The Perils of Science Speak

What would you say if you were worried about chemical X in your environment, and to reassure you, someone told you:

Scientists finished their devious plot called project ABC, which looks at chemicals in our homes to see if they are drastically toxic. After careful tampering of the data, they present their hunch about what they think is mostly responsible for making things toxic. […]

They end by saying that if they made no mistakes, X and Y should not have important visible toxic effects, and these chemicals are probably not harmful to us.

Does that sound very encouraging? Well, that ‘information’ is my tongue-in-cheek translation to laymen-terms of a hypothetical sample of ‘science speak’ which I wrote based on bits and pieces which you well might find in scientific papers, and with the help of this little ‘conversion table’ from the feature article Communicating the science of climate change, in Physics Today in 2011:


In my hypothetical science-speak sample I tried to cram in as many sciency-words as I could quickly cook up for efficiency (and for fun). In the layman-version above, I used more every-day turns of phrases and inserted the more common meanings associated with the scientific terms. Please bear with the clumsiness of the hypothetical science version 🙂 here:

Scientists have finalized their scheme, in the scope of project ABC, of evaluating our most common household substances for acute toxicity. After carefully processing the data, they present herein a theory about the factors in household substances which are found to be the the major contributors to human toxicity. […]

Within reasonable margin of error, they conclude that there are no significant observable effects from X and Y, and these substances are highly unlikely to pose a risk to human health.

This table in Physic Today inspired a deep-sea biologist and a teacher of science writing, Andrew David Thaler, to create a Google spreadsheet-project where he collects science terms and their deviating colloquial counterparts. If you are interested, you can check out the lists which he, his students, and other online contributors have created over at Southern Fried Science: The Importance of Word Choice: Terms with multiple meanings for scientists and the public.

I did the above exercise not only for fun, but also in order to think about how excerpts from research papers might sound to many people who come face to face with scientific studies for the first time (or even for the tenth, or twentieth time, if they have had no access to a proper context for evaluating the terminology). When we quote a scientific paper, are we giving someone valuable information, or are we leaving them with a vague word salad from a boring text-dense source that boils down to a tantalizing “you probably don’t have to worry?” (Not to mention that telling someone there probably is no reason to worry really doesn’t go a long way helping a person who still feels worried.) I think this is potential blind spot of sorts for scientists, or anyone who has gotten used to reading scientific papers.

“More research is needed”

If a paper ends with “…more research is needed to fully elucidate the role of this concept in the wider context Z”, I am used to the expression, and I know that often – unless the paper has actually declared that no good quality evidence on the topic exists – it’s just your scientific literature equivalent to “thanks for reading, science will go on, have a nice day.” After all, more research is ALWAYS needed. Science is never ‘done’. The “more research is needed” is simply a humble nod to that, perhaps paired with a hint at which area might be the one where to look next.

We are never as arrogant as to write in our papers something like: “and now we know all there is to know about this matter, and that’s that.” Research will hopefully continue finding out more, and even if we have a pretty clear idea about something in a specific context, there may be different contexts where the results would be different. The “that’s that and now we know all we want to know” of science is actually a more gradual process, which happens after a large body of evidence has accumulated. It’s when scientists and funders no longer have burning questions to answer in that area, and research becomes more or less focused somewhere else.

So I may easily think that everyone else will know not to read too much into that sentence, but it may not come as a surprise, that interpretations of these common scientific language phrases are not always so evident to everyone. Based on science and health discussions online, I have realized that some people seem just as certain that a sentence about further research being needed can be taken to imply that the whole field is still wide open, that the scientists in the paper are more or less telling us that their results can be disregarded, that nobody knows, and nothing can really be said (as an example: because of an innocent “more research is needed” at the end of a paper, the special merits of chiropractic treatment for any number of conditions are not refuted after all).

The academics may think they are expressing themselves clearly, but for laymen it may be just as clear that what they just read did not sound convincing to them, one way or another.

I have been in discussions with intelligent, well spoken people, who have left me speechless for their interpretation of sentences such as “no high-quality evidence for efficacy from homeopathic treatments have been found” – for they have not at all shared my view of the conclusion being a death blow to the whole homeopathic profession, but rather just as an ever-optimistic type of “no one has found the evidence yet, but someone surely will”.

“Unlikely to pose a risk”

In discussions on agricultural and health forums, not to mention various commenting sections online, I have begun to realize that where I see reassurance, someone else may not view it that way. I will use a couple of examples from when I wrote my series 17 Questions About Glyphosate, and referenced review studies and official reports about the health effects of glyphosate. Take the World Health Organisation statement on the hot topic of glyphosate and cancer:

…glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.

Or the 2013 review paper on (no) genotoxic effects from glyphosate or RoundUp:

Glyphosate and glyphosate-based formulations do not appear to present significant genotoxic risk under normal conditions of human or environmental exposures.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 21.34.30

The IARC’s cancer classification system which talks about hazard and not risk has been criticised for making science speak even more confusogenic to the public. Read more about this bloomberg graphic and IARC in Does glyphosate cause cancer?

What might a more informal interpretation of these sentences sound like? “Glyphosate probably doesn’t cause cancer to us through diet” … “under normal conditions” or even: “it only appears that way?” A-ha! So maybe it causes cancer in some other, devious, previously unknown way?

If you would ask a scientist about it, they would probably concede right away that there could be other kinds of exposure that we haven’t thought about which could have a different effect (even if that might be highly unlikely). This kind of admission of possibilities immediately makes us wary. Our everyday logic says that if there might be a way, ‘might’ does not refer to an otherworldly chance, it talks about a tangible, even a quite possible real world scenario.

Or what about someone telling us that the studies simply “did not find a relationship”, as you can read at Glyphosate and Health Effects A-Z, in the phrasing of the National Academy of Sciences on the lack of connection between autism, food allergies, and GMOs:

…does not support the hypothesis of a link between eating GE foods and the prevalence of the disorder. The committee also did not find a relationship between consumption of GE foods and the increase in prevalence of food allergies.

Does not support? Did not find? How is that supposed to reassure a layman? So maybe you just didn’t find that connection yet because you didn’t look hard enough! If what they mean to say is that there is no relationship, if GMOs don’t cause autism, why don’t they just say so?

It may be frustrating for laymen to deal with the way science distances itself from our normal mental heuristics – science as a process says that absolute certainty is arrogance. Only if we stay painfully humble and admit the existence of even the teeniest tiniest possibilities of the world not working in the ways we have generally observed it to behave, can we stay truly open to new kinds of information. This would be exhausting and over-the top for anyone’s personal everyday ways of functioning, so we generally jump to conclusions at only a fraction of the certainty which good scientists demand before expressing even the most careful of views one way or another. Science is about degrees of certainty, of finding more or less support for an idea, and it works hard not to exclude any possibility from future scrutiny.

Unlikely = frigging unbelievable it would happen

When a scientist says glyphosate is unlikely to pose a risk, laymen probably tend to think of the word unlikely as ‘not probable’. That doesn’t sound reassuring enough for lay people. It introduces this uncomfortable factor of “What? So you scientists aren’t really sure?”

But it’s not that there would be a fair chance that this unlikely thing could happen. In this case, the improbability is two-fold: it could be that substance X might pose a risk, say a cancer risk. This in itself does not tell us much: the risk might be very small, but still measurable. It might be much smaller, say, than the risk of someone being struck by lightning. But scientists would still concede there was small risk. So a scientist saying substance X is unlikely to even pose a risk, that is big. It has taken a ton of support from multiple lines of evidence. It’s not just hand-waving.

Science, unlike us in everyday-mode, accepts that fundamentally we can never be completely sure about something. A scientific outlook admits the possibility of us one day finding a zebra-striped crow, although one has never been observed so far, and for all practical purposes, laymen know that this just doesn’t happen. It’s that unlikely, something we intuitively equate with certainty. But the scientific process doesn’t.

When it rains although the weather forecast said the day would merely be overcast, the occurrence of rain was ‘unlikely’ to us in everyday terms. But when a scientist uses the word ‘unlikely’ it is closer to ‘inconceivable’ in our everyday sense. And when you read in science speak that something is highly unlikely, then what they really mean to say, in their humble way, is that it is f***ing unbelievable that this something would ever happen.

Better communication

^^So let’s all do that instead. Problem solved. With better communication we can avoid all these problems. Right?

It’s all well and good to say “don’t do it this way”, but what should we do instead? Tough luck, but I don’t know. There is no simple way past the problem that communication is hard. Reaching people in a meaningful way, while not misleading them, is a complex problem. But I do hope that reflecting on the specific ways that make it hard can help us avoid some of the biggest stumbling blocks.

The suggestions I might offer are:

1) If you can, use visuals. A simple graph (and the simple part is important – no clutter) might give people a more intuitive understandings about the magnitude of risks or the scale of the effect (or the lack of one) of what we are talking about. You can read about an interesting study that found simple graphics to be the most persuasive tools on controversial topics in this article on Forbes.

2) Of course we shouldn’t stop referring to scientific sources. We don’t even necessarily have to be afraid of using specific terminology, but maybe we can do that as the second step – first put it in our own words. Not condescending words, as that will likely just put people off. The content might simply sound completely different to you and me than it does to someone unaccustomed to science papers. Bridge that gap.

conflict3) It is much harder to feel convinced by a snippet that has no proper context. If we are
evaluating a claim of some kind, it might help not only to counter the concern with an opposite finding, but to provide the necessary framework: if we are concerned about disease Y, what is known about the background causes of that disease? Why is it not so reasonable to think that X has an effect on that? What kind of thing might we think of that could conceivably have an influence?

Also, if you have ideas about other ways of how to communicate better, please let me know. There are some great tips for science communicators in the free Debunking Handbook, and the World Health Organisation recently published their Best practice guidance for How to respond to vocal vaccine deniers in public – more directed at health officials, but includes useful tips for everyone.

I have thought quite a bit about how we could avoid needless polarization on any number of topics, and best help spread scientifically supported ideas, and I’ve written more about it in my piece Injecting Kindness Into The Debate.

Not only is communication hard, science is hard too

One of the first stumbling blocks in discussion may be to convince people why they should be interested in or relying on science for information about the world to begin with. They’ve probably read reports of very conflicting study results in the media, they may have doubts about industry influence and the integrity of research, or they might just view science as a sort of alternative faith. I’ve tried putting it like this in my pitch Why Science?:

[Science is] the only one in the game. There is no competing system of knowledge. Science is the common denominator for all those endeavours that openly admit that ‘we think that this might be the case but we will test real hard to see if it turns out really to be so’. If you are looking for knowledge about the world, science is the one gig in town that’s sitting down around the table and thinking hard on ‘how can we truly know something?’

To help people understand the seeming contradictions between single studies, and the frustrating uncertainties of science, but still see the value in it, I like to send them to read this great article on fivethirtyeight, Science isn’t broken. They write:

Science is not a magic wand that turns everything it touches to truth. Instead, “science operates as a procedure of uncertainty reduction,” said Nosek, of the Center for Open Science. “The goal is to get less wrong over time.” This concept is fundamental — whatever we know now is only our best approximation of the truth. We can never presume to have everything right.

To end on a lighter note, if someone does feel tempted to dive into the world of scientific papers for the first time, here some words of advise from the beginning of the very entertaining 10 Stages of Reading a Scientific Paper:

1. Optimism. “This can’t be too difficult,” you tell yourself with a smile—in the same way you tell yourself, “It’s not damaging to drink eight cups of coffee a day” or “There are plenty of tenure-track jobs.” After all, you’ve been reading words for decades. And that’s all a scientific paper is, right? Words?

2. Fear. This is the stage when you realize, “Uh … I don’t think all of these are words.” So you slow down a little. Sound out the syllables, parse the jargon, look up the acronyms, and review your work several times. Congratulations: You have now read the title.

If you are interested in diving into the world of science, there is also great resource called Scientific literacy for the citizen scientist, created by the Horticultural Professor Linda Chalker-Scott:

Knowledge of the scientific method leads to scientifically literate citizens who can read science articles and evaluate the quality of the information presented; allows a person to distinguish science from pseudoscience and can help avoid wasting time, money, and resources on poor ideas or, worse, scams.

And a then there’s a little bit different kind of a table on science speak, seen through the eyes of what I envision to be a PhD student desperately grasping for scientific-sounding straws while taking their first swipes at this thing called publish or perish… 😉 Found it from Science-Based Life:


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If you are interested in reading my work on other topics, you can find my pieces and further resources for instance under Farming and GMOs, The Environment, and Vaccines and Health. If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Back up your claims with evidence.

About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, volunteer science communicator, and fiction writer.
This entry was posted in linguistics, meta, science communication and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Perils of Science Speak

  1. Pingback: Is There a Consensus about Climate Change? | Thoughtscapism

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