October 10, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Paddling in the shallow end of knowledge

This post was prompted by two things. I, a social scientist of sorts, recently tried to read two books, Smashing Physics by Jon Butterworth and Synthetic Biology: A Primer by Paul Freemont and Richard Kitney. I also listened in to some conversations where people spoke about how problematic they find it to understand social science writing. Reading the two books alerted me to how difficult it is to understand each other’s languages. Listening to the conversations showed me how difficult it is to develop respect for each other’s scholarship given real and perceived differences in language. I’ll try to fathom why this is and, in the process, will probably get myself into deep water!

Words, knowledge and mutual understanding

For ordinary conversation to flow smoothly words are normally congruous with their sentential context. So, when I hear the sentence ‘The cat sat on the mat’, I might not immediately know what the speaker intends to convey by saying that sentence but I can picture a cat sitting on a mat. I don’t have to think very deeply about my process of understanding the word cat in that sentence. Sentences too are normally congruent with the situational context in which they are uttered. If I say to my husband (who is leaving the house) “It’s raining”, I expect him, for example, to take an umbrella. Again, not a lot of mental effort goes into understanding that utterance. The right linguistic cue in the right context makes communication easy.

Things are different when words are incongruous in the sentence in which they occur or when an utterance is incongruous with the situation in which it is uttered. Then the hearer will have to start and think, sometimes quite deeply. Words can be incongruous for various reasons, for various readers and to various degrees. A word might be used metaphorically for example. Conventional metaphors, such as “she is fighting off an infection” may be understood without much thinking – the metaphor has become congruent with its context of use. Novel metaphors carry more incongruity and need a bit of thought; as when a poet says “Juliet is the sun”. Everyday knowledge of life and the world normally help resolve the initial incongruity. However, knowledge differs from person to person. This means that some people can resolve an incongruity quite easily, others not. I once used the following metaphor in talk I gave in Germany: “This is pop tart philosophy”. My muesli-eating audience did not ‘get’ it. They could only resolve the incongruity once they had learned (acquired knowledge of) what a ‘pop tart’ is (not something that I would recommend though).

To summarise: In order for conversations to flow and mutual understanding to emerge, there needs to be, I believe, relative congruence (a) of a word with the context of the sentence in which it is used (semantic congruence), (b) of an utterances with the situation in which it is used (pragmatic congruence), and (c) knowledge between speakers needs to be relatively congruent (epistemic congruence). Of course, disturbing this flow once in a while with a provocative metaphor is what keeps language and science alive and makes conversations less dull.

What has this to do with science and science communication and with what one may call inter-science communication between the natural and the social sciences?

Science communication

When I say: ‘It’s dark out there’ when looking out of the window in the middle of the night, my audience will immediately know what I mean by ‘dark’. When an astronomer says to another ‘How is your dark matter research going?’, her interlocutor will know what she means by ‘dark’. When I overhear these two people I will pretend to know what they mean by ‘dark’. For the two astronomers dark is congruent with what they know (and don’t yet know) and opens up a whole deep pool of knowledge they can explore together. To learn to swim in that pool of knowledge takes a long time. Only after several years of study can astronomers jump in at the deep end and explore the wider implications of that word/concept/theory, while I, as a non-astronomer, will paddle along at the shallow end. For me the word dark in dark matter just means ‘mysterious’, nothing more. But of course there are ways of narrowing that gap between us (and chocolate pie helps).

There are however always and of necessity differences in the depth of knowledge associated with (scientific) words, such as force or field in particle physics, platform or pathway in synthetic biology, theory, model, or uncertainty in science in general. These words and concepts mean something quite precise and quite deep for scientists but are only superficially understood by most lay people or have a completely different meaning in ordinary language. This can lead to misunderstandings and can make science communication quite difficult. And yet, this variety in depth/shallowness or congruence of knowledge can also be exploited and turned into an advantage. Take the title of a new book by Nessa Carey for example: Junk: A Journey through the Dark Matter of the Genome. Here ‘dark matter’ is used metaphorically and transferred from the domain of astronomy to that of biology. One would think that this might make understanding more difficult. However, this book is intended for readers paddling at the more or less shallow end of genomics and at the very shallow end of astronomy and all that it needs to convey is a degree of mystery. Once readers are enticed in, however, they might get to know genomics more deeply and learn to swim rather than paddle.

So far I have used the word knowledge a lot and talked about congruent and incongruent knowledge. One could use the word expertise instead and bring my reflections in contact with those on expertise by Harry Collins. Collins talks about various levels of expertise, from core expertise to beer-mat knowledge via interactional expertise. Core expertise allows experts to hear a word like quark and not think of cream cheese. For them the word is congruous with their knowledge and they can jump straight into some esoteric depths of physics. Or they can read the word switch and jump straight into some (for me) esoteric depths of biology. Interactional expertise acquired through lots of reading and through talking with such core experts might at some point allow me to participate in these conversations without getting way-laid by having to ask questions such as ‘what the heck is a chassis’ (in synthetic biology)? This brings me to the last part of this blog, you might be glad to hear: namely inter-disciplinary learning.

Inter-science communication

It recently occurred to me that whenever I as a social scientist get involved in a project with physicists, biologists etc., I try (but usually fail) to learn their ‘words’, understand their ‘utterances’ and gain some of their ‘knowledge’. I attempt to narrow the incongruity gap in these three dimensions (semantic, pragmatic, epistemic) so that when I come across a sentence like “Using comparative genomics and functional analysis, this work summarises how the cell’s genome is organised, with emphasis on the importance of the cell’s chassis“, I am not totally baffled (but, of course, I still am!).

It is harder to find natural scientists willing to do the same in the other direction (there are lots of exceptions of course!). Many react to incongruity (that is to say, not understanding the words and sentences we use in the social sciences) by running away – literally or metaphorically. They seem to find this situation a bit alarming. This makes inter-disciplinary working quite hard. Why is that? Why are some natural scientists so frightened? There may be different reasons for this.

One reason is the still popular hierarchy of knowledge that has come down to us from a ‘social scientist’ of all people, namely Auguste Comte, who arranged the sciences from mathematics at the top to astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and finally sociology at the bottom. This makes mutual respect for scholarship difficult. This also means that learning the language and specialised (technical) jargon spoken at the top is regarded as worthwhile, as that language promises to provide access to new domains of (ever deeper) knowledge, while learning the language of ‘sociology’ is not seen as worthwhile, as there is no expectation that one might acquire any worthwhile (and deep) knowledge.

When natural scientists encounter words like ‘governmentality’ for example, they are quite shocked and they certainly don’t expect to learn anything from learning what they mean. These words are not only incongruous to them; they appear to be pretty monstrous. Sometimes, this fear of social science jargon words and a suspicion that they are is not underpinned by any worthwhile knowledge might be justified, and I certainly share that fear to some extent. However, social scientists themselves are waking up to this issue and there are also lots of social scientists out there who write without using unnecessary jargon and employ jargon words judiciously in the interest of increasing knowledge rather than decreasing it. And of course there are lots of different ‘social sciences’ with different writing traditions.

However, I haven’t really found a patent recipe for overcoming some of the fears listed above and for opening up a space for real interdisciplinary learning. Would it help to launch a ‘public understanding of social science programme’, so that, at the end of it, natural scientists can at least pretend to understand the technical words used by social scientists?

PS, added 11 October. When writing about quarks and depth of knowledge above, I tried to find a passage in Smashing Physics that can be used to illustrate my quite futile attempts at making my knowledge congruous with Jon Butterworth’s. I have found it now and just wanted to quote it because it made me want to bake a nice German quark-based cheese cake or Käsekuchen (recipe). Here goes: “For example at the LHC when W bosons are produced, a positively charged W (W+) can be made by an up quark annihilating with an anti-down quark, and a negatively charged W (W) can be made by an anti-up quark annihilating with a down quark….” (p. 116). I still enjoyed dipping my toe in and more importantly learning about the process rather than the products of science in the making.

Image: Tooting Bec Lido, taken by Nick Cooper 24 July 2008

Posted in LanguageMetaphorsScience Communication