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Topic: The Message
The Message
If scientists insist on surrounding themselves with intimidating walls of jargon, it’s not surprising that nobody wants to come and play. Do you recall a party game called Chinese Whispers? A message is whispered from one person to another, until the last person in the chain reveals the message, hilariously alter
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Faraday lecturing at the Royal Institution, 27 December 1855.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
ed beyond all recognition. Most scientists tend to view the way the media reports science as distortion on a similar scale. Imagine:

Researcher: ‘Changes in acceleration when superconductors are levitated in a DC magnetic field have been detected.’

Press officer: ‘Researchers investigate antigravity properties of superconductors.’

Broadsheet science page: ‘Breakthrough as scientists beat gravity.’

Tabloid: ‘Beckhams are first in line for new antigravity car.’

Scientist vows never to speak a whisper to the media again.
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The Royal Institution’s lectures were entertaining and fashionable events.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

On the face of it, the media are to blame for ‘dumbing down’ cutting-edge science to make a more interesting story at the expense of accuracy. However, the use of jargon by the scientist has an isolating function. It necessitates ‘translation’ as it moves into the public arena, and distortion is almost inevitable.

Scientists are trained to sterilise their writing style, with any evidence of literary talent deliberately anaesthetised. It is as if writing in the passive voice will somehow enhance the objectivity of the data by diverting attention from the human hand behind the experiment. And when the sub
Scientists are trained to sterilise their writing style
ject ‘we’ is invoked in the scientific text, it certainly does not extend to the public.

Scientific discourse as a conscious style began with Francis Bacon (1561-1626). He called for plain, unadorned writing capable of conveying the truth as directly as possible. The idea was enthusiastically taken up by the Royal Society. Thomas Sprat, the first historian of the Royal Society, denounced literary flourish in 1667 while clearly unable to purge his own prose of it: ‘Who can behold, without Indignation, how many Mists and Uncertainties, these specious Tropes and Figures have brought on our Knowledge?’

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Humphry Davy considered the public to be the primary audience for his scientific achievements.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library 


While the Royal Society urged literary restraint, passion was allowed free rein in the lecture theatre of the Royal Institution. When Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) and Michael Faraday (1791-1867) lectured at the Institution they attracted crowds of such magnitude that Albermarle Street in London was designated the first one-way thoroughfare. It is that sense of excitement surrounding scientific discovery that is so conspicuous by its absence in scientific literature. The increasing fragmentation of science into specialised subdisciplines, especially in the last fifty or so years, means that scientists have retreated into small groups, isolated by their own jargon. The heart-thudding thrill that comes with obtaining a result worth shouting about is elbowed out of the official scientific canon. No wonder the media feel the need to reinject a sense a gee-whizz. But journalists shouldn’t have to resort to hype for a good science story. The turgid, lifeless style of scientific papers belies the creativity, camaraderie, rivalry, tragedy and triumph that make cutting-edge research so exciting.

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Topic: The Medium
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Scientists have long been sceptical about the value of popular science, which to them means dumbing down. However, modern technology has given us TV programmes such as Walking with Dinosaurs and through interactive television it also offers scientists a dialogue with the general public.  > more

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Topic: The Motive
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Why do scientists need to bother with the popularisation of science? Because modern science cannot ignore the general public. Science needs political support for research funds and liberal laws. It has to become more appealing or lose that support.  > more
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