibly “coffee” stains than I previously thought and I start to think that maybe I am actually pretty gross for wearing this thing. ????
It’s cloudy. Soft. A breath of fresh air from the exhausting acrid heat of the last few days. Is there a word for “sunshine” that doesn’t sound so fricken happy? Because “piercing, relentless sunshine” actually sounds sorta lovely and that is not what I’m going for here.
There’s something sweet when the sky is low like this, nearer to you, cozier. Not to mention the air is less like a smothering blanket and more like a friendly presence. It fills me with breath that I almost dare not let out because I know that in Los Angeles a day like this is a fleeting rare angel. Stay, stay, stay, I say; and it’s funny because I know my friends at high latitudes beg the sun the same way I beg the clouds.
The only thing I even remotely miss about being “spiritual” was that writing in mystic, ethereal, symbolic language came so much more easily, and I didn’t feel as silly doing it. This weather unlocks a little of that again in me, perhaps because it’s such a rare occurrence here. And so, something about these cool clear dim days, when the sound of every bird’s tweet and car’s passing rush is liberated from heat’s oppressing crush and amplified like a bell in a tower, something about it brings about a feeling like a butterfly landing on your finger. You don’t want to make any sudden moves or it will go. But you also want to touch it—gently—as much as you can.