The other day Plain Language Science staff put together a kind of (controversial) science communication manifesto revolving around the concept of incommensurability – the fact that, on the one hand, all science communication, and all scientific activity as such, always takes place in a one-of-a-kind context.
Indeed, in trying to understand the meta-context of science we are always forced to use non-universal categories. Categories either derived from our ever-changing actual experience, and so not able to encompass all possible experience (and only the latter would make them truly universal). Or categories that are imposed on experience (e.g. “Reason”), and so are abstract (i.e. not real).
This dilemma has been at the heart of what is known as the rationalism-empiricism dispute since the dawn of science and philosophy, and its lessons will be of interest to all science communicators.
1. Scientific theories are incommensurable.
Scientific explanations do not and cannot be made to share a single framework of explanation without compromising their key context-assumptions. Depending on the context, you are either a quantum wave, a chemical-electrical process or a mammal, and to see the body (i.e. to interpret data) in terms of one discipline necessarily excludes the others.
That is, since there is no such thing as “the body” or “a tree” in the conceptual universe of quantum mechanics, that field is not commensurable with, say, biology, a field for which the two above categories make perfect sense. The two fields, considered as specialized modes of thought, simply have no way of recognizing each others’ “objects” of study, nor derived from them methods.
So while scientific theories can be used to solve all kinds of practical problems, it is a priori impossible to form a unified conceptual field called “science”, and so no “scientific method in general” can ever be articulated (despite what Dawkins, Sagan and Hitchens may have told you).
2. A concept, or an idea, is not the thing it is pointing at.
“Tree” is a name we use to refer to a particular life form. But the name is just a shadow, it is not the thing itself: the word “tree” is not real in the same sense as the form “tree” is real. All ideas are made up symbolic abstractions with no actual referents in the real world (because no “tree in general” ever existed). Keep this in mind when writing about that new scientific idea with a fancy pants name, or about the Theory of Evolution.
3. Abstractions do not explain anything, they themselves have to be explained.
Scientific names, all names, do not name objects but processes or functions. Look at a tree, or anything else, through a microscope, and you will quickly realize that you are not seeing is not a “tree”, but processes — of cell division, photosynthesis, and so on. When from the vantage point of the human eye these processes look like our mental image of what we pre-decided a tree should look like, we call what we see a tree. This is what we must understand about all abstraction: We call it a tree, but we don’t actually see a “tree”, or know what the thing we’re looking at really is.
4. Do not multiply concepts beyond what is necessary to solve, or show, a particular problem.
The power of science and of communication is strictly limited to what it can do in real life, not what it thinks it can represent. And because nothing can really be represented in terms of something else (every life form is absolutely singular and unique), science cannot be a repository of abstract knowledge, as it is often thought of. Instead, it is a set of tools. Tools we can either use or, for all intents and purposes, they’re not relevant to us.
5. Focus on what is being explained, not on the explanation.
The ability to articulate problems with some finesse is what characterizes the scientific mind. It is what makes science so useful and wondrous. And it is key to science communication as well. So focus on the world of actual experience and ask of it: How does it work? What does it do? What problem is this thing or idea a solution to? And de-emphasize the focus on interpretation and content, or “What does it mean?”
6. Do not confuse simple language with dumbing down ideas.
Your audience, even if it does not understand your particular brand of science speak, is an animal who successfully survived hundreds of thousands of years in the great outdoors. Most of it with few tools. Assume that they are very smart — and then communicate simply from there.
7. Understand that science has nothing to do with truth.
It is about what functions as an empirical fact and what works as an explanation at any given time. The “facts” of science of today are not the facts of science fifty years ago, nor are the criteria by which facts are accepted as facts the same. If our science and our science communication were attuned to this, they would not slip, as they so often do, into metaphysics, the realm of universals or things unconditionally true, traditionally the domain of philosophy.
This includes the venerated scientific method: in so far as the scientific method is seen as having to do with what is universally true, it has ventured further afield than can possibly be justified by facts. It has become a kind of ideology or religion.
– PlainLanguageScience team
- Rethinking science communication in plain English
- Science Writing: Between Correlation and Causation
- Science Writing: Content Development
- Plain language SERVICES | PRODUCTS