Does Science Really Require a Specialized Language?

In a great article called “Professors, we need you!“, published in the New York Times Sunday Review , Nicholas Kristof accurately points out the “unintelligibility” of research prose and the contempt researchers have for mass communication, sometimes even science popularization. As M. Kristof states:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process.”

Indeed, losing time communicating conclusions and reflections outside of the scientific community is not in the mandate of a Ph. D student. Researchers must become more and more specialized, using a language that follows the same path, to prove their success at becoming “real scientists”. It feels like trying to bond with the outside world is, in itself, an insult to the very neutral position researchers must keep to preserve their self-proclaimed objectivity.

Of course, as Nicholas Kristof says, this disdain for communicating with the regular (outside) world varies according to the science, school and department. A lot of students and professors are also involved in volunteer activities outside of the research world, aiming to promote and talk about  their field of study in “regular language” for “regular people”.  But they have to do it outside of their official research assignment, as educating the masses does not bring subventions.

That brings us to a situation where the greatest minds of society, who study it, don’t want to share what they know about society, with society – arguing that popularizing and spreading science is already being “non-scientific”. Some of this actually makes sense. Let’s dig deeper.

Understanding the necessity of specialized words to refer to non-disputable things is easy. A spleen is a spleen, sulfur dioxide is sulfur dioxide, and there is no better name for limestone than… limestone. No one would blame a biologist, a chemist or a geologist for using the correct name of something. Those words are part of typologies, lists of precise things that are not up for debate.

The tricky part comes when talking about human sciences, and especially concepts. Concepts are “abstract ideas”, “formed in the mind”, “mental images” formulated by one or more authors. As they are often at the research stage, there is no consensus on their specific meaning, which may vary according to the author (think about simple ones like governance, development, sustainability – we hear them every day on the news as there is no scientific consensus about them). So each researcher willing to use such concepts would have to read everything everybody ever said about it, and then propose his or her own definition and justify it to stay in the path of scientific research.

Fair enough, as the goal of one research is also to criticize and  improve concept definitions. It is, however, impossible to reduce hundreds of theses from various authors to a few simple words that we can impose upon  others as the definition, without being inaccurate or incomplete.

That leads us to the core question: how far must we be “accurate” and “exhaustive” to understand and explain human phenomena? Academics will say “as far as it is possible to go according to available sources”, as their goal is to prevent shortcuts and stereotypes related to those concepts. Technically, that means “everything everyone has ever written and collected about this concept in various contexts”.

Considering the insane amount of data there is (have fun reading everything about “governance”, “public space” or “social class”), we understand better why (1) researchers don’t have time for press conferences (that is also why research is written, corrected and written again dozens of times – and then spoken, not the other way around), (2) why it takes a background in the field to even understand the problem and (3) why it is impossible to give short answers without being “non-scientific” – and so lose academic credibility.

On the other hand, not all academics play fair when it comes to being transparent and understandable. Most of them will use ridiculous formulations, overrated terms and unnecessary quotes just to sound more credible as a very specialized person. As usual, great minds are the ones making complex things clear and accessible, while others make simple things look incomprehensible. The first kind is doing a real communicative job, sharing and “translating” the knowledge, while the second kind works to hide a lack of knowledge. 

Then yes, science sometimes requires very specialized language to remain scientific, because each word has a very specific meaning only other scientists in the field will be aware of (as well as of the debate around it). In that case, using a too generic term to communicate to a wider audience is dangerous, as most people will miss the depth and complexity of the issue.

However, it is impossible to pretend that one topic is so complex that it can’t be explained with simple words. It is the academic’s job to resolve complexity, so to be able to present accurately what is known, what is being studied and what is still uncertain, along with the hypothesis.

As Nicholas Kristoff said, “Professors, We Need You!”, so please don’t take the easy option of hiding behind the so-called scientific objectivity that prevents you from making simple statements about anything.