Science Education Under Attack—The Language Barrier

In my first article in this series, I wrote about how certain groups were attacking evolution and the “big bang” as “only” theories and how the word theory means something different to scientists than to everyone else. But this isn’t the only case where words have different meanings within and outside of science. This time the fault lies within the scientific community, rather than with those who oppose teaching legitimate science to children for allowing the confusion to continue, or for making it worse.

There are two related problems here: technical jargon and unique meanings for common words.

Technical Jargon

Confusion Jargon is a problem in every line of work. In every instance, the jargon term was selected or came into use either because it was the most accurate way to describe something, or because it was handed down through the generations from a time when its original meaning was well understood.

A common example of the first case comes from medicine. One doesn’t have a “heart attack,” one has a myocardial infarction. Myo- refers to muscle and cardial refers to the heart. defines an infarct as “a localized area of tissue, as in the heart or kidney, that is dying or dead, having been deprived of its blood supply because of an obstruction by embolism or thrombosis,” so an infarction is the death or killing of that tissue. But what the heck is a thrombosis—some kind of weird musical instrument? No, it’s a blood clot… sorry, an “intravascular coagulation of the blood.” The deeper we dig, the more jargon we uncover.

Medicine is by no means alone in this. Botany has its phyla and genera and species. Genetics has it genomes and proteomes and regulomes. Physics its quarks and WIMPs. And on and on.

One Word, Many Meanings

Those terms are bad enough, but what about when a common word has a special meaning that doesn’t connect with any in common usage? In construction, a cricket is a kind of sloped structure on an otherwise flat roof that guides water toward some way off of the roof. In literary analysis, formal has nothing to do will ball gowns or tuxedos, but with the form of a piece of writing: poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction.

This is where “theory” runs into trouble. Similarly for mole, solution, and basic in chemistry, respectively a unit of measure, a mixture of two or more substances where none are chemically changed, and the opposite of acidic. The opportunities for confusion are endless.

Say What?

George Bernard Shaw (not Sir Winston Churchill) famously described England and America as “two countries separated by the same language.” That’s what’s happening here. All of these words are used to express something very specific within their context, but to the lay person who doesn’t understand the context, they confuse rather than clarify. This is where scientists too often fail. They forget, when speaking to the general public, that they’re speaking in what amounts to a foreign tongue. The terms they use are so natural—to them—and their meanings are so clear—to them—that they forget that their audience doesn’t share their knowledge and understanding. (This is not, of course, a problem just for scientists. A civilian talking to a military person will soon be lost in the forest of acronyms and special terms that are unique not just to the military or even that branch of service, but to the speaker’s specialty.)

But once that barrier is unwittingly erected, hostility and rejection are not far behind. So when scientists, or science educators, lapse into jargon with a member of the general public, they shouldn’t be surprised by the glazed-over eyes and the refusal to support whatever the scientist or educator is proposing, like, say, evolution or teaching evolution.

Oh, I Get It!

The solution to this problem is easy enough to describe, but harder to do: speakers need to be aware of their own jargon, of who they’re speaking to, and of the fact that they may not share the same set of definitions, then make an effort to use the terms both share. While this won’t solve all of the conflicts between those who support teaching science to children, it will help, at least a little.


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