Reading List EN Uncategorized

RL #033: The Language(s) of Science

In this Oikoplus Reading List we present good reads from the web touching on the question of language in science. Language, understood quite explicitly and rather abstractly.

The favour of the mother tongue

At Oikoplus, the working language in all our projects is English. When we meet contacts in our work with whom we can speak in our native languages (German, Italian, Polish, Romanian), we are always happy. Because honestly, working permanently in foreign languages can be exhausting sometimes. For people working in science and research, it is therefore a great starting advantage if their mother tongue is English. So far, so banal. It is less banal, however, to quantify how great the price is paid by all those whose mother tongue is not English, of all languages. A study by Tatsuya Amano et al. aims to do just that:

„By surveying 908 researchers in environmental sciences, this study estimates and compares the amount of effort required to conduct scientific activities in English between researchers from different countries and, thus, different linguistic and economic backgrounds. Our survey demonstrates that non-native English speakers, especially early in their careers, spend more effort than native English speakers in conducting scientific activities, from reading and writing papers and preparing presentations in English, to disseminating research in multiple languages. Language barriers can also cause them not to attend, or give oral presentations at, international conferences conducted in English.”

A mathematical narrative

English is a standard language of science. Mathematics is one too. As an important tool, mathematical principles and concepts help in understanding the world. Patrick Honner gives a very clear example of this in the highly recommended Quanta Magazine. In it, he describes how networks can be described mathematically. And that in the form of a quest to puzzle over.

Photo by <a href="">Thomas T</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

When narratives disappear

Mathematics describes the world in a strictly formal way. That is its essence and its task. The world can be described less formally in narratives and legends. Just as mathematics looks back on thousands of years of history, which, interestingly enough, is better told as a narrative, there are countless legends and narratives that are ancient and whose future is threatened. And this is because the languages in which they are told are at stake of extinction. Alexandra Aikhenvald explores how the loss of linguistic diversity is threatened by the extinction of indigenous languages worldwide, and why the loss of stories, legends and myths that comes with it is a problem. 

Accurately describe or narrate?

Accurate, scientific descriptions of the world often appear as the antithesis of narrative descriptions. The tendency towards storytelling in communication – also in science communication – is therefore often criticised. Thinking of the world in terms of narratives is described as a trend of recent years. The term narrative itself, belongs in every buzzword bingo of professional communication work. Whether rightly or wrongly – that is not to be clarified here. The literary scholar Florian Scherbül gives a readable overview of the debate about the pros and cons of the narrative form in describing the world in a contribution to the online portal (in German language, only). 

We hope we have found the right language in this Reading List, and that in our forays through the internet over the last few weeks we have once again uncovered a few articles that not only pique our interest.

Reading List EN

RL #026: Communicating Controversial Research

On difficult topics, moral questions, research ethics and conflicts of interest in science communication.

In science, there are subject areas that are teeming with communication pitfalls. Topics that are controversial in society, research that uses controversial methods and technologies with uncertain consequences. They require sensitivity and caution when it comes to communicating their results in an understandable and accessible way to a large and public audience. Ethical questions are often the subject of intense debate, because widespread social values and morals are challenged. Examples of such research topics are genetic engineering, animal experiments in the life sciences or aspects of gender studies in humanities.

Many scientists working in such fields know this. They communicate cautiously and do not seek the great publicity to present their work and have it discussed publicly. Because where there is public discussion, there is a threat not only of objective and professional criticism, but also of shitstorms. Researchers who encounter criticism from outside their professional bubble usually feel misunderstood. And they are often not so wrong. Current studies show: People who have strong opinions on controversial research topics often rate their knowledge of these topics higher than it actually is.

Photo by Zuzana Ruttkayova:

Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

A researcher involved in one of the projects in which Oikoplus is a partner responsible for science communication and dissemination expressed this in an email just recently: „Our research requires that we are very careful with the information that is out there. I would like to avoid a situation of messaging getting misunderstood or misexplained. I could think of a gazillion ways this could go wrong in a spur of the moment.” Well – it’s hard to completely rule out the possibility of communication being misunderstood.

At the very least, however, there is a very simple rule that can be followed if, because of the sensitivity of a topic, you attach great importance to remaining factually correct and offering as little room for interpretation as possible: Avoid humour, especially in social media. Good humour is the most difficult discipline of entertainment, and most punchlines do not come without collateral damage, without people feeling hit and hurt. Therefore, science communication usually has to be serious, polite and correct. Or else, one deliberately chooses the humorous path, even if it may be risky. Kelleigh Greene has written about humour in science communication for the Scientia blog. She argues that humour and science communication indeed do go together.

No fear of the target audience

Caution is required when communicating sensitive issues. However, one should not completely subject one’s communication to caution and avoid discourse. Science can withstand criticism. However, this does not mean that each individual scientist must be able to withstand criticism. What we always tell our partners in science: Don’t panic! The loudest critics in the discourse are rarely representative of the public as a whole. And sometimes particularly loud criticism belies quiet agreement. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 technology as a case, communication researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands investigated the different perspectives within the Dutch public on this relatively new genetic engineering method. The communication researchers used the Q method, in which statements from study participants (here n=30) are ranked according to the degree of agreement. It turned out that the participants were generally open and optimistic about the CRISPR/Cas9 technology.

Photo by Edward Jenner:

Becoming aware of one’s own role

This may make many scientists researching gene editing optimistic. In any case, it helps researchers to think about the target groups of their science communication. To do this, it’s a good idea to work together with communications experts. A study conducted by the Julius Kühn Institute in Quedlinburg, Germany, shows what such cooperation can look like. The geneticists researching there joined forces with communication scientists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The aim was to develop concrete recommendations for communication on the topic of genetic modification. Part of the result: Trust in science is high, and scientists are trusted to take safety, transparency and sustainability seriously. Therefore, scientists working on topics that are contentious should not hide. They are the ones who can contribute expertise. That’s what they are there for, you could say.

Does expertise automatically lead to a conflict of interest?

But not everyone sees it that way. In some debates, the expertise of researchers is interpreted as a conflict of interest: If, for example, female geneticists are in favour of relaxing the regulation of the use of genetic engineering, it is quickly said: how could female geneticists, of all people, be against this? An article by philosopher Alexander Christian in Frontiers deals with such possible conflicts of interest, using the CRISPR/Cas9 debate as an example.

Cutting through discursive pitfalls is not easy. Sometimes it is simply impossible. But transparency and openness, can hardly hurt to enable the broadest and most open discussion about research and its results. At Oikoplus, we support researchers in explaining their work and making it accessible. We always advise them not to hide in the process.