Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Communication Challenges Between the Scientific Community and Others


When I consulted my old professor who left academia for an industry job and eventually ended up in Silicon Valley at various startups, he warned me that the stock option awards, if not thought through carefully, could backfire on the morale and performance if given regularly, that it was actually better when it was “given out periodically.” With any other business person, I would have just assumed he meant “not annually” or “once in a while”, based on the flow of the conversation. But I had to stop and verify what I thought I understood, because he was my old physics professor, where the word “periodic” meant something specific, and in this case, completely opposite of what he meant : with a specific and predictable frequency of occurrence. “You said, ‘periodically’ in a general non-physics sense, like ‘from time to time'”, I verified with him. In that moment, we both realized how physics and academia were part of a different era and world for him, as he responded sheepishly, “Yes, from time to time”.

Even simple phrases like “I believe” and “I think” take on a different meaning within science. In general usage, the verb to believe is associated with having faith in something, which means that experimental results are not necessarily needed, or that it can/has to be experimentally provable. When scientists say “I believe that…” they are making a statement based on their experiences, the studies they reviewed, and logical analyses of the results that led them to conclude in a particular way.

I was thrilled to learned that the Danish language, with significantly fewer vocabulary than in English, makes the distinction between “I think” where there is possibly a right answer/provable if you are right or wrong, and “I think” as in “my opinion is…”. Unlike the English word “opine”, which does mean “my opinion is”, the Danish equivalent “synes” is just as commonly used as “tro”, the verb that expresses a theory which can be proven right or wrong. For example, you would use “synes” to express that you think the new teacher is kind, but you would use “tro” to say you think the new teacher is younger than the old teacher (because you can theoretically get an answer to either prove or disprove that statement). If you think you can manage those distinctions, I invite you to 2 more concepts of thinking in Danish: mene and tænke.

I don’t mean to suggest that communication problems between the scientific community and the rest of the world can be fixed with a mere clarification and consistent of vocabulary to at least not have the same word mean something opposite in common usage. Would it be better if scientists consistently said “We forecast the climate change to be x and y” rather than “we think…”? Yes. Will it have an affect on “climate change deniers”? Perhaps not, but it’s a good start.

Photo: Kona Village Resort, whose property was badly damaged and closed operations after a tsunami in 2011.


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This entry was posted on May 11, 2015 by in Culture, Denmark, language and tagged , , , , , .
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