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Words Matter For Scientists—Here's Why

Bethann Garramon Merkle and Anna Nellis Smith
L-R: Bethann Garramon Merkle and Anna Nellis Smith

Communicating science is important, especially when it saves lives like in the COVID-19 pandemic. But it's difficult to do when words mean different things to scientists versus the public.

Bethann Garramon Merkle, the Director of the Wyoming Science Communication Initiative, said there are a lot of things researchers can do to communicate better with the public. The first is recognizing that there's a problem.

"Academic english, and especially in science, is a prestige dialect, like it's a different language in a lot of ways," she said. "But we don't know that language because we're smarter, we know that language because we've learned it and we've spent a lot of time around it."

For Garramon Merkle, it's important to be aware that the public can perceive scientific vocabulary differently than researchers. She said a great example is the mule deer migration research done at the University of Wyoming. That research involves collecting a lot of data.

"They get multiple GPS location points per day per animal and those animals might wear those collars for multiple years," said Garramon Merkle. "We're talking thousands, or even sometimes hundreds of thousands and millions of data points."

She said those GPS locations can be interrupted by clouds or canyon walls, just like we lose our cell phone service while driving through the state.

"There will be locations that are in the data set that aren't accurate because the technology to triangulate that animal's location from the collar and the satellites it communicates with has been interrupted," said Garramon Merkle.

Because of that, researchers have to 'clean' their data. That means they filter out the bad points. But often, scientists call that process something else: data manipulation. And the word "manipulation" is a problem.

"Because in common culture, we think of manipulation as a very negative thing, as very close to being lied to, we have accidentally as the scientists set ourselves up to be not just not very credible, but like a used car salesman kind of stereotype," she said.

Anna Nellis Smith, UW graduate student and science communicator, said data manipulation is just one example of words meaning different things to scientists and the public. Another example is the word theory.

"For someone in the sciences, a theory is really like our best current understanding of something," she said. "But to most people, a theory is just a guess or a speculation or conjecture and so that common definition actually translates more closely to a scientific hypothesis."

Smith said the word theory is used a lot, but not always in the right way.

"One of my pet peeves is when novels or movies portray scientists talking about having theories about things when they're really talking about hypotheses," she said. "It's always a giveaway and it's like, 'no, scientists wouldn't say that.'"

Smith said it's important to recognize when words have double meanings.

"When we overlook these different meanings that can exist even within specific single words, we're kind of inviting more opportunities for misunderstanding or mistrust," she said.

But Smith said more scientists and educators are becoming aware of this problem.

"I think that being more thoughtful about word choice makes us consider our audience more carefully and that can help, one, not reinforce these common misunderstandings, but also it just forces us to think more about our audience," she said.

For Garramon Merkle, it's essential to communicate science with people from all different backgrounds. She said sharing science is not the same thing as 'dumbing it down'. It's about connecting with the public to see what really matters.

"In order to connect meaningfully with people and potentially help them access science information in ways that they might use, we have to start with those people, their values, and what they need," said Garramon Merkle.

She and Smith agree that word choice is important for building trust and confidence in science and scientists. And with the current controversy over mask-wearing and COVID-19 vaccines, that's essential.

Ashley is a PhD student in Astronomy and Physics at UW. She loves to communicate science and does so with WPM, on the Astrobites blog, and through outreach events. She was born in Colorado and got her BS in Engineering Physics at Colorado School of Mines. Ashley loves hiking and backpacking during Wyoming days and the clear starry skies at night!
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