If you know anything about me, you’d soon come to realise that I love everything British. And to me, what is more British than the iconic panel show? So that is why, last week, when watching the latest episode of Mock the Week one segment jumped straight out at me.
So during this part of the show, a comedian gets given a random topic, chosen by the spinning of an electronic wheel, and has to talk about that topic, saying whatever comes to their mind. So when the wheel was spun and landed on science, I never thought that Chris Addison would talk about the inability of science communication.
Now lets just think about that clip for a minute, what if science was so easy that it just told us exactly what we were looking for without the complicated jargon? Honestly, who wouldn’t love to pick up a box of paracetamols and see that it says number #1 cure when you feel like a smashed pain au chocolat?
My friend introduced me to a phrase recently, eschew obfuscation. Basically, its a phrase that means to avoid being unclear and support being clear. Now if all scientists were to follow that rule, wouldn’t that make communicating much easier? Why then, do we still use that complicated jargon in communicating?
With a huge number of journals out there, (more than 8000 alone categorised in the ISI Web of Knowledge) trying to find a communication method for all scientists to use seems to be becoming more and more difficult. Though English is documented as being the International Language of Science, or the lingua franca, is that enough though? But with the possibility of so many different words or phrases being used to describe the same concept, maybe tautology needs to be avoided. Is just having English as the current language enough, or does a specific Science-English subset need to be formed which would be universally used when breaking down a scientific comment to keep concurrency across media.
A piece from BBC Radio 4 in 2011 describes it best: Scientists are caught between a rock and a hard place. If we try to oversimplify a concept, does that show that we are trying to convince a reader of what we mean, but then if we don’t do they still trust what we are saying? Also then, if we try to use simple words to describe a new concept, can those words be taken out of context. Such as an example seen when Faraday tried to explain what electricity was. By using words such as current or flow, audiences may perceive it as being similar to water, and thus wondering if electricity was constantly dripping out of their sockets. By then using specialist terminology, it may sometimes result in decreased readability and the distracting of readers from the main focus of the paper. A writing guide from Duke University explains that writing should implore the use of conscious consideration on the specialised vocabulary that may be used, whether it be misleading (for example heavy metals), jargon named after individuals, excessively long jargon or even hard to pronounce jargon.
This brings me back to my heading of Comic Relief. If by somehow combining the dissemination of science information in a more light-hearted manner such as through comedy, maybe basic concepts may begin to stick. Yes the use of comedic journalism may be controversial. The main finding of the piece may be blown out of proportion, eschewed to something more comical or totally passed over. With people like Jon Stewart of Stephen Colbert being so popular with their comedic news programs, could there be the off-possibility that maybe it may actually be beneficial and individuals watching such programs may actually begin to learn something. After all, Jon Stewart was ranked 4th most admired journalist in the United States.
Maybe what we really need to do is just bring in non-science individuals who have a basic understanding of the concept and break it down for the wider public. Or we could all just keep watching panel shows like QI and Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club and see what we can learn from there, because lets face it, who doesn’t love panel shows?
– Written by Rakshet Sachdev
Find more of my in-cohesive ramblings on twitter @rakshet