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Matters of wording in reporting science

Call me a nerd, but I jumped at the opportunity in college to take a linguistics seminar titled Split Infinitives, Prepositions at End, and Other Horrors. Having attended elementary school on a farm, I felt my early education had been rich with wholesome life experiences and critical thinking skills but lacking in some basics: namely, lessons on sentence structure. To my surprise, though, the key message to take away from the course wasn't that it was despicable to use the passive voice, as I have here, or that making citizen's arrests over misused words would save language from total degeneration. Instead, the instructor, Arnold Zwicky, PhD, argued that language should evolve as people do, and that people develop language systems precisely so that we may be clearly and easily understood.

But paraphrasing or simplifying complex scientific language could have more severe consequences than might beginning a sentence with a preposition or accepting the previously nonstandard use of hopefully. In a recent Nature World View column, Trevor Quirk examines the implications of substituting simple words for technical terms when writing about science:

Scientific literature abounds with distinctions that can seem pedantic. Consider the ‘intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cell’ — or ‘ipRGC’. The term refers to a specific type of neuron located in the eye, and although the phrase is no fun to parse, every word in it is important. A ‘ganglion’, loosely defined, is a mass of tissue, often found in the eye, so ‘cell’ refers to a specific part of that tissue. Not all ganglia are found in the retina, thus ‘retinal’ is justified. And not all retinal ganglia are ‘intrinsically photosensitive’, so that stays, too. This is perhaps the hardest truth for the more idealistic science writers to swallow. It would take paragraphs of explanation to make all of the other scientific distinctions contained in the term ‘ipRGC’. Many science writers would hack away at the term (they call this process ‘distilling’), finally calling it, perhaps, a ‘special kind of ganglion’ or a ‘neuron located in the eye’. Such wording is easier to understand but it does not present the whole truth. I am not arguing that science writers should always use jargon, but I do want to point out what can be lost when they do not.

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The world increases in complexity every day, and we should not let shrink our capacity to describe it.

Previously: Inaccuracies in science journalism are obnoxious at best, potentially dangerous at worst
Photo by pmccormi

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