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Editorial: How you say it defines how you think about it

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2003. Editorial: How you say it defines how you think about it. the Exchange 10(4):2, 6.

As scientific communicators, we all accept the importance of using the right words and of using them correctly. Even a "mostly right" word or phrase can be misleading—sometimes remarkably so. To find the right words, we pay close attention to the way professionals in our field write about their subjects and strive to emulate their word choice. That's a good start, but we should try to go well beyond that. Why? Because experts make many assumptions that shape the way they write, and those assumptions are often so much part of the scenery that they're ignored until someone trips over them.

A common example arises when we write about evolution. In attempting to make a complex concept easier to understand by encapsulating it in a metaphor, many science writers inadvertently anthropomorphize a process that has no conscious intent and that occurs beneath the notice of any organism other than an evolutionist. But the problem is subtler than that and more common than you might think. Whenever we use metaphors or state facts, it's easy to forget that both are nothing more than verbal shorthand that facilitates the act of understanding. If we're unaware of the assumptions that underlie a metaphor or fact, it's easy to be led astray by those assumptions. "Survival of the fittest" is a misleading metaphor because it conceals how fitness is contextual rather than absolute. The robustly fit dinosaurs that were once Earth's dominant life form proved far less fit than the organisms that replaced them when the environment changed drastically (most likely due to a meteorite impact).

How about facts? The statement that "the speed of light is constant and cannot be exceeded" seems unassailable until we remember two key assumptions that underlie the statement: both statements are only true of light observed in a given medium (e.g., a vacuum), and both depend on the the wavelength of the light. Light travelling in glass moves significantly slower than light travelling in a vacuum, and the extent of the speed decrease depends on the light's wavelength—which is why prisms work.

The metaphor of survival of the fittest misleads us by suggesting that fitness somehow represents superiority and that unfitness represents a pejorative term (i.e., inferiority). Such notions have led to social Darwinism and even arguably to Nazism. The fact about the supremacy of the speed of light trivialize a complex and fascinating part of physics by reducing it to a simplistic catchphrase. Believing unquestioningly in the stated "facts" would have prevented us from understanding prisms and from creating the laser traps that now let us slow down photons for study.

Both the metaphor and the facts I've used as examples also assume the notion of constancy and universality—in the first place, of the environment, and in the second, of a physical constant. In so doing, they mislead us into believing that "laws of nature" apply identically everywhere and every time. The evidence thus far suggests this is a reasonable assumption, but it's one that hasn't yet been tested as well as you might think. For example, recent theorizing about gravity has revealed that some fundamental assumptions about the constancy and universality of gravity may be flawed. Modeling by Moti Milgrom suggests that the force of gravity seems to change at different scales and under different external conditions (e.g., during acceleration). Scientists who have devoted considerable effort to developing a theory of "cold, dark matter" to explain aspects of the rotation of galaxies that could not be explained by gravitation alone may have missed the boat by not questioning their assumption of constancy everywhere and at all scales. If Milgrom is right, a revolution may be brewing in astrophysics. (See Nailing down gravity in the October 2003 issue of Discover for details.)

This is all very esoteric stuff, yet there's a clear implication for the profession of scientific communication. The examples I've given show how relying on catchphrases (such as the constancy of the speed of light) and forgetting our assumptions (such as the assumption that the laws of nature remain constant under all conditions) can lead to enormous efforts to justify our assumptions rather than challenging them and discovering something new. The Discover article about Milgrom quoted Martin Nieto, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, on this very topic: "A physicist has to keep very clear in his mind what he knows, what he thinks he knows, what he's suspicious of, and what he wants [to believe]." That's good advice for us too. As writers, we must learn to distinguish clearly between what we know and what we think we know, to identify what we're uncertain of, and to recognize that what we'd like to believe can adversely affect what we're trying to say.

Understanding ourselves to this extent is difficult work, but can have tremendous payoffs. Next time you're writing about something a bit too familiar, shake up your complacency by asking yourself a few questions: What assumptions are you making about the subject, and how do those assumptions shape your conclusions? What errors are being introduced by your mistaken beliefs or by wishful thinking? What paradigm changes might you promote by examining your assumptions, being suspicious about your favorite catchphrases, and eliminating wishful thinking?

I freely concede that I don't ask myself these questions nearly often enough. Do you?


My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.


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