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Language of science key to wisdom

by Rowan Hooper

Special To The Japan Times

Today I’m going to try something a little different — at first, anyway. First, let me tell you a bit about my job.

Around the world every day, lots of important things happen. Some of the most interesting and exciting things are about humans, the world we live in and how everything works — things such as why stars burn, why people get sick, what is space made of, how the brain works and how babies grow?

My job is to decide which of these things you really need to know and understand: to decide which stuff matters.

My job is also to decide what is true and what is wrong. I then have to write about these things or, more often, ask other people to write about them in order to explain them. We write all of this in a paper book that you can buy, but we also write it in stories you can read on a computer. It’s a great job.

Why, you might be asking, am I providing you with a description of my job? You might also wonder why is it reads a little strangely, and why I didn’t use the words “news” or “science.” The answer is that until the beginning of the fifth paragraph I had been writing using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. It’s an idea I wanted to try out because last week I took part in a science festival at Imperial College London with a cosmologist who has written an entire book using just the 1,000 most common words. That sounds impressive enough, but it’s not just any old book — Roberto Trotta’s “The Edge of the Sky” attempts to explain the universe.

Imagine trying to write a book about physics and the universe without using the words “science,” “telescope,” “galaxy,” “planet,” “energy” or even “universe.” The constraints actually impose a kind of automatic poetry onto the writing.

“It is hard to believe that everything out there past the White Road and its stars, is running away from us,” Trotta wrote in his book. “Yet, like Mr. Hubble found long ago, the Star Crowds are running away from each other, as the space between them gets bigger and bigger. The All-There-Is is growing with time.”

The “White Road” is the Milky Way, “Star Crowds” are galaxies and the “All-There-Is” is the universe. In this passage, Trotta is describing the expansion of the universe, as first suggested by astronomer Edwin Hubble. The whole book is basically an attempt to take the statement often attributed to Albert Einstein — “if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it” — to its extreme.

The style of writing by using only the 1,000 most common words is called “Up Goer Five” after the first popular example, a description of the Saturn V space rocket.

Up-Goer-Five style is sometimes criticized because you have to know a bit about the subject in the first place to deduce what is being described. That’s probably right, but I think it’s a lovely marriage of poetry and science. More importantly, it tells us something important about language and science communication.

Lots of children were in the audience at the science festival and, perhaps not surprisingly, they asked some great questions: “Could our universe be sucked into a black hole?”, “Can you escape a black hole?” and “What happens if you fall into a black hole?” (Answer: You get “spaghettified” — stretched out into a long, thin noodle).

Children, it turns out, love black holes. It’s great to engage with them and get them interested in science. So as an exercise in engaging the public in science and in thinking carefully about how to talk about technical and complicated issues, I think it’s valuable.

However, it also made me think about how much political baggage is carried by the language we use. We like to think that science is politically neutral, but when we really talk about science it is extremely difficult not to betray a prejudice.

One of the most obvious examples on this is talking about climate change.

Recently, a couple of scientists based in the U.K. analysed 287 editorials and Op-eds about climate change that had appeared in the left-wing Guardian newspaper and the right-wing Daily Mail. The results were fascinating. The Guardian’s writing used metaphors of war, including “battle,” “fight,” “retreat,” “combat” and “triumph.” The paper appeared to be suggesting that the old debate over the science of climate change — about whether the planet was warming or not — was over.

In the Daily Mail, by contrast, the metaphors were religious. Climate scientists and their work were described using words such as “ayatollahs,” “crusaders,” “cultists,” “conversion” and “recant.” The paper appeared to be taking an alternative line to The Guardian — it questioned whether climate science was even valid.

The researchers who conducted the analysis said that one of the problems with talking of climate change as a “battle” is that it forces us to think of an “enemy,” whereas the real enemy is our own consumption and use of carbon-based fuels. Their paper was published in the journal Environmental Communication.

The issue of how language has been used by people who disagree with the science of climate change — opposing action on it — has now seeped back into the way scientists talk about it.

We all know that there are rich and powerful lobby groups that influence the way this issue is discussed in the media and in politics. A paper published last week in the journal Global Environmental Change suggested that the pressure resulting from this huge amount of climate change denial may lead to scientists to place more emphasis on scientific uncertainty than there really is.

One of the authors, Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol, said scientists should be aware of their own susceptibility to pressure from climate change deniers. “We scientists have a unique and crucial role in public policy: to communicate clearly and accurately the entire range of risks that we know about,” Lewandowsky wrote. “The public has a right to be informed about risks, even if they are alarming.”

To conclude, in Up-Goer-Five style: It’s very important to explain how the world works. Everyone needs to understand what is true. Our children will thank us for it.

Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru” (“The Evolving Human”).