Friday, 21 February 2014

You what?

 I've mentioned in an earlier post that I find reading scientific writing tedious. Recently I've made life easier by giving up on reading the whole article and instead skimming it while looking for a particular morsel of information, but there are some papers that I have to read more thoroughly. These have been collecting in my "literature" folder like dregs of food trapped in the plughole after doing the washing up. I have to read them. They are reviews of methods that I'm using, or examples of studies very similar to mine. In the last few days, while taking time out from planning my field trip, I've been trying to slash my way through them.

Scientific jargon is a necessary evil, but even if you know what the words mean, there is so much jargon that it keeps tripping you up. For example, if I tell you the following (simplified) definitions:
  • Tree: a hypothesis of the evolutionary relationships of a group of animals
  • Clade: a group of organisms believed to comprise all the evolutionary descendants of a common ancestor
  • Paraphyletic: descended from a common evolutionary ancestor or ancestral group, but not including all the descendant groups
  • Haplotype: a particular short sequence of DNA that can differ between animals
Are you now able to read this sentence and immediately understand it, or do you have to work out its meaning carefully by going over it several times?
This tree is a strict consensus of 100 equally optimal trees (score = 11,152,168 rearrangements examined) recovered from the analysis and show that all five major clades are recovered but that clade 2 remains paraphyletic with respect to a single haplotype.
I am familiar with the meanings of the jargon words. But every scientific paper I read is full of sentences like the above, that stall the reader. Here's another little nugget, which does not use impenetrable jargon but is still thick and stodgy:
Haplotypes within some populations fail to unite at the 95% confidence level using TCS;  consequently, this methodology clearly over splits the group into an unreasonable number of species-level lineages (∼60). If a criterion of geographical concordance is employed,more than 20 species would be recognized within the A. atomarius complex.
What does TCS mean? Better go back through the paper and check. Over-use of non-commonplace acronyms is friggin tedious (By the way, it stands for Templeton, Crandall and Sing. (1992). Clarified?).

More experienced scientists might think there is no problem at all, that they can understand these sentences easily. But such thick language makes much of science impenetrable to less experienced readers (not to mention the fact that most scientific papers are hidden behind a paywall). They have to rely on interpretations in the media. Chinese whispers result in misunderstandings that can fuel pseudoscience, creationism, anti-vaccination and anti-medical societies. Scientists ask pseudoscientists for evidence to back up their claims. By evidence we mean papers. But how can we expect non-scientists to critically read and understand scientific papers when they are so tedious? I am interested in evolutionary biology and have a basic understanding of the jargon and methods used, and I find reading papers tedious.

What's the solution? I have a few ideas, but solving the problem will take much more consideration and evaluation of how we communicate science. Firstly, scientists should be trained how to write. Secondly, words such as "utilise" should be banned (if you mean use, say use. Why use a word that is longer and more complicated than necessary?). Thirdly, how about adding an easily interpreted abstract onto each scientific publication? Not the eye-watering stock cube of an abstract that usually adorns each paper, but one explaining in layman's terms what the scientists did, what they found, and the context of their research. That way their findings are less easily misinterpreted.

We can't blame the public for misunderstanding science. The blame falls on us for miscommunicating it. Science affects everyone, and scientists rely on the government (and therefore the public) for legislation and funding to enable research. There is every incentive for us to break down this communication barrier between scientists and everyone else.

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