Re-thinking Science Communication in Plain English

We all know or at least have a hunch: abstractions don’t explain — they themselves need to be explained.

A word — whether a pompous scientific term like Micropachycephalosaurus (a dinosaur) or a more over-the-counter and down-to-earth Acetaminophen— is not the thing it is pointing at. It is an abstraction, a signpost.

In fact, the thing itself, say a real-life aspirin pill — the stuff you actually ingest — is of a very different order than the word “aspirin”. It’s not just that the word is not the pill, it’s that the collection of elements that are put together to do what aspirin does have no inherent name at all.

re-thinking science communication in plain english

“This is not a pipe.” — Rene Magritte

In other words — and perhaps obviously — all names are made up. So even though we think we know how the pill works, how to manufacture it, what it does to the body and so on, our concept “aspirin” cannot capture the actual experience — whether the physics, chemistry, biology or everyday perception — of what we refer to as aspirin.

A thought experiment might make this more obvious.

Think of a definition for the word dog, one that would fit every particular case of dog, so that someone from outer space who has never even seen a canine could take your definition and use it to establish whether each and every creature they meet on Earth is a dog or not.

“It has four feet, furry tail and barks.”

Okay, good. But surely there are quite legitimate three legged, mute mutts that the alien would miss if he were using this definition (and if you tightened this rather broad definition, he’d overlook even more dogs), not to mention that he would mistake for a dog many barky Siamese cats and chatty hyenas.

The most important point of all though is the fact that he would miss dogs that you yourself would have no problem recognizing as dogs even though they do not fit your very own definition!

Do you see the problem?

In just the same way as you pretty much always intuitively understand but can never define your experience of a dog, you cannot define the experience of aspirin, the taste of sugar, nor what it feels like to be you, even though you intuitively know all of these.

This is because all concepts are always already abstract and general, and all experiences are always concrete and particular.

What this means, counter-intuitively, is that what we usually take for a fact — “this is aspirin” or “this is a city street” or “this is evolution” — is simply our concept about what we feel we understand, and not the understanding itself.

The reason all this matters is that it brings into sharp relief the fact that science doesn’t just discover facts — it deals in conceptual frames of reference (theories) as much as it deals in facts. It creates and re-creates understandings — by moving from the empirical to the conceptual and back– around what is considered to be valid empirical evidence at any given time.

This is called, in general, experimentation, though no scientist has ever actually used the scientific method in general — by its very nature experimentation is varied, always particular, and often downright peculiar.

What does this have to do with science communication?

Great science communicators, like great scientists, also proceed from the empirical to the abstract, asking themselves on behalf of the audience: “What problem does this theory or innovation respond to — what is the specific problem it solves?” or “How does it re-frame the problematic or take us past some difficulty?” or “What new problem does it make possible?”

Strong science communicators always think in terms of and work from the empirical problem to concept-theory, which enables them to explain the need for introducing made up scientific abstractions in the first place.

Weak science communicators, on the other hand, rarely leave the concept-level and so tend to write as if what is merely an abstract idea is true in fact — also known as reification of the abstract — and thus become enamoured with explanation: “How does this theory explain time?” or “What does the theory say about evolution?” or “What is a human being?”

These bad or static science questions presuppose that we already understand the object of inquiry by treating as real what is merely speculative or conceptual — aspirin or dog, in our first examples, time and evolution above. And then proceed to explain scientific findings as if the concept was experience itself, and science was merely a question of measuring or inventing these by this time merely mental or abstract objects.

See the difference?

Always proceed from the actual problem — whether conceptual or practical — to the science (the abstract) and not the other way around. This means that when doing science communication we must not try to “explain the science”, which is how science communication is often understood and approached, but to explain actual experience — hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, etc. — using science.

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re-thinking science communication in plain english

Understanding Science vs Philosophy Debate

If the recent spate of public debates about the relationship between science and philosophy is a prime example of “science by press conference“, it’s also a chance to re-evaluate what we think the issue is about.

Some of us — Stephen Hawking, for example — claim simply that “philosophy is dead”; others, like Lawrence Krauss, argue that philosophy is irrelevant to science; still others, like Daniel Dennett, believe that philosophy can play a role in helping science to understand itself – a task which lies outside the scope of science proper.

philosophy vs scienceBut do all of these commentators have the same thing in mind when they say “philosophy”? Could it be that they are all on to something? Let’s see.

It is generally agreed that modern philosophy of science comes to its own with Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy.

Put in basic terms, Kant realized that the way in which Western philosophy – from Plato to Aristotle, from Descartes to Hume – was traditionally set up assumed that the world as it appears to us (the subjective empirical) and the world as it is in itself (the objective, or Ideas, or that which is always already outside of our experience) were mistakenly assumed to be essentially, rather than just formally, different.

Kant further realized that when we try to reduce the subjective to the objective (as in Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”) or the objective to the subjective (as per 18th century British empiricists – Hume, Locke), we end up reintroducing the above-mentioned problem in more and more subtle ways, and so persist unable to account for our dual status as at once both the subject and the object of experience.

Kant’s ingenious recasting of the theretofore dogmatically conceptualized subject-object relationship — here Kant famously credits Hume for “interrupting my dogmatic slumber” — all but destroyed the traditional way of philosophical thinking.

In effect, since Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”, philosophy is no longer interested in speculating about what is on the other (objective) side of experience – since nothing at all can be said about what is wholly outside of all possible experience — but in outlining the objective conditions of possibility that must be satisfied so that this or that subjective experience can be what it is (for Kant, these conditions are time, space and causality).

In other words, up until Kant we thought that knowing (or Ideas) was derived from external objects (from things, events or thoughts), and Kant is the first to show that all knowing is dialectical, or process-dependent.

Kant further shows that the knower (the mind) and the known (objects and Ideas) cannot be conceived of as essentially different, either from each other or from the process of knowing, because they are not only two forms of the same substance (knowing in-itself), but are in a causal relationship only in so far as the mind is able to construct, rather than perceive, such a causal relationship.

Now different scientists and philosophers articulate this subject-object co-dependency differently — and even today much valuable work is done to further clarify the concepts of causality and objectivity — but all serious modern thought is structurally “post-Kantian”, in that common sense “Naive realism” is no longer seen as a reasonable position.

(This is roughly analogous to how all modern space science is post-Copernican, in that no one believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth anymore, even though we now know that Copernicus’ calculations were incorrect and we have more sophisticated tools to explain his assertions.)

If we now take this “post-Kantian” understanding of philosophy – philosophy as a science concerned with exploring the necessary conditions of possibility of experience (rather than with experience itself, which is the domain of science proper) – we will see that, in a way, all of the commentators mentioned at the outset are correct.

That is, the objective interest of philosophy (the conditions of possibility of experience) is different than the objective interest of science (empirical experience itself), so in this sense there is no competition or overlap; indeed, science and philosophy are not only about different things, but about different kinds of things.

It is also clear, however, that since the subject expertise of philosophy is the structure of thought as such, its insights can be quite helpful to scientists who must use thought as a tool in their attempt to understand the empirical world.

As for the alleged death of philosophy, in some ways at least Stephen Hawking seems to be right indeed — philosophy as a capital “T” truth-yielding enterprise is and has been long dead.

That’s because we now seem to understand that all of our descriptions of experience – including what happened before anything at all happened – are symbolic constructs, or abstract objects, that are either conditionally useful or not useful, but never unconditionally true or false.

Still, in so far as Kant was right — and we accept that the structures of experience, understanding and reason are inextricably interrelated — we must also concede to philosophy an expertise in the formal structure of thought, and indeed use it to inform theory-making in science.

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philosophy vs science

Analyzing Government Communications

Any piece of government writing can be analyzed using the binary dimensions of purpose and audience.

PURPOSEanalyzing government communications

In government writing, having a clear purpose means being able to write high-quality content (content that works) without losing sight of the overall strategic goals of the department or organization. Before writing, ask yourself:

  • Are there any background issues that will put your writing in an appropriate context for the readers? Are there any specific policies or reports the reader needs to know about to fully understand your communications?
  • Does your document strike a balance between being objective – not overstating facts and clearly articulating the down sides of an issue or project – and making the information persuasive?
  • Since government documents are often both records of and basis for action, they must be accurate, complete and objective, but they must also — and importantly — be reader-centred, clear, concise and written in plain language. (Plain language tips.)
  • Useful documents are those whose overall design contributes to readability, not just those that incorporate relevant information. So don’t stop at high-quality copy-writing; ensure that the document design is easy to understand, interesting and in line with the formal departmental requirements. (Plain language design tips.)
  • If in doubt, consult a communications professional who should be able to provide you with examples of finished documents that are similar in content and structure to what you need to write or revise (and which you can then use as a template and style reference).


The value of your government communications will be directly proportional to your understanding of the audience; and the audiences for government writing can be extremely diverse. analyzing government writingBefore writing, ask yourself:

  • Is the audience internal or external to the department or to the organization?
  • Are they experts? Decision makers? The public?
  • What do they already know? What do they need to find out?
  • Will they use the information as a reference or a decision-making tool?
  • How much convincing is required? How little?
  • Is there more than one audience? Can a single communication address the needs of all the audiences?
  • Do you understand the cultural background — attitudes, beliefs, values and expectations — of your audience?
  • Is there any way you can get audience feedback and incorporate suggestions into your document?
  • Is there any other way you can test your communications for plain language use?
  • Do you understand your perceived credibility with the audience?

Finally, like all great communication, government writing is a not just about information exchange, or content, but about positioning what you want to say in an appropriate and convincing context; that is, skilfully balancing the purpose and audience elements discussed above.

analyzing government communications

Verbs in Science Writing

verbs in science writing      Life on earth is more like a verb. It repairs, maintains, re-creates and outdoes itself.” – Lynn Margulis

Verbs are words that indicate — and indeed express — an action or a state of being. When used with care, verbs are the most expressive part of language.

Plain language writers – especially those writing in the sciences and technical fields — should avoid using nouns when an equivalent verb is at hand.

Here are a few examples:

  • emphasize not place emphasis on
  • suggest not is our suggestion
  • need not be in need of
  • reduce not effect a reduction in
  • conclude not bring to a conclusion
  • think not it is our opinion that
  • use not make use of or utilize
  • must not is required to
  • indicates not is an indication that

Science-specific verbs include:

  • classify
  • estimateverbs in science writing
  • hypothesize
  • identify
  • interpret
  • observe
  • predict
  • publish
  • record
  • research

Here, however, are some cliché verbs and phrases to avoid altogether:

  • utilize
  • finalize
  • normalize
  • prioritize
  • in lieu of
  • stabilize
  • input (as a verb)
  • in receipt of
  • our records show
  • remit
  • the utmost care
  • predicated on the assumption
  • opine
  • sincerely hope

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verbs in science writing

The Science of Objectivity

The way we understand something will limit how much of it we allow ourselves to see.

If we understand science as the application of an objective scientific method — a method that is applicable across all situations — we will overlook the large and small idiosyncrasies that characterize all the actual theory and experiment.

But if we “zoom in” to pin down these idiosyncrasies, we’ll find that the details which differentiate them from what we might consider to be the more objective aspects of science get quite blurry.

(So blurry in fact, that it may become clear to us right then that the objects of experience are not simply perceived but constructed in the process of perception.)

Similar logic applies to the concept of objectivity in science.

blog3photoThe common sense understanding of objectivity relies on the presumption that behind the apparent objects lie actual objects. When I’m looking at a tree, for example, I’m looking at it in one of thousands of possible ways I could look at it. And though each perspective may be different, we tend to think that it is the same object, the same tree, that’s being looked at.

In other words, we think that “behind” what we see, and indeed behind what anyone can possibly see, lies the object itself — something more or less independent of my experience of it, something that perhaps even causes experience.

But how does this presumption relate to the actual ironclad facts of your experience?

Ask yourself: Have I, or has anyone I know, ever experienced anything other than experience? Is there anything in my actual experience that is made out of something other than my experiencing it?

Clearly, the answer is that I have never in fact experienced an object that exists apart from my experiencing it.

So, in assuming that such an object exists behind the veil of appearance — and thinking that this is what in fact does the appearing — we mistakenly take what is simply “a subjective experiencing” to be “my subjective experience of the object”.

As a result of this confusion, our common sense concept of objectivity — which is derived from and so based on this simple misunderstanding — points to a mere imaginary object, a taken-on-faith doctrine, a kind of pseudo-scientific unicorn that refers to nothing whatsoever in our actual experience.

(The interesting observation here is not so much that we believe that there exists an objective reality and then act as if this was true, but that we find ourselves acting as if it was true and then convince ourselves that what is merely a fairly boring imaginary abstract construct, “the real world”, is in fact a real thing!)

Okay, you may say, so there cannot be any evidence that objective reality exists, that much is clear. But is objectivity not a necessary presumption in principle, if not in fact?

Yes, the concept of objectivity is necessary if we want to understand the structure of thought and experience — or how thought thinks and how experience is experienced. But our common sense take on objectivity is absolutely unnecessary, and is indeed quite volatile and destructive.

So a better question would be this: Are we stuck with the dogmatic and basically fundamentalist-religious image of objectivity described above? Or can we develop a concept of objectivity that is grounded in and responsive to our actual experience?

In fact, there is a simpler and more direct, if somewhat counter-intuitive, way to conceptualize objectivity. One which, in the spirit of Occam’s razor, allows us to cut the number of taken-for-granted presuppositions, and do away with the rather silly common sense notion that some imaginary objective world is the cause of experience.

In this second, let’s call it post-modern, understanding experience is not a reflection of the imaginary objective reality, as it is in our common sense understanding, but the source of it — a source for both the subjective (our sense of “I exist”) and the objective (our scientific descriptions).

According to this second understanding, no particular experience or form — whether material (sensation or perception) or symbolic (language or image) — has a referent on the presumed objective side because no such other side exists as separate from the actual experience.

In the common sense understanding of objectivity, our experience of the world was derived from the unsupported and unsupportable presumption of a reality behind appearances that is independent of our experience, but which nonetheless makes our experience possible.

In the post-modern understanding of objectivity, our experience of the world is a result of the way in which our present understanding of the world — a historically and linguistically conditioned objective idea, now without an ideal ancestor — interacts with the present perception.

Since our present ideas about the world are themselves both the means of scientific objectification and its context — that is, they determine what “counts as” experience and are themselves experience — as they change, so will change the objective reality itself, not just our concept or idea about it.

For example, not only is the idea “tree” constructed differently by each perceptual-conceptual apparatus (i.e. mind) at different times, the very object “tree”, since it cannot be abstracted away from the process of understanding, will change depending on perspective (à la Quantum mechanics).

So indeed, if we are going to do science — if we are going to try to figure out how the thing works — we need to set up a tentative objective idea “tree”, so that we can compare what we observe to what we think is going on (always being careful not to take “what we think is going on” for “what is in fact going on”).

But instead of a correspondence between what is apparent to what is presumed real, what in this new understanding constitutes the criteria of objectivity becomes a matter of coherence — “Is our understanding of the concept “tree” appropriate to the context in which it is being used?” — and sense — “Does this understanding do what we want it to do?”

In other words, the questioning here shifts away from “It this true?” or “How closely does this finding represent reality?” to “How does it work?” and “How can it be used as a tool?” “What new problem or problematic does it make possible?”

This second, much more nuanced, if a little tricky, understanding of objectivity in science — unlike its common sense predecessor — makes more sense to us simply because it is better aligned with our actual experience.

But it could also go a long way in shedding light on the nature of what The Structure of Scientific Revolutions refers to as paradigm shifting science events, and replace the wild sociological and metaphysical speculations with solid philosophy of science.

science of objectivity

Plain Language Techniques

Plain language writing is about creating communications materials that are easy to use. But more importantly, it’s about managing information quality and providing context-specific solutions. Here are 9 steps that will help you to align the two:

  1. Identify your audience and know what they want to know.
  1. Organize information logically and exclude unnecessary details.
  1. Explain how the text is organized and how to use it.
  1. plain language techniques

    Plain Language Checklist

    Provide general information first, and add specific details as needed.

  1. Use descriptive headings, connect related concepts, describe processes in chronological order, use parallel structure lists.
  1. Use simple, everyday language, short sentences and paragraphs, avoid introducing too many ideas.
  1. Use active voice, action verbs, present tense, and pronouns (you, we, and so forth) to engage the reader.
  1. Define technical terms, minimize the use of acronyms, abbreviations and symbols, and use them consistently when they’re essential.
  1. Verify the accuracy of references and cross-references.

plain language techniques