Spaghettification and the problem of scientific jargon

By Erika Wright
BBC Radio 4, Calibrated Conundrums


Scientists use language to give authority to their work, but if the words become jargon, they can end up alienating the audience instead of convincing them.

Spaghettification has nothing to do with Italian cuisine, but refers to what happens if an object falls into a black hole.

image captionAn artist's impression of a super-massive black hole

Black holes turn out not to be black at all and our everyday reference to them, as in "my keys have disappeared into a black hole" is of course, scientifically inaccurate.

The "conservation of angular momentum" is explained in simple terms by Anthony Richards, gallery manager at the Science Museum with the help of a spinning apparatus. "Move your bum in and out and you'll go faster or slower".

This neatly sums up the scientists' dilemma when trying to explain their work to the non-initiated. The first expression has scientific authority but may leave us none the wiser, while the second has absolutely no kudos, is far from gracious, but is crystal clear.

And what about "double-blind randomised controlled trials"?

We all know what each individual word means, but tripped off the tongue one after another, they sound totally contradictory. How can something be random and controlled at the same time?

What scientists are trying to say is "we've done this trial properly, honest", says science writer Phil Ball, but if they say that then it sounds like they are trying to convince, and therefore not trustworthy.

On the other hand, if they say "double-blind randomised controlled trials" to anyone other than each other, then it sounds like a nonsense poem and - to the lay person - not to be trusted either.

image captionScientific sounding words are often used to sell beauty products and cosmetics

In other words, scientists are caught between a rock and a hard place, although that probably depends on your definition of the word "rock".

All academic disciplines have their own jargon, like "problematising" in cultural studies, says Phil Ball, but he admits "science has the most impressive jargon".

This is why the language of science has a bad name - it lends itself to exploitation by the advertising industry that uses scientific sounding words to impress the buying public.

"The classic example is the word 'derma' which simply means skin," says advertising consultant Barry Delaney.

"It invests the product with a certain authority that it wouldn't otherwise have," he says.

"Or anything with 'poly', which only means many. The other thing they do is to reduce words to a bunch of initials like MYFB, which look very scientific but probably only mean 'makes you feel better'. Mystification is the name of the game."

"It's important to understand that pseudoscientific combinations of words that they use do not constitute a claim, and they are described as jargon," Mr Delaney observes.

"The claims to a sufficient extent are true, but they pale in comparison to the wrapping of this pseudo-scientific language".

'Dripping' electricity

While weird and wonderful language may sound the trickiest, Lynne discovers that it is actually the short simple words that cause the most confusion.

image captionScientists used analogies from other areas to help them explain electricity

It turns out that this is often down to a quirk of history, and throws an illuminating light on the scientific process.

When they first make their discoveries, scientists are often just scratching the surface.

None the less, they have to give name to their findings that then get embedded in the culture. Meanwhile, the science progresses, but frequently, the name does not.

Take "electricity" for example. When the earliest scientists, including Michael Faraday, were doing experiments, they did not fully understand electricity.

So they reached for analogies like "current" and "flow" as if it were water. These words have stuck, and "it's no wonder people thought that electricity dripped out the sockets".

Even when scientists are totally clear about their findings, they often borrow words from the vernacular, but give them a slightly different meaning in science.

In quantum mechanics they talk about electrons having "spin".

You would be forgiven for thinking of an electron going round in circles like a little ball, but sadly this is not the case.

So instead of helping us by applying familiar words, the subtle differences just leave us more confused.

Meanwhile, the term "uncertainty" seems to imply that scientists do not quite know what is going on, that everything is a bit dodgy.

Actually, that is not what it means - "they know precisely in mathematical terms what is happening, but there is an aspect that is unknowable, in a very quantifiable way", says science writer Phil Ball.

Perhaps the solution is to be found in "neologisms", where words are taken from somewhere totally different and given an entirely new meaning.

When physicist David Mermin was looking for a name for a new super fluid, he turned to Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "The Hunting of the Snark" and called it a Boojum.

His motivation for doing so? "It was a joke! I wanted to see how silly a word I could get into the vocabulary of science," he explained.

He succeeded, the word was accepted by the scientific community, and is there to be cherished - if not entirely understood - by the rest of us.

"In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away --

For the Snark was a boojum, you see."

BBC Radio 4's Calibrated Conundrums presented by Lynne Truss will be broadcast on Tuesday, 8 March 2011 at 1100GMT. Or catch up afterwards via iPlayer.

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