Sunday, March 14, 2021

Scientific Verbiage

We are in the middle of the covid pandemic. The number of cases is declining, and the number of vaccinations is increasing. I am writing this on the day that a third vaccine was approved for use in the United States.

This is what everyone is talking about. Everyone wants to hear directly from Dr. Anthony Fauci, and from all the other leaders of the government’s coronavirus effort. I listened to an hour of radio interviews on the subject.

Here is what I heard: “We want to minimize the number of adverse health consequences.” One medical researcher said “sequelae” instead of consequences. And I heard all about efficacy of the vaccines.

Words such as these convince people that scientists live in a whole different world, with its own ecclesiastical language. They think that what they hear is somehow different from “We want to reduce the number of bad things that happen, in addition to reducing the spread of the virus itself,” and “all of the vaccines work well.” And yet, that is what the scientists are saying, just using big words.

Right now, this is to the advantage of us scientists. People trust us and our scientific mode of speech. But this can always change. Trust can quickly change to distrust, at which time the scientific terms would seem suspect. Why can’t the scientists just speak to us in plain English? This is a question that both the supporters and detractors of science may be asking.

As a science educator, I have found that students may not even know what “advantageous” or “optimal” mean. I have to assure them that these are not scientific terms, but terms they are likely to see in public media.

Now more than ever (cliché), we need clear, simple, straightforward communication. As it is now, scientists sound like the scholar who said, “The biota exhibited a one hundred percent mortality response,” when what he actually meant is “they all died.” I don’t know if any scholar actually said this, but it conveys the idea. If we scientists keep talking as if we have a special language that we don’t want ordinary people to know, our efficacy will have adverse sequelae that will be neither advantageous nor optimal.

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