The "Arcane" Language of Science

One of the things that came up in our discussion about Unscientific America was a quote from a Newsweek article about Charles Darwin, describing him as “hardly even a scientist in the sense that we understand the term – a highly trained specialist whose professional vocabulary is so arcane that he or she can talk only to other scientists. ” While this description may be a little extreme, there is some truth to scientists having their own language, and we need to be clear about our meaning when talking about our work with people outside our field. Recently I was reminded of this when I attended the thesis defense of a grad student in the chemistry department with whom I’ve been collaborating. At one point Brandon took the time to explain that when he was talking about the stability of the peptides we’ve been using he meant the stability of the shape they fold in, rather than stability of chemical bonds, which might be what someone with more of a chemist’s outlook might think. After hearing this I realized I probably wouldn’t have even considered that this audience could have been confused by the use of “stability” in that situation.

This kind of potential for miscommunication was just between two fairly related fields, the danger for it occurring becomes even greater when talking to people outside of science. A conversation with a former roommate about my research that made me aware of this has stuck with me. I had just started working in a protein crystallography lab as an undergrad and explained my work as trying to figure out the shapes of proteins and relating that to how they function. I figured this seemed a fairly understandable response and was ready to follow up by pointing out how proteins have defined shapes and how we go about figuring out what those shapes are. Instead my roommate responded with “So I assume by protein you don’t mean something like steak right?” Even as just an undergrad studying molecular biology I had absorbed the idea of proteins being responsible for most processes in our body, so it was easy to view this as common knowledge. It didn’t occur to me that a lot of people may have not learned that or only have a vague recollection from high school biology classes, while the use of the word “protein” as a nutritional term is pretty ubiquitous. As we become more specialized it’s easier to lose track of just how much people outside our work actually have learned or may remember.