By Elizabeth Fusco, edited by Michael Liesen Infection and pandemics have never been more relevant globally, and zombies have long been used…
To unthaw or to unthaw? That is the question. Introducing my favorite word in the English language, “unthaw” has two meanings; 1) to thaw and 2) to freeze. Two definitions that directly contradict each other! And drive some of my family members nuts when I use unthaw. This is why clear and concise language is so incredibly important especially when we want to effectively communicate science to the public.
Language is a lot like science, both are super cool and both are always changing and updating. Language is especially neat because it allows us to communicate complex ideas. Like how some bats are compensating for the Doppler Effect when they use echolocation. Or how horseshoe crabs utilize copper instead of iron for oxygen transport giving them noble blue blood, that has helped us humans out for years in the medical field. And even simple definitely objective truths like how sharks are super cool and way better than dolphins who are immoral creatures of the deep. Trust me I’m a scientist that’s definitely an objective truth and certainly not me abusing my power to state a subjective opinion of mine. If you have read otherwise, they are lying to you!
But in order for people to accurately communicate about any given topic everyone involved has to have mutual understanding of what a word means both its connotation and its denotation within a given group (hence the discord in my family about unthaw; of which I am of course, correct). Nowhere is this truer than in science communication.
Scientists and the general public are both smart and simply understanding that there will be differences in the usage of some words between us will help improve communication and understanding.
Frequently, I have found throughout my scientific training from undergrad to grad school that there are certain words that have very different meanings between the public and even between different fields of science. Not to beat a dead horse but I still remember at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, what appeared to me at least, the arguments between scientists on terminology usage relating to droplets and aerosols because different fields were on different pages! I can’t imagine it looked good to the general public. Of course, when this mutual misunderstanding in meaning occurs between the public and scientists it can be much, much worse. For example, take the word “theory,” it is a rather simple word that is used by many people but depending on the dictionary definition an individual is using it can take on some rather different meanings. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the word “theory” has a total of six different definitions but we’ll focus on these two here below:
- a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena
- abstract thought: speculation
The first definition is what is commonly used by the scientific community, especially in the context of theories like the “Theory of General Relativity” or the “Theory of Evolution.” However, the second definition, the idea that a theory is just speculation, is something commonly used by the general public. This causes confusion for members of the public, and from personal experience makes it incredibly difficult to talk about certain subjects, you know the ones, without it being written off as nothing more than mere “speculation” when it is actually a current “scientifically acceptable general principle” with plenty of evidence backing it up. Scientists and the general public are both smart and simply understanding that there will be differences in the usage of some words between us will help improve communication and understanding. Even better more usage of lay meanings when describing scientific concepts can only help.
Updates? Oh my!
Confusion and misunderstanding between scientists and the public can arise from how language is constantly evolving as well. Updating the meaning of words/terms/phrases or generating new ones in science is necessary at times for the sake of clarity. Sadly, these updates can cause confusion, strife, and sometimes simple eye rolls from the general public. Furthermore, these changes can be combined, in the public’s eyes, with what seems to be a constant updating of the literature in some fields (looking at you nutrition, can I eat eggs guilt free or not?!?! Currently yes! But who knows in 10 years!). This apparent constant changing can make scientists appear a bit wishy-washy and potentially lower public opinion of science. Updating or changing terminology can also make people feel left behind or out of the loop. Especially since it can be difficult at times for scientists not in the field or the public to keep up with these changes.
But change, while certainly different, has the potential to be good. Such as updating anatomy terminology to better reflect the purpose, function, or location of a structure to improve anatomy education for medical students and the public with the ultimate goal of improving patient care. For example, the term “fallopian tubes” has been updated to better reflect its location in relation to other structures as either “oviducts” or “uterine tubes.” However, in the meantime it is important to continue using older terms alongside the new so that no one is left behind while continuing improvements to the way science is discussed.
What can we do?
Science communication plays a critical role in ensuring mutual understanding between scientists and the public. Providing opportunities for scientists and the public to be made aware of the fact that some words may carry different meanings in different contexts as well as the fact that terminology is updated to better reflect new science is key. These opportunities will arise naturally in popular press, outreach events, programs in classrooms, and conferences. Scientists and the general public are both smart, by building meaning together and working to achieve mutual understanding we can all better communicate what we need to say.