Saturday, July 18, 2009

On Science cliches

Betsy Mason just published an article in Wired Science entitled "5 Atrocious Science Cliches to Throw Down a Black Hole" (thanks to @boraZ for the tweet).
In a nutshell, she argues that there are some "annoying and ubiquitous clichés" generally used in science writing that should be eliminated for good (the terms under fire are "Holy Grail", "Silver Bullet", "Shedding Light", "Missing Link", and "Paradigm Shift").

A few minutes later, a blog response at Mad Scientist Jr. called for the importance of these phrases in communicating science to the general public [In Defense of Cliches].

He says:
"(...)We need cliches. We depend upon cliches, and cliches are quite useful in the proper context. While it may be true that the above terms do get thrown about quite a bit, they're still quite useful. Science journalism is already a convoluted field that must continually walk the line between being too esoteric for its mainstream, non-scientist audience and maintaining proper accuracy to satisfy its scientific constituents, which keeps information flowing. Banning the use of any widely understood vehicles for explanation just raises the barrier to effective communication between science and the public. And when we, as a scientific community, have already made it clear that we're not usually pleased by the transmission of our findings to the public through the prism of science journalism, do we really need to throw in even more barriers? (...)"
I posted a comment at his blog post, which I share with you. Please note the text in blue was added for clarity and did not appear in the original blog response:

"(...) Even though I didn't initially think about this in terms of how we communicate science to the general public [I was thinking on their use in scientific papers, see below], the case you are making, makes complete sense and some of these so-called "cliches" may be, in this context, useful.

On the other hand, in technical writing [scientific papers, subjected to peer-review, published in scientific journals], some of those concepts may rightfully be discarded, but others (for example 'shedding light'), are, in no way misleading, ambiguous or confusing, and in my opinion, pose no problem to the way we write about science. In fact, in some cases are even welcomed, as they bring life to some very dull manuscripts. As long as they don't lead to any conflict or misunderstanding of the scientific ideas being discussed (and an example of such a conflicting term is indeed "missing link" -ugh-), I have no problem with them".

What do you think?

Note: for concepts that have been used loosely in primary research literature see [What is Epigenetics? An operational definition] and references therein.

ScienceBlips: vote it up!



Kamel said...

I tend to disagree regarding their usefulness for 2 reasons:

1) they're overused, which means the public may have a tendency to turn off when they hear them (eg. *yawn* not ANOTHER paradigm shift/silver bullet/etc.)

2) they lead to lazy thinking - their use becomes automatic and scientists/communicators don't have to think about what they're saying or how they're saying it.

I may expand more on this at my own place when I have the time.

Alejandro Montenegro-Montero said...

I agree with you regarding most of the concepts being under fire.
Indeed, some are overused and lead to lazy thinking.

However, (as I stated) I fail to see how 'shedding light' can ever be compared to those other terms under this criteria, and IMHO, should not be on the list.
Surely you agree that using "paradigm shift", "silver bullet" or the cringe-inducing "missing link" are by far worse not only in terms of their scientific inaccuracy but also because they are simply confusing and unjustifiably misleading.

I guess the point I was trying to make on my comment at Mad Scientist Jr's Blog was one defending "shedding light", but rightfully criticizing the other ones, just as you are doing :-)

Kamel said...

That's true - I don't really have a problem with 'shedding light' per se and probably wouldn't put it on my "5 worst clichés list" (personally, I would probably make a less strong, but more generic complaint against "cookie-cutter" phrases).

I can imagine a scenario where every manuscript is "shedding light" on something to the point where it becomes tired and clichéd, but I don't think we're there yet. Of course that doesn't need to happen with all the alternatives - illuminate, illustrate, enlighten, clarify - which sort of dampens MadSciJr's argument of necessity through usefulness.

Kamel said...

Thinking a bit more about it - what about non-native speakers using even the more tired clichés simplifying delivery (rather than making the message easier to receive)? That seems to be a reasonable use for them.

Alejandro Montenegro-Montero said...

As an editor-in-training myself, I was taught not to correct "word choice" in the manuscripts I review as they reflect the author's personal "touch". Nevertheless, I generally recommend for "cliches" to be removed when they lead to conflict or misunderstanding of the scientific ideas being discussed or when they are just not justifiable.
Both in native or non-native speakers, the use of some of these cliches is just plain wrong.

Now, I agree that their use, in the case of non-natives, may indeed help them in the communication of their ideas, however, I call them out when they seem wrong/overused to me and explain them my rationale.

I'm a non-native speaker myself and I can relate to the difficulty faced in technical writing, but there are some great (and helpful) editors out there that take the time to educate the authors :-)