I’d like to start our scientific journey by discussing language. As many people know, scientists often try to “limbo” between overestimating their audience using dry (but pertinent) scientific jargon (words that have specialized definitions to a given field) and oversimplifying their subjects into understandable, relatable metaphors. This “limbo” metaphor actually oversimplifies the challenges of understanding scientific, and all other, communications. Language sets the stage for any discussion, and our approach to language can fundamentally alter the efficacy of any communication. If we can approach language objectively and skeptically, we will hopefully be better prepared to tackle the logic and content of future discussions.
A fun tidbit on language and Science – The English Language contains a “rule” that is often stated: “ ‘i’ before ‘e,’ except after ‘c’.” As with nearly all rules, there are exceptions; interestingly, the word “Science” is one of the exceptions.
Often the first major challenge to success in social learning situations involves understanding the language used in the field. For example, new musicians must first learn how to read music, discuss their instrument, and converse in musical terms before they can effectively perform with other musicians. Some basic, key musical terms include: sharp, flat, major, minor, and key. These terms all have homonyms (words that sound the same, and in these cases are even spelled the same, but have different meanings) in other disciplines, which make learning and using the appropriate words in the right contexts difficult. Fortunately for artists, the implications of a misunderstanding or misuse of musical terms are often very minor (pun definitely intended). Misuse and misunderstanding of scientific terms, however, can have much more severe consequences. I’d like to offer my view on some aspects of language to help clarify our future discussions.
The fundamental, primary role of language is to convey messages or signals between individuals. In the case of scientific communication, language is intended to clearly, unambiguously express ideas with high fidelity. In other words, science intends for language to faithfully transmit a concept from researchers to their audience, such that the audience understands the point made by the researchers. I’m not claiming that all individuals (both scientists and not) intend to use language in this manner (nor that they always succeed in this endeavor), but that the intent of Science, as a discipline, is to share information openly and clearly. Unfortunately, there are several sources of ambiguity which can make straightforward communication challenging, including: 1) deliberate, manipulative ambiguity, 2) inherent ambiguity in the English language, 3) social perception of poetic ambiguity, 4) misunderstanding/misuse of language, 5) differences between written and spoken language, 6) changes in language through time, 7) contextual ambiguities, and 8) accidental ambiguity. I discuss these eight ideas in detail below, oftentimes citing examples for further clarification. To be clear, I am neither trying to discourage nor advocate each “tactic” or the specific examples I use to explain them – I only wish to highlight potential reasons for vagueness and how audiences can be misled.
- Deliberate, manipulative ambiguity: People deliberately use manipulative language for a number of reasons. In some cases, individuals prefer to remain “vague” when discussing topics so as not to commit to controversial topics, similar to how politicians often communicate. Recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker posted a twitter response saying, “Both science & my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God. I believe faith & science are compatible, & go hand in hand,” when asked if he believes in evolution. While this answer may have satisfied many people, it does not address the question of his belief in evolution. Instead, Walker appeals to both religious and scientific audiences by saying he utilizes both strategies when making decisions about creation, avoiding the scientific theory of evolution, entirely. Alternatively, deliberate ambiguity can create the perception of agreeing with a listener (without in fact doing so), thereby heightening the rapport between the two. This strategy is commonly employed on first dates, when one participant wants to appear invested in the other’s interests, whether to further the relationship or for more strictly selfish gain (Figure 1).
Societal and industry pressures can cause individuals to engage in deliberate ambiguity as a form of manipulating their employers, clients, accrediting agencies, and governing bodies. Media pressure to make news stories sound more interesting, controversial, sensational, or broadly-relevant exemplifies this manipulation. The pressure to lure an audience often leads to confusing, yet intriguing headlines like, “Orlando suggests something ‘dirty’ for Valentine’s Day,” (http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/breaking-news/os-orlando-compost-valentine-20150210-story.html). This headline implies a sexual connotation (especially by placing quotes around the word, “dirty”), but in fact discusses composting yard and food waste. Finally, deliberate, manipulative ambiguity can occur through malicious or harmful intent, where individuals intend to mislead or confuse their audience in an attempt to damage others (and perhaps gain something themselves, if only enjoyment).
- Inherent ambiguity in the English language: The English language (and likely all languages) has built-in ambiguities. Consider the following:
- homonyms (suit yourself, while wearing your suit)
- homophones (the two of us want to go, too)
- homographs (It’s mean to desert your friends in the Mojave Desert)
When you think of all the ambiguities in your day, it is really startling. Look up any common word, and you will likely find multiple definitions (sometimes more than 10 for 1 word!). A given spelling/pronunciation combination may even refer to several parts of speech (bow refers to several nouns and verbs). Take it one step further and look up the same word in multiple dictionaries (here are links to two respected dictionaries – http://www.merriam-webster.com/, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/); I almost guarantee that, no matter the word, each will provide different (though often related) definitions for the same words. In many cases, proper English grammar necessitates the use of ambiguous terminology (here’s an article on “contronyms” that has many examples: http://mentalfloss.com/article/57032/25-words-are-their-own-opposites; thanks Jessica!).
- Social perception of poetic ambiguity: Entertainment and enjoyment are held in high regard in today’s society. Nearly all communications are expected to, in some degree, entertain the audience. Take ‘The Daily Show,’ for example, which many use as a reliable news source. In many cases, society values messages more for their presentation styles than their actual information content. Audiences have a tendency to trust and remember entertaining messages more than dry messages, regardless of the accuracy, credibility, or importance of the information, itself. What color are alligators? If you thought “green,” as many people do, you made my point. We tend to believe that alligators are green because of entertaining cartoon and mascot depictions, even in the face of contradictory experience telling us that alligators are black (as adults; black and yellow banded as juveniles). To my dismay, many children and adults have told me, with an obviously black alligator sitting in front of them, that the alligator was green (Figure 2).
Speakers and writers have learned from society’s preference of entertaining communications and use it to their advantage. Engaging the audience is crucial to their acceptance, understanding, and memorization of presented information. To this end, successful communicators have learned to utilize countless grammatical, nonverbal, and other strategies of audience engagement: alliteration, rhyme, double entendre, innuendo, etc. Employing these strategies often comes at the cost of degrading the intended message, making it harder for the audience to know the communicator’s true intent. The popularity of artistic expression and entertainment has further confounded the communication situation. In many cases, artists use their skills to evoke a variety of feelings in their patrons, attempting to obscure or minimize any direct message. Society often allows individuals to ascribe any meaning that they choose to art or entertainment, permitting messages therein to transform into an introspective monologue rather than a dialogue between artist and audience. The societal value of communication which evokes such introspection causes audiences (and communicators) to approach all forms of communication less literally. By valuing ambiguity and its poetic beauty, we tend to devalue clear, direct communication and become untrained in interpreting such messages.
- Misunderstanding/misuse of language: Some instances of ambiguous language occur as a misunderstanding of language. The most obvious of these cases is when a non-native speaker uses the incorrect word(s) to formulate an argument. Take the American use of the Spanish phrase, “mano a mano”. This phrase literally translates to “hand to hand,” referring to direct competition or conflict, yet American’s typically use it to imply a “one-on-one” interaction. While the two meanings are related, they are confounded, and might be more easily misunderstood between an American and a native Spanish speaker. Imagine the awkward fight that may ensue when an American challenges a Spaniard to fight, mano a mano (thinking that he’s saying “one-on-one”), and the Spaniard brings his friends. Individuals attempting to portray themselves as learned (whether fairly so or not) may – particularly in scrutinized, social discourses – try to use complex sounding words with unfamiliar definitions. In these cases, they can easily use words inappropriately, creating intentional or unintentional confusion about their message’s intent.
- Differences between written and spoken language: For many people, there is a strong dichotomy between their spoken and written communications. As I write this discussion now, I can’t help but be somewhat startled by the stark differences I can see between this article and my daily speech patterns. These differences are, in part, due to social conventions and the knowledge that written messages can be edited and proofread. Spoken word can be practiced, but editing/revising is much more difficult. Vocal inflections, body postures, and knowledge about the audience’s environment/context often accompany spoken language, all of which can alter the meaning and perception of the message. In other words, spoken communications do not rely as heavily on the words, alone, for meaning. Quite often, as is the case with sarcasm, spoken words can lose their meaning when coupled with the tone, inflection, and body language. A coy, “no,” from a child looking sheepishly at you as you ask him/her if he/she ate the last cookie clearly means, “yes,” to an experienced parent. Confusion may arise if a word has one meaning when spoken, and another when written.
- Changes in language through time: Many languages are very dynamic through time, mirroring changes in social climates and technology. An easy example of changes in language came about with the advent of computers and electronic discourse. Words, such as “mouse,” have taken on new meaning to describe technology. Social alterations, often due to misunderstandings or in the interest of brevity, can become commonplace and eventually formalized into the language. Some recent additions to the Oxford Dictionary include: LOL, xlnt, duck face, al desko, amazeballs, and respawn. Some words have archaic, “outdated” definitions that are unrelated to the ways they are commonly used in modern speech. The word “faggot” did not always have the negative connotation that it does today, but rather referred to a bundle of wood or twigs to be used as fuel (one of several archaic definitions). The statement, “the children in the village would burn faggots on the weekends for fun,” has a terrifyingly sinister connotation in today’s dialogue (even writing this sentence from an explanatory perspective is giving me a visceral, gut-wrenching feeling), but would be perceived as a harmless activity, historically. The expansion and alteration of the English language is not a new phenomenon – shifts in technology almost always necessitate shifts in terminology, and changes in meaning come about irrespective of technological change. This continued revision of the language leads to ambiguity in understanding, particularly as the amount of time between the delivery of a message and its reception increase. For example, Charles Darwin’s work is still discussed today, more than 100 years since his death. As new generations continue to read his work, the likelihood of confusion, as a result of the outdated language, increases.
- Contextual ambiguities: The context in which information is presented or received lead to misunderstandings. This confusion is amplified as environments or backgrounds become more different between communicator and recipient. I will borrow a quote from Will Farrell in ‘Zoolander’ as an example. On the runway in a modeling show, Will Farrell states, “Hansel, he’s so hot right now.” The term “hot” is grammatically ambiguous (it has homonyms), but the context of the runway and the movie makes his statement come off quite clearly to mean something like, “the model, Hansel, has been very popular and successful lately, and he looks great in that outfit” (not quite the same entertaining ring to it). However, if Hansel had been out with Jason, Rhett, Hollis, and I catching snakes in the Mojave Desert in July and Will Farrell announced, “Hansel, he’s so hot right now,” the interpretation could be much more easily altered. The context of the subjects, audience, and communicator all play an important role in the clarity of a message. Another point, more crucial to the understanding of science, is that each field or discipline has its own, unique jargon and meanings, which often act as a source of confusion. The context of the field in which the discussion is taking place (Physics, Chemistry, Fashion, Entertainment, etc.) can have a tremendous effect on the meaning of words, even when communicators are using the same parent language (i.e.: English). Not only can the explicit definition of a word vary based on its context, but the connotations of words also change in different uses. A simple example of such a difference is the term “organic” when used by farmers vs. chemists. To a farmer, “organic” refers to growing or raising agricultural products by an imposed standard of what is “natural.” By contrast, “organic” to a chemist refers to most compounds containing the element, carbon. While the explicit definition differs in both realms, the connotation of the word also differs, such that confusion may arise even if an explanation of the intended definition is discussed. “Organic” in the food/farming sense tends to have a positive connotation, while chemists do not ascribe any connotation to “organic” compounds. Organic foods are often perceived to be better for you (not necessarily a true statement), and someone familiar with this concept of the word, “organic,” may still think positively about compounds described as “organic” by chemists, even knowing the difference in definition. Gasoline contains organic (chemistry) compounds, but it does not qualify as an organic (farming) additive to food. Knowing that chemists mean something other than farmers, when they hear that gasoline is “organic,” listeners may still feel more positively about gasoline as a fuel than inorganic hydrogen, given the positive connotation that “organic” holds in their minds.
- Accidental ambiguity: Finally, ambiguity can arise through accidental errors. These may occur at any stage in the process of communication, for a number of reasons. An individual may use the wrong word by accident, as a “slip of the tongue” as it is said. Spell-check programs and autocorrect may revise a statement, unbeknown to the author and contrary to the intent, thereby confusing the audience. Typos, printing errors, recording errors, equipment malfunctions, etc. all contribute to accidental ambiguity. Try googling “autocorrect fails” for examples (and a laugh).
Given both the confusing nature of language and our plans for this forum (to better understand scientific thought), I can’t overstress the importance of clarity and overt explanation of terms. If you use a word whose definition varies (or is unfamiliar), it is often best to expressly provide your definition. In science, many researchers provide citations for the definitions of terms they use, although this is not always a requirement (especially when scientists generate new terms or definitions). To promote understanding as a reader, look up definitions and ask for clarification if ambiguity is apparent in the language. Many aggressive, verbal fights (not the same as stimulating, passionate debates) occur over a misunderstanding of terms or a refusal to agree on predefined definitions. Defining terms (and assumptions) is an essential first step in any scientific (or logical) procedure. I hope to discuss this idea of assumptions and science in greater detail in a future discussion.
What are your thoughts on language? What other aspects of language can provide an initial barrier to scientific and logical understanding? Can you think of any controversial debates whose controversy arose more from language ambiguity than genuine disagreement between arguing parties? Have you had students, friends, family, or coworkers take something you’ve said out of context and had difficulty restoring the appropriate definitions? Do you have any thoughts on how to improve communication so as to reduce such confusion?