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Are the Language of the Media and the Language of Science Fundamentally Incompatible?

Saskia Kaltenbrunner[1], Cross-Faculty Studies, University of Warwick

Abstract

An examination of the science stories that make the news and that are discussed in the media reveals that the amount of attention they receive is significantly less than would be proportional to scientific advances. Academic literature from the field of linguistics and from the sciences is analysed to establish that, on the one hand, it is inherent to the language of science to not be easily adaptable to the language of the media and, on the other hand, it is the discourse around science that has created this idea. Furthermore, it is discussed whether this dichotomy has to be seen as a problem.

Keywords: Science news, media, use of language, scientific illiteracy, target audience

Full Article

If the science news that made the headlines in the past few years is examined, it may be seen that the list is short: health crises, like the outbreak of bird flu and Ebola; certain new technologies such as the Tesla-autopilot; and some science stories which are focused more from a political than from a scientific angle, for instance studies about climate change. In his book Bad Science, Ben Goldacre classifies the only three categories of science stories that get high exposure in the media as 'the wacky stories, the "breakthrough" stories, and the "scare" stories' (Goldacre, 2009: 225). But if we look further than the headlines of national newspapers, the representation that natural science gets in the media is not nearly proportional to the daily advancements and discoveries (and also failures), or to the attention received by politics or economics. The aim of this article is to establish whether this is because the language of the media and the language of science are fundamentally incompatible, or whether it is due to human failure in connecting science and the media.

In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to analyse both the language of science and the language of the media and to understand who creates each of them and for which purpose.

The language of the media varies greatly, yet there are some general points that can be made. Television, radio and newspapers in general, by definition, have the goal of informing, educating, entertaining and attracting an audience. However, in the process of creating news stories there are many different stakeholders, and their interests differ. To be successful, these media need to be persuasive and to achieve this, they need to appeal to the public and in particular to the group of readers at whom they are aimed. Depending on the target audience a story in the media can be written or spoken in a very colloquial register or it can be very formal; it can be shorter or longer, using more technical vocabulary or less, and so on. The aim of appealing to a group of people is achieved both through content and through vocabulary and style of writing. The need to attract readers has always been there, but it is now more important than ever, as the digital revolution means that different forms of media compete for survival. Traditional print media are disappearing; most of the major newspapers like The Times or The Guardian make part of their content available in a digital format. The ones that survive are those that either adapt to new times and find a digital format that works for them, or those that find a way to have stories that cannot be found anywhere else (Singer, 2011). Thus it becomes more important than ever for journalists to find out what the public is interested in and to provide them with it.

On the other hand, as to the language of science, there seems to be a long tradition of believing that there is no need for it to be understood by a large audience. The origin of this idea is that science is supposed to be objective and does not need the approval of the public in order to be true. However, the idea is also enhanced by the fact that the public is increasingly not expected to know about science. As C. P. Snow famously explains in his lecture and text about 'The Two Cultures', there is a widening gap between humanities and natural sciences and an implication of this seems to be that 'scientific illiteracy' increases and that it becomes generally accepted that the public is not interested in and not informed about science (Snow, 1961). While the general public is expected to know about literature and history, it seems to be acceptable to not know about physics, chemistry or biology. Snow gives as an example how it is fully accepted in society that a person might not be able to explain or enunciate the first principle of thermodynamics, which would be equivalent to knowing about the most famous authors and philosophers in humanities and literature.

The language of science is often considered 'too complicated' for an audience without a scientific education. In his book The Language of Science, M. A. K. Halliday identifies several reasons for which readers without a scientific education can feel excluded from scientific discourse. He lists 'interlocking definitions, technical taxonomies, special expressions, lexical density, syntactic ambiguity, grammatical metaphor, semantic discontinuity' (Halliday, 2004: 138). As a linguist, Halliday focuses heavily on the grammar and vocabulary used in the world of science, and this is essential to explaining, maybe not on a conceptual level, how natural sciences are different from social sciences or humanities but, on a linguistic level, what maybe makes science less present in the media. Science demands accuracy and this is often only possible through very specific vocabulary. What Halliday refers to as 'interlocking definitions' means that explaining some terms demands other scientific terminology. Scientific vocabulary is very different from everyday language and essentially what Halliday is saying is that to understand a scientific text, there is always background knowledge needed. He is, however, only presenting scientific language as it is; he is not saying that this is the only possibility. Just as there is a long tradition of not educating the public in scientific matters, there is also a long tradition of making 'scientific' synonymous with 'inaccessible'. This has created the myth that scientific texts need to be complicated, and if the public can understand a text, it is not scientific. Yet, making an effort to simplify the language of science in the mass media would make it possible for a greater number of people to understand the basics of the world of science. Scientific language is nothing definite, it is what society has turned science into, and it can always be changed. So why does this not happen? Because scientists do not need to rely on the public for approval of their work, and both journalists and the public have believed the myth that science is 'too complicated'. None of the involved groups has an obvious interest in making science accessible.

As in Snow´s argumentation, there is a tendency to identify immediately the lack of science news as a problem, and the incompatibility of the language of science and the language of the media as the cause of the problem. However a question that it is worth considering is: maybe it is reasonable that many science stories do not make the news? Maybe a short news story is not the right format for science stories: news stories are meant to be short, factual accounts of something that affects us in our day-to-day life. Many of the most important scientific discoveries happen in very specialised fields, which means that even if scientific illiteracy is reduced, a majority of the public would need a long explanation to understand the discovery. While the problem of scientific illiteracy is still existent, it would take a long explanation to transmit the most basic scientific concept to non-scientists, and new discoveries usually cannot be explained with only basic concepts. Additionally, they are often not applicable to day-to-day life. And furthermore, based on Karl Popper´s principle of falsifiability, science is, in its foundations, something which constantly proves itself wrong. Popper has been criticised for this assumption by many contemporary and subsequent philosophers, most famously by Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend; however, whether it is intentional or not, history proves that scientists constantly prove previous theories wrong and replace previous paradigms. One very obvious example is the theory of evolution and of the origin of life, which developed over the centuries until Charles Darwin's theory finally replaced Lamarck´s. This makes it risky to publish something as a fact, as only a short time later it could already be outdated. And when journalists – often scientifically illiterate themselves – publish facts which turn out to be wrong, and sometimes even exaggerate them in order to sell more copies, this can have a much bigger impact on the public than a misconducted experiment in a lab.

An example of this phenomenon is the scandal around the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination in Britain in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a study that received significant news coverage, scientist Andrew Wakefield claimed that there was a link between the MMR vaccination and autism. MMR coverage in Britain consequently dropped to its lowest point since the programme was introduced (Burgess et al., 2006). For years, stories about children with autism dominated the headlines, until eventually Wakefield´s claims were proven wrong. The public's perception of risk is shaped in great part by the media, which is why it is important that science stories are in the news, but also that they are supported by sufficient evidence. The way to prevent this from happening in the future is a better communication between scientists and journalists and a higher interest in science stories in general on behalf of the audience, so that there is no need to exaggerate a story in order to attract attention.

Therefore, in a way, it is true that the language of science is not the easiest to adapt to media directed at a large public. This does not necessarily mean that it is an impossible task, and assuming that it is impossible only makes none of the involved parties – scientists, the media and the audience – take responsibility for increasing general knowledge about science. Short news stories are not the only format that could give science stories exposure in the public. Documentaries, for instance, have exactly the right format to appeal to a wide public, while still educating and informing about science. And if an audience receives a basic scientific education through other forms of media, it is then also better prepared to understand new scientific discoveries or experiments.

The underrepresentation of science in the media is a fact, and it is both a cause and a consequence of scientific illiteracy. A possible explanation for the lack of science stories is the above statement, claiming that science stories simply cannot be adapted to the media because the language of science is simply not made for the media. This is supported by an analysis of the language of media and science. However, the analysis only shows how the language of science is right now, it does not mean that it is impossible to simplify it to make it accessible to a wider public.

Thus, a much more likely explanation seems to be a lack of interest in science stories either on the side of the readers or of the writers, maybe on both. In a study conducted in Vienna in 2013, Jan Karlseder, a molecular biologist at the Salk Institute in California, explained:

Many scientists find it difficult to explain their work in a way that laypersons will understand. Often they are lacking not only the ability, but also the will, which is a problem, considering that most funding for science comes from the public. Journalism can fill this gap. On the other hand, it is often difficult to communicate with journalists, because they don´t always have the aim of explaining science, but are looking for sensationalist stories, which makes many scientists careful when interacting with them. This problem can be solved through professional journalists.
(Bichler et al., 2013)

The word 'fundamentally' suggests that, by definition, there is no way of adapting the language of science to the language of the media, as if they were polar opposites. However, as a look at media and scientific language shows, this is more than questionable. Long scientific investigations might not have the format for short news stories, but this does not justify how they are not present in other channels of communication.

The problem is not that the language of science is fundamentally incompatible with the language of the media; the problem is finding someone who has an interest in adapting it.


Notes

[1] Saskia Kaltenbrunner is in the second year of her BA in Liberal Arts specialising on Social Justice at the University of Warwick.

References

Bichler, K. and A. Kaltenbrunner (2013), Magnetnadeln im Heuhaufen Zur Arbeits-, Bildungs- und Ausbildungssituation von Bildungs- und WissenschaftsjournalistInnen in Österreich, Vienna: Klub der Bildungs- und Wissenschaftsjournalisten

Burgess, David C., M. A. Burgess and J. Leask (2006), 'The MMR vaccination and autism controversy in United Kingdom 1998–2005: Inevitable community outrage or a failure of risk communication?' Vaccine, 24 (18), 3921–28, available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264410X06002076, accessed 21 December 2016

Goldacre, B. (2009), Bad Science, London: Fourth Estate

Halliday, M.A.K., J. J. Webster and M. A. K. Halliday, 'Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday: The Language of Science, Volume 5', available at Ebrary, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/warwick/reader.action?docID=10224907, accessed 3 January 2017 Singer, J., D. Domingo, A. Heinonen, A. Hermida, S. Paulussen, T. Quandt, Z. Reich and M. Vujnovic (2011), Participatory Journalism, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

Snow, C. P. (1961), The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, New York: Cambridge University Press, New York, available at http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/students/envs_5110/snow_1959.pdf, accessed 3 January 2017

 

To cite this paper please use the following details: Kaltenbrunner, S. (2017), 'Are the Language of the Media and the Language of Science Fundamentally Incompatible?', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 10 Issue 2: Featuring the Eramus+ BLASTER Project, https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/iatl/reinvention/archive/volume10issue2/blaster/kaltenbrunner. Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.