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)


Pulp fiction in KL?

Freshly roasted coffee, Pulp, Papa Palheta, KL

Coffee on the cutting machine at Pulp

There have been a few great cafés opening up recently in Kuala Lumpur, including Pulp by Papa Palheta in Lucky Gardens. However the space that Pulp occupies is unrivalled: The old cutting room of the Art Printing Works. It really is geek meets hipster in this café, with old electric fittings and the original paper cutting machine housed alongside a fantastic range of freshly roasted coffee.

There is a great range of coffee on offer too. From pour-overs to espresso based drinks and cold brew, Pulp is a great place to discover a wide range of coffees. I had a pour over Ethiopian (Suke Quto) that was beautifully presented with tasting notes ready for me to enjoy. A nice touch was that the cup had been pre-warmed so I got no condensation around the rim of the mug when I filled the cup with coffee. The coffee itself was very fruity, presumably very lightly roasted in order to retain the fruity notes of the beans. (On a second visit I enjoyed a long black which was also very fruity though less so than the pour-over).

pourover at Pulp, Papa Palheta, KL

Taking time with a beautifully presented pour-over

Although there are plenty of seats in this café, on both occasions we visited it was crowded and hard to find a seat. It seems that this is a very popular spot for good coffee in KL, so do be prepared to share a table! Indeed, one of these ‘tables’ is formed from the old cutting machine itself, the machine that used to prepare the paper used for newspapers and books. Sipping coffee here, in a place steeped in the history of printing, it seemed only natural to consider the role in our current society of fake news and whether there is anything that we can do about it.

The issue of fake news or of exaggerated or incomplete news stories is not just limited to issues surrounding the recent US election. Reporting our experimental results honestly and our theories thoroughly underpins all scientific research. However, as funding decisions and employment prospects increasingly depend on publications in prestigious journals, question marks can start to hover over each scientist’s paper (the “publish or perish” problem). Does reporting a result honestly include waiting for that last result (that could contradict or delay the ‘story’ thereby making publication in “high impact” journals such as Nature less probable)? Do we read the papers of others thinking that they have reported everything as truthfully and fully as possible or do we shrug as their next paper (in a lower impact journal) reveals the ‘caveats’ on their previous work? The chemist and scientific philosopher, Michael Polanyi wrote in 1946:

… Suppose scientists were in the habit of regarding most of their fellows as cranks or charlatans. Fruitful discussion between them would become impossible…. The process of publication, of compiling text books, of teaching juniors, of making appointments and establishing new scientific institutions would henceforth depend on the mere chance of who happened to make the decision. It would then become impossible to recognise any statement as a scientific proposition or to describe anyone as a scientist. Science would become practically extinct.“∗

Pulp, Papa Palheta KL

Where else could you see all these old electrical boxes?

Although we are hopefully still very far from that scenario, it is fairly clear that similar levels of trust are required for our society to function well too. For our society to flourish, these same standards of integrity are required of our press (and indeed of ourselves if we publish – or share – articles online). The perception that our society is moving into an era where fake news is as valid as proper investigative journalism has led to some calling ours a “post-truth” era. However, as Emmi Itäranta has argued, we should endeavour to avoid calling our times “post-truth”, in part because the term itself is not neutral. Our words and language matter and when we use the term we contribute to the idea that truth is no longer meaningful.

Such thoughts remind us of our own responsibility and contributions to society. If we don’t want fake news to influence politics, we need to be careful what we share or publish online. From our language to our values, we need to behave as if truth matters. And, to me at least, it seems that enjoying a coffee can help us with that. Stopping to appreciate the moment as we savour our well prepared coffee, we can step-back from the “retweet” or “share” button and think, is this evidence based and true or else, what is it that I gain by sharing this?

It strikes me that cafés such as Pulp, with their mix of great coffee and interesting surroundings are perfect spaces in which to slow down and think rather than react and retweet. Perhaps that is what we need for 2017, more time contemplating in cafés, less time on social media. Let’s hope for some quiet time ahead.

Pulp by Papa Palheta is at 29-01 Jalan Riong, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,

∗Michael Polanyi “Science, Faith and Society”, Oxford University Press, 1946