Why is the language of science so boring and difficult?

simple science

Most of the science that we’re exposed to isn’t actually science. It’s journalism about science.

Actual scientific papers are published in peer-reviewed journals (meaning some other scientists give them a star rating) but if you ever try to read one you might have trouble staying awake to the end.

Unless you work in science (or you’re the kind of person who reads the dictionary for fun) actual scientific studies don’t make for holiday reading. They’re dry, factual accounts of the aims of the research and what they concluded. Not a zippy anecdote or funny meme in sight.

Most of us don’t really have a problem with scientists using specific terms to describe how protons work or how cells in amoebas divide. Knock yourselves out! Nerds.

The problem comes when we talk about stuff relevant to how we think and act and live. Things that affect us all. For instance, if you’re a parent wondering whether to give your child the recommended vaccinations, you might ask yourself whether any kids in your area have had measles and whether it’s really a risk.

A scientist might tell you: you’re a victim of the behavioural heuristic and that herd immunity depends on vaccination uptake.

And you might say: huh?

Of course they could instead say:: while it’s understandable to think of the people you know to decide whether something is actually a risk it’s not a reliable way to do so, and the only way we can stop illnesses from spreading is to make sure that enough people are vaccinated so we can’t give them to each other.

But that takes a lot longer to say.

Do scientists use fancy language to keep everyone else out?

Well, sometimes.

Sadhus in India, hippies at rainbow gatherings and scientists at conferences all use specialised language to identify people in the know from outsiders. Knowing the right words is a kind of secret handshake that lets everyone know that you have an idea what you’re talking about.

You can get naked and cover yourself in ash but you better know how to talk like a sadhu

I recently proposed to a neuroscientist that we popularise the term brain mistakes instead of cognitive biases. My experience of talking about cognitive biases in conversation was that everyone’s eyes glazed over.

It was pointed out to me that words in science have precise definitions for a reason: scientists need to be certain of what each other means. Just as a surgeon who asks the nurse to pass the sharp thing might waste precious seconds during an operation, scientists use terminology as a shorthand to talk about stuff in depth.

So how can we talk about science without using long words?

I recently raised this question in the /askscience forum on Reddit and most of the scientists there responded by pointing out there was such a thing as a dictionary. That pretty much summed up the problem with science communication: someone can have a brilliant mind and yet be a bit of a dick.

I don’t have hard data to go on but anecdotally, I hear from people all the time that their distrust in science and medicine stems from a sense of alienation. The doctors and scientists who are trying to tell them what to do seem to live in another world. They’re arrogant and aloof.

There are of course plenty of scientists with good social skills but it is perhaps true that a talent for data analysis and abstract thinking doesn’t always go hand in hand with the ability to tell a good joke. Or listen with empathy to someone else’s point of view.

The aim of Science For Hippies though is to break down a good deal of the jargon to show how the stuff of science is really the stuff of life.

And we’re not alone.

Everyone knows who Einstein was but few people could really explain his theories. Randall Munroe, however, managed to explain the theories of relativity using the 1000 most commonly used words.

‘It was the space doctor who figured out the answer. He said that if our ideas about light were right, then our ideas about distance and seconds must be wrong. He said that time doesn’t pass the same for everyone. When you go fast, he said, the world around you changes shape, and time outside starts moving slower.’ (The Space Doctor’s Big Idea)

illustration by Randall Munroe

Further reading:
https://simple.wikipedia.org/ – wikipedia with simple language. A great way to approach really complicated ideas.

https://xkcd.com/thing-explainer/ – Munroe’s excellent book explaining everything from bodies to sky scrapers in language a child could understand.

Simple Writer – A tool to test if you can communicate something using only common words.