March 8, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Word Choice Affects Scientific Impact

The emotional reaction to scientific ideas can change depending on the words used.  Can words manipulate public opinion?
    “Wording matters,” said Jonathon Schuldt [U of Michigan] in a press release posted on PhysOrg.  His team found that opinion polls yielded a 16% difference among Republicans depending on whether they were asked if global warming or climate change was a big problem.  The responses might also vary depending on the temperature of the day they were asked.  Democrats, unexpectedly, showed less divergence, the majority showing concern for both terms; this was attributed to a “ceiling effect” (from an already high level of belief), “Or it could be that Democrats’ beliefs about global climate change might be more crystallized, and as a result, more protected from subtle manipulations.”
    On the BBC News, Erika Wright tackled the problem of “spaghettification” of scientific jargon: “Scientists use language to give authority to their work, but if the words become jargon, they can end up alienating the audience instead of convincing them,” the subtitle said.  An example is the phrase, double-blind randomized controlled trials, which sounds self-contradictory.  How can something be random and yet controlled?
    Scientists can hype their own image with jargon, too: when a scientist uses the word derma for skin, “It invests the product with a certain authority that it wouldn’t otherwise have,” Barry Delaney, an advertising consultant quoted by Wright, said.  He pointed to other examples like using poly- as a prefix for everything, or always condensing phrases into acronyms.  His humorous example: MYFB for “makes you feel better,” which is sometimes all that acronyms do.  “Mystification is the name of the game,” Delaney remarked (see equivocation).
    The history of science provides examples of pragmatic analogies and metaphors that may or may not contribute to understanding.  When electricity was not understood, words like flow and current tried to make it seem like water, something familiar.  More recently, quantum mechanical properties have included spin, something humans can visualize, but which has nothing to do with the actual physical effect, Wright explained.  “So instead of helping us by applying familiar words, the subtle differences just leave us more confused,” she pointed out.  Yet neologisms (new words) unrelated to experience can also confuse.
    Unexplained by Wright was why she believed it is the job of scientists to “convince” people of their “authority” instead of “alienating” them.  Isn’t that the skill set for politicians?  In the global warming article, Norbert Schwartz, a colleague of Schuldt, noted the effect of “framing” an argument by word choice: “When the issue is framed as global warming, the partisan divide is nearly 42 percentage points,” he said; “But when the frame is climate change, the partisan divide drops to about 26 percentage points.”  The press release said, “The good news is that Americans may not be as polarized on the issue as previously thought.”  But that’s a value judgment, not a scientific finding.  It’s conceivable to imagine times when polarization is good news.
    PhysOrg described a physiology professor who conjures up Batman as a teaching aid.  Professor E. Paul Zehr [U of Victoria, BC] “uses Batman to establish a framework, grounded in his fictional universe as well as our real one, in order to discuss the various components of exercise and physical training and illustrate how the body’s physiological systems respond,” the article said.  “His experiences in teaching undergraduate courses in physiology and neurophysiology made him realize that connecting science to popular culture helped students understand the lessons better.”

Metaphors and analogies can be effective teaching tools, but they carry the risk of dragging in extra baggage that can mislead.  Is your knowledge of physiology enhanced by watching a movie of a caped hero with super powers?    How is electricity like a flowing liquid?  Do you understand quantum mechanics better by visualizing spinning balls?  How else would you visualize an incomprehensible phenomenon?  What words would you use?  What happens when a scientific phenomenon has political and economic implications, like “climate change”?
    Science is not value-neutral.  Scientists are human beings with emotions and biases of their own.  They often want more respect than their fellow human beings simply because they are scientists.  Respect in any profession must be earned, not assumed.  In many cases it is earned by scientists, but we have seen over and over that some scientific explanations for phenomena (especially evolution), when stripped of jargon, amount to little more than “stuff happens.”  A bum could say that.
    What is most worrisome is when scientists take up the political banner and try to convince the public and the government on policy decisions based on their presumed authority.  When it fails, and they try to “frame” their arguments for best effect, they have left the science lab.  At that point their opinions deserve no more rights than those of any other member of the public.  Ideally, their findings should be simply published as factually as possible.  It is the job of policy analysts to determine which scientific facts merit attention in political positions, and for voters to weigh the merits of the arguments.
    Those ideals are visionary, of course.  In practice, we know, scientists are not value-neutral; they are subject to motivations and pressures, and tend to see everything they do as important.  Facts can be co-opted for both sides of a debate.  An informed public with critical thinking skills is vital to avoid unthoughtful action nudged by the “framing” rhetoric of scientists and other politicians.
    “Climate change” is a recent egregious example.  When “global warming” took heat after Climategate, scientists quickly migrated to climate change as their pet phrase.  It’s clever, because it’s irrefutable.  No matter what happens, they can’t lose.  If the climate gets hotter, they win.  If it gets colder, they win.  If it doesn’t change at all, they still win, because zero is a valid number on a scale of change.  Subconsciously, everybody knows what they are talking about (liberalism, cap-and-trade, carbon footprint, UN sanctions, global summits, drastic effects on the economy, apocalyptic scenarios), but the phrase hedges their bets by sounding so innocuous nobody could be against it (see 03/08/2011 and comments on Evolution News about NPR’s way of reporting the issue).  Evolutionary rhetoric is rife with similar rhetorical tricks (see the 02/02/2011 entry, “Metaphors of Evolution”).
    The primrose path is an apt metaphor; it’s prim, it’s rosy, it’s a path – a tempting route, especially when the pied piper of science calls.  Wise people choose their paths based on the destination.

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