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.

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