Scientists are constantly being told to make research accessible, to look at the wider picture. There are whole sections on grant application forms (how you get money for research) addressing how the findings are going to find their way into the outside world. There are even degree courses on scientific communication, training people in the art of translating science to everyday English. But hang on - the majority of scientists have to speak English to publish their work. Ask a scientist in the pub what they did last weekend and you won’t get the answer ‘The last weekend resulted in the mobilisation of a petroleum-powered vehicle for transportation purposes 200 miles south to the city of London’. No, you’re more likely to hear ‘I drove to London’. Yet ask the same scientist to write about their research and they lapse back into the technical, jargon-filled language which they know well.
Science has a rhythm and language of its own, it’s a form of poetry, if you like that kind of thing. It is impersonal and passive rather than the active language we use in day-to-day life. A study was done....an experiment was carried out....the data were analysed. It is unbiased and factual. It may seem bland, boring and so hard to read, but actually there is a reason for it. By nature, science has to be accurate and replicable. Science is a colossal self-critiquing, self-regulating machine. We cannot draw conclusions on one study. Some seemingly brilliant research might actually be inaccurate. To find this out, we put our methods out there; we write every single painstakingly boring detail down on paper so someone else can come along and test the whole thing again. If they find they same thing? Hoorah! If they don’t, then who knows, they might be wrong too. So someone else tests it. This is how science progresses and how we are led to conclusions like ‘smoking causes lung cancer’. A quick search on the Web of Science (science’s equivalent of Google) shows over 8000 papers including those four words in their introduction. It has been tested so many times, it’s now treated as fact. This process takes a very long time and patience but is the most reliable way to the truth.
When one person’s finding is taken on its own, there is a potential for it to go horribly wrong. Take the MMR controversy sparked in 2001/2002. One of the largest health scares of recent times was based upon one study of only twelve children. Despite numerous other studies rejecting the link between the vaccination and autism, and many academics and doctors disputing the claims, MMR use plummeted and now nationwide cases of measles are at the highest levels for decades.
Nowadays, the press use qualified scientists to report on research, and scientists of the future are heavily trained in speaking about their work in everyday language. Thankfully, we have not had a misunderstanding on the same scale as the MMR debacle since and hopefully due to the lessons learnt, we won’t again. Despite the language barrier, we live in an age where science is completely accessible to anyone who wants to learn, where numerous ‘celebrity’ scientists dance across our TV screens teaching us quantum physics or brain surgery over dinner. Tools like Google and YouTube will provide information on anything you want to know, but when you’re learning about the latest pioneering science, don’t forget that little voice of reason. Scientists aren’t the only ones allowed to be critical.
1 Enck et al. 2013 Nat Rev Drug Discov 12(3):191-204. doi: 10.1038/nrd3923.
Dr Emily Mockford
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