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
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.
Ancient Mars was a warm and wet place, coursing with rivers and lakes. Though the lakebeds are now dusty and the water long gone, researchers have recently discovered evidence that the present-day Mars may not be as dry as we thought. The evidence suggests that a thin layer of salty liquid water may exist just under the Martian surface, condensing in the cool hours of night and evaporating in the morning.
Conditions on Mars are not favorable for liquid water — Martian temperatures and atmospheric pressures only allow water to exist as ice or vapor. However, the Curiosity rover recently detected a chemical compound in the Martian soil that could make it possible for water to exist in a liquid form.
The compound, called calcium perchlorate, lowers the freezing point of water, acting like an anti-freeze by allowing water to exist in a liquid state even under temperatures where it would normally form ice. Under particular humidity and temperature conditions, perchlorates can also absorb water vapor from the atmosphere, forming salty liquid solutions called brines that can then trickle down into the soil.
While perchlorates are abundant in many places on Mars, this is the first time they have been detected along with the right humidity and temperature for brines to form. Additionally, these conditions were detected at the equator — the driest and hottest region of Mars. If the delicate brine-forming conditions can exist even on the harshest region of the planet, it’s likely that milder regions can stably support brines as well.
The authors measured air humidity and temperature at the equator using Curiosity’s Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) over a Martian year. They describe the brines as “transient” because the proper humidity and temperatures for brine formation don’t last throughout a full Martian day. The salty solutions only have one night to condense before evaporating with the sunlight.
Liquid water is considered a crucial building block for life, but these brines are unlikely to harbor it — they are simultaneously too short-lived, too cold, and too exposed to solar radiation to support terrestrial organisms.
“Conditions near the surface of present-day Mars are hardly favorable for microbial life as we know it, but the possibility for liquid brines on Mars has wider implications for habitability and geological water-related processes,” says the lead author on the study, Javier Martin-Torres of the Spanish Research Council in Spain and Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology. He is also a member of Curiosity’s science team.
Though for now this finding seems to have few extraterrestrial implications, it is part of a collection of Curiosity’s discoveries that are transforming our perception of Mars. Last year, Curiosity measured sharp spikes and drops in atmospheric methane concentration, implying that somewhere on Mars is a source producing the organic chemical. Scientists have also observed dusty geysers of carbon dioxide erupting from the polar ice caps in the warming of spring. Mars is turning out to be a much more diverse and dynamic planet than we thought.
About a month ago, I blasted off on the Starship Hack Circus. About fifty other people and I headed towards KOI-3284.01, and I was never to see my friends or family or Earth again. Theoretically.
Hack Circus is an English magazine and podcast about science and technology, and their Starship event coincided with the launch of their newest issue, “First Contact.” The issue is full of interesting and innovative articles — uncontacted tribes on Earth as analogous to intelligent extraterrestrials, how to knit the Arecibo message, and other cosmic quirks. Their launch event was no exception.
For three hours, I participated in an excellent example of creative science communication. Starship Hack Circus presented four experts giving short talks on space exploration and planetary science, but these were far from your traditional lectures — they formed an immersive and interactive experience.
The event wasn’t just “themed”; it took a step further, making you feel like you were on a spaceship bound for an exoplanet. By combining artistic radio technology, speculative SETI, and recordings of stellar and planetary vibrations, the talks were simultaneously informative and attention-grabbing. Audience members weren’t just spectators — we were active participants. We were encouraged to live-tweet during the event using the hashtag #StarshipHackCircus, recording our responses to science in real-time.
In addition to futuristic interplanetary travel, Starship Hack Circus also boldly indicated at another way of the future — science communication’s future.
Starship Hack Circus was an example of the kind of cross-medium sci comm that has the potential to reach millions of people and carry us into the future of learning. Digital media — blogs, Twitter, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) — are now supplementing and complementing traditional physical media like lectures, textbooks, and papers. Live-tweeting at conferences has become increasingly popular in the last few years, allowing people to keep up with science news from anywhere in the world. We’ve come a long way from monologuing lecturers. Modern science communication is creating a well-rounded database of knowledge that’s accessible to an ever-increasing portion of humanity.
And it’s straight up exciting.