Scientific Language in Public


Tom Peterken asks if it matters if
 we mix up our words?

In December 2011, Professor Brian Cox presented a lecture on TV which looked at a number of different concepts in quantum physics. Although he is a lecturer for physics undergraduates at Manchester University, and he is renowned for his presenting of science to a public audience, this particular case stirred up some controversy.

In “A Night with the Stars”, Cox presented us with a diamond. The diamond itself is not relevant, but using a stick of chalk or a ping-pong ball as another lecturer might do would seemingly not be up to the VIP attendees’ glamourous expectations. Anyway, the Professor professed that by rubbing the diamond between his hands, he is heating up the electrons within the diamond. Therefore, according to the Pauli Exclusion Principle, the changing energy states of our glittery VIP electrons there in Manchester “all the electrons across the universe instantly but imperceptibly change their energy levels”.

This instantaneously (relatively speaking) generated some healthy discussion and unhealthy Twitter sniping among the physicists on social media about whether the energy states of all electrons change at all, and if so, whether that has anything to do with the Pauli Exclusion Principle anyway. Other than some glowing embers on Reddit (see r/Physics/), the general consensus appears to be that no, Brian Cox got it sort of wrong here. The most popular explanation of why this is so was written by Sean Carroll on Discover Magazine’s blog (http://bit.ly/1MUXgtA).

However, this “error” was probably just due to Cox’s attempts to simplify the truth to be more accessible to his primarily non-scientist audience. This skill of being able to relate this famously complicated topic to the lay person is something Brian Cox is undeniably good at, whether you like him or not.

Regardless of whether he was right, wrong, or somewhere in between in his simplification, this author believes no harm was really done. It would be surprising if anyone went home and propagated this exact half-truth to their friends, family, or the Daily Mail. The likelihood is that whether Cox was right or wrong, most of the guests at this lecture (or at least, the non-scientists among them) took home the message “wow, physics is really cool!”

We can hope.

“It’s just a theory”

As with many things, what is more worrying is when these errors are made not on TV by a celebrity but during serious discussions. Particularly concerning is when politicians use unfamiliarity of scientific terminology to their own end, be it unintentionally or maliciously.

Those of us who are keeping an eye on political developments occurring across the Atlantic would have been especially horrified when one of the multitude of candidates for the President of the USA claimed that despite his background as a highly successful neurosurgeon, he does not believe evolution to occur in biology.

We hear frequently from his particular wing of his party that evolution, climate change, and other concepts which do not benefit their worldview are “just theories”.

As members of the scientific community, we can (and often do) explain why evolution and climate change are real and well-documented effects, and discuss the evidence we have obtained and what implications that has to the “debate”. This is seen as a futile exercise by many, possibly rightly so.

But I imagine most of us would agree that we sadly can not tell deniers what to think. Doing so will only bolster the belief that we, as keepers of “the truth”, are suppressing contradictory views for our own means, further entrenching their own views.

However, what we can (and often do) is explain that to dismiss scientific evidence on the basis that it is a theory is ludicrous.

As most readers will be aware, a scientific theory does not have the same implications as the word “theory” has in everyday usage. A scientific idea describing the particular mechanisms by which various phenomena occur (be it the evolution of species from common ancestors, the recent trends in global climate patterns, or how planets move around the Sun) can only be called a theory when it is substantiated by evidence enough for it to be accepted as accurate at predicting and explaining those phenomena.

This goes against what many people use the word to describe in everyday usage as a general idea, often on a whim, before it has been tested. In many areas of science, what many people think of as a “theory” would closer fit the definition of a hypothesis.

Let’s be clear here though. We can’t change how people use a particular word. Not in the immediate future at least.

What we can do though is to try to ensure that non-scientists are aware that certain words have a different (or perhaps more specific) meaning when used in scientific concepts. We can not and should not argue against evolution or climate change being theories. What we can do is question their concept of a theory.

This is not something we can do immediately, but should be introduced in general science education at a young age.

Creative advertising, or just plain lies?

It is not a secret that the art of advertising is not always the most truthful. This is another part of everyday life in which the lack of scientific knowledge can be exploited by those who should know better.

An obvious example is something which variously irritates or infuriates many scientists is the frequency with which products are labelled “chemical-free” when in fact such products are invariably made using atomic and molecular substances.

This particular case of advertising is therefore plainly wrong. However, for the sake of the argument, if we for a moment give the manufacturers of these products and their advertisers the benefit of the doubt, we could perhaps assume that their intentions towards whatever message they are trying to convey are honest. Like in Brian Cox’s quantum confusion, we might accept that the difficult act of conveying a scientific message to a non-scientific audience has resulted in some inaccuracies.

So although on the surface of it, it doesn’t seem hugely likely that such advertising would have a huge impact on anything significant (at least until chemtrail conspiracy theorists hold significant public office), the question arises as to where to draw the line. If we are to grudgingly accept that chemical-based substances can be advertised as being “chemical-free”, can we then accept the use of physics to justify pseudoscientific concepts such as quantum healing? Is this a creative or permissible form of simplification for the purpose of advertisement?

I think not.

If the former case can be assumed to be a bending of the truth (and I’m sure many readers will not take kindly to such an assumption), the latter is clearly an outright lie, preying on the understandable general confusion about the implications of quantum physics. Neither of these cases is the correct use of scientific language or concepts, and so such statements will hinder the scientific community’s outreach work, undermining Brian Cox’s aforementioned attempts at bringing scientific interest to public attention for example.

We must therefore not accept the false appropriation of scientific terminology and concepts in advertising, be it a well-meaning conveyance of a difficult message, or intentional dogma surrounding certain scientific concepts. This should be done again through better education of scientific ideas and terminology to teach how to spot the bull. However, it is this author’s opinion that the scientific community should lobby for stricter controls on the truthfulness required in advertising, particularly when complicated science is involved.

So let’s accept some mistakes sometimes, but…

We must accept that sometimes, when people like Brian Cox bring a complicated concept into the public eye, some simplifications are going to occur. It should not be an ambition of anybody’s to prevent the online scientific community to point out areas where the simplifications break down. However, it is when people and corporations of real authority prey on a lack of scientific understanding that we must criticise sharply.

As a community, we should work hard to ensure confusion of vocabulary is kept to an absolute minimum, and that the theft of scientific ideas and terminology for advertising is sharply constrained.

But the next time your grandma asks how your astrology studies are going, let’s try to remember that there are more important issues to focus on.

Scientific Language in Public

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