Commentary

What If A Scientific Report Were to Speak English (in Numbers Too)?

The metric system has its rightful place in scientific reports, no question about that. But would providing some conversions to an audience’s ‘first language’ — think inches, feet, pounds, etc. — dis-serve science more than it might help inform the public?


How’s this for a radical suggestion?

Scientists, when communicating with the American public on an issue of supreme interest, could try speaking the language of the people. Of their audience, that is. Sort of like the basic rule in all communications — know your audience.

And here’s the real zinger.

That includes speaking in numbers that the audience is most likely to understand. In America — like it or not — that means no metric. Gotcha! Take that, you scientists.

Now hold on just a moment before erecting your defense mechanisms. We know all about the international scientific protocols involving use of the metric system. And we can accept, and even respect, that.

Nobody’s suggesting that august organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and the professional societies and journals go cold turkey on the metric bit. It has its place. And it need not even be scrapped in these communications with non-metric types as a principal audience. Only complemented. (See related Yale Forum article.)

So. You’d have a study group, for instance, of the National Academies exploring an issue, as an example, like projected sea level rise along the U.S.’s West Coast. They would continue, as in the past, to produce their report using the metric system. But they would also, in strategic places, complement the centimeters and Celsius temperatures with the corresponding inches/feet/yards … and Fahrenheit.

Nothing ventured, nothing lost in terms of standing within the science community, but a gain at some level at least, in terms of public understanding.

Asked about complementing their use of metric in some way with inches, feet, yards, miles, etc., Johns Hopins University’s Robert A. Dalrymple, the head of the West Coast sea level rise study, replied that “the National Academy of Sciences is a scientific organization, and the scientific community uses the metric system, so that’s the language we use.”

No news there, of course, but no give either. Asked if it might serve the public to “supplement” metric with the public’s most-understood measurements, staff study director Anne Linn said, “I stay with his original answer, this is a science assessment. All of the observations and projections and values were done in metric, and so we stay with the metric system.”

So there, public understanding, our way or the highway.

Is it really such a stretch to have the scientific community also provide — in addition to metric — the language most common among the primary audience? Would they speak Greek or Italian to audiences comfortable only with English or Spanish? Even in associated documents like press releases, FAQs, executive summaries, and in press conferences?

Consider it this way. The same National Academy of Sciences that gave rise to the West Coast sea level report released June 22 just a month earlier had hosted a gang-buster “Science of Science Communication” conference, where not a word was spoken about the merits of speaking in a language alien to one’s audience. Not a word!

Use of metric might even necessitate the “Step Two” reasoning and thinking that Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman said at that conference is more challenging, and less spontaneous, for much of the public. Like tying a half-hitch knot. Inches and feet, on the other hand, would be purely “Step One.” Like tying your shoelaces or putting on loafers.

That May conference had even shed light on the not-so-new notion of helping take scientists out of their Ivory Towers and helping them look, get this, human. Put a face on them, give them a personality, let the public see and appreciate that scientists, at the end of the day and the start of most mornings, are … human. Think Josephine the Scientist, a variation, if you will, on Joe the Plumber.

What could be more human for a scientist wanting to inform, for instance, American local and regional policymakers and residents of a potentially vulnerable area than for them to speak in the language their audiences best understand? Or at least speak in the language most comfortable for most of their audience. Which in the U.S., by and large and like it or not, just is not the metric system. Not yet.

Now, one might argue that it’s left to the science translators — including science reporters and the media generally — to do the conversions from metric. That’s a fair point and one not to be rejected out of hand. But doesn’t the same logic apply to other aspects of a scientific report for which some translation is not only helpful but often quite necessary? And isn’t the wilting nature of the science reporting press corps — particularly when it’s on deadline and perhaps inclined to take the easier route of just using metric — another argument for providing a boost to public understanding?

So this rant has nothing to do with inner hatreds of all things metric or Celsius. Indeed, the idea might best be first tested by using feet and pounds and ounces, etc., only in those associated documents mentioned above.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if this one small step somehow contributed to improved public understanding? It might be the first of many such incremental steps.

What’s there to lose?

So what think? Is this really so radical an idea after all?

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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3 Responses to What If A Scientific Report Were to Speak English (in Numbers Too)?

  1. Nullius in Verba says:

    Scientists don’t have any problem using whatever units are appropriate, when it’s appropriate. If you’re writing a piece for a segment of the general public with no scientific background, then you would of course try to cast it into more familiar terms. Units are a minor aspect of that – more important is using familiar analogies and examples to illustrate the concepts.

    But sometimes you’re writing for a more advanced audience, and a certain ability level is assumed, for readers to be able to engage productively with the material. You trade simplicity for the ability to express more subtle ideas more compactly. It depends on the purpose of the document, and the intended audience. But all documents are tailored this way – you don’t write a technical report to government bodies in the style you would use for speaking to a young child. And there’s no point in making superficial changes like different units if the concepts are still inpenetrable.

    It also has to be said that one of the reasons Americans are not familiar with scientific units is that journalists so often do translate. The reason they have difficulty with complex scientific concepts is that they are rarely exposed to them – the presentation always has to be ‘dumbed down’ when speaking to the general public.

    This leaves the public both misled as to the subtleties, and vulnerable to anyone with a plausibly scientific style who can offload misinformation on them they have no means to check. By protecting them from all the difficult bits, you deprive them of the tools they need to evaluate information. It’s like over-protective parents raising their children in a sterile germ-free environment, so when they go out into the world as adults they have no immunity to anything.

    The first step on the path to educating the public is to expose them to difficult concepts, like scientific units. The role of the science journalist is to educate them. Don’t translate, teach them so they can understand the original.

  2. GWS says:

    Bud, you are preaching to the choir. Most scientists (that I know) do already what you suggest. I regard the example you gave as an outlier rather than the norm.
    We scientists (rightfully) decry the lack of SI unit use in the US, but we also understand the difficulties in changing that. It has to come out of the engineering professions before it can catch on … and it eventually will. As my wife says:
    “For gods sake, if even the Brits did it, we can’t we?” … and she is not a scientist.

  3. Leo Danze says:

    English hangs on for reasons. Metric lacks scale. Temperature scaled to 100^ from freezing to boiling, and the meter is a too large a measure. English scale is more discernible. There are 180^ from freeze to boil, making it accurate to whole numbers without decimals, and the foot and inches are human scaled between too large meter and too tiny centimeter.