A language problem?

Bob Ward, Obama quote, climate change

The last generation: our urgent need to communicate effectively.

The beverage was prepared by pushing water (at 94ºC and 1.0 MPa) through a pellet of coffee beans ground to an average of 10 – 100 μm diameter. The pellet had been compacted (“tamped”) using a variable pressure as described in ref [1]. Following a manual transfer of the cup to the table, the drink was consumed at a temperature of 55ºC. Fruity overtones were noted.

Would you rush to try this coffee?

Last week I wrote about the effects of climate change on coffee and how climate scientists are trying to reach out and communicate more about the science behind global warming. But there was a crucial question left un-answered, just how do we communicate? Do we all speak the same language or is the dry impersonal prose of science a hindrance to discussion?

To start with the encouraging news. It turns out that scientists are a pretty trusted bunch. In a recent survey 79% of the British public trusted scientists to tell the truth (compared with 21% for politicians). Part of the problem for politicians may be the language that they tend to use, “if I am honest…”, “to be fair…” etc, are apparently statements that haemorrhage trust. These are not statements that you will hear made by scientists. The language of science is cold and dry, utterly devoid of the personal. So, coupled with the results of the survey, it is tempting to think that we should continue to use our cold and impersonal language when communicating things like climate change. It seems that this works.

Steam, scattering, colour

How would you describe your coffee? Do those who read your description read it in the sense that you wrote it?

Only we would be wrong, the language that we use is (apparently) not helping us to communicate and we need to change it (as the meeting was told in an impassioned talk by Bob Ward). An average scientific paper for example is designed to convey exactly what we did, how we did it and to eliminate any possible element of confusion. Ideally, we would write a scientific paper so that someone else could read it, understand precisely what we have done and repeat the experiment under very similar conditions. In this context, our dry language can work very well but does it work generally when communicating results more widely?

To see the problem, compare the (scientifically written) coffee review that started this article with an extract from a recent review of Silhouette Cheapside by Brian’s coffee spot:

The coffee offering’s simple: there’s a single-origin espresso from Notes, a Brazilian Cachoeirinha during my visit. As an espresso this was gorgeous: fruity and complex, it rewarded me with every sip, holding its own right to the end. I also tried it as a flat white, which was very smooth and surprisingly different, the coffee and milk perfectly complimenting each other.

A visit to Cheapside may be imminent.

So this is the problem, while the scientific language may convey accurately what was consumed, it can’t convey it fully. Language that communicates more generally includes details about how we feel: “gorgeous”, “rewarded me with every sip”, “surprisingly different”. The language used in Brian’s coffee spot in no way detracts from an accurate description of the espresso or the flat white. Arguably your idea of the drinks that Brian sampled at Silhouette is far better formed in your mind than the idea of the espresso described by the scientific-language description at the start of this post. Can we extend this reasoning to scientific descriptions of the science of climate change and its likely effects?

Earth from space, South America, coffee

Our common home.
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Perhaps you could imagine yourself in the position of a climate scientist: your research is showing you that the planet that you live on is likely to suffer significant change as a result of something that we humans are doing but can also do something about. I would guess that you are likely to get quite worked up about it. Wouldn’t it come across better if scientists were to use some of that emotion in how they communicate? Wouldn’t it convey our meaning more effectively?

Immediately though we come up against this issue of trust. Does the cold and dry scientific language somehow better communicate that the argument is evidence based? In this line of reasoning, subjective descriptions would be ok for things like describing a good coffee but not ok for describing climate change. And yet I can’t help feel that even here there is a problem. The philosopher of science Michael Polanyi argued that “Fairness in discussion has been defined as an attempt at objectivity, i.e. preference for truth even at the expense in losing force of argument”. Our “preference for truth” must include the fact that we have an emotional investment in the argument. It is our planet that we are destroying. Indeed, attempts to hide this emotional investment may even lead others to suspect climate scientists of other, more nefarious, secondary motives (financial gain, global conspiracy). However there is an important caveat on Polanyi’s argument, he writes: “[f]airness and tolerance can hardly be maintained in a public contest unless its audience appreciates candour and moderation and can resist false oratory…”.

screenshot of tweet from Digitalnun

A thought provoking tweet from @Digitalnun – science communication goes both ways.

Which brings me to a last point. A recent tweet by Digitalnun posed a question on related lines: does careless reading or careless writing lead to more problems? What we write is not necessarily what people read and if we allow emotion to enter into the cold language of science then we may increase the likelihood of misinterpretation (whether deliberate or not). Will those who read our attempts to communicate science with full honesty be able to resist false oratory, twisting our words to imply a ‘war’ or financial interest? Which is more appropriate, to remain dispassionate and potentially unconvincing or to be more honest in our discussion at the possible expense of losing trust? It’s not a question which seems to have an easy answer. What do you think? Do scientists have a language problem? Would you trust a discussion on climate change more or less if you thought that the scientist actually cared about the planet too? Let me know, either in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

[1] is hyperlinked above but if you are in the habit of scrolling down to look at the references, you can find the article about tamping in “coffee research” published here.

The Polanyi quotes are from “Science, Faith and Society” by Michael Polanyi, University of Chicago Press, 1964 (2nd edition)

 

One Response to A language problem?
  1. Well, I think that’s the first time I’ve been quoted in a discussion about climate change 🙂

    On a more serious note, thanks for the praise you heaped on my writing; it means a lot to me.

    When it comes to the important questions you ask, I have no answers. I’m also probably not best placed to provide answers since I’ve got a PhD (in astronomy) and although I left academia a long time ago, I have spent a large amount of my career writing and reading precisely that sort of dry language, so it gets through to me.

    However, here are some thoughts. A danger with writing more emotive language is that as soon as you stop using dry, factual language, you open yourself to attack for what you said rather than what you were trying to convey.

    To quote myself:

    “… As an espresso this was gorgeous: fruity and complex, it rewarded me with every sip, holding its own right to the end. I also tried it as a flat white, which was very smooth and surprisingly different, the coffee and milk perfectly complimenting each other.”

    What do I mean by “gorgeous”? In what way was I “rewarded”? How was it “surprisingly different”? What does “perfectly complimenting each other” actually mean?

    None of this is meant as a criticism of my own writing, by the way, I actually really like that quote you pulled out and it shows that I really enjoyed the coffee at Silhoutte, but it’s such a subjective piece of writing.

    I guess what it comes down to is trust. You’re going to visit Silhouette because you saw that I really enjoyed the coffee and you trust both my judgement and and that I’ve accurately portrayed what I found (rather than, for example, writing an equally glowing piece about somewhere I didn’t like because someone paid me to). If you didn’t trust me, you’d be much less likely to make a visit to Silhouette.

    How does this apply to science writing? I’m not sure I know. At one level, there seems to be basic trust for scientists out there, so maybe scientists can, and should, write more emotively for a wider audience.

    One thing I do know with 25+ years of experience in writing is that you need to tailor your writing for your audience. I write very differently when I’m writing for the Coffee Spot than when I’m writing technical documentation for the payments industry (my day job). Part of the skill of writing is knowing who you are writing for and pitching it accordingly.

    Sadly I don’t think any of those skills are taught to scientists and they need to be! I’m also not sure journalists (who are often the intermediaries between scientists and the general public) have the scientific knowledge in order to be able to understand what the scientists have said and accurately convey it. Nor do I believe that they have the necessary objectivity.

    So perhaps the bottom line is that scientists need to be taught, from day 1, about how to communicate. Maybe they are these days, but looking back on my undergraduate days, we were left woefully ill-equipped on that front!

    Thanks,
    Brian.

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