Scientists Need To Learn English

This is one I often get caught out with. I did a science degree and often find that stuff I say is misinterpreted by non-sciency people.

A paper published by Physics Today (there's a summary chart at BoingBoing) says that scientists need to be more considerate of the words they use and take into account colloquial meanings. I'd say that many Lifehacker readers would have studied or worked in technical disciplines where words carry a different meaning.

What's something that's in common parlance in your profession that has a different meaning to lay-people?

Communicating the science of climate change [Physics Today via BoingBoing]


    Add to that list: Engineers, plumbers, builders, anyone who ever worked with computers, doctors, lawyers...

    It's the curse of working towards a specialisation, the vast majority of people will have absolutely no idea what you're talking about unless you 'dumb it down'.

      sometimes the use of techical jargon has its a med student on ward rounds I will always hear terms like 'increased adiposity' to describe massively obese patients, cos we don't wanna hurt their feelings

        Acronyms work nicely too!

        PFO = Pissed and fell over! ;>)

        Equally though, doctors forget how many of their terms *are* understood by the patients. Even adiposity and especially palliative, pallipation and such are commonly understood, particularly by anyone with any tertiary education. I always cringed on ward rounds when senior doctors forget their patients' intelligence.


    I hear it again and again, "That's a dirty word!".

      haha so true, if i mention rooting an android phone i get too many unusual looks.

    It's not just the language barrier. The Layman just doesn't understand how a scientist thinks. Take for example the Layman and scientist perception of "uncertainty". A scientist sees an uncertainty in everything, it is just an amount to be quantified, whereas the layman percieves uncertainty to be a declaration of inconfidence.

    This is usually how anti-climate change lobbyists usually get away with comments like, "Even climate scientists are uncertain and divided".

    Are you kidding me?

    Yeah, what a great idea! Let's just dumb our conversation until we speak in grunts like apes.

    When I hear a word i'm unfamiliar with, I look said word up in a thing called a 'dictionary', or if I have access to a computer, I will Google it.

    There are further complications if you're dealing with extra dialects and people for whom English is a second language - did they learn American, British, Canadian, Australian English?

    Working in law, many words are used that come up in regular conversation and are normally interchangeable. But in a legal context, they have very specific meanings.

    "Substantial" vs. "Significant"; "Reasonable" vs. "Fair" etc. Also, because fine points of law are akin to fine points of langauge, a single sentence can sometimes take many lines on a page. This is just exhausting to read, with all the qualifiers.

    lol @ 'Communicating the "science" of climate change' They should start by saying that c02 is not a pollutant, and that it is, in fact, the life force of the entire planet.

    and the only constant to the climate is that it is always changing!.... paying money to Al Gore won't stop the cycle of the seasons.

      Yes CO2 is both natural to life and a pollutant in industry. Don't get conned into thinking climate change is an apocolyptic conspiracy theory. The human race isn't (likely) going to die out. Major changes will occur though, most of which have occured naturally many times in Earth's life, but none of which of occurred during human life.

    "(there’s a summary chart at BoingBoing)"

    The URL link in this piece of text is broken.

    Never mind scientific language, there's a major difference between semi educated Aussies and Boguns! Try speaking in a normal fashion to Warrick Capper et al, and watch the facade of intellect change to confusion and then belligerence!

    Anyone else bemused to see an article, bemoaning the state of communication between scientists and lay-people, locked behind a paywall?

    Perfect example: "Theory".
    In science: "A rule or concept that even after rigorous testing has been unable to be proven otherwise."

    For laypeople: "An concept or rule that we are uncertain about with a fair degree of flexibility".

    Although I disagree with the title - It's not the scientists that need to learn english, its the laypeople!

    English usually.

    I think the main problem is that a lot of words are given very precise and unique definitions when used by 'scientists' that are not common in broader usage of the English language. As HindenLagen mentioned above, a good example would be the word 'uncertainty', typically used in physical sciences to describe a quantifiable amount of variation in measurements, whilst the 'common' meaning allows the word to be interchangeable with a slew of other words which hold negative connotations (eg uncertainty, doubt, dubiety, skepticism, suspicion, mistrust - The nature of science and research demands rigorous terminology that is more precise than that needed in everyday language, and problems occur when scientists forget that many people are not privy to these definitions and that their words can be misunderstood and misconstrued.

    Scientist failing in English, Exhibit A: You don't "do" a degree, you earn one. :)

      As a person who marks undergraduate (and masters) exams and assessments, I do not think science degrees are earnt at all...

    clearly the only possible reason that i'm misunderstood on this website is because ALL OF YOU NEED TO LEARN ENGLISH

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