Translating Science into English


TL;DR summary: In my opinion, every scientist should be required to write a plain-language summary of each professional publication that they write, so that everyone else in the world can understand the point and importance of the research. This is especially important where publications aren’t open access!


I’m a ‘real’ scientist. That is to say, that I work in a lab, read the ‘primary’ literature, and occasionally publish professional papers in peer-reviewed, globally available journals.

Most people that I might meet randomly at the grocery store or a bar don’t know that I’m a ‘real’ scientist, and are often surprised when I reveal the truth. Yup, I have a Ph.D. Yup, some days I wear a white lab coat. Yup, not only have I read and understood that new paper on the feathered Tyrannosaur, I know some of the authors.

I’ve had people make comments to the effect of ‘you don’t look like a scientist,’ or better (or worse, depending on how you think about it), ‘I wouldn’t have expected a scientist like you to be so nice.’

What this has driven home to me is that there is a huge disconnect between the people doing science and everyone else in the world. This touches on the whole stereotype that scientists sit in their ivory towers and look down upon the common people. No! Really, we’re just ordinary people, but with a different type of education, experience, and often world view.

Some folks are working hard to dispel this stereotype. One of my favorite blogs to visit is “This is What a Scientist Looks Like”.  (Here’s my entry, if you’re wondering.) Most scientists are just goofy people like the rest of the world’s population.

Fundamentally, however, I think the disconnect between ‘scientists’ and everyone else is about language. And I would add that this problems goes both ways. We just don’t talk the same. We have our jargon – there’s no avoiding it – and since we spend far too long in laboratories or out in the field either alone or with other science types, we forget that we’re different. And even when we make the most concerted effort to remember how it was before we started our more scholarly pursuits, we actually forget what we didn’t know. Admittedly, a lot of the greatest dynamos in science don’t make such concerted efforts, they’re too absorbed in their science.

What is important here is that scientists are scientists because they’re passionate about what they do. The hard part is that we don’t express it very well. Even I’ve learned that in certain company, I’m best off just keeping my mouth shut, because I stand out as so ridiculously different. But at least I step away from the lab from time to time, and when the opportunity arises, I do advocate for the sciences in general (and that’s when I get comments like those above).

I’m not that different from everyone else in the scientific community or otherwise.

  • I have a job that I’d like to keep
  • I have a house that I’d also like to keep
  • I have a husband that most of the time I’d like to hang onto
  • I have a special needs son that I love very much
  • I have pets
  • I have hangnails (those I could do without)
  • I like to sew
  • I enjoy a good ale
  • I like going to movies
  • And occasionally, I do a little writing

In the absence of the knowledge that I work at a university and spend my days turning knobs on a mass spectrometer, you’d think I was just like any other person. And in ordinary conversation, you still might not notice anything special. But if topics turn to science (like global warming, or evolution), I turn into the scientist, and people are usually a little surprised that I’m actually kind of an expert on those things. ‘But you’re so nice.’

So one of my motivations for working on this blog is to try in my own little way to dispel the rumors that scientists are all creepy angry lab lurkers who think they’re smarter than everyone else.

Since I believe that one of the barriers we face is that of language, I am making an effort to take things that are familiar science to me, but woefully mis-understood outside of my field, and translate them into ordinary language (as best I can, anyway). There’s a lot of stuff out there that I could ‘English-ify,’ an overwhelming amount, in fact, so naturally I have to limit myself.

I will focus on my own research and also on the science of geology. I am a paleontologist and I could blog on paleontology, but there are many bloggers out there who do a worthy job of that. I’ll leave that to them.

As it happens, my own research may be of broad interest anyway. I do a lot of research on ancient climate change. There seems to be a lot of discussion about climate change in the news lately, so I think there might be some interest. However, I know that my professional publications on that topic, though openly accessible, would be a semantic nightmare for the casual reader. As my dad once told me, ‘I’ve read all your papers. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you sound really smart!’

So I’ll write a plain English summary of my own papers, at least. That way everyone can get from the work the important lessons. I hope that other scientists would consider doing the same.

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