August 1, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making science public: The issue of language (jargon)

This is a guest blog by Gregory Hollin, a PhD student at the Institute for Science and Society (School of Sociology and Social Policy)

Over recent days there has been a fascinating blog-based debate of great interest to the Making Science Public agenda. This debate focused on the nature of writing in the natural and social sciences. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll say this debate has taken place between the blogger Neuroskeptic, a neuroscientist, and Andrew Balmer, formerly of this parish and now a sociologist at the University of Manchester. Again for the sake of simplicity, we’ll say the debate has concerned Medical Sociology and Neuroscience. In reality, the discussion extends far beyond these two exceptional bloggers, and beyond the immediate academic disciplines to all of the (social) sciences. I don’t for a moment hope to resolve the debate but do think it can be used to consider the nature of knowledge and the social/natural science dichotomy.

Are Sociologists Cuttlefish?

He that uses many words for explaining any subject, doth, like the cuttlefish, hide himself for the most part in his own ink. John Ray (1627-1705)

The above quote essentially sums up the position of Neuroskeptic as far as medical sociology is concerned (a view expressed initially here:  As the objects analysed by medical sociology are known and used by us all (the examples of ‘overweight’, ‘masculinity’, and ‘man’ are considered in this article) technical terms like ‘somatic society’, ‘hegemony’, and ‘ideology’ do nothing but obscure the issue at hand. This is not a novel accusation. It was made famous by the Sokal Affair in which physicist Alan Sokal had utter nonsense published in the journal Social Text, apparently because the editors were unaware that the emperor was naked.  Even Michel Foucault, not always the easiest social scientist to engage with, is reported to have labelled the famously difficult Jacques Derrida obscurantisme terroriste ­­– terrorist or terrorising obscurantism. Neuroskeptic seeks to extend that critique beyond science and cultural studies to all social scientists and “why don’t social scientists want to be read” he pleads!

This accusation is refuted by sociologist Andy Balmer. Balmer cites an abstract from Nature Neuroscience which does seem absolutely incomprehensible to the non-specialist. The only reason such technical terminology should be deemed permissible in neuroscience and not medical sociology is, as Balmer notes here (, the:“underlying assumption that our [sociologists’] technical terms are just there to make us sound clever whereas their technical terms are essential to properly characterising phenomena and communicating efficiently.”

Despite a subsequent back ( and forth ( this essentially captures the debate; technical vocabulary is necessary in natural science and not in social science.  I firmly recommend reading those entries linked above (and the comments that follow them) for a more in depth, and suitably accessible, discussion. In addition readers can also consult two other blogs that grapple with similar issues, one by Ed Yong and one by Alex Brown.

A Complicated Mater 

As someone writing in a sociology department, it will be of no surprise that I lean towards Andy Balmer’s arguments here, although I think particular arguments on both sides have significant merit. What I’d like to do here, however, is examine two implicit points in the argument of Neuroskeptic which are relevant to Making Science Public:

1)      Natural Sciences deal with phenomena outside of everyday experience and develop new concepts and a specialised vocabulary to deal with these newly discovered phenomena.

2)      Technical, social scientific, language is outside of the grasp of ‘society’ in general.

Let us consider those two claims in turn. With regard to the first claim it is evidently true that natural and social sciences develop technical vocabularies to help them understand the phenomena they seek to explain. But are the technical writings of natural scientists really isolated from ‘everyday’ understandings of the ‘man-in-the-street’? Regular readers of this blog, will look upon this claim with the utmost scepticism: one need only look at Brigitte Nerlich’s past two blog entries to see the role of metaphor in the development of scientific concepts.

One of my favourite examples, from the field of neuroscience under discussion in the above entries, comes from two quotes made famous by Michel Foucault. Foucault opens The Birth of the Clinic with two descriptions of the arachnoid mater, the protective membrane of the brain and spinal cord (Foucault, M., 2003. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception, London: Routledge., p ix-x). Pomme, speaking in 1769, sees the mater as “pieces of damp parchment”, that peel away and are excreted by the patient.  Bayle, speaking in 1825, provides an acutely observed visual description of the arachnoid and the membranes, their colour, and their thickness. Compare those descriptions with Ian McEwan who in 2003 described the same mater as “innumerable branching neural networks sunk deep in a knob of bone casing, buried fibres, warm filaments with their invisible glow of consciousness” (McEwan, I., 2005. Saturday, London: Jonathan Cape., p.15). One could not imagine three more different descriptions! It would be impossible to tell that they even described the same object if we were not given that information in advance. I would agree with Ian Hacking here, that the differences in these three descriptions can be understood not only through changes in author and writing style but also because “the kinds of things to be said about the brain in 1780 are not the kinds of things to be said a quarter-century later” or indeed two centuries later (Hacking, I., 1986. The archaeology of Foucault. In D. C. Hoy, ed. Foucault: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, p. 30). This is because of a continual discussion between the triad of science-technology-society to which the natural sciences are not immune. As this blog has repeatedly shown, metaphors play an important role in this.

Consider now the second point, that social scientific language is outside of the grasp of society. As someone who studies psychology as an academic discipline this, too, seems an odd claim. Psychology, a discipline still only 130 years old, is also filled with technical vocabulary and yet a great deal of that vocabulary is now also that of the man-in-the-street.  We all negotiate terms from psychoanalysis – ego, libido, phallic symbol – with ease. We understand ourselves in terms of our intelligent quotients, neuroticism, and self esteem. When things go wrong with ourselves or others we deftly apply terms from psychopathology like depression, obsessive-compulsion and autism to explain them. This is science made public, technical vocabulary entering a new sphere. Maybe terms like ‘somatic society’, ‘hegemony’, and ‘ideology’ aren’t in general circulation at the moment, but we would be wise to err when assuming that will never be the case. Of course, relating this back to point 1, the manner in which terms are taken up by society will surely feed back into science and onto the work bench, and so on until the end of days.


In a sense, this post has run off at quite a tangent to the initial discussion between Andy Balmer and Neuroskeptic. If it is to contribute to that debate it is only to add more wood to the fire attempting to burn down the fence between the natural and the social sciences, a suggestion that the differences are quantitative and not qualitative and that the questions being raised should apply to science rather than a particular branch of it. In terms of Making Science Public, the argument has – once again – been to suggest that the relationships between science and society are more public than might sometimes be suggested, and that is the case regardless of discipline. That in itself is an important lesson for us to keep in mind.

Image: Wikimedia Commons: Cuttlefish

Posted in LanguageMetaphorsScienceScience Communication