Tamsin Constable

Calling all climate change scientists: help us understand by using plain language.

Researchers in the States have identified poor communication as one of the reasons why there is such widespread public confusion about climate change. Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol of the Climate Communication not-for-profit project in Colorado set out to try and understand why the public and policy-makers fail to take the threat of climate change seriously.

They found several factors, including economic instability, ‘disinformation campaigns’ (motivated by a variety of interests), scientific illiteracy and the way the media presents issues.

But key to the problem is the way that scientists communicate.

‘Scientists typically fail to craft simple, clear messages and repeat them often,’ say the authors. ‘They commonly overdo the level of detail, and people can have difficulty sorting out what is important. In short, the more [scientists] say, the less [people] hear. And scientists tend to speak in code. We encourage them to speak in plain language and choose their words with care. Many words that seem perfectly normal to scientists are incomprehensible jargon to the wider world.’

Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public

Scientific term

Public meaning

Better choice

enhance improve intensify, increase
aerosol spray can tiny atmospheric particle
positive trend good trend upward trend
positive feedback good response, praise vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
theory hunch, speculation scientific understanding
uncertainty ignorance range
error mistake, wrong, incorrect difference from exact true number
bias distortion, political motive offset from an observation
sign indication, astrological sign plus or minus sign
values ethics, monetary value numbers, quantity
manipulation illicit tampering scientific data processing
scheme devious plot systematic plan
anomaly abnormal occurrence change from long-term average

Read the full report on Physics Today.

When a Fox is a weasel

Here is a cracking example of how people use the passive to avoid taking responsibility. It comes courtesy of Liam Fox, theUK’s ex-defence secretary, who resigned last week as a result of allegations of conflicts of interest between his public and private life. In a statement he said:

‘I accept that it was a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and my personal loyalties to a friend.’

Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland was incensed:

‘Fox did not say: “I blurred the distinction.” Instead, by using the passive, he picked up his offence with a pair of sterilised tongs, sealed it in a plastic bag and placed it as far away from himself as he could. That use of the passive turned his sin from one of commission to omission. “You know what distinctions are like,” he was saying. “They’re always itching to be blurred. My error was not to stop them.” I had a flatmate back in my student days who, rather than admit he’d not done the washing-up, would say: “Dishes have been left.” The passive is grammar’s way of telling you somebody is hiding something. [my emphasis]

As if that weren’t enough, see whether you can get your head round another of Fox’s statements. Asked whether his friend profited from the relationship, Fox said: “When it comes to the pecuniary interests of Mr Werritty in those conferences, I am absolutely confident that he was not dependent on any transactional behaviour to maintain his income.”

Weasel alert!

International Plain Language Day

Hurray for International Plain Language Day on 13 October (follow #iplday on Twitter).

I can’t get to Ottawa in time to pig-out at the plain English celebratory luncheon, or to Stockholm to rub shoulders with the Swedish language consultants. I’d love to see how the government writers respond to their plain English workshop in Washington, and I wish I could join the town hall petition in Alberta, Canada to Calgary to have the city declare International Plain Language Day by 2012. I hope the free webinar goes well , that the competition to find the best examples of jargon being organised by plain English experts in South Africa attracts lots of entrants, and I wish I could go to the presentation for editors in New Zealand, as that looks really useful.

But all that’s a bit too far from soggy Yorkshire, and anyway I’d have to be home in time to pick the kids up from school.

So what can I do? I’ve decided. I will close my eyes, begin to hum, breathe deeply and take my editing brain down to the cool, calm Zone of Clarity.

Having taken leave of my senses, I will then offer a two-hour JARGON AMNESTY. I spend two hours  ‘plain Englishing’ (now a verb) any material I receive (within reason) from an organisation or business by Thursday 13 October, for free, until the two hours is up and I emerge gracefully from the Z of C.

So go on, sling it over.

Good luck to everyone else celebrating International Plain Language Day in whatever form. Let’s hope the effect lasts more than a day…

Information simplification: ad agency USP

Plain language as a basic branding concept – now that, I like. It’s the line that a firm in the States takes, focusing on information simplification above everything else. The visuals, the concepts, the design, the messages… all that stuff you usually get with branding and advertising agencies… all flow from the starting point of clear communication.

They’ve done a little promo video, which I’m more than happy to share. (It’s only 1mn long.)